‘Father Stan stood by me’: A life devoted to Jharkhand’s Adivasi and Moolvasi communities

News Laundry | July 06, 2021

Seventeen years of seeing Father Stan’s tireless work for the downtrodden.

As told to Anumeha Yadav

I am the national coordinator of the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, a coalition of anti-displacement movements across the country. I live in Jharkhand. Father Stan Swamy, who passed away on July 5, was one of the founders of this broad coalition of people’s movements.

I was jailed for my activism for nine months. The police charged me with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in a case in 2008. I was later acquitted by the court. Father Stan fought for my release. I was arrested a second time three years ago.

On February 15, 2018, the Jharkhand police arrested me from the site of a seminar organised in Ranchi on democratic rights. I was being hounded for organising an event four months earlier in Giridih to mark 50 years of Naxalbari and the centenary year of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Note that this was no clandestine event, the state authorities had given us permission for the event almost 15 days in advance, which was withdrawn just a day before the event to throw a spanner in the works. The police kept me in solitary confinement for this crime in a cell without a window for over three months. Father Stan stood by me and my family through all of this, and advocated for my civil liberties.

Meeting Father Stan

I was born as one of three children in Jitpur panchayat in Tundi in Dhanbad. My father worked as bandhua mazdoor, a bonded labourer, on the farms of upper caste landowners in Dhanbad, a coal-rich region of Jharkhand. After my father worked as a bonded labourer his whole life, the landowner had provided our family a small homestead plot. My father managed to educate me in a government school in the village and in 2003, I left Dhanbad to enroll myself in college in Ranchi.

I first met Father Stan in 2004. I had come in contact with anti-displacement activists in Ranchi when I moved there for higher studies. Their work resonated with me.

After Jharkhand was carved as a new state out of Bihar in 2001, the promise was that the indigenous tribes and people, the Adivasis, and Moolvasis like me, would be able to govern themselves. We were told the region’s socio-economic development would be aligned to our traditions. The Bharatiya Janata Party formed the first government in the new state in 2001.

Jharkhand accounts for more than 40 percent of India’s mineral wealth. This region is abundant in water resources, forests, and mineral riches. One of the first steps the then government took was to sign Memorandums of Understanding with large corporations to give our resources away to companies.

In the past, as part of Bihar, the Jharkhand region saw vast displacement. Lakhs of Adivasis and the poor living in forests and villages were displaced in the establishment of coal mines, bauxite mines, hydel projects such as Masanjore dam, the Tata factory in Jamshedpur and dam in Chandil. These policies led to lakhs of poor families being forced to leave and labour in tea estates or as domestic workers in metropolitan cities.

With the new government signing these MoUs, we again faced the possibility and a threat of large-scale displacement of the poor and those depending on forest and common lands by these projects.

Working together with Father Stan Swamy, and Ranchi’s other progressives, intellectuals, our coalition got information through Right to Information applications of 74 such MoUs to alienate people’s land without their knowledge and consent. Working with Father Stan on this shaped my understanding of how the government even after the formation of a new state planned to sell mineral resources coal, iron, ores to corporates for quick profits, and how this would make the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Moolvasis homeless, forcing them to move away.

This is how we constituted Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, or VVJA, to wage a struggle against displacement.

A life devoted to the people

From 2004, when Father Stan was 67 years old, until now, I saw that his role and focus remained to save and conserve the forests, land, the community hills, which are the source of our livelihood, and our culture. To take part in this struggle, Father Stan wrote articles regularly; he thought about Jharkhand’s indigenous tribes and communities everyday, and he remained with us in every struggle.

For some years now, in Jharkhand as well as other states, the Adivasis who reside in forests and interior villages where the land holds mineral reserves are being coerced to give up their land or face arrests. Also, successive governments have registered false cases against intellectuals, writers, poets, social activists, to put them in prisons, intensifying the challenges for us.

In 2014, and later in April 2017, the Home Ministry labelled the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan as a “Maoist” front in its annual report, but we are neither an NGO, nor any front. We are a broad-based people’s movement against displacement. We advocate against forced displacement. In fact, we have faced state violence in the form of false arrests of our members.

Father Stan Swamy co-founded and lived and worked at Bagaicha, a research and training institute in Namkum on the outskirts of Ranchi since 2006. For the past few years, successive governments in Jharkhand have incarcerated youth who resist land acquisition. They were mostly Dalits, Other Backward Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. Over 16 to 18 months from 2012 to 2014, Father Stan tried to reach out to and investigate the conditions of undertrials, their families, and tried to secure bail for them and I worked with him on this.

