There is a legend about how diamonds were found in the Bundelkhand region.
On one nondescript day in the seventeenth century, this legend goes, a young Bundela Rajput warrior named Chhatrasal Singh Bundela, met an ascetic named Prannath. Chhatrasal, who was still trying to establish his kingdom, was given two gifts by Prannath. The first was a special sword that could destroy any foe. The second was a vast supply of diamonds – the ascetic told the warrior that the precious stone would appear under all the land that he could cover on his horse in one night.
A grateful Chhatrasal set out on his horse and travelled through the night – and sure enough, diamonds appeared under the land that he traversed. This wealth, it is said, allowed the warrior to fight off Mughal rulers and carve out a kingdom in the region, which lasted into the era of British rule as the princely kingdom of Panna.
Reality today couldn’t be more different from the soft gloss of this legend. A proposed diamond mine in Buxwaha, in the district of Chhatarpur, is the focus of stormy protests by local residents. Rights to the mine were awarded to the Aditya Birla group in 2019: a total of 364 hectares of land were leased to the group so that it could mine the Bunder diamond block, which has an estimated 34 million carats of diamonds, valued at Rs 21,296 crore.
Political parties have been protesting the mine too – specifically, parties that have for decades demanded a separate Bundelkhand state, comprising seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six districts of Madhya Pradesh. In a dramatic move, on June 5, World Environment Day, 17 of these parties, including the Bundelkhand Rashtra Samiti, Bundeli Samaj, Bundelkhand Kranti Dal and Bajrang Sena sent 17 letters written in blood to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding the scrapping of the project.
The protestors’ most prominent objection to the mine is that it will cause massive environmental damage – local and national media outlets have given considerable coverage to the risk that it poses to the fragile natural ecosystem, which is used by tigers, the country’s national animal. But other concerns haven’t received as much attention, such as whether the project would deprive communities of their rights over the forests, and whether locals would get jobs and other benefits they had been promised by the government.
These demands for economic support are crucial to the people of the region: Chhatarpur district is one of 112 districts across the country with poor socio-economic indicators that the Niti Aayog has euphemistically identified as “aspirational districts” and targeted for special assistance.
But the problem isn’t only one of a poorly conceived project. Documents accessed by Scroll.in through a Right to Information application and from government officials and activists, reveal an inexplicable reversal in the government’s stance on the project, which raises troubling questions about whether corporate interests have been favoured over the forest and those who live in it.
The precedent of an existing diamond mine in Panna district, run by the government-owned National Mineral Development Corporation since 1958, suggests that the concerns at Buxwaha are well founded. In 2014, a Supreme-Court-appointed committee cited environmental concerns and recommended the closure of the mine. Ignoring this, in March this year the environment ministry gave the mine permission to continue operations till 2040.
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When I reached Buxwaha town on July 12, around 100 km from the district headquarters in Chhatarpur, the atmosphere was tense from the protests that were underway against the proposed mine. A delayed monsoon had resulted in an unusually sweltering July, which made already short tempers run even shorter.
Since May this year, at least four rallies, including a 60-km protest walk from Damoh to Buxwaha on July 3, have been organised against the mine, primarily by the youth of the area. The language of these protests is similar to that of youth climate movements across the world, evident in conversations with local activists.
“There is no way they can set up the mine here,” said Aashik Mansuri, a young activist whom I accompanied to the affected villages in a rickety Toyota Tavera. “We don’t have the water for it. It will require 5.9 million cubic meters per day of water every day. How will our villages survive?”
This was “the century of environment and climate change,” he said. “We can’t sit idly by as the government decides to chop down a pristine forest.”
Though the Birla group is the present target of these protests, they weren’t the first players interested in the region. Between 2004 and 2013, the global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto drilled 95 holes and dug nine trenches to explore for diamonds in an area of around 2,300 hectares. By the end of it, they found 53.70 million tons of kimberlite, containing 34 million carats of rough diamonds, according to their prospecting report, submitted to the Ministry of Mines in 2013.
However, after spending almost a decade prospecting, in May 2014 when Rio Tinto applied for permission to clear the forest to mine an area of around 900 hectares, something unexpected happened: the company failed to secure the necessary clearance from the environment ministry.
