People’s Movements in Jharkhand: The Story of Potka

September 9, 2011

By Anindya Dey

jharkhand11.jpg

“Sakchi and Kalimati were Santhal-Bhumij villages before the Tata steel plant was set up,’’ said a visibly flustered Harish Bhumij. “No one even cares to find out what happened to those people who were uprooted from their ancestors’ land!”

It was a sparkling winter morning in Roladih – a remote village in the Potka subdivision of East Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, as we sat talking to a large group of people in the village-center. The conversation hovered around issues of displacement of adivasis, the recent imprisonment of Binayak Sen and Mahasweta Devi’s visit to Roladih and nearby Kalikapur a few months back.

In 2005, the inhabitants of this obscure corner of “Shining India” learnt that “development” had finally reached their doorsteps, as Bhushan Steel and Power Limited – a New Delhi-based corporation -was all set to acquire around 3450 acres of land in Potka and Jamshedpur. Nearly 30 villages faced the threat of extermination. Displacement was imminent for approximately 25,000 people, more than half of whom are adivasis.

Forced displacement for the sake of “development” is not unfamiliar to the adivasis of East Singhbhum. Harish Bhumij, a leader of the anti-displacement struggle in Potka, was alluding to what possibly was one of the first cases of large scale land-grab in the history of this region. In 1907, a total of 24 adivasi villages in the Sakchi-Kalimati area were obliterated to make way for elite India’s industrial aspirations in the form of the Tata steel plant and the sprawling city of Jamshedpur. Today, there’s nothing to suggest that this city and its suburbs were home to a thriving adivasi community.

The post-independence days saw a spectacular increase in the Indian state’s assault on adivasi land. It is well-known that in the period 1950-1991, big dams and hydel-power projects were the major causes for displacement throughout the country. A 2008 report prepared by the Center for Science and Engineering (CSE) shows that during the same period, more than 2.6 million people were displaced due to mining operations in Jharkhand (which until the year 2000 was part of the state of Bihar). Although the overall percentage of adivasi population in Jharkhand is around 26, the percentage of adivasis among the displaced people is alarmingly high (52% according to the CSE data), which clearly suggests who bore the brunt of the state’s developmental misadventures. Even more damning is the government’s incredibly dismal record of providing rehabilitation to the displaced. The CSE data shows that only 25% of the displaced people saw some semblance of rehabilitation assistance from the state, while the rest seem to have completely “disappeared” from government records.

The specter of displacement reappeared in the garb of industrialization in the mid-nineties and looked even more ominous after the formation of the separate state of Jharkhand in 2000. To facilitate direct purchase of adivasi lands by corporations, the first chief minister of the state, Babulal Marandi even expressed his desire to amend the CNT Act (1908) (Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, which bars non-adivasi individuals or corporations from buying adivasi-owned land in the state) before retreating and finally resigning from office in the face of widespread popular outrage. The pernicious policies, however, continued under his successor in office, Arjun Munda, who signed an unprecedented number of MoUs, mostly with mining and power sector giants, without any form of dialogue with the communities whose land and livelihood were likely to be snatched away as a result of these projects. By 2005, a massive drive to acquire land for the proposed projects was underway, as the government showered promises of jobs and a spectacular future for Jharkhand. However, adivasi communities, given their long, painful familiarity with this rhetoric of “development”, remained unimpressed.

The Bhushan Steel officials started visiting the area since mid-2005 even before any agreement with the government was formalized and it was quickly learnt that the company had employed local brokers (majority of them being non-adivasi) to convince people to sell off their land. The people, realizing a crisis was brewing, organized series of public meetings under the banner of “Ryot Bhoomi Suraksha Samiti” which culminated in a deputation to the local B.D.O, who feigned complete ignorance about the matter. By September 2006, however, Bhushan Steel had signed a MoU with the Arjun Munda government to construct a steel plant and a power plant in Potka involving a total investment of a whopping Rs. 10,500 crores.

On 2nd October, the company planned for an event to lay the foundation stone for the project in Pichhli – a largely adivasi village . Nearly 5,000 villagers from Pichhli and neighboring villages marched towards the venue in response and barricaded all the roads leading to it. Sensing the popular mood, the company scrapped the idea of a public event. However, the covert campaign for intimidating the villagers into selling off their land continued unabated, as local administrative officials, police and mainstream political leaders threw their weight behind the local land-brokers. Also, the company refused to halt the land-survey program in spite of strong popular resentment, forcing the Pichhli Gramsabha to impose a formal ban on the entry of surveyors in the village in September 2007.