We submitted applications to all 26 jails of Jharkhand under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI). The total occupancy in Jharkhand prisons was 128 per cent of the actual prison capacity. Interviewing men and women who were alleged to be “extremists” under Section 17 of the Criminal Law and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, we found that Adivasis and Moolvasi constituted nearly 70 percent, about half were in the age group of 29-40 years, and about 22 present belonged to the 18-28 years age-group. Nearly all of them were landless or simple agriculturists, with 59 percent earning less than Rs 3,000 per month. They struggled to meet bail conditions or legal expenses.

Father Stan Swamy highlighted how in September 2016, the National Human Rights Commission after verifying complaints acknowledged that 514 innocent Adivasi youth had been pressured and cheated by paramilitary and police officials to “surrender” as Naxalites promising them jobs and imprisoning them to apply for awards and promotions.

As part of the coalition, Father Stan pursued both these cases in court. His public interest litigation on the undertrials’ release is pending before the Ranchi High Court. In the case of forced, fake “surrender” of Adivasi youth as “Naxalites”, the administration of Chaibasa, Khunti, Gumla, and Ranchi districts did not submit responses in court and tried to delay and drag the case. There have been no hearings in the case since October 2019.

Jharkhand has special tenancy laws meant to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. Five years back, when the then Jharkhand government announced it will amend two tenancy laws to allow use of agricultural land of tribal people for non-agricultural purposes, Father Stan Swamy wrote articles, published booklets, and organised meetings along with Jharkhandi intellectuals and activists to advocate to save these special Acts.

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 restricts the sale of tribal land to non-tribals in 16 districts of Jharkhand. The Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1876 prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in the Santhal Pargana region. Later, the government had to withdraw these amendments.

Along with this, Father Stan advocated for and worked for the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, the forests rights laws, and the Supreme Court’s Samata judgement which accord primacy of the gram sabha, the villages assemblies, on decisions on land use. These are all laws and judgements which the government ought to have tried to save, but it did not.

Laws meant for special protections for Dalit, Adivasi and oppressed communities are like a kawach, a protective cover, for these communities. Every time the government tried to break these laws, Father Stan stepped up to write, to protest, to express his dissent, to secure the democratic rights of the oppressed.

In the 17 years that I knew him, I realised Father Stan lived for the Adivasi and Moolvasi communities of Jharkhand – thinking of, speaking and writing for them. He made his life’s mission to not only write and speak up for these communities, but to also experience what people are going through by actually living among them. This was his daily routine for the 17 years that I spent with him.

When the police harassed and arrested social and cultural activist Jiten Marandi, a Santhal Adivasi, and tried to brand him a Naxalite, and later even arrested and imprisoned his wife Aparna Marandi who was attending to him in prison, Father Stan went to their village, their home, and raised questions about their arrests. He asked why, after Birsa Munda’s sentencing by the British, the same was being repeated in independent India, targeting an Adivasi who spoke up like this. He took part in several campaigns, public meetings and demonstrations for their release.

Who are these thousands of Adivasis and poor undertrials in Jharkhand? They are those who speak up to protect the natural resources, the jal jungle zameen in their villages? Who are the advocates to conserve the community’s resources and why do they do so? It is because they know that the state’s so-called “development model” has displaced lakhs and crores of Adivasis. It has captured their resources, and forced them out. They have been forced and coerced out of their homes.

Decades after Independence, the government has failed to create basic services and provisions for roti, kapda, makaan, for education and employment, and on top of it, the government tries to loot our livelihood resources and exclude us from them.

The people understand this and that is when they step forward, and then the governments start trapping them in false cases, charges, imprisoning them under black laws such as Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 which allows prolonged incarceration without bail, to keep them locked up for years. The conviction rate in UAPA cases is extremely low at 2.2 percent between 2016-19 (as stated in the Parliament), showing that these charges are largely without any evidence. It was against all this that Father Stan Swamy spoke up, wrote about, and tried to fight their battle through their legal and democratic protests.

The arrest

The National Investigation Agency arrested 84-year old Swamy from Bagaicha in October 2020 while the country reeled under a pandemic and there were curbs on movement after the lockdown. Despite the Covid crisis raging in the country, the NIA officials took him from his home to a place he had never been to before.

We protested this wrong and struggled against his arrest. Eight months on, the State has killed Father Stan Swamy in judicial custody. The judges who knew of his condition as an elderly, ailing person with Parkinson’s disease, who denied him bail, and then tried to stall his case giving dates upon dates for delaying his hearing too are responsible for this.

