The construction of 24 fortified police bases in the midst of Saranda, an 800-sq. km. patch of forested hills veined with a quarter of India's iron ore reserves, has sparked concerns among political activists who believe that a development plan intended for tribals in Jharkhand has been hijacked by mining corporations.
In October last year, Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and the State government, launched the Saranda Development Plan (SDP) to implement government schemes in 56 villages after a massive military campaign wrested control of the area from the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) after nearly a decade of rebel rule.
Yet, interviews with senior administrative officials, villagers and activists in Saranda suggest that development efforts could hinge on 80 km. of a proposed 130-km. road connecting villages situated atop iron deposits in Kiriburu, Karampada and Dhobil to an arterial road at Birsa on the Odisha border. Ministry of Steel documents indicate that steel companies have lobbied for the construction of this particular stretch of road before and after the SDP was announced. News reports claim that the State government has received proposals for mining leases in more than 500 sq. km. of the 800-sq. km. forest.
17 camps get clearance
“The camps will be built along this [Karampada-Bisra] road to provide security for development projects and to prevent the Maoists from re-establishing their presence in the area,” said Arun Kumar Singh, Superintendent of Police, West Singhbhum, in an interview. “While the first camp at Saidal is already operational, we have begun work at our next camp at Ankua.”
Mr. Singh said that the police hoped to construct at least six camps in the next two months before the rains began but declined to provide exact locations for these bases.
“Thus far, 17 camps have received clearance from the Forest Department and land for another three camps is under consideration,” said S.R. Natesha, Divisional Forest Officer for Chaibasa. Mr. Natesha, who is also the Special Executive Officer for the SDP, said three major camps would require 5 hectares of land, the rest have been allotted 2.5 hectares of land each.
Mr. Natesha and Mr. Singh did not comment on the logic behind land allotment. Police sources said the five-hectare camps would function as battalion headquarters while the remaining camps would serve as forward operating bases housing at least a company (approximately 70 fighting men) each. While 17 of these camps shall be manned by the Central Reserve Police Force, Indian Reserve Battalions operating under the Jharkhand Police shall man the rest.
Mining not development
“This road is 110 per cent built for the mines, not the people,” said Sushil Bahrla, a Congress party worker and former director of Birsa, a Jharkhand-based NGO focused on land rights and mining. According to the minutes of the Inter-Ministerial meetings chaired by the Ministry of Steel held in December 2010 and again in February this year, a number of steel investors expressed concern that the Ministry of Environment and Forests was delaying clearances for mining projects in Saranda, particularly in Kiriburu, Karampada and Meghahataburu.
According to minutes of the February 2012 meeting, steel representatives requested forest clearance and lease renewals for Chiria, Barsua and Dhobil mines, and noted “the bad condition of State roads/highways, particularly on the border of the States of Jharkhand and Odisha...”
Government figures state that of the Rs. 248 crore allocated to the SDP, Rs. 104 crore shall come from the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and will be spent on the 130 km of roads. “We have started the work for 7 km in the first stage,” said Santosh Satpathy, Jharkhand's Rural Development Secretary. “The work will be completed in two stages. Already we have awarded work to contractors. So the road will soon be completed.”
Saranda plan intended to implement government schemes in 56 villages wrested from Maoists
Reports claim Jharkhand got proposals for mining leases in over 500 sq. km. of Saranda forest