Any project in India that requires a company to clear forestland has to obtain the approval of the environment ministry through an elaborate process. First, the company submits a forest clearance proposal to the state forest department. Officials of the department then visit the area sought for clearance to prepare a site inspection report which assesses, among other things, whether the project would cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem. The proposal, along with the report and a recommendation for the project, is sent to the regional office of the environment ministry.
The regional office also visits the site, prepares its own report and sends it to the forest clearance division of the environment ministry. This proposal is then examined by a body of the ministry called the Forest Advisory Committee, which consists of serving and retired bureaucrats of the environment ministry, and one member from the agriculture ministry.
In case the proposal pertains to tiger habitats, or areas that tigers use for migration, the committee directs the National Tiger Conservation Authority (a body under the environment ministry which is tasked with the conservation and management of tiger population in the country) to visit the area and give its views on the project’s potential impacts on the region’s biodiversity, and particularly on the area’s tiger population.
If, based on these inputs, the committee is satisfied that the project won’t cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem, it recommends it to the ministry, which issues the final approval.
In the case of Rio Tinto, the Madhya Pradesh forest department gave its green signal on June 18, 2015, but there was a catch. The file also contained the observation of the divisional forest officer of Chhatarpur that the area of the proposed mine was rich in biodiversity and served as a wildlife corridor, including for tigers and leopards. “Around two-three years back a tiger migrated from Panna Tiger Reserve to the proposed area,” the officer wrote in his site inspection report.
The regional office of the environment ministry in Bhopal also referred to the area’s wildlife in its report of November 10, 2015. “It is reported that some rare and endangered species of wild animals (Chausinga, Leopard, Cheetal, Chinkara, Peacock, etc.) are found in the area. It is also indicated that the area is used by the Tigers as their migratory corridor,” the regional office report said.
These concerns were echoed by the Forest Advisory Committee. When it examined the project on December 24, 2015, it found that the forest in question belonged to the “Inviolate” category. This category of forest was created by the environment ministry in 2014 to prevent the destruction of ecologically important forest areas. Such forests, which have a high biodiversity, high hydrological value, breeding populations of scheduled wildlife species and thick tree cover, cannot be chopped down for mining.
The committee also asked the National Tiger Conservation Authority to visit the area and submit a report.
Rio Tinto had sought tree felling permission for the forest compartments numbered 279, 280, 281, 283, 284, 285, 286, 288, 301 and 302. The NTCA’s report of 2016, which Scroll.in obtained through an RTI application, observed that these compartments were used by tigers. The officials noted that the forest served as a dispersal corridor from Panna Tiger Reserve.
One male tiger, T3, had travelled 250 km from Panna Tiger Reserve through Buxwaha forest to Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary in 2009. “It appears that at least three tigers have used this forest area since 2009,” the report said.
The NTCA also took into account the fact that a large area of the Panna Tiger Reserve will be submerged in the Ken-Betwa river linking project, and recommended that satellite habitats and dispersal routes of tigers, like the Buxwaha Forest, should be preserved for tigers to colonise and use for migration.
Based on these inputs the Forest Advisory Committee returned the project to the state government on July 12, 2016, stating, “Project can potentially disrupt the landscape character vis-a-vis tiger dispersal around Panna landscape” and recommended that it could be pursued “only when Ken Betwa link project is finalised as well as detailed study done to access alternatives.”
The detailed study was never done and Rio Tinto packed up and left in 2016.
For some years, there was no movement on the project. But in 2019, after the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had made way for the Congress’s Kamal Nath, the government put the block on auction again. On December 19, Essel Mining and Industries Limited, a subsidiary of Aditya Birla Group, won the auction for a sum of Rs 27.5 crore, beating out mining giants like Adani Group and Vedanta in the process.
The area now being granted to the Aditya Birla Group includes many of the same forest compartments that Rio Tinto had sought permission to clear – 280, 281, 284, 285, 286, 287, 296, 301 and 302. According to the mining plan of the project, the extraction of diamonds will continue for 14 years, through an open cast mine that will be 920 meters long, 854 meters wide and 350 meters deep.
