The road to Todgatta is long, rocky, and winding. The village is located in Etapalli tehsil of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, close to the border of Chhattisgarh.
Google Maps does not show a drivable route from Gadchiroli town to Todgatta. On the afternoon of August 27, it took us six hours to travel the approximately 150 km by car.
Beyond the town of Etapalli, the road grew narrow, and the landscape of scattered buildings gave way to fields and forests interspersed with streams. Golden sunlight lit up several shades of green – from the fluorescent green of freshly sown paddy to the brown-green of teak trees and the darker emerald of towering palm trees. Large herds of cows and goats walked down the road without a care about traffic.
Around 30 minutes from Etapalli, a rust-like tang filled the air as trucks carrying iron ore from the mines of Lloyds Metals and Energy sped past. Further on, the smooth asphalt road was filled with gigantic potholes and eventually turned into a dirt road.
Lalsu Soma Nogoti, an Adivasi activist and advocate, explained that the area beyond the mines was largely inaccessible to the general public, and that no public transport reached that deep in the interior. “This is how we know that the authorities build roads to facilitate mining and not for the local people,” he said.
At around 9 pm, we arrived at a settlement next to a forested area, where around 30 bamboo huts were lit up with faint solar lights. This was Todgatta.
The next morning, residents of Todgatta and around seventy surrounding villages assembled at the village “gotul” as part of a protest that has been underway since March 11.
The gotul is a type of community centre, which has been serving as the protest site. Every morning, protestors gather at the site to discuss matters pertaining to the protest. Most of them are Madia-Koitur Adivasis, popularly known as Madia-Gond, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group who form the majority population in Etapalli tehsil. In Koitur culture, the gotul traditionally serves as the village’s hub of socio-cultural, and political activity. It is “the site of collective decision-making of the village and its focal point of democracy,” writes Nogoti, who belongs to the community.
The meeting began with the lighting of incense sticks over portraits of Adivasi and Bahujan leaders like Birsa Munda, Rani Durgavati and Savitribai Phule kept on a stage on chairs. Over them hung posters with messages in Hindi such as “Those who take care of the environment are the greatest people in society” and “Air pollution is a problem which we will erase”. After this, there was a collective pledging of the preamble of the Indian Constitution in the Madia language. This was followed by speeches from community members.
The gathering was protesting mining in Etapalli. In 2007, despite stiff opposition from local Adivasis, Lloyds Metals was granted clearance to begin mining operations on 348.09 hectares of land on Surjagarh hills, around 22 km from Etapalli town. Protestors successfully held the company away for some years, but mining operations finally began in 2011.
Since then, the red dust expelled from the mines has coated the surrounding areas – roads, fields and homes. The effluents of the mine have run down the hills and contaminated the river water and the fields of nearby villages.
In March 2023, Lloyds received environmental clearance to expand production capacity from 3.00 million tonnes per annum, or MTPA, to 10.0 MTPA. In May this year, five companies – Omsairam Steels and Alloys Private Limited, JSW Steels Limited, Sunflag Iron and Steel Company Limited, Universal Industrial Equipment and Technical Services Private Limited, and Natural Resources Energy Private Limited – received leases for six new mines spanning 4,684 hectares, to be opened at Surjagarh hills.
But Adivasi villagers say that these lands are sacred to them, and that mining will destroy the ecosystem and their agricultural livelihoods. “Adivasis will only survive if their land survives,” said Nogoti. “These mines will provide jobs for some for a while, but they will shut down in a hundred years or so. What will our future generations do then?”
The mines have also seen violent opposition by Maoists. In 2013, they killed the vice president and two officials of Lloyds Metals. In 2016, they torched more than 75 trucks that belonged to the company, shutting down operations. Since then, mining has started and stopped intermittently with heavy police cover, under the threat of more attacks. According to a 2021 review by the ministry of home affairs, Gadchiroli is among the 25 districts in the country most affected by left-wing-extremism.
The government has used this violence to try and delegitimise the protests. In December 2022, Devendra Fadnavis, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, who is also the guardian minister of Gadchiroli, told the state assembly, “The reds are deliberately provoking local people against development activities.” In August, he told the media that mining in Etapalli is being conducted in an “environment-friendly way”.