In the days to come, more social activists and human rights defenders may face the same. This is a big challenge. But Jharkhand has a 400-year-old history of struggle of Adivasi Moolvasi to save land, water, forests and culture – from Birsa Munda’s movement, to Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, who revolted against British to protect our resources and culture, our livelihood. We have faced such challenges before and we are ready.

In days to come we will rise against this injustice, taking inspiration from Birsa, Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, Chand Bhairav. This fight will not stop – we will come together for activists like Father Stan, for human rights defenders, those opposing CAA-NRC and arrested in false cases, those whose lives are being destroyed as they are kept in prisons, the movement against all this will intensify.

If we, the Adivasis, the Dalits, do not protest and take part in movements, our jal jangal zameen, our source of livelihood will be looted. We have to advance because there is no place for us to retreat.

Damodar Turi is the national coordinator of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a coalition to resist land alienation and forced displacement of poor and indigenous communities.

Tribal people seek cancellation of e-tender notification issued for calcite mining

The Hindu | June 01, 2021
‘No resolution was passed on the issue in grama sabha’
The tribal people of Nimmalapadu, Karakavalasa and Rallagaruvu villages of Anantagiri mandal in the district have appealed the to the Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of AP Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC) to cancel the e-tender notification for calcite mining at Nimmalapadu issued by the APMDC without a resolution by the ‘gram sabha.’

Referring to the e-tender notification issued by the APMDC in a Telugu daily on May 19, 2021, they noted in a memorandum to the VC and MD, that they had been cultivating lands for the past several years on the land proposed to be mined for calcite. They recalled that they had opposed the calcite mining proposal by Birla company in the past by approaching the Supreme Court and sought protection of their lands under the Samata Judgment.

The Samata Judgment clearly states that the right of local resources is vested with the ‘gram sabha’ under the the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA Act). Any business done in the Agency areas, should have prior approval of the ‘gram sabha’, failing which it would be considered a violation of the Constitution. As calcite is a mineral, mining should invariably have the approval of the ‘gram sabha.’

They noted that neither a ‘gram sabha’ was held on the issue nor a resolution passed in this regard. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution says that tribal people alone would have the right over local resources. When that was the case, they wondered as to how the APMDC could issue the e-tender notification that too during the COVID-19 crisis and the curfew imposed by the government.

HC stays e-tender for calcite mining in Visakhapatnam

The Hindu | Sumit Bhattacharjee | April 11, 2021

The Andhra Pradesh High Court has put on hold for three weeks the e-tender for ‘working of calcite mining lease’ in 8.725 hectares at Nimmalapadu village in Ananthagiri mandal of Visakhapatnam district, on ‘raising-cum-sale contract basis’ floated by the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC).

The High Court passed the order after hearing a writ petition filed by Sri Abhaya Girijana Mutually Aided Labour Contract Cooperative Society on Saturday.

The cooperative society has been trying to get the lease for mining since the last two decades. But, it was rejected by the APMDC every time. Earlier, the Birla group had the lease over the mines and it was passed to the APMDC after a Supreme Court order in 1995.

Earlier, the cooperative society had also proposed a tripartite agreement with the State government and a private party, but it was rejected, said Ravi Rebbapragada, Executive Director of Samata.

Mr. Ravi had played a key role in getting the Samata judgement from the Supreme Court which protects the tribal rights and acts as a benchmark for all tribal related issues along with the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA).

‘No grama sabha held’

According to Mr. Ravi, the cooperative society’s pleas were ignored and neither did the APMDC care to hold a grama sabha with the tribal people from the region, before floating the e-tender, in violation of the PESA, FRA and Samata and Niyamgiri judgments of the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the cooperative society contested that one of the clause in the e-tender said that the lease would be be given to a tribal person, not to a tribal cooperative. “This provision will facilitate benami trading, as no tribal person has the mining equipment listed in the contractual clauses,” he said.

The members of the cooperative society said that clauses should be modified and cooperatives be allowed to place their bids, and grama sabha be held as per the laws embedded in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The area earmarked for mining is rich in mineral and the calcite is pure and free of silica. The tribal people need to get the benefit of the resources, said Mr. Ravi.