But now there has been an astonishing reversal in the nature of the state forest department’s remarks. Earlier, the state government had made it a point to mention wildlife in the area. Now, writing about the same forest compartments, the divisional forest officer Sanjiv Jha said in an inspection report dated November 19, 2020 (by which time Chouhan had returned as chief minister): “There is no species of specific importance of any wildlife.” It also remarked, “The status of wildlife is with low density, no endangered wildlife species noticed in the proposed area.”
I contacted Anurag Kumar, the current divisional forest officer of Chhatarpur district, to ask about this U-turn on the part of the state forest department. “There are no evidences of a kill made by large carnivores like tigers in the area so we infer that there is no presence of these animals there,” he said. “Other animals, like jackals, foxes etc are there.” He insisted that there was “a lot of difference” between 2015, when the Rio Tinto inspection report was prepared, and 2021. “You cannot compare that report with the present situation,” he said.
The current view of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department not only contradicts its own findings, and the findings of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, but also a 2019 report by the Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board titled “Panna Landscape Corridor Connections”, which found that many of these forest compartments were important tiger corridors.
When asked about this, Kumar said that none of these areas had been formally earmarked as tiger corridors.
The project now awaits approval from the environment ministry. If greenlighted, it would lead to the felling of 2,15,000 trees.
Two petitions in the National Green Tribunal, and one in the Supreme Court have been filed against the mining project. On July 1, hearing the two petitions before it, the NGT’s Bhopal bench ordered a stay on tree felling activity till the next hearing on August 27.
A similarly convenient pliability in regulatory processes is apparent in the existing mine run by the National Mineral Development Corporation in Panna district.
The NMDC obtained the diamond mining lease in Majhgawan village in Panna district in 1958 and diamond production started in 1968. Subsequently, the area was notified, first as the Panna National Park in 1981, and then as a Tiger Reserve in 1994. Since the mine was now inside a Tiger Reserve, which are supposed to be inviolate spaces, free of human intervention, the Supreme Court ordered in 2008 that the mine could function for the next five years and appointed a monitoring committee to decide the fate of the mine after that.
This monitoring committee was constituted in 2010 and consisted of Belinda Wright, a wildlife activist and head of the Wildlife Protection Society, Delhi, Kishore Rithe, wildlife activist and head of Satpuda Foundation, Amravati, and R Sreenivasa Murthy, the then director of Panna Tiger Reserve. The committee, which met six times between 2010 and 2014, recommended after its sixth meeting held on September 9, 2014, that given the ecological importance of the area, the mine should be shut by 2016.
It stated that “the extraction and production process of the Diamond Mine Project at Majhgawan should come to an end by 30th June 2016, and that the reclamation and rehabilitation process, and handing over the area to Panna Tiger Reserve should be completed by 30th Jun 2018,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
Despite this, the mine continued operation till December 31, 2020, when its environmental approvals expired. But the state government was determined to let it continue running. Four days later, on January 4, Shivraj Singh Chouhan made a public statement that mining would not cease, and that he would talk to the then union environment minister Prakash Javadekar about the clearances it would need. A month later, in March, the National Board for Wildlife, the body under the environment ministry that regulates forest clearances in protected areas, gave the mine the permissions it needed to continue operations till 2040.
“This is completely illegal,” Kishore Rithe, one of the members of the Supreme-Court-appointed committee said. “The Supreme Court gave the committee the power to recommend whether the mine can continue or not, and the committee was unequivocal in its recommendation that it has to stop. Someone should move court against this.”
A senior advocate who specialises in forest and protected area governance said on condition of anonymity that though there could be more than one way to interpret the question, there was no escaping the conclusion that the National Board for Wildlife had overreached. By one argument, since the court had already stated that it would decide on the question of the mine’s extension based on the committee’s recommendation, “the National Board of Wildlife cannot bypass the court and give its approval.”
By another argument, the Supreme Court had in 2015 given the board “the power to decide on proposals inside protected areas.” But even so, “in deciding on such a case, the board cannot ignore the previous orders of the Supreme Court,” the lawyer said. “In this case, they should have looked at the monitoring committee report.”