But travelling through the tehsil, the environmental destruction wreaked by the mines was evident.
On August 28, accompanied by Nogoti and two others, I visited a shrine of a local deity, Thakur deo, known as Odal in the Madia language. In the assembly, Fadnavis had said that Maoists were misleading locals “about the Surjagarh deity being impacted”. The Lloyds mine lies on the south-eastern stretch of the hills, while the shrine is located further to the east at the foot of the hills.
The river flowing by the shrine, as well as the trees and rocks nearby were all coloured a deep reddish-brown from the mine’s tailings, or residue left after ore processing. “They say the shrine won’t be affected, but look at this water, it’s completely unfit for use now,” said Nogoti.
The village of Mallampadi is located at the base of the Surjagarh hills, near the Lloyds mine. Residents explained that there was a time when the river near Mallampadi remained cool throughout the summer, and that people from neighbouring villages used to visit it to bathe. “We used this water for everything, but now even pigs won’t drink this water,” said Jagatpal Toppo, a resident of Mallampadi. Since the mining began villagers have had to depend on borewells dug by the mining company.
Residents say mining has also brought illness to Mallampadi. They complained of swollen eyes, fevers and body aches. “People are always falling sick these days,” Jagatpal said. “It’s only now that everyone visited the medical camp of the mine and got their eyes treated that we’re doing better, otherwise we all had swollen eyes for days.”
As we spoke in the courtyard, a pet dog walked by us, its fur also coated reddish brown. Jagatpal noted that even poultry and cattle in Mallampadi had been falling sick and dying. “I used to own almost 150 chickens,” he said. “But they all fell sick and died, now only four remain.”
Jagatpal also took us to nearby fields that were filled with reddish brown sludge from the mines. “Until two years ago, there used to be paddy up to our waists,” one resident said. “But now there’s only mining silt up to our waists.” Several times in 2022, the sludge became so thick that cows that wandered into the fields became stuck and had to be rescued. Still, scant strands of paddy grew in certain areas in the field. “Do you think these will survive?” I asked Jagatpal. “No, they won’t,” he replied dejectedly.
Activists say that in order to facilitate mining, the state has colluded with private corporations and clamped down on any dissent from Adivasis, by labelling them Maoists and anti-nationals.
This is in keeping with a 2014 report by the ministry of tribal affairs, which noted a pattern of criminalisation of Adivasis in areas with mining and other projects. It stated, “an extremely disturbing feature that we witnessed in Scheduled Areas, where projects are being located, is the filing of cases against local people and their supporters.”
A 2018 fact-finding report by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations, or CODR, which examined state-sponsored oppression in Gadchiroli, noted that the mining company, the local administration and the Central Reserve Police Force in Etapalli all work together. It said, “a parallel system was being set up around the red soiled hills of Surjagarh that would wreak havoc in the lives of the locals. Security camps were built and additional battalions of specially trained police and security forces were deployed in the area. All this was done in the name of anti-Naxal operations, as there has been a history of armed resistance in the area.”
Experts have long observed that Adivasis are frequently caught in the fight between the state and Maoists, and end up as collateral damage. The CODR report notes that there have been frequent instances of fake encounters in Gadchiroli since the early 1990s.
In 2010, after a day trip to the interiors, the then deputy collector of Gadchiroli, Rajendra Kanphade, told the media, “There is legalised violence committed by the state, and illegalised violence committed by the Maoists. I do not agree with the violence of any party, especially the Maoists, but I personally feel that the legalised violence of the state is far more destructive.”
Residents of the villages shared accounts of such state-sponsored oppression and violence with Scroll. Kailas Ekka a 67-year-old from Murwada village in Etapalli, recounted that in February 2018, Ramkumar Khess, a resident of the neighbouring village of Koindwarshi, went bird-hunting with his friend in the jungle and was killed by the C-60, an elite paramilitary anti-Naxal force.
“You will find stories of people accused of being Naxalites in every village here,” said Nogoti.
