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The Struggle of Adivasis of Bastar, Chhattisgarh Against Imperialist Corporate Landgrab

06.01.2009 · Posted in Human Rights, Mining, Tribal Rights

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The Struggle of Adivasis of Bastar, Chhattisgarh
Against Imperialist Corporate Landgrab.

by Sudha Bharadwaj

Why this essay?

I don’t live in Bastar, and I am not an adivasi.

But I have been active in the working class movement of Chhattisgarh for the past 22 years, a movement which became legendary under the charismatic leadership of Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi. And I strongly feel that understanding what is happening in Bastar today is of the greatest significance not only to us in Chhattisgarh, but to all those who want to understand imperialist onslaught and corporate land grab, particularly in the resource-rich adivasi areas; for all of us involved nationwide in the anti-displacement movement which is day on day becoming a fierce life-and-death struggle against all odds; and in fact for all of us in the peoples’ movements who are faced with the abysmally criminal failure of democratic institutions and shrinking democratic spaces on the one hand, and growing repression on the other.

Justice Krishna Iyer, in a speech delivered in the memory of Com. Niyogi said that “he tried boldly and bravely to bring the Constitution to life for lakhs of miners and contract labourers”. Com Niyogi was murdered on 28th September 1991 within a fortnight of his petitioning the highest authority of this land – the President of India. The industrialists convicted for his murder by the Sessions Court of Durg were acquitted by the High Court and Supreme Court. The thousands of workers of Bhilai, for whose cause he laid down his life, are still out of work, their cases pending in the High Court. The last essay he wrote, with an uncharacteristic urgency, was “Rajeev Gandhi Ki Hatya Kyon?” (“Why was Rajiv Gandhi murdered?”) in which he forcefully argued that Rajiv Gandhi, though himself of the “liberalization” paradigm, was considered to be moving too slowly and was eliminated to allow “those who wanted the dollar to move in fast” to have their way. Com. Niyogi predicted that unless there was a widespread debate and churning among the patriotic and democratic sections of the people, our country would become the “grazing ground of the multinationals”, for now “only those persons will occupy the seats of power, whom the multinationals favour”. At that time, in May 1991, his article seemed to many, to be exaggerated or the usual leftist conspiracy theory. Now we know, it was prophetic.

This essay is part of that debate.

In the numerous industrial areas across Chhattisgarh today, the very blood of young contract labourers is being sucked as they labour for 12-14 hours, for far less than minimum wages, without weekly holidays, and without safety or medical facility to generate the enormous wealth of “Chhattisgarh Shining!” Unionizing them today doesn’t only mean facing the goondas of the industrialists, risking the loss of precarious jobs, sustaining an uncompromising struggle against great odds, and developing a mature and bold leadership that can withstand both carrot and stick – though this is a tall enough order. It also means struggling against the serious imperialist onslaught against the people of Chhattisgarh.

An onslaught where gigantic corporations like Holcim and Lafarge are gobbling up the cement sector, they have already acquired ACC, Ambuja, and Raymond Cements. Taking advantage of rich limestone deposits, they are manufacturing the cheapest cement in the world, earning superprofits and planning to set up new capacities. Between them and the big cement manufacturers like Aditya Birla they have formed the “Chhattisgarh Cement Manufacturers Association” a cartel that has its office at a stones throw from Chief Minister Raman Singh’s residence – a proximity symbolic of their stranglehold influence over the state administration. These companies are blatantly violating well established Indian labour standards which prohibit the use of contract labour in cement manufacture, and mandate that contract labour be paid at par with regular workers, i.e at the rate of the Cement Wage Board. (Holcim, for instance, has appealed against an Award obtained by our union to regularize 573 contract workers whose contracts have been held to be sham and bogus.)They are refusing to abide by the State Rehabilitation Policy which prescribes permanent jobs for those displaced by their plants, and they are in fact creating an explosive situation in the rural areas by employing outsiders in preference to the affected peasants. Under the leadership of the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee) – workers, peasants and particularly women – have been militantly struggling and have had some success in enforcing minimum wages and getting some affected peasants employed in these factories. But we still need to forge a unity of all cement workers in Chhattisgarh, across union lines, to wage a serious struggle demanding that multinationals implement the law of the land.

On the other hand, the local small and medium steel industry of Chhattisgarh is facing a severe crisis and hundreds of units – mini steel plants, sponge iron units, rolling mills – are closing down, thousands of workers are facing the threat of retrenchment. This crisis is another facet of the imperialist onslaught. The best quality iron ore of Chhattisgarh is literally flowing out as slurry, day after day, to be shipped out to Japan at a mere Rs. 400 a tonne. The State government is only too keen to sign MOUs with the big corporate houses – Tata, Essar, Mittal, Jindal…. and to practically gift away the best deposits of iron ore as captive mines at a measly royalty of less than Rs. 50 a tonne. But the local industry is having to purchase iron ore at open market rates, which had touched upto Rs. 5800 per tonne recently. Along with our union the Jan Adharit Engineering Mazdoor Union, the CMM has been continuously protesting against these pro-imperialist policies in order to save local industry and jobs, and exhorting the local industrialists not to be “penny wise and pound foolish” in trying to make up the lakhs of losses on raw material costs by squeezing a few thousands out of the workers legal wages.