APMDC has no right to issue tender for calcite mining in scheduled area: EAS Sarma

The Hindu | April 09, 2021

‘It should be first discussed in the local adivasi Gram Sabha’
Former secretary to GOI and former Commissioner for Tribal Welfare, A.P. Government, E.A.S. Sarma, has taken strong exception to the way in which the AP Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC) has issued an E-Tender for ‘Working of Calcite Mining Lease’ of 8.725 hectares at Nimmalapadu village in Ananthagiri mandal in Visakhapatnam district, on ‘Raising-cum-sale contract basis’.

In a letter to the Chief Secretary, he stated that the APMDC has no right to unilaterally issue such a notification and it was in gross violation of the provisions embedded in the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA).

Speaking to The Hindu, he said that both the Acts are applicable to the Nimmalapadu village, as it lies within the notified Scheduled Area of Visakhapatnam district.

According to him, in the Scheduled Areas, as per the provisions of PESA, the question whether any mineral should be extracted and, if so, by whom, should be discussed first by the local adivasi Gram Sabha.

Such a prior discussion had not apparently taken place, he alleged. Even under the FRA, it is necessary that the individual and community rights to the land and the forest resources should be subject to prior discussion by the local adivasi Gram Sabha, which appears to have been bypassed, he added.

As such, the e-tender notice is patently illegal and liable to be set aside, he said.

The Samata Judgement and the judgement in the case of bauxite mining by Vedanta in the scheduled area of Odisha, holds good in this case also, said Mr. Sarma.

It is learnt that a local tribal cooperative has approached the AP High Court to obtain a stay on the e-tender.

A few years ago, the same tribal cooperative had approached the government for lease for mining and was denied.

Is Centre Violating Peoples’ Rights for Acquiring Coal-Bearing Land in Chhattisgarh?

News Click | Ayaskant Das | Jan 08, 2021
There is no clarity yet on whether gram sabhas will be consulted to acquire 700 acres of land for the Madanpur South Coal Block in Korba.

New Delhi: On December 24, 2020, the Central government invoked the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition & Development) Act, 1957 for acquiring over 700 hectares of land in tribal-dominated Korba district of Chhattisgarh, with no clarity yet on whether consent from gram sabhas will be sought through public consultations.

The land, sought to be acquired by the Union Coal Ministry, is for developing the greenfield Madanpur South Coal Block which had been allotted by the Central government to Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC) in September 2016. The Aditya Birla Group’s mining arm, Essel Mining & Industries Limited, is the private Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) for the Madanpur South Block.

The coal block falls within the Hasdeo Arand area, a very dense and unfragmented stretch of natural forest that is rich in wildlife as well as coal reserves. The Chhattisgarh government has also proposed an elephant reserve spreading across this area which is, however, yet to be formally notified. It has been alleged that the land is being acquired bypassing powers of the state government as well as provisions meant to protect the rights of tribals.

“Madanpur South coal block falls in an area in Korba district designated as Schedule 5 under the Constitution of India due to its pre-ponderance of tribal population. By invoking the Coal Bearing Act for acquiring land in this area, the Central government is intending to bypass public consultations which are mandatory through gram sabhas for areas designated as Schedule 5,” said Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a network of individuals and organisations fighting for peoples’ rights in the central Indian state.

The proportion of Scheduled Tribe population in Korba district is 40.90% in the Census of India data compiled for 2011. As per the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or the PESA Act of 1996, it is mandatory for governments to conduct public consultations through gram sabhas before acquiring land in Schedule 5 areas. However, the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition & Development) Act, 1957, which pre-dates the PESA by nearly 40 years, does not contain provisions for conducting public consultations through gram sabhas.

Therefore, in accordance with Section 7 of the Coal Bearing Act, the Central government has, through its notification last month, only given the mandatory period of 30 days for the general public to submit objections, if any, over rights on any parcel of land that will be notified for acquisition in Korba.

However, as per legal experts, local people living for centuries over land that has now been allotted for coal mining have very little say once it is notified for acquisition under the Coal Bearing Act of 1957. Some legal experts Newsclick spoke to said that rights over land practically go out of the hands of people in any coal bearing area as soon as a notification under Section 4 (for exploration of coal) of the Coal Bearing Act is issued. Further, with the notification of Section 7 (intention to acquire) of the Act, the only rights of project-affected people are to file objections within 30 days and claim their compensation amounts.

However, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, does contain special provisions for Scheduled tribes with regard to acquisition of land. The question, therefore, is: did the Central government bypass the 2013 Act, formulated by the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, to bypass the rights of the Scheduled tribes?