Mangesh Naroti, one of the key leaders of the current agitation, explained that in recent months, he had been targeted for harassment by police. In late February, Naroti received a show cause notice under Section 110 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which police can initiate preventive action against someone they deem a habitual offender, and claim is likely to commit a criminal offence. The notice accused Naroti of being a Naxalite supporter, of spreading propaganda against the Surjagarh mining project and inciting people to protest.
Naroti was asked to present himself at the police outpost at Haidri police station, close to the Surjagarh mine, some 25 km from his native village of Besewada. Once there, police interrogated him about Naxalites and the upcoming protests. “They accused me of giving Naxals food and helping with their work,” said Naroti. “I denied this, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
They then asked him if he was opposed to mining. “I told them, I’m not a Naxal, but yes, I oppose mines,” he said. “If more mines open up, my community will be displaced. Then where are we to go and die?”
The police tried to change his views. “They told me, ‘This is not what will happen, so don’t go to the protests. The mines will bring development,’” he recalled.
Naroti received notices from the police every week to report to Haidri police station. These visits continued for four months. “I grew completely distraught in those months,” he said. “They used to make me sit at the station for long hours. They would swear at me and tell me not to go to the protests. I used to return home at 8-9 pm.”
By June, Naroti couldn’t take the stress anymore and decided to stop going. “This is a tactic to lead people astray from their goals,” he said. “They are misleading people in the name of development.”
Around the same time, police also ordered fellow activist Mangesh Holi and a few others to regularly report to them. “This sort of harassment is happening throughout Gadchiroli, wherever Adivasis are living near valuable natural resources,” Naroti said. “They surveil us and protect the mining officials.”
Neelotpal, the superintendent of police of Gadchiroli said, “There has not been any harassment of any specific person unless they have a crime record, for which they are called for preventive action, which is a routine course of action.”
Police claim that the number of Maoists in Gadchiroli has also decreased significantly in the last five years. A 2022 PTI report quoted a police officer as saying, “Naxalite recruitment has come down close to zero in Gadchiroli. The recruits are mostly from neighbouring Chhattisgarh.” Neelotpal told Scroll, “Naxal activity has decreased but it hasn’t subsided completely. It’s still prevalent in Etapalli and Bhamragad taluka.”
Locals allege that despite this admitted decrease in Naxal activity, the intensity of police activity has not abated. A Times of India report from August noted that 28 “armed outposts” were to be upgraded to police stations, taking the total number of stations in the district to 57.
“Naxal activity has decreased considerably since demonetisation,” said Sakal Bokare, an independent journalist from Etapalli. “So why are so many police stations opening up in the area now?”
In October 2021, locals had protested near the Surjagarh mines, after which police came to the site and detained protestors. Over the years, several leaders involved in the current protests at Todgatta have had cases filed against them. “The environment here is such that if we protest near the mine or an administrative office we will be arrested and put in jail immediately,” said Nogoti .
Jagatpal and Nogoti noted that some locals who worked at the mines had earlier kept an eye on individuals involved in the protests, especially those who were vocal about their anti-mining stance. “Those who worked in the mines, were coming to the protests and reporting back to their bosses at the mines,” said Nogoti.
Across the district, the administration propagates a message that locals can either support the mines, or stand against the mines – and that doing the latter means they are against development. This, in turn, makes them Maoist supporters, the adminisrtation alleges. Sanjay Meena, the collector of Gadchiroli, told Scroll over the phone that the district has forest cover of more than 70%, and that currently mining occurs in less than 0.5% of that area. “The problem is that they’re not just protesting mines but also roads and mobile towers,” he said. “They don’t want development in that area.”
In news media coverage, the police have alleged that Adivasi civilians are protesting the mines under the threat of Naxalites. Naroti explained that two decades ago, Maoists used to frequent his village Besewada and other areas in their tehsil, but that over the years, their presence had significantly reduced. “They don’t come to villages anymore, they mostly stay deep in the jungle,” he said.
Nogoti added, “The Naxal population here has decreased a lot. The ones working here come from Chhattisgarh, across the state border.”