Increasingly it is becoming more clear to us that the factories are not the only battleground against imperialist and monopoly capital, the hardest struggles are in the countryside where these companies are zeroing in on mineral resources, and are engaged in a land grab on an unbelievable scale. Whether for coal blocks in Raigarh, or a power plant in Premnagar, cement plants in Tilda, or a large industrial area in Rajnandgaon, bauxite mining in Sarguja and Jashpur, sponge iron plants in Raipur or diamond mining in Devbhog, peasants everywhere – particularly adivasis and dalits – are facing and resisting displacement – weakly compromising at some places, facing repression determinedly at others. 41 and now 65 more villages near Raipur are to be displaced for a glittering new capital region of Corporate Chhattisgarh; 9 villages for an army camp for a revamped High Court premises close to Bilaspur; 7 villages for an air force base in Rajnandgaon. Not to mention the displacement for the Tiger Reserve, Elephant Reserve, Wild life Sanctuaries etc. in Bilaspur, Jashpur and Dhamtari districts… The list is endless.

CMM has also been active in the anti-displacement movement – in opposing the demolition of urban bastis, particularly in the industrial areas where the lowly paid contract workers live; in organising the already displaced peasants around industrial establishments to demand jobs and compensation; and in playing a prominent role along with the Sanyukta Kisan Morcha in stalling the acquisition of 7 villages at Rajnandgaon for a Special Industrial Zone. It has expressed solidarity with the Raigarh Bachao Sangharsh Samiti which has been fighting the total domination of the Jindal group and its ‘private army’ notorious for its land grabbing, brokering of material inputs for local small industry, rampant exploitation of workers and the pollution of the air, soil and water of Raigarh district. A peasant woman Satyabhama lost her life, ironically on the 26th of January, when being force-fed to break the indefinite fast she had undertaken to save the waters of the Kelo river from pollution by Jindal (In yet another example of the obscene hypocrisies that we now take for granted, the Jindal Steel and Power Limited recently received the “Srishti Green Cube Award 2007 for Good Green Governance” from Sheela Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi!) The CMM has been an active participant in the anti-displacement front Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, which was launched at Ranchi on 23rd March 2007, and which has been attempting to unite the people’s resistance to displacement countrywide.

The struggle to bring into the public domain the MOUs of Tata and Essar in Bastar and Dantewada; the fake gramsabhas in Lohandiguda and Dhurli blocks conducted at gunpoint to obtain consent for land acquisition, and presided over by the Salwa Judum supremo and District Investment Promotion Board Chairman Mahendra Karma; the arrests of vocal villagers including when they were on their way to keep a scheduled appointment with the Governor; the slapping of cases under  the National Security Act on activists of the Adivasi Mahasabha; the FIRs that were finally lodged, after repeated complaints, against sundry dalals of  Tata for the “fake compensations” given to the wrong persons and even in the name of the dead; these are events about which I and the CMM have had personal knowledge, and about which we have continuously raised our voice. CMM had organized torchlight processions in several industrial centres protesting against the arrest of Manish Kunjam and other leaders of the Adivasi Mahasabha on the eve of the alternative gram sabhas organized in Lohandiguda and Bhansi to protest land acquisition.

But I could only grasp the enormity of the information blackout – the silence, half truths and sheer lies – call it the “wall of silence”, that exists between Bastar and the rest of Chhattisgarh, when as an active member of the Chhattisgarh PUCL, I joined several fact finding teams to investigate into fake encounters. When we found out that the shiksha karmis and student killed in Gollapalli allegedly in “Naxalite cross fire” had actually been murdered by the police and SAF even after they had repeatedly asserted their identity; when the “dreaded Naxalites encountered” in Nayapara turned out to be adivasis who had returned to their ancestoral village in search of work; when the theory of “accidental firing because of hidden Naxalites” in the Cherpal  Salwa Judum camp was boldly rubbished by the villagers in the camp who were furious at the killing of a woman and a small baby by a trigger happy CRPF jawan. In the media we repeatedly saw a total silence about ordinary people on the one hand, and cymbal-clashing war-cries against Maoists, always pictured as AK-47 toting with sinisterly covered faces, on the other. Each time we uncovered the truth, which, mind you, was absolutely self-evident to the local people, and tried to cross the “wall”, it was buried again under a heap of papers – false statements, enquiries, and the inevitable conclusions justifying the atrocities. In short, back to square one. This is another attempt to scale that wall.

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