THERE IS grain in one corner, cows in the backyard, and chicken running around in Manikchand’s hut in Sonakhan. Yet, when asked about his most prized possession, he brings out a large wooden saucer-shaped vessel and a rusty iron rod with a hook at the end, which hold pride of place atop the only wooden shelf in the house.
“We take the dirt from any stream or nullah, or the Jog river that runs nearby, and fill the vessel. Then we drain the water out, and sift through the earth, to look for tiny pieces of gold at the bottom. Normally, you find them more in the rains… Traders from Pithora or Kasdol come and buy them from us. There has always been gold here. But now who knows what will happen,” says Manikchand, worry etched on his face.
The gold is an intrinsic part of Sonakhan, the local economy, and even folklore. But now, for the first time, it has brought uncertainty.
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On February 26, the Chhattisgarh government announced that Vedanta Resources Inc had won the rights to mine for gold in an area of 608 hectares in the Baghmara mines of Sonakhan, in a forested area of Balodabazaar district. The government said the mine has an estimated reserve of 2,700 kilograms of the metal. Over 160 companies from across the world attempted to outbid each other in an auction process that lasted over 13 hours in Raipur. But nobody told Sonakhan.
Rajim Ketwas, of the Dalit Adivasi Manch, an NGO that fights for forest rights in Kasdol block where Sonakhan is located, says they first heard the news when it was reported by the local newspapers in late February.
“Before then, not one person in Baghmara village or in Sonakhan, which is a ‘tola’ of 24 villages, was told that the government was going to allow mining in the area. Officials have now said that no houses in Baghmara will be removed, and they will do their mining in the hills at the back. But how can anyone announce a 600 hectare mine, and not tell or take the opinion of people who live around it,” says Ketwas.
Since the announcement, there has been lots of movement in the villages of Sonakhan, meetings and demonstrations.
“Look at Chhattisgarh’s history with mining. Everything around the mines gets affected. The water sources in the Bailadila mines are all contaminated, and hills of Dall Rajhara have no trees. They say our villages won’t get affected, but where will they deposit the dirt from the mines. Our water will get polluted, our air will be full of dust and pollutants, and our jungles will be destroyed. All the Adivasis depend on the forests for their sustenance, what will happen to them. Most people here don’t want the mine, or at the very least, don’t want their way of life to end, without even being consulted. So we are organising ourselves in preparation for a fight,” says Amrit, another member of the Dalit Adivasi Manch.
In Sonakhan, there is near unanimity on a people’s struggle against the dangers of mining, but not quite. Baghmara village itself, with its hundred homes and fields, and forested hills that rise behind it, stands divided.
At the chaukhat of the home of Ghasiram Patel, the conversation has again turned to the mine. The Patels, with 30 families in the village, are in minority, but hold sway.
“They are not tribal. They are aghariyas, which is a lower caste… They have been telling us that there will be jobs, and the mine will bring money. That, maybe, it would be smart for some of us to take the money and leave,” says Rajpal, a tribal.
“We will see what to do when the officials come. Till then, how can we say? Maybe good things will happen because of the mining,” says the oldest Patel in the village, seated on a chair, to the visible discomfiture of Rajpal and Chandan, both tribals. As the conversation continues, Ketwas takes Rajpal aside.
“Didi, hold your meetings in the Adivasi part of the village. All of us will stand united, even if they don’t agree with us. What do they care if we lose our jungles? They only farm in their fields and some have pattas of land. We have nothing. Our mahua, produce, and everything else comes from the forests in the hills. You hold a meeting with us, and at least half of Baghmara will come,” assures Rajpal.
Yet, even as they speak about possible unity among the tribals in Baghmara, another issue worries Rajpal. “Didi, humaare yahan to van adhikaar ke liye kuch nahi daala hai? Sahmati hi nahi thi abhi tak,” he says.
Over the past two years, aided by Rajim and other NGO workers, over 40 villages in Kasdol have filed applications under the Forest Rights Act, which gives tribals rights over forest land they have called their own for generations, and necessitating any government use of the land to be cleared by the gram panchayat.
“We urge villagers to apply for community FRA, so they have rights over their land, and nothing can be done without their permission. The government has given them a weapon. But, because of differences within the community in two villages, no applications have been made. Baghmara is one of them. If they had FRA, then the government would have had to talk to them,” says Ketwas.
The history she speaks of dates back over a century, to tribal leader Veer Narayan Singh, considered Chhattisgarh’s first recognised freedom fighter. In Sonakhan village, 10 kilometres from Baghmara is a tall white edifice, with a tomb to its right. “His tomb was brought here earlier, and then this marble edifice was built by the Ajit Jogi government when he was chief minister,” says Amrit.
The monument is deserted. But in the past two months, Veer Narayan Singh has been evoked many times. “He was the tribal ruler of Sonakhan, and assembled an army against the British. He opened the granaries for the tribal people, and stood up for our rights. He was publicly hanged in Raipur on December 10, 1857. Since then, an annual festival is held in his honour in Sonakhan. Even the new cricket stadium in Raipur is named after him,” says Amrit.
Historical accuracy apart, another feat of Veer Narayan Singh is now finding mention in these villages. “Veer Narayan Singh prevented the British from mining for gold in these hills. They wanted to, but he stood in their way, and protected our forests. Now we have to protect them again,” says Ketwas.
In Baghmara, outside the Patel’s home, a white Mahindra Scorpio trundles down the hill and into the village. The vehicle pauses for a minute, one of its occupants rushing out for a bottle of water. It gives the curious villagers of Baghmara time to peek inside. In the back seat are two men, one of them fair-skinned.
A villager quickly remarks, “Humne padha akhbar mein ki Vedanta England ki company hai. Unke bahar se engineer log aaye honge dekhne. (I read in the newspaper that Vedanta is a British company. Its engineer must have come to take a look.)”
They look at each other. Whether or not he is right about the engineer, all of them know that Sonakhan will never be the same again.