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Hounded by those she had fought for

Sister Valsa John once took on a mining firm on behalf of tribals

Written by Manoj Prasad | Puchuwara,jharkhand |
November 21, 2011 3:57:22 am

Two days before she was murdered,Sister Valsa John had stood up for a rape victim and got a police case registered. The alleged rapist,arrested days after the murder and later charged with that too,reportedly told the police that Sister Valsa was “an agent” of a private coalmine company. So did some of his relatives,the police say.

Years ago,Sister Valsa had led a campaign against this very company,Panem Coal Mines Ltd,which culminated in a compensation package for tribals. And prime suspect Advin Murmu of Alubera and the other six arrested for the murder,ironically,had been not only part of Valsa’s Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan but also among the most visible beneficiaries of the package. “Each of them had money and a mobike. They believed that once the sister was dead,they could lead the andolan and become rich,” said the SP.

Sister Valsa’s equations with a section of tribals had apparently changed in the years since 1999-2005,when she had taken up their cause. The company had allegedly failed to deliver on some of its promises that included jobs,and education and health facilities. Sister Valsa had kept negotiating with Panem officials and this,the police say,might have created the impression that she was on the company’s side.

“She was very vocal for the rights of the people. But since she was always surrounded by Panem officials,an impression was created among a section of the people that she had become an agent of the company,” said a police officer probing the murder.

Then,“after the rape,she backed the family of the girl,which made the family and friends of the alleged rapist angry,” the official said.

“Bhag ju,bhag ju”(get out,get out) was a slogan allegedly chanted by many men and women of Pachuwara and the adjoining Alubera village,and whcih has been reproduced in police records. Agitators against her had blocked a road in Pachuwara,relenting after the police intervened on November 9.

Sister Valsa had lived in the house of Munshi Hembrom,pragnait (tribal chieftain),for close to a decade before she had to leave. One of the seven arrested,Piseceel,is related to Munshi Hembrom. On November 6,she moved into Hembrom’s son Sonalal’s house,where she would eventually be murdered. On November 13,she reportedly ensured that Deputy Commissioner Sunil Kumar Singh got an FIR lodged at Amrapara police station against Advin Murmu. On November 16,she was planning to take the girl there but was murdered the preceding night in Sonalal Hembrom’s house. Three days later,Murmu was arrested for the rape and reportedly described Sister Valsa “an agent of the company”.

This description was for a woman whose movement against land acquisition he had joined. The package she helped win in 2006 included the cost of the land acquired at current market rates; a job to a member of each displaced family; a school,with education free for children of the displaced families; a hospital,with treatment free for the displaced; Rs 6,000 per acre per year to compensate for the loss of agricultural income; 210 sq m homesteads; return of the land to the original owners after after completion of mining; and maintenance of the environment around the project site.

The 500-odd families displaced from areas that included Kathaldih and Aajhari,3 km from Pachuwara,were all paid for the land as agreed. The company also provided an ambulance and built a school and a hospital,4 km from the project site,with two doctors and a compounder. “We have tried to meet every genuine demand of those displaced,” said Panem manager R K Singh. “We have implemented the compensation package in letter and spirit.”

It is the promised jobs and the school that locals are complaining about. Of those The Indian Express talked to,most alleged that the company had not yet provided jobs to more than 60 to 70 of the 500-odd families. And all pointed out that the school has classes only till IV. As for the hospital,Putli Hembrom,a teacher with a government school,said,“Whenever I have visited the hospital,no doctors have been present.”

Along the 40 km road from the project site near Pachuwara to the railway station yard in Pakur,where the company transports coal,the air is thick with coal dust. Its specified target was less than 800 million tones during 2009-10. Along both sides of the road are huts of Adivasis,mostly Santhals.

Pachuwara itself has no metalled road or electricity. The village school,Hardma Desh Manjhi Madhya Vidyalaya,where Sister Valsa taught 170 students,functions out of a bamboo hut. The village dispensary too is made of wood and bamboo. In the absence of a doctor,who quit early this year,compounder Vinay Kumar Soren has been treating patients.

Sister Valsa John is said to have “repeatedly” asked the Panem management to meet the demands for jobs,a pollution-free environment and buildings for the school and the dispensary with medicines and a doctor round the clock.

It was Sonaram Hembrom,in whose house she spent her last days,who filed the murder complaint. The other six arrested are Piseceel Hembrom,Prem Tudi,Tala Hembrom,Rakesh Turi,Rajesh Marandi and Pradhan Murmu. “At 30 others are still at large. Among them a few were Maoists hired by Adwin and Piseceel,” said SP Khanna.

The police have recovered some weapons from the seven.”We have seized some weapons but they have been cleaned by the accused… we will send them for forensic tests,” said Khanna.

About the motive,Khanna,who supervised the probe,said,“Because she was sheltering the girl,and aware that she would go to the police station and get him booked for rape,Adwin was in a rage. He mobilised his friends and called some associates who were Maoists. They went to the house in the night and murdered her.”

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