Coerced and threatened over the past year, they are fighting for their rights over forestland that is part of a coal-block allotted to Tata Steel
In Latehar district’s Jala village, a hamlet of 250 tribal villagers has refused to make way for coal mining by Tata Steel and Adhunik Power and Natural Resource Limited (APNRL) till their forest rights are settled first.
The villagers — predominantly Oraon tribal people — recounted that in the last 14 months, while they got little cooperation from local officials, they were threatened by the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee (TSPC), a left wing extremist group and the “company’s dalal [middlemen]” for opposing the mining project.
Representatives of both companies rubbished allegations that they pressurised the villagers and claimed that they got the villagers’ pending forest rights settled at a gram sabha the companies organised last March.
Jala forms nearly the entire site of the 237ha Ganeshpur coal-block, allotted jointly to Tata Steel and APNRL in 2009. “We got a gram sabha conducted on March 15, 2013 and submitted video footage, documents to district officials,” said APNRL vice president Sanjay Jain, adding that it is necessary for the coal block to get clearances before they can scale up their 540MW power plant in Saraikela to 1,000MW. “We conducted two gram sabhas. One [held] last March was for settling the villagers’ pending forest rights claims. We have submitted a no-objection document from the villagers to district officials,” said Tata Steel spokesperson Ashish Kumar.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006 says that the gram sabha has the authority to initiate and determine forest rights claims. The District Collector chairs the district-level committee on forest rights. In Jala’s case, Latehar Collector Aradhana Patnaik was not even aware of the gram sabha conducted at the two companies’ behest. “I found out only later that the companies had initiated the gram sabha. I received complaints from a section of the villagers, though a few said they had agreed to the project by then and had not claimed forest rights. I suggested the villagers hold a gram sabha as it suited them and then submit a fresh resolution,” she said.
Last month, the Ministry of Environment (MoEF) proposed changes to the rules of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. A circular issued in 2009 required the Collector to certify that all forest rights have been settled and that the gram sabha has consented to the project in the land on which they hold forest rights before forestlands are diverted to industry. The FRA, 2006 does not place any time-limit for completing the process of settling rights. But the fresh changes proposed to FCA include setting a deadline of up to 40 to 60 days for district officials to certify that all FRA claims have been extinguished in the area allotted to industry.
Jala villagersfirst submitted their community forest rights claims — to collect minor forest produce, to pastures, to fetch water from streams in the forest, and to two burial grounds — over the 456 hectares of forest in October 2011. The village passed a resolution against the mining project on August 18, 2012.
They heard back on their claims for the first time only in March 2013, when the companies held the gram sabha. Most of the tribal villagers, who had voted against the project, stayed away. The families who attended — a majority of whom are Yadavs from the nearby Barwa toil — agreed to settle for the one acre cremation ground in the village under their community rights. Soon after, the villagers alleged, they received threats from theTSPC., which split from the CPI (Maoist) 10 years back, allegedly over Yadav cadres dominating Dalits within the party. In recent years, it been reported to have supported the police in operations against the Maoists in Palamu, Chatra, and Latehar.
“We had erected a board in the village against both the companies. TSPC men in camouflage, armed with guns came and broke the board. They took me and around 30 women from our village into the forest and kept us hostage there a few hours,” recounted Lalmani Oraon.
SDO Abu Imran, who led the enquiry set up by Ms. Patnaik to look into their complaint, dismissed the allegations. “The police did not find any evidence of TSPC threatening villagers. Besides, only because a handful of villagers are opposed to it, can we delay a project sanctioned by the Central government?”
On June 16, those opposing the project petitioned the Jharkhand Governor, alleging that the gram sabha in March was held at the companies’ behest and thus violated rules. A month later, members of the Sub Divisonal Level Committee on forest rights visited Jala. It rejected the claims for community rights over the 456 hectares of forest, recognising only two burial grounds as community land. The same week, the Forest Department registered three FIRs against 13 persons for destroying forest and cutting trees, including two cases each against the gram pradhan Ramchandra Bhagat, Jala Forest Rights Committee (FRC) head Baldev Oraon, its secretary Baldev Oraon, and two FRC members. The villagers say they pooled in Rs. 50,000 to obtain bail for them.
The villagers submitted a fresh resolution on September 9 last year, reiterating their CFR claims. But for this too, they said, they faced intimidation when they tried to hold gram sabha on August 27 and 28. “On both days the company's dalal tried to stop us saying the TSPC already warned you not to hold gram sabha,” said Parmeshwar Oraon, a FRC member named in the FIR.