On August 30, when I stopped at a tea shop at Etapalli, a cartoon poster hung on the wall, with no mention of its maker, seemingly aimed at influencing perceptions in a similar way. In the first frame, armed Maoists threaten Adivasi villagers to protest the development of roads, bridges and mobile towers; in the second frame, they agree to do so. In the third frame, rains flood a river next to the village, cutting it off from the outside world. Finally, in the last frame, a pandemic arrives at the village leaving the villagers helpless and regretful of their earlier protests.
On the evening of August 29 at Todgatta, as protestors were cooking dinner on wood fires inside their huts, Naroti sat outside his hut and pulled out his phone. He played a video by Asian News International on economic development in the area that had resulted from mining.
The video claimed that 3,500 men in the area had been given jobs in the security force of Lloyds for salaries ranging between Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000, and that some 1,600 men had purchased motorcycles from their earning from working in their mines. “Earlier we used to be lords of the jungle, and now we are their servants!” said Naroti with a sad laugh.
He added, “Let us bring in the type of development that we want, through our means like the FRA and PESA,” referring to the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, both of which empower Adivasis to use their lands and natural resources.
Indeed, the FRA is a key avenue for income in these areas – Gadchiroli district has the highest number of community forest rights claims in the country under the law. In 2017, 160 gram sabhas in the district earned Rs 400 crore through the sale of tendu leaves, used to make bidis.
Adivasis in Etapalli have also protested the construction of wide four-lane roads in the area, though they are not opposed to roads altogether. “This is a rural area, why do we need a four-lane road here?” Naroti said. Sainu Gotta from Gatta village added, “Of course we want roads, but they should be for our use, not to cut down hills.”
The two noted that local communities’ needs were simple, and that even currency notes had begun to be used in the area only in the last two decades. “Most families here have not yet joined the market economy, they live on subsistence agriculture and forest produce,” Nogoti said. “They sell excess produce for a side income.” Naroti noted that the community was satisfied with what it had. “We are not greedy, we don’t need to become lakhpatis,” he said.
Gotta added, “We have everything we need here, we only need to buy salt and clothes.”
Etapalli is also inhabited by a number of Oraon, or Kurukh, Adivasi families who migrated to the area from northern Chhattisgarh in the 1950s and 1960s. They migrated for a variety of reasons, including a paucity of land in their home villages. Once here, they continued their traditional way of cultivating and living off the land.
But after their migration, they encountered a legal and administrative hurdle that has left them in a precarious position.
Specifically, though they are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Chhattisgarh, they have largely been denied this recognition in Maharashtra, which would allow them to access benefits such as special land rights, and educational and employment benefits.
Jagatpal noted that only a few Oraon elders in Etapalli hold tribe certificates or land titles.
According to lawyers Rajni Soren and Ameya Bokil, there is ambiguity about the land rights of migrant Scheduled Tribe communities. Bokil noted that it is possible that some families migrated before 1950 – under the Maharashtra Caste Certificate Act, an individual who has been permanently residing in the state since September 6, 1950, is eligible to apply for a Scheduled Tribe certificate. Further, Soren said, the Forest Rights Act, 2006, doesn’t specify that its provisions only apply to Scheduled Tribe members who seek benefits within their states of origin. Moreover, the cut off date for the Act is 2005 – under the Forest Rights Act, a member of a Scheduled Tribe can apply for a land title of a piece of forest land if they have been using it from at least this year onwards.
But other rules and ruling can be read as opposing these provisions. For instance, according to a 2018 notice from the ministry of social justice and empowerment, an individual from a scheduled caste or tribe is only entitled to benefits due to those groups in the states of their origin “and not from the State where he/she has migrated”. In 2022, the Supreme Court reiterated its own 1994 ruling that Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe migrants cannot claim benefits in the state to which they have migrated.
Bokil argued that as long as individuals qualified under the terms of the FRA, it was unjust to deny them rights because they were migrants.
Kailas Ekka, whose Aadhaar card records Murwada as his home address, visits his native place in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh, every year. But, he explained, he and other Oraon migrants had made their homes in Etapalli more than 50 years ago, and couldn’t return to Chhattisgarh as there was no land there for them to cultivate.