The company and its collaborators were now forced to re-think their strategy. By the end of 2007, the center of operations was shifted from Pichhli to the nearby Kalikapur, marking an extremely interesting shift in the dynamics of the resistance movement. Kalikapur has a well-entrenched non-adivasi landed class, comprising mainly of migrants from the adjoining areas of West Bengal. There’s also a large number of landless Bhumij-Santhal people working as agricultural laborers. This class disparity was deftly used by the company and its collaborators to divide the local population on the issue. While sections of the landed class fell for the easy cash the company had to offer, an overwhelming majority of the adivasis saw the project as a direct assault on their land, their livelihood and their very way of living – an act of aggression against their “Haasa aur Bhasa (land and language)”. Events took an ugly turn at a protest meeting convened in Kalikapur on July 2008, where the supporters of the project clashed with members of the “Bhumi Suraksha Samiti”. While the company continued its operations in Kalikapur, the resistance movement grew stronger, as people resorted to barricading roads and expelling land surveyors from the village to articulate their dissent. More significantly, the events at Pichhli and Kalikapur were beginning to have a deep impact in the political consciousness of people in the rest of Potka. “Bhumi Sangharsh Samiti”s started to emerge in almost every village, in a bid to organize peasants for the impending struggle. Opposition to Bhushan’s steel plant had now started to crystallize into a full-blown political struggle against land acquisition as a string of protest meetings swept the region. On 11th November 2008, the various groups leading the resistance in Potka joined hands to convene a huge rally in Jamshedpur, urging the government to respect the will of the people and desist from its tactics of intimidating peasants to give up their land.

The unrelenting resistance of the villagers forced the company to restrain its operations in the area for some time but the struggle was far from over. In February 2010, police arrested Kumar Chandra Mardi, a prominent leader of the “Visthapan Virodhi Ekta Manch” spear-heading the campaign, on charges of assaulting the CMD of Bhushan Steel during one of his visits to Potka. Public outrage at the police action was soon transformed into renewed mass mobilization in Potka calling on the state to recognize the inalienable right of the adivasis to jal-jangal-zameen and suspend the purchase of land for the Bhushan project. The company, however, remained undeterred in its stand and went on to declare a “Bhumi Pujan” event on the 16th of May, essentially catalysing what would become the most spectacular episode of this mass movement to date.

The “Bhumi Pujan” event became a rallying point not only for the people of Potka but also for a large spectrum of social and political organizations fighting for the right of the adivasis to land and natural resources in Jharkhand. From 11th through the 13th of May, a series of meetings were held in different villages of Potka to organize people for a decisive political action. On the night of the 13th, more than 200 community leaders and activists from different parts of Jharkhand met in Roladih and decided to respond to the company’s aggression with a “Janta Curfew” – a comprehensive barricading of all roads leading to Potka so that no company official, administrative officer or politician could reach the designated place for “Bhumi Pujan” on the 16th of May. Village-level meetings were held all over Potka to effectively organize people for the day of action.

The “Janta Curfew” gripped the streets of Potka in the evening of May 15th as barricading continued through the night, with local people and activists manning all the roads leading to Potka.

Early next morning, men, women and children started assembling in large numbers at the various barricading points, in an overwhelming show of support. Despite monstrous security arrangements consisting of about 2,000 CRPF personnel in addition to the state police, neither the company officials nor the politicians were able to penetrate the people’s barricade for hours. While the top officials of Bhushan Steel cancelled their visit, the local MLA and the MP of Jamshedpur were only allowed to walk to the site of the “Bhumi Pujan” leaving behind their vehicles. A small number of company officials, however, sneaked in through an unguarded road but a crowd of 4,000 people at the site made sure that no public event could take place. Curiously, the BJP MLA from Potka and the Congress MP from Jamshedpur, in a rare show of unity, appealed to the people to see “reason” and allow the “Bhumi Pujan” to take place for the sake of the region’s “development”. Throughout the day, the police clashed with protesters in attempts to secure the site but the crowd stood their ground.