In seeking to justify the mine, the NMDC has claimed that it has actually helped with the repopulation of tigers in the forest. Panna Tiger Reserve experienced a local extinction of its tiger population in 2009, after which tigers were reintroduced in the park – it was one of these relocated tigers, T3, which the National Tiger Conservation Authority found had used the Buxwaha forest as a dispersal route. “Number of tigers has increased from 42 last year to 52 this year. Is this not a sign of a positive impact of our presence?” a media report quoted an anonymous NMDC official saying in 2019.
I contacted the managing director of NMDC for a comment on the Panna mine’s continued operations, but as of publication, he had not responded.
“This assertion of NMDC is laughable. If mining helped wildlife then we should be digging up all our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The claim is absurd,” a former Panna Tiger Reserve official who was involved in the tiger relocation process, told Scroll.in on condition of anonymity.
The NMDC’s keenness to continue mining operations is intriguing, considering that it earned just Rs 34.29 crore from the sale of diamond in 2019-’20 – miniscule compared to its revenue of Rs 11,569 from iron ore that same year.
The value of the country’s diamond output has also shown a decline, from Rs 61.30 crore for 36,107 carats in 2014 to Rs 58.10 crore for 38,437 carats in 2018, as per the latest statistics of the Indian Bureau of Mines. (Apart from the NMDC mine, these figures also include the much smaller output of a few hundred carats a year from a state government-run mine, also in Panna.)
Further, according to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, between 2012 and 2016, between 39% and 80% of the diamonds mined at Panna remained unsold and the NMDC suffered a net loss of Rs 56.69 crore over these years.
Meanwhile, trade in minor forest produce, such as tendu leaves, in which beedis are rolled, is extremely lucrative – in 2018, tendu leaves worth Rs 1,339 crore were sold in Madhya Pradesh, according to a reply by the environment minister to a question in the Lok Sabha. Though a direct comparison between the two products is not instructive, it is clear that though minor forest produce doesn’t have the lure of diamonds, it accounts for a significant contribution to the state’s economy.
“Tell me, can the company give us what the forest gives us?” said Pankhi Son, an Adivasi resident of Shahpura, one of the two villages most affected by the proposed mine at Buxwaha. “We depend on it, even more than agriculture. There is mahua, tendu, chironji, and then during monsoon, amla and bel.”
The collection of forest products adds substantially to the household income of forest-dweller communities in these villages. A 2011 Planning Commission Working Group Paper estimated that income from minor forest produce made up between 30% and 60% of the total income of a forest dweller household. (MFP does not include timber, which only the government has the right to harvest from a forest.)
Son herself made a lakh selling tendu and around half of that selling mahua this year. She is hoping to earn at least Rs 30,000 or Rs 40,000 selling amla after the monsoon.
The collection and sale of minor forest produce not only provides hard cash, but it provides this cash just in time for the sowing season. “Around March-April, we collect tendu patta,” Son said. “Each person collecting the leaf can expect an income of around Rs 10,000 or Rs 12,000. More the members in a family, more the income from tendu. Then in April-May it’s time to collect mahua which fetches a family around Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000. So when it’s time to sow, we have the money.”
The cash really matters, since in this part of Bundelkhand, sowing is an expensive business. Without irrigation, agriculture is dependent either on an increasingly erratic monsoon, or the borewells of the few well-off families. “Last year it didn’t rain enough, even this year is turning out to be a dry monsoon,” said Bhagwandas Adivasi, a resident of Shahpura. “I will again have to buy water for irrigation. It will cost me Rs 1,000 per hour. Last year I paid Rs 10,000 just for water to irrigate my three acre field of chana.”
According to the Census 2011, of Shahpura’s total cultivable area of 75 hectares, only 10 hectares is irrigated. In nearby Sagoria, the irrigated area is 16 hectares of the total of 100 hectares.
Since most of the kimberlite deposits are in the forest compartments adjoining these two villages, the mining project threatens them the most. As much as 155 hectares of land in Shahpura and 165 hectares in Sagoria could get engulfed by the mine.