Now, with the mines expanding, he is worried that the lack of titles will leave him and others in the community vulnerable to being displaced from their land. “We’re here to save our land,” he said, “We have no choice but to protest.” He noted that the mines had done massive damage to villages like Mallampadi. “There’s mud two feet deep in the farms near Surjagarh hills,” he said, With the planned expansions, he added, “We’re afraid the same will happen to us.”
Thirty-five-year-old Raju Lakra also from Murwada worried about how future generations of Adivasis would survive if their lands were wrecked by mining.
“Not everyone will get a job at the mine,” he said. “As a people, we are self-sufficient through farming. This is how our generations survive.”
The denial of land rights to those who have migrated has had tragic consequences in some instances, community members explained. In late August 2022, a 38-year-old Oraon man named Ajay Toppo died by suicide. Ajay was a resident of Mallampadi, which is chiefly populated by the Oraon Adivasi community who migrated there from Chhattisgarh between two and three generations ago.
According to a report by Newslaundry, on August 31, 2022, Ajay attended a jansunwai, or people’s court, where he asked the local administration for compensation for damage done to his fields by silt that had been formed because of mining. Here he was allegedly told that he was not a tribal and did not have a land title, and was thus not eligible for compensation. Ajay died by suicide that very night.
“There are 42 families in this village, out of them some 22 families have had their farmlands ruined by the tailings of the mine,” said Jagatpal. His own fields had also been affected, causing him a loss of between Rs 2.5 lakh and Rs 3 lakh so far. “Last year I was only able to grow enough to subsist, this year seems even more difficult,” he said.
On August 28, I visited Mallampadi. Residents, who asked not to be named, said some in the village had tribal certificates and land titles because their parents had managed to procure them and handed them down. Most, however, lacked these certificates. As a result, they could not claim compensation for damage to land, or avail any benefits due to Scheduled Tribe communities in areas such as agriculture and education. “The local administration tells us we are not tribals,” one said.
“But what do you feel? Are you Adivasi?” asked Nogoti. To which they replied, matter-of-factly, “Of course, we are Adivasi!”
They argued that just because the state didn’t recognise them as Scheduled Tribes, they didn’t cease to be Adivasis.
Some in Mallampadi said they had received compensation from Lloyds for damage done to their fields – typically around Rs 8,000. These amounts were insufficient to support their families, they noted, and many were forced to work in the mines for a regular income. “Almost every family in the village now has one member working in the mines, although four-five families have refused to work there,” said Jagatpal. Two residents I met served in the canteen at Lloyds for a monthly pay of Rs 10,000. Nogoti noted this was lower than the daily wage in Maharashtra. “They have given lowly work to Adivasis and it’s the outsiders who have received better jobs,” said Jagatpal.
On the morning of August 30, I woke up in Todgatta to tense faces and hushed conversations. I was told that as protestors slept in their huts, a fleet of the Chhattisgarh police surrounded the village. They had arrested Mithun Roy, a local shopkeeper. “He regularly attends the protests and even speaks to the crowd at times,” said Nogoti. Several protestors had followed the police to demand information on what was happening, while many others had moved away from the village because they felt unsafe. A few hours later, after being searched, Roy was released, and returned to his home. “See, this is how they detain people and put fear in them,” said Naroti.
Later that morning, the residents gathered again at the gotul to protest.
Nogoti explained that the protests had also been an exercise in political education. “This agitation is like an educational centre,” he said. “People are learning about how politics works in this country and are developing their own views. I tell people that we ought to be in various government bodies. It’s only if we get in the political arena that we can present our views, and a healthy people’s politics will develop.”
Nogoti said that Adivasis had been protesting for months about land rights at more than thirty sites across central India. “We’ve been protesting peacefully and constitutionally for a year,” he said. “If the system doesn’t listen, we will tell them and ask: we have been protesting peacefully and constitutionally for a year; if our demands will not be heard this way, what else can we do to be heard?” He noted that the communities remained determined to fight. “We are ready to keep going at this for a year,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”