"We will give our life, but we will not give our land"

Response of the Jharkhandi people to police firing in Koel-Karo

After the unethical and inhuman judgment of the Supreme Court giving green signal to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, the BJP-led government of Jharkhand has emboldened itself to commence work on the Koel-Karo Hydropower Project. The to-be-affected adivasi people have through their own people's movement by the name of Koel-Karo Jan Sangatan, resisted it for more than three decades.

The government's action is unethical because it involves the life of one and a half lakh persons who will lose all their economic, social and cultural base for a project in which they will have no benefits. It is against Law because the recently enacted Law on Adivasi Self-Rule (The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act,1996) stipulates that "the Gram Sabha or the Panchayat at the appropriate level shall be consulted before making the acquisition of land in the Scheduled Areas for development projects and before re-settling or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects in the Scheduled Areas"[4.i.]

Here are some facts about the project:

  • 256 villages will be wholly or partially affected, of which 135 villages will be completely submerged; 28 in Ranchi Dt., 76 in Gumla, 31 in W.Singhbhum.
  • 16,350 families comprising 1,50,000 persons will be displaced 90%  of them are indigenous (adivasi) people;
  • 66,000 acres of land will be submerged, of which 33,000 acres are land under actual cultivation, and the rest are forest land over which the indigenous people have their traditional rights;
  • 152 places of traditional religious worship (sarnas) and 300 and more places of burial places (sasandiris) will be inundated;

This is in the background of the overall displacement of Jharkhandi people and alienation of their land. A very conservative estimate is as follows:

Displacement in Jharkhand

(in lakh persons)
Mines  25.50
Major irrigation 16.40
Factories 12.50
Animal sanctuaries 11.00
Total 65.40

Alienation of Land since 1960

(in acres)
HEC Ranchi
Bokaro Steel Co.
Damodar Valley Proj.
Adityapur Ind. Estate

(source: "Alienation, Displacement and Rehabilitation"  by Sanjay Basu Mullick)

Unofficial estimates indicate that apart from the above mentioned specific projects, as much as 22 lakh acres of land has been alienated from the Jharkhandi people for townships, railways, roads, minor irrigation schemes.

The unfortunate fact is that all this displacement of people and alienation of their land have been done in the name of “national development”, but really at the expense of people. To give but one telling instance, in 1941 Jharkhand region had 12.5% of its land under irrigation; by 1981 it came down to 4.5%. Yet during the same period, 104 major & minor irrigation schemes were undertaken involving an expenditure of Rs. 9000 crores!

In short, the Jharkhandi people have been at the receiving end of the ‘development drama’ of the State. Also, only one-third of those displaced were given some monetary compensation. Absolutely no one has been rehabilitated as it implies social, cultural and communitarian dimensions.

Now at long last, the Jharkhandi people have reached certain levels of awareness and motivation, and therefore they are no more willing to believe the government or its assurances of rehabilitation. And hence their resolve not to allow themselves to be displaced yet again, nor let their land which is the sole means of their existence be alienated. The slogan which rings loud and clear in the villages “jan thenge, magar zamin nahin thenge” (“we will give our life, but we will not give our land”) says it all.
Because their land is their life.

Why the police firing?

Knowing the strength and determination of the people, the government needed to open up space to demoralise the people and weaken their movement which is all based on the adivasi traditional leadership and functions as per their traditional norms. People had put up a ramshackle barricade in 1995 as part of the janata curfew, and thus a powerful symbol of their struggle. Importantly, neither the road nor the land on which the barricade had been constructed was government land. Besides breaking the barricade, the police had beaten a villager mercilessly when he had tried to question them about their actions. The people assembled in front of the police station in Tapkara which is five km from the dam-site on the 2nd February, were demanding that the two police officers who were present in the jeep when the barricade was broken should be suspended; that the person who was beaten be given monetary compensation (Rs. 50,000) and that the police respectfully reinstall the barricade as it was before. The assembled people waited patiently from 8.30 in the morning until 3.30 in the afternoon for the resolution of their demands. Instead around 3.30, the lathi charge began followed almost immediately by firing. Some people responded to the bullets with stones even as they ran to protect themselves. Six persons were killed on the spot and four more succumbed to bullet injuries later. According to the testimonies of two injured persons, the policemen tried to kill them when they found them alive in spite of the injury. The police is also reported to have burnt a police vehicle as well as some civilian vehicles besides destroying the police camp as part of their strategy to plant evidence in order to be able to claim that the assembly had turned violent and hence justified the use of fire arms. Importantly, until date no government official has visited the site to enquire how the people are doing nor has any action been taken to suspend the police officials involved in the firing. Eight persons are still missing.

The forces behind this savagery…

This action of the Jharkhand State government indicates that the colonial power equations have not changed. The government, clearly under pressure from Multi-National Companies and International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to open mineral-rich Jharkhand for their investments, is now resorting to violence on the indigenous people in order to weaken their popular struggles fighting against issues such as displacement.

The Jharkhandi people of Koel-Karo are not going to cow down before the machinations of the State. They gave a honourable burial to their ‘martyrs’ as per their traditions, have observed a sankalp divas in which all the Jharkhandi outfits and Jharkhandi political parties participated. People have vowed that they will not allow the construction of the dam. They have spelt out their demands in very clear terms:

1. A judicial inquiry be set up to probe this incident. The Chief Minister’s assurance of setting up a 'high-level investigation' is not acceptable.

2. The police officers and personnel responsible for this criminal act should be identified and suitably punished.

3. A compensation of Rs. 5 lakhs to the families of those killed and Rs. 2 lakhs to those seriously injured be awarded.

4. Only adivasi police officers and personnel be appointed to police stations in adivasi-majority areas of Jharkhand.

5. The Koel-Karo Hydro Power Project should be canceled. This project is not beneficial from several counts. To outline just a few reasons: the project will submerge 135 villages and displace 1,50,000 persons, 90 per cent of whom are adivasis; 66,000 acres of land will be submerged, of which 33,000 acres of land is under cultivation, and the rest is forest land over which the adivasis have traditional rights; 152 sarnas (sacred groves places of traditional religious worship) and more than 300 sasandiris (sacred graves) will be inundated.

It is now the task of conscientious persons in the rest of the Indian polity to stand by the struggling people of Koel-Karo in support and solidarity.

Stan Lourduswamy
JOHAR, Chaibasa