Embattled, the local S.D.O promised the villagers that the project would only proceed after a tripartite meeting involving the company, state administration and villagers. After the S.D.O’s public announcement, the “Janta Curfew” was called off.

As the stalemate between Bhushan Steel and the people of Potka continues, it is instructive to analyze the roles of the state administration and the media in the entire episode.

“Just a day after the S.D.O’s public promise, cases were slapped on 700 villagers for violating CrPC 144 at the Bhumi Pujan site,” says Kumar Chandra Mardi. However, the collusion between Bhushan Steel and the district administration goes way back to the very inception of the struggle. In addition to offering protection to the visiting company officials and the local land brokers, police played an active role in intimidating people, especially the leaders, to cooperate with the company’s plans in Potka. A particularly disturbing incident took place on the night of 15th May, when a group of activists and mass leaders was detained by the police at the Potka police station for interrogation. In course of the interrogation, the Officer-in-Charge of the Potka police station warned the activists of dire consequences if the barricades were not lifted. Badal Sardar, leading the “Bhumi Raksha Vahini Kisan Morcha” recalls how the SP tried to convince him of the personal benefits he could reap from the project. He could, for example, get all the local contracts from the company and have a much higher standard of living. Can he not, therefore, convince other villagers to give up the resistance? “I could put you in direct touch with the company”, was the SP’s brazen offer.

The group was finally released the next morning, on the condition that they leave Potka immediately.

If the police played the role of an active agent in the company’s payroll, the electronic and the print media’s reaction to the movement showed the extent to which corporate interests influence news reporting in contemporary India. From the very outset, the mass-movement was tagged as “anti-development”, without much being said about what this “development” would mean for the evicted people, especially for the adivasis of the region.

While television channels kept on repeating the company’s claim of providing 10,000 jobs, they conveniently omitted the “insignificant” details of how many people had to be displaced or how many would lose their livelihood as a result. And of course, they never cared to address the crucial question of how many peasants, thrown out of work, could actually be employed in a highly specialized industry like a steel plant.

Predictably, the “obstructionist” nature of the Potka movement received a lot of attention in the press, while the incidents of police excesses on activists and the stories of daily intimidation of villagers went largely unreported. Do people feel demoralized? “People realize this is not just a struggle over land”, says Kumar Chandra Mardi -”they understand that resistance is the only way to save the adivasi society and culture from utter annihilation ”. Possibly that’s what inspires people to carry on their struggle against a vicious corporation, a colluding state, an apathetic media and a development model that makes exploitation of the poorest of the country’s poor a pre-requisite for progress.

A few days later, while reading through a newspaper report on Home Minister P.Chidambaram’s appeal to the Naxalites to “abjure” violence, I could not help reflecting on a certain part of Badal Sardar’s conversation with the local SP, as recounted by the former.

Aap apne vicharon ko badaliye (you have to change your perceptions)”, the SP had said. “Aur agar aap inhe nahi badal sakein to woh hoga ugravaad ki taraf pehla kadam (and a failure to change would only be construed as the first step towards extremism)” .

In a country where criminalizing democratic dissent is a staple policy of governance, how seriously should one take the state’s commitment to engage with its most vulnerable citizens?

4 Comments »

4 Responses to “People’s Movements in Jharkhand: The Story of Potka”

  1. p k rai Says:
    September 12th, 2011 at 21:27

    A comprehensive first hand report from an under-reported area. Look forward to more from this journalist.

  2. Anurag Says:
    September 17th, 2011 at 06:46

    Good work Anindya,
    If i were Badal, my response to SP would be:-

    “Aap apne kam karne ke rawwaiiye ko badaliye” “Aur agar aap inhe nahi badal sakein to aage yaatchna ni sanghar hoga”

  3. amit Says:
    November 23rd, 2011 at 00:25

    would like to know more about collective action in jharkhand as there are many such projects and everywhere it is the same story.

  4. Goodpal Says:
    September 8th, 2012 at 01:19

    The events are being repeated throughout the country wherever the corporate world is eyeing the natural resources. Government agencies and police are always on the side of the rich entity; there is no institution that can take up the issue of the displaced and uprooted and protect them. It is annihilation of poor people to sustain the unsustainable lifestyle of urban middle class and mega corporations that rule the world today. The colonial mindset is still ruling India through the brown rulers.