Tamil Nadu – Struggle against handing over land to Michelin

February 22, 2011

On 15.2.2011, 8 dalit villagers from Thervoy Kandigai, a predominantly Scheduled Caste village in Thiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu, were arrested on false charges filed by the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu (SIPCOT). The arrested villagers were small farmers and cattle grazers who were leading their village in struggle against the forcible transfer of 250 hectares of community forests and grazing lands to SIPCOT for handover to French tyre multinational Michelin. Already, much of the forests have been mowed down, and fences are being erected to keep the marginal cattle-herders from using the village commons for grazing. The arrests of the 8 villagers, and the police-led takeover attempt by SIPCOT has prompted 1200 villagers, mostly women, to sit on an indefinite hunger strike starting 15.2.2011. The elderly women fondly refer to the forests they nurtured over decades as their “Anbulla kaadu” or “Beloved Forest” and sing songs that speak of the forests as if it were their mother, their beloved, their child. For more information, watch the film “Anbulla Kaadu”.

As you read this, the Tamilnadu Government’s iron fist is poised to strike the village. A massive police contingent has encircled the village. The media, as is characteristic of their attitude towards most dalit land struggles, has hardly mentioned this massive uprising of people.

APPEAL: The mainstream media should be expected to betray us. But if people intervene to let the Tamilnadu Chief Minister know that we will not sit by and watch while the villagers of Thervoy are robbed of their forests, their livelihoods and their sources of water, we can turn the tide. We can stop the stop the Michelin tyre company in its tracks. We can thwart the French kiss of death.

Please fax, call and write to the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu and the Chairman/Managing Director of SIPCOT immediately.
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Anbulla kaadu (My beloved forest)

by Madhumita Dutta

February 22, 2011

“A forest that was once ours is now private, a land that was once green now stands barren, a forest where we played, where we wandered freely is now fenced, men in uniform now guard the forest which we protected for generations”

Thervoy Kandigai. A small nondescript village in Gummidipoondi Taluk of Thiruvallur district, 50 kms north of Chennai. Surrounded by dense shrubby forests, natural lakes, rice fields and undulating terrain with misty mountain range of Sathyavedu in Andhra as the back drop. This small dalit village of about 1000 families is in the eye of a storm. A storm that can blow away the dreams of Tamil Nadu government to hand over hundreds of acres of land to French tyre company Michelin, a big ticketed investment worth Rs 4000 crore for the state.

Since 2007, when the villagers first heard that their grazing land (meikkal poromboke) of over 1000 acres which for over a hundred years has been part of their life and livelihood would be taken away by State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT), this little self sufficient dalit village has been up in arms protesting the alienation of their grazing land.

Numerous protests, petitions, gram sabha resolutions, official meetings were met with stubborn determination of the TN govt’s plans to go ahead with acquiring the land and at times with repressive police actions. In 2009, 61 villagers were arrested and jailed for protesting. In 2009 villagers went to meet the then industries secretary MF Farooqui, who over a plate of roasted cashew and burfis in his plush secretariat office explained to them fruits of industrialisation. When Farooqui promised roads, schools and primary health center, the villagers retorted by saying that the elected government was duty bound to deliver these basic facilities to people. Their grazing land need not be taken for the government to deliver ‘welfare schemes’!

One might argue that precisely for deliverance of such ‘welfare’ measures the state needs investments. But one wonders what logic prevails when the state destroys already existing sources of natural livelihood and sustenance for thousands of families to industrialise so that it can provide ‘welfare’ to the same people.

Forests of Thervoy is not any ordinary forests. It’s an important water catchment area. Situated at a slightly higher elevation, it captures rain water which forms the main source of water for the three eris (natural ponds) which is the lifeline for agriculture for Thervoy Kandigai and other surrounding villages. It provides water for over 3500 acres of agricultural land.

The hills and forests along with 64 small ponds around the area provide a good source of water, soil and nutrients to river Araniar, which flows in the northern side of the Thervoy. This is vital for sustainability of sandy soil along with a good groundwater supply in the downstream reaches of Araniar. “The Holistic approach from hill to coast is considered as a single hydrologic unit for the Araniar river. Therefore, Thervoykandigai can be considered as the source zone for river Araniar. The sandy middle reaches from Periapalayam to Ponneri can be considered as dynamic zone and beyond Lakshmipuram anicut as Deposition zone. The probability of river Araniar disappearing and getting transformed into an effluent sewage carrier is very high” comments Prof Anuthaman, HOD Water Resources Dept, Anna Univ.

These forests are also natural pharmacy for the villagers. Whether its diabetes, healing of broken bones, fever, skin disease, antidotes for snake bites, these forests provides over 150 herbs for treatment. “We don’t have hospitals in this area, we depend on our forest to cure us”, said local village youth Gautama.

On 14th February, over 500 women, went to the SIPCOT site which was once their forest, where construction is going on full swing now that SIPCOT has obtained an environmental clearance based on flawed process and fraudulent data from Ministry of Environment. While the villagers have been waiting to challenge the flawed environmental clearance process in the National Green Tribunal, which MOEF is delaying inordinately to set up despite Supreme Court’s direction, the villagers hopelessly watch their forest being bulldozed and fenced.

Frustrated with government’s apathy to their woes, the women took the matter in their own hand and asked SIPCOT to stop work. Prompting police and revenue officials to intervene and negotiating an agreement of ‘no work’ till 23rd February. The officials, on a signed piece of paper, promised a meeting with the District collector on 23rd Feb’ assuring villagers that work will be put on hold till then. But on the following day, on 15th February, 8 villagers, three amongst them key activists who have been spearheading the opposition against the land acquisition, were illegally detained and then charged with various sections of IPC and jailed by the Gummidipoondi police. They are still in Pooneri sub jail.

Angered by the police action, 1200 women and men began an indefinite hunger fast from 16th February demanding unconditional release of the 8 men, withdrawal of the SIPCOT project and withdrawal of all false charges against the 61 villagers who were jailed in 2009.

This morning (17th Feb), 10 amongst the hunger strikers fainted due to heat and hunger. Is the state listening? Can it hear the anger and the anguish of the villagers who have resolved to starve themselves to death if the forest is not given back to them?

Madhumita Dutta is an activist associated with the struggles against SEZ and land acquisition in Tamil Nadu.