Not just land, residents of these villages are wary of other natural resources too being depleted by the mine. “Most of our water sources are linked to Gel ke Pathar stream,” Ganpat Adivasi, a resident of Sagoria said, referring to a local water source. “All our domestic and agricultural needs are met with the water from these sources, and the rain. I don’t know what will happen to these sources of water once the mining starts.”
Apart from these streams, there is a borewell in the village which Rio Tinto commissioned during its prospecting phase. The families nearby also depend on this borewell. “Rio Tinto gave us the well, will the new company promise us to construct new wells?” said Hari Narayan Aharwar, who lives right next to the borewell.
Shahpura and Sagoria, which are deep in the forest, have a higher Adivasi population than the other four affected villages of Tiali, Teiyamaar, Gadhoi and Dardonia. In Shahpura, Adivasis account for half of the population of the village and in Sagoria they are about a third of the population, while in Teiyamaar, a village at the fringe of the forest, there are no Adivasi families.
Conversations with the people of these villages suggest that the Adivasi community, which has a higher dependence on the forest is averse to the idea of a mine in Buxwaha while the Yadavs, who have larger landholdings and substantial cattle ownership, are open to the idea. Unlike Yadavs, Adivasis’ landholdings are patchy and often legally unrecognised. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 gives forest dwellers the right to claim legal recognition over their landholdings – but few Adivasis are aware of it, and fewer still, if any, have actually made claims under the law. This shaky legal status of their landholdings makes them more dependent on the forests for produce than Yadavs are.
Further, Adivasis benefited the least from the Rio Tinto project. “Most of the jobs from the time of Rio Tinto went to the Yadav and the Dalit community in these villages,” said Rajesh Yadav, a Buxwaha-based activist who works on tribal rights and biodiversity related issues.
“No Adivasi ever got a job at Rio Tinto. The education and skill levels of the Adivasis was not enough to get them supervisory roles, and joining the company as casual labour fetched less than what the forest gave them.”
While the Adivasis do not see any benefit coming their way if their forest is mined, the Yadavs are open to the idea of mining, but only on the condition that it brings them benefits, and compensates for the loss of livelihood.
“You ask anyone in the village, we earn up to Rs 3 lakh or Rs 4 lakh per year from this forest,” said Ratiram Yadav, a 50-year-old resident of Shahpura, who owns eight acres of land, along with 15 cows and ten buffaloes. “It also gives us the pasture on which our cattle graze. The government has to promise us that they will give us an annual sum of Rs 5,00,000 for the next 50 years to compensate for our losses,” he added.
The attitude of the Yadav community towards the mine is also shaped by their experience with Rio Tinto. According to the documents the company submitted to the government of India to obtain the necessary clearances, it promised to create around 1,500 temporary and 700 permanent jobs during its years of exploration.
Because of this, many villagers see the proposed mine as a bargaining chip against a mostly absent government. In the village of Teiyamaar, for instance, which lies on the outer fringe of the Buxwaha forest, development is a major issue, and the village boycotted the general election of 2019 as a mark of protest against the government’s failure to develop the region.
“How long has it been since independence?” Chhotu Lal Yadav, a resident of Teiyamaar, said. “Sixty years? Seventy years? And our government hasn’t been able to provide us even with drinking water, good education, health and employment. How long do we wait?”
He continued, “My grandfather waited, thinking his sons will have a better life, his son waited for the same, and should I also wait now? If this diamond and this forest can give us these amenities, why should we not take them? Should we save ourselves or the forest?”
Chhotu Lal worked as the community relations head for Rio Tinto. When he joined the company in 2005, he made Rs 3,000 per month. By the time the company shut shop in 2016, Chhotu Lal had been promoted to the level of head of community relations and was making Rs 13,000 per month, plus benefits. Since then he hasn’t been employed.
In fact none of the 35 people from Teiyamaar who were employed by Rio Tinto have had a single day of permanent employment since the company left.
“I sometimes do manual labor in Damoh or Chhatarpur,” said Babulal Yadav, who worked as a drilling supervisor at Rio Tinto. “I can’t depend on agriculture. There is no irrigation and the rains are erratic. Last year nothing grew. This year also it seems that nothing will grow.” When his employment was terminated in 2016, he said, “the company gave me Rs 4,00,000 from the various dues, but it has been spent since. I have three daughters, all of marrying age, how will I get the money to marry them? I have a debt of Rs 3,00,000. Only I know how I am surviving.”
