The groundswell of protests by adivasis in Dantewada against a contract awarded to Adani Enterprises Ltd to mine iron ore deposits in a hill in the Bailadila range, has prompted the Chhattisgarh government to halt all work for now, and review various permissions granted to the project.
At the NMDC Ltd complex in Kirandul, the site of the protest, thousands of adivasis from Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur districts have gathered over the last six days under the banner of the Sanyukt Panchayat Jan Sangharsh Samiti. Some came from areas close by, others walked over 60 kilometres to participate. Each family came with ration for at least a week, ready for the long haul.
On Tuesday, after meeting a delegation led by Congress’s Bastar Member of Parliament Deepak Baij, former Union Minister Arvind Netam, Congress MLAs and members of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said, “We have decided to investigate the Gram Sabha clearance (in July 2014). All activity will immediately be put on hold.”
To a question if the mining licence would be cancelled, Baghel told The Indian Express, “NMDC has 51 per cent stake, and CMDC (Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation) has 49 per cent in NCL. So, a decision will have to be taken at that level, and does not lie with us.” A state government spokesperson said concerned departments would initiate correspondence with the Centre about related subjects immediately.
The Indian Express visited the site where thousands of adivasis had assembled last Friday. Raju Bhaskar, a Janpad Sadasya of Tikanpal Village, pointed to a green hill and said, “That is the one. They call it iron ore Deposit Number 13. For us, it is the abode of Pithormeta in Gondi.” He was referring to Pithor Rani, the goddess for the adivasis in the region, which now symbolizes a growing conflict in the Bailadila hills.
For several years, the Bailadila hills have been mined for iron ore. But Deposit Number 13 is different. Being developed by NCL, a joint venture between central public sector undertaking NMDC Ltd and the state-run CMDC, and contracted to Adani Enterprises last year, the hill is not just a repository of millions of tonnes of iron ore, but more a place of faith.
“All we want at this time is for this hill to be left alone. The family of Nandraj, our deity who means everything to us, lives in these hills,” said Bhaskar. Gesturing towards the hills, he says, “In adivasi culture, our Gods live in the hills. Vo humaari aastha hai. And we have prayed to them for generations. Nandraj lords over these hills, and lives in that one.”
Pointing to two peaks, he says, “Those are his two daughters, Ilometa, and Palometa. And then, that one there, that these people call deposit number 13, is Pithormeta. Or Pithor Rani. She is his wife. There is a tree, and a spot where adivasis like us go and pray. The family of Nandraj figures in all our songs. How can we let his family and abode be destroyed? That is why you see so many adivasis here, from far and wide. This means a lot to us,” says Bhaskar, who is a Janpad Sadasya of Tikanpal village.
While residents of the area said that there are no homes on the hill in question, the proposed area to be mined borders the village of Hiroli, where a Gram Sabha was reportedly held in July 2014 to seek consent for mining. “Like so many others, the Gram Sabha was a fraud. Residents of Hiroli say it was never held. The papers show that 106 members signed on the resolution, but there are 600 voters. How can you have a Gram Sabha like this?” Bhaskar says.
In response, VS Prabhakar, CEO, NCL, said. “NCL is the owner of Deposit Number 13 (10 million tonnes of iron ore per annum) and the mining lease of Deposit Number 13 is registered with this company. Mining lease will not be transferred to Adani nor to others at any point of time.only the contract of excavation and mine development is awarded to Adani Enterprises Limited to work as MDO (Mine Develop Operate),” he said.
In a statement, an AEL representative said, “In January 2018, at least 10 companies expressed interest to participate in the international competitive bid for development and operation of Bailadila Iron Ore Deposit Number 13. AEL was not involved in obtaining clearances of the project. It was only after December 2018 that it obtained the role of mining contractor.”
Last Saturday, Ajit Jogi, the first Chief Minister of the state and president of the JCCJ arrived at the spot, and said he “would rather die, than allow a single piece of land on the area to be mined.” He spent the night in Kirandul, promised to stay for longer and went up the Pithormeta hill Sunday morning. The same day, Bhupesh Baghel said the protests were a result of the lopsided policies of the previous BJP government, and that decisions were taken in a hurry without taking people into confidence.
The district police believe that Maoists have incited the protests. Abhishek Pallav, SP, Dantewada, said, “We have recovered Maoist pamphlets inciting the innocent tribals to push ahead the struggle against deposit number 13. Many villagers have turned up owing to that fear but the number has not crossed 2,000. If there was an issue regarding deities, it should have taken up with the government instead of such a protest rally without approval.”
One Sanyukt Sarpanch Jan Sangharsh Samiti leader who requested anonymity said, “They keep saying this whenever we fight for our rights. The question is simple. Our faith is one of the forests, of the trees, of the earth. Does Nandraj and his family live in these hills? Does Pithormeta live on the hill? Our aastha has no brick and mortar. But it exists and is important to us.”
Later, Tuesday evening, Bastar MP Deepak Baij went to the site armed with a letter which listed the decisions taken by the Chief Minister. While he sought 15 days more to resolve the issues, the Sangharsh Samiti refused to end the protest. A member told The Indian Express, “The government woke up only after five days of protests. They have not promised the project will not start again. We will sit here till the government investigates the Gram Sabha resolution of July 2014. This will show that the basis of the project is false. Also, when the state has 49 per cent stake in NCL, why can’t it pull out.”