December 5 was a significant day in Gadchiroli, a Maoist-affected district in eastern Maharashtra. That day, representatives of 70 gram sabhas, Adivasi leaders, student bodies, grassroots organisations and political leaders came together for the first time in years to call on the government to halt mining in the region and cancel all sanctioned and proposed mines.

The gathering – which also included district-level leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress, and former Congress MLA Namdeo Usendi – passed a resolution that underscored the importance of the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act in securing the livelihood and culture of the indigenous people while also protecting forests and biodiversity. It asked the police and other government departments to stop harassing people who raise questions about their rights or demand justice. It also expressed concern over what it called an attack on Adivasi culture and way of life in the name of development and mainstreaming.

Coming from a district where even political leaders, journalists, non-governmental organisations and grassroots organisations shy away from talking about police excesses or opposing mining, the resolution marked a significant shift.

At the forefront of this endeavour was the Surjagad Paramparik Ilaka Ghotul Samiti, an organisation of traditional authority figures – such as the senhal/manjhi (heads of areas, similar to kings), gaitas (village headmen), bhumiyas (keepers of land records, similar to revenue officials) and permas (priests) – from the 70 villages. These authorities were earlier known for keeping away from all things political. Confined to their specialised roles, they rarely if ever spoke publicly about mining, government policy or police excesses.

All that changed about a month ago when they decided to come together and voice what each of them had been feeling for months.

Appeasing the gods

But the big push for change had come on August 9, World Indigenous Day. That day, the Adivasis of Gadchiroli were convinced the gods were angry with them. After all, the goat they wanted to offer in sacrifice had refused to consent to its killing. The perma stepped in and conversed with the goat.

“Our gods are angry because we haven’t done anything to protect our forest,” he said, translating for the animal. His audience, from the 70 villages in Etapally taluka’s Surjagad traditional area, knew exactly what he meant.

In the preceding months, Lloyd’s Steel had restarted efforts to mine iron ore in the Surjagad range. By May, the company was moving 20-30 trucks of iron ore every day from the hill adjacent to the sacred grove where the attempt to appease the gods was underway.

Lloyd’s first received the mining lease for Surjagad in 1993, and it was renewed in 2006-’07. The Adivasis were opposed to mining from the very beginning, as were the Maoists. Even in 2011, when the company made its last attempt to mine the area before coming back this year, the residents had refused to buy into promises of jobs made by state and industry authorities in the district headquarters of Gadchiroli, 100 km away. No public hearing was conducted for those affected by the Lloyd’s mine then, neither was an environment impact assessment undertaken. In brazen defiance of the law, Lloyd’s had managed to clear a large section of dense forest and build a dirt track for trucks, before the rebels set fire to the machinery and forced the company to retreat.

In the years since and till a few months ago, Lloyd’s showed little interest in starting operations at the mining site. Internationally, prices of iron ore were low and demand was nowhere near 2000 standards.

In the mean time, Jindