The rule of mechanisation has come, it will snatch away the work from every hand, wake up workers and farmers. There is unemployment, it will grow, alas the working people will die. No use slapping our foreheads then, wake up workers and farmers.
For 15 years, this song (originally in the Chhattisgarhi language) was among the most popular songs that workers in the Dalli Rajhara iron-ore mines (present-day Chhattisgarh), mostly from Adivasi communities, used, to hold off attempts by the management at mechanising the mining process.
In fact, even though the mining-affected communities often resort to sit-ins and mass mobilisations to register their voices and concerns regarding disruptions caused by mining or against mining, there also exists a rich body of cultural expressions – spanning poems, stories, graphic books, videos, songs, performances, memes and more – that spell out their concerns vividly. These creative outlets play a key role in enlivening and sustaining mass mobilisations and have also changed with time.
For instance, in the case of the workers in the Dalli Rajhara iron-ore mines, the conflict came to the fore in 1978 when the Bhilai Steel Plant – which owned, operated and sourced iron-ore from Dalli Rajhara – sought to introduce heavy machinery in mines in the area.
Fearing massive job losses, workers banded under a union and stalled the process till 1994. Several participants in the movement recalled that songs and plays written and performed by worker artists played an especially important role in sustaining the long struggle, energising participants and providing them hope.
“There were songs hailing workers killed in police firing on protestors as martyrs, songs about forests and farmlands destroyed by mines, about the need for workers and farmers to come together – all in the local Chhattisgarhi language. But the most pertinent song in the movement was Agey mashinikaranke raj, juchchha kardehi sab ke haath [The rule of mechanisation has come, it will snatch away the work from every hand] – it was sung at almost every gathering and all the workers would sing along,” Punyabrata Gun, who observed the anti-mechanisation movement as a Chhattisgarh Mukti Morchaactivist, told Mongabay-India.
The video footage from an anti-mechanisation rally in Bhilai in the late 1980s, included in the documentary A Death, Few Arguments: The Life and Death of Shankar Guha Niyogi, shows hundreds of mine workers dressed in red shirts and green shorts, singing verses of the song aloud, in near-perfect chorus, swaying to its rhythm and proceeding forward, not one worker out of step with the rest, like they had choreographed and practiced the sequence for months.
It was written by Faguram Yadav, the Morcha’s most prolific writer and performer, who worked as a transport labourer in the Dalli mine and was educated only till the fourth standard.
“Everyone who heard this song – there were often thousands of them – said, ‘This is correct! This is exactly how it is!’ It gave people a lot of strength and hope, because it was about their life, their problems, and solutions. It united people. I myself sang the song in numerous rallies and gatherings,” said Kaladas Deheriya, who cut his teeth as a cultural activist in the late 1980s, when he worked alongside Faguram, Lakhan and others in Naya Anjor, a cultural troupe associated with the Morcha.
Many people who have closely recorded and witnessed such protests note that art – whether songs, poems, or performance – that the mining-affected communities in different parts of the country use to voice their claims and concerns, is very striking.
“The way in which Adivasi communities express themselves through song and dance is striking,” Kamal Shukla, who has covered mining and related issues in central India as a journalist for over 30 years, told Mongabay-India. “In fact, there is no count or record of songs produced as part of movements in mining-affected areas across India – songs that attack corporate groups for loot and plunder, that expose governments for facilitating displacement and dispossession, that are known by heart to most movement participants.”
Shukla’s observations, echoed by several others activists and participants in movements against mining and allied activities, square strongly with the work of Performance Studies scholar Diana Taylor.
Examining Latin America’s encounter with colonialism in the 19th century, Taylor showed how indigenous communities, whose culture was transmitted orally, resorted to a variety of performances to resist colonialism. Performance and not writing, she wrote, was their means of registering claims to history – much like mining-affected communities in eastern and central India, it appears.
Kaladas, a founding member of Relaa, a joint platform of cultural troupes that has a strong presence in mining-affected areas in eastern and central India, explains to Mongabay-India that, “For us, mines and industries were part of one large family – the steel plant in Bhilai could not work without ore from Dalli Rajhara. We tried to portray this larger picture through songs and plays to ask what development was doing to us.”
One of the most famous songs in this respect is Gaon Chodab Nahi (We will not leave our village). Inspired by a song by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of the movement against bauxite mining in Odisha’s Kashipur, Gaon Chodab Nahi was made into a music video by documentary filmmaker KP Sasi in the early 2000s. Written by Meghnath, also a documentary filmmaker, and sung by acclaimed folk singer Madhu Mansuri, both from Jharkhand, the song echoes questions raised by mining-affected communities across the world.
You erected dams, submerged villages, established factories
Cut off forests, set up mines, made sanctuaries
But where do we go leaving our water, forest and land,
O god of development, say, how do we save our lives?