What locals don’t realise is that the Buxwaha mining project is unlikely to fulfill their expectations.
The Aditya Birla group is seeking environmental approvals over an area of 382 hectares and, according to the documents it submitted to the environment ministry, plans to use machines for key functions such as breaking the kimberlite rock, thus reducing the amount of manual labour needed. The documents state that the project will provide 100 permanent jobs and create an additional 300 person days of employment for contractual workers during the lease period – this, across six villages with a total population of 2,551 people belonging to 660 families.
And yet, the villages are rife with misinformation about the employment that the company has promised. “I know, I saw a video of the owner of Birla company where he said that they will give employment to 3,000 people. I have seen it,” said Chhotu Lal of Teiyamaar. I showed him copies of documents that the Birla group had submitted to the environment ministry, which mentioned the actual employment figures. His face furrowed with confusion. “This can’t be,” he said. “We will tell them that the mining can only take place if they give us jobs.”
Jaganath Yadav of Sagoria had a similar reaction to this information. “If there are just 100 permanent jobs, then what will we get?” he said. “These jobs will anyway go to the relatives and friends of the officials at the company.”
He insisted that locals would “tell the government that unless 150 men above 18 years of age, and all the women and elderly are given jobs, we will not agree to the mine. If we have to, we will hug the trees and not let them cut them.”
Both Chhotu Lal and Jaganath Yadav are fairly certain that they will put their demands in front of the government and that they will be heard. But there is a problem: on paper, the process of taking their consent has already taken place.
Whenever an industry requires clearing of a forest – as with Birla’s diamond mining project in Buxwaha – a 2009 notification of the environment ministry comes into play. This notification mandates that the company has to get a Forest Rights Act compliance certificate from the district collector saying that the gram sabhas of the affected villages (comprising the voting-age members of each village) have given their consent to the clearing of the forest.
This is because the Forest Rights Act grants forest dwellers certain individual rights over forests, ranging from the right to collect minor forest produce, fuelwood and fodder, and the right to land titles over areas under cultivation. The act also grants community rights of ownership and management over forestland – these are particularly significant since they give forest-dwellers considerable control over large tracts of land.
The compliance certificate would broadly assert that there were no pending claims over the land that was sought to be cleared. If, during this process, it emerged that there was land over which some individuals or the community had been granted rights, then this land would have to be acquired under land acquisition laws, and the government would have to pay compensation for it.
In addition, gram sabhas often use this process to voice other demands, such as for employment, schools, hospitals and roads, which have not been provided by the government. (Unlike land rights, these demands are not statutorily linked to the consent process – that is, it is not essential for the government to fulfil them in order to secure a compliance certificate.)
According to the district collector’s certificate, both Shahpura and Sagoria gave their consent to the Buxwaha project in September 2020. The certificate, dated September 11, 2020, which is in possession of Scroll.in states that “the complete process for identification and settlement of rights under the FRA has been carried out” for the forest land proposed for diversion.
However, Kalu Prajapati, the Panchayat Secretary of Teiyamar panchayat, which includes Shahpura and Sagoria, told Scroll.in that 62 individual forest rights claims and four community rights claims were pending in these villages. When asked to share further details, Prajapati declined.
Rahul Siladiya, the sub-divisional magistrate of Buxwaha block also told Scroll.in that there were some claims pending in the project. Despite repeated calls and reminders, however, he had not shared any further information as of publication.
Anurag Kumar, the divisional forest officer of Chhatarpur district, told Scroll.in that he was not aware of any pending claims under the the Forest Rights Act in the Buxwaha project.
The compliance certificate doesn’t mention any of the additional demands that villagers spoke of during my conversations with them, such as for employment and water facilities. Instead, the Sagoria gram sabha resolution, which is cited in the certificate, demands 0.9 hectare of land for the construction of a road and 0.9 hectare for collection of forest produce. The Sahapura gram sabha, according to the same certificate, demanded just 0.18 hectares of land for a cremation ground.