“The Coal Bearing Act, very much like the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, is based on the principle of eminent domain, whereby the government has the power to take over private land and convert it into public use. These Acts work on the premise that coal and uranium are needed for the country’s energy security. Therefore, all deposits of coal and uranium are legally kept under the control of the Centre,” Rashmi Katyayan, a Ranchi-based legal expert on land acquisition, told Newsclick.

Of the 712.02 hectares sought to be acquired for the Madanpur South Block, roughly 650 hectares fall under the category of forest land. Nearly 503 hectares comprise ‘protected forest’ area. Nevertheless, the Central government has, through its December 24 notification, also notified these 650 hectares of forest areas for prospecting of coal under the Coal Bearing Act of 1957.

Activists allege that in the process of acquiring land through the Coal Bearing Act, public consultations are sought to be bypassed by the Central government in violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. Section 5 of the FRA bestows power upon gram sabhas to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity that adversely affects wild animals, forest, and biodiversity.

Besides, in the landmark Samata judgement of 1997, the Supreme Court had authorised the role of gram sabhas as democratic decision-making forums on issues of individual, community and cultural rights of tribals and traditional forest dwellers on forest land.

When asked by Newsclick on whether consent of gram sabhas will be taken before proceeding with land acquisition, Korba district collector Kiran Kaushal recused herself from making any comments on the issue. An official of the APMDC, however, said that a representation for conducting gram sabhas has been sent to the Korba district administration and that the dates for conducting the meetings have been twice deferred on account to one issue or another.

“We will not go for mining until and unless gram sabhas are held. A socio-economic assessment study has been conducted. Two villages are set to be affected by the mining project, namely, Ketma and Morga. The number of project-displaced families in Ketma is six, while the corresponding number for Morga village is 82. Nearly 90% of the population in these villages is Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. We will take all measures to ensure that these families are resettled comfortably. Whatever compensation is required in terms of alienation from forest rights will be suitably settled. Around 19 persons from Morga village have already given their consent for the project and information in this regard has been sent to the Union Coal Ministry, the district administration of Korba and the chief minister’s office in Chhattisgarh,” said the APMDC official, on condition of anonymity.

An email sent to Essel Mining & Industries Limited asking it about what measures, if at all, will be taken to ensure that rights of local stakeholders are not compromised, is yet to elicit any response. Responses are also awaited from Union Coal Ministry on email queries asking about the logic behind invoking provisions of the Coal Bearing Act, 1957 to acquire land for developing Madanpur South Coal Block and whether consent of gram sabhas will be obtained before the acquisition. This article will be updated as and when Newsclick receives responses to these queries.

From October to December 2019, local residents from at least 20 villages in the Hasdeo Arand region had sat on a protest against land acquired using the Coal Bearing Act of 1957 for Parsa coal block in Chhattisgarh. Their demands included revoking of mining clearances granted to the Parsa block without consulting the gram sabhas.

It has been further alleged by activists that applying the Coal Bearing Act to acquire land for Madanpur South is legally questionable because the block has been awarded to a public sector undertaking belonging to another state government, that is, Andhra Pradesh, while mining operations will be carried out by a private developer.

“It is a direct affront on the federal structure of the country. The Central government is acting toward concentration of powers in its own hands in taking over land under the Coal Bearing Act in favour of State public sector units having long-term MDO agreements with private companies. The Central government already enjoys unilateral powers in allotment of coal blocks and also in providing environmental clearances as well as forest clearances for projects,” said Raipur-based environmental activist and lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava.

Ahead of the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections in 2018, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and the incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Bhagel had assured the electorate that no mining activities would be permitted in the state by violating rights of local people.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Central government and the Congress government in Chhattisgarh have locked horns in the recent past over auction of coal blocks to private players for commercial mining. In June 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining by private players. However, this list was ultimately scaled down to 38 following vociferous opposition by the Congress government in Chhattisgarh against the auction of three blocks that are located in the densely forested areas of Hasdeo Arand. The Chhattisgarh government, has also, using powers vested to it in the Constitution, proposed the creation of an elephant reserve across Hasdeo Arand which may encompass several coal blocks that would make prospects of mining difficult in the area. This proposal, however, awaits a formal notification.

“The Central government is trying to assume absolute powers as far as coal mining is concerned because most of the coal-bearing states, including Chhattisgarh, are at present being ruled by political parties that are not aligned with the BJP-led NDA. However, it remains to be seen if the Chhattisgarh government agrees to submit proposal for Stage-I forest clearance for the project as the state government can still block the clearance,” added Shrivastava

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