We will not leave our village, we will not leave our jungle,
We will not leave mother earth, we will not leave struggle.
Then there is Chhattisgarh ke kora mein, a Chhattisgarhi song written by Kaladas in the late 1990s, which portrays Chhattisgarh as the land of precious minerals that corporates and governments were eyeing, so they could set up mines and reap rich profits, leaving Adivasi communities displaced, their forests and farmlands destroyed.
“From the movement against Vedanta’s mine in Niyamgiri to the one against the Tata factory in Kalinganagar, songs voicing people’s concerns and attacking the nexus between mining, industries, governments and corporates have been produced and performed in almost every major movement in mining-affected areas in Odisha as well,” Ajit Panigrahi, a cultural activist and member of Relaa based in Odisha’s Bargad district, told Mongabay-India.
Many songs, especially those produced in recent years, sharply critique the increasing militarisation of mineral-rich areas. For instance, songs produced and performed by activists in the ongoing movement demanding the rollback of a security camp and condemning unprovoked police firing on protestors resulting in four deaths in Chhattisgarh’s Silger, ask for an end to “killings and violence”.
“We will die but fight, Not leave our water, forest and land,” said one. “Empty out, empty out, police camps from Bastar; Put a stop, put a stop to killings in Bastar,” said another one.
“Many of these songs are not about mining per se, since there are no mines in the area yet. But villagers know that the security camps and four-lane roads are not being made for them, but for large trucks and the military – for purposes of extraction of timber, mineral resources. They have also seen some of their near and dear ones get killed in police firing for resisting militarisation.
The songs, and the calls to empty out the police camps in Bastar, emerge from there,” said Shalini Gera, an activist and lawyer who represents villagers in Chhattisgarh seeking to protect their lands and forests from being taken over by government agencies and private interests under different pretexts.
Though songs comprise the most voluminous storehouse of the concerns and aspirations of mining-affected communities, there also exists a large body of literature, including fiction, non-fiction, prose and poetry that emerge from and reflect on their experiences.
“Among the earliest notable interventions in this regard in Jharkhand was by Kumar Suresh Singh,” Ranchi-based writer and activist Aloka Kujur told Mongabay-India. “His book, Mundas and Their Country, chronicled the history and culture of the Mundas and other Adivasi communities, following which many such books were published. Many like Sanjeev Kumar, former editor of Hindi periodical Hans, have written stories and poems depicting mining-affected areas and people.”
Recent decades have also seen a spurt in documentary films and videos produced by mining-affected communities, fueled especially by more accessible digital technology and internet penetration.
“It was around 2003-’04, when we set to train young activists in mining areas as filmmakers, so they could document what was happening around them, whereas some of us who had prior experience in filmmaking helped with editing and sound,” Surya Shankar Dash, a Bhubaneshwar-based activist associated with filmmaking collectives for the past 17 years, explained to Mongabay-India.
Dash observes that he “was startled by some of the footage they captured”.
“I remember this long, static shot taken by an activist during the movement against bauxite mining in Kashipur, where the camera just records a convoy of vehicles that had arrived for an official function at the mining site for 20 minutes,” continued Dash. “And in those 20 minutes, you see everyone, from the local tehsildar (land records officer) to district officials to political leaders and corporate executives, who constitute the mining ecosystem.”
While the shot was included in Repression Diary, a documentary on the movement against Tata Steel in Kalinga Nagar, many of these films made during this phase were released online, in subsequent months and years and screened in many parts of the country.
Artists from the mining-affected communities have also been making their mark in the field of visual art in recent years, with their works being featured in many art galleries and exhibitions. The most notable example is Prabhakar Pachpute, who was born into a family of coal miners in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district.
An acclaimed artist with solo shows in many top art galleries across the world, Pachpute’s work in large measure emerges from and reflects on mining and associated changes, in the landscape and among people.
“I spent only a few years of my childhood in Chandrapur as I studied in Khairagarh (Chhattisgarh), and later in Vadodara,” said Pachpute. “But I would go there often during vacations, to visit my family. And what I noticed most was the transition – not only large tracts of farmland overtaken by mining activities, turning to barren ground, but also the cultural change owing to the influx of migrant workers from north Indian states and money. Later, when I travelled abroad to third world countries like Brazil and Colombia where mining is a big industry, I saw that life there was similar – the exploitation of land and labour was everywhere.”
Not surprisingly, Pachpute’s “spare, treeless vision of mining dystopia” features miners who have antennas, ploughs and whirring blades instead of heads, a headless farmer, a man in a jacket and necktie whose hollowed out arm has a coal-laden railway wagon entering the dark cavity and machines with extensions that resemble human body parts. What is affected by mining more – the earth or its people, they all seem to ask.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.