Though a gram sabha comprises all adults of voting age, none of the approximately 40 individuals I spoke to in the two villages had any knowledge of these demands, or the meeting where the resolution had been passed giving consent to the mine. I requested Prajapati to share with me the attendance list of the meeting, where the resolution had been passed. As of the time of publication, he had not done so, despite repeated requests.
Government officials insist that the diamond mine will bring development to the region, though such work is technically the domain of the government. In the forest clearance documents, RP Pai, the chief conservator of forest, Chhatarpur, stated, “This project will generate employment for locals and will be beneficial for business development of Chhatarpur district.” But the situation at the only major diamond mine in the country, in Panna Tiger Reserve, around 19 kilometres from the proposed mining area in Buxwaha, suggests that this hope may be unfounded. A diamond mine run by a national company has been in operation there for more than half a century, and yet villagers still hold out many of the same demands as their counterparts in Buxwaha.
Production in the National Mineral Development Corporation’s diamond mine near the village of Majhgawan started in 1968, even before the area was a national park. The few Adivasi families that lived there were relocated to the village of Hinota.
“NMDC has given us some facilities, but not completely,” said Pancham Singh, a 55-year-old resident of Hinota. The NMDC runs a bus service twice a day from Hinota to Panna town, and has contracted a senior secondary school, a primary school and a medical centre inside its colony. “The health centre provides the most basic facilities, and for most treatments we have to go to Panna city,” Pancham said.
The company also dammed a major stream, the most important source of water in the area. It now meets the water requirements of the mine, and also supplies some water to the public taps of Hinota. But Pancham pointed out that this scant supply, through around seven public points, was like “charnamrit”, a reference to the trickle-like offering distributed among devotees after some Hindu prayer rituals. “You should come here in the morning and see the situation,” Pancham said.
Vidya Adivasi, another resident of Hinota explained that the village had water supply for just 15 minutes at 8 every morning. “Every day, there is a long queue to fill water and invariably fighting over water breaks out. It is really difficult to fill a sufficient amount of water,” she said.
This mine also gives a clearer picture about the prospects of employment, a source of both hope and confusion in the villages of Buxwaha. According to publicly available NMDC data, the company generated permanent employment for 187 people in the Majhgawan mine, and further created 163 person days of work for contractual workers during its lease period between 2010 and 2020.
But the villagers say that no permanent employment has been given to the people from Hinota, and that only a small number of contractual workers are hired. “Contractual workers do work in the NMDC colony like cleaning, pruning etc,” said Laxman Singh Yadav, a 33-year-old contractor from Hinota. “A contractual worker gets Rs 500 per day, but there is hardly ever work for more than 10 days. During the lockdown, even that came down to two-three days.”
Arjun Raikwar, a 25-year-old, said that the NMDC organised a month-long technical training programme for minor engineering work in 2015. “I have studied till 10th. NMDC officials had told me that once I do the training, I will get permanent employment in the company,” he said. “But that never happened. I make a living by doing plumbing work here in the village and make around Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 during a good month.”
Although the people of Hinota feel shortchanged by NMDC, they do not want the company to go, but rather, for it to deal more fairly with them. “There was never a formal agreement with Hinota when the mine came up and therefore we never got the chance to place our demands. On one hand the NMDC doesn’t give us jobs, and on the other, the Tiger Reserve also doesn’t give us jobs,” said Jaggu Kondar, the sarpanch of Hinota Panchayat. He added that when the mine resumes operation (it was shut on December 31, 2020, after its environmental approvals expired), it will give them an opportunity to be heard.
Gajraj Singh, a member of one of the families which were relocated from Majhgawan to Hinota, summed up the attitude of the village towards the mine. Singh is a Raj Gond – a sub-caste of Gond Adivasis, who are socio-economically better placed than other Adivasis. His family owned 30 acres of land where the NMDC mine is today, as well as 60 heads of cattle.
“NMDC has not done enough for the village,” he said. “My father agreed to give up our land and the lifestyle we had, moved to a five acre plot here in Hinota because he believed that NMDC, a national company, will improve the life of the people here. If he was alive today, he would have realised that his sacrifice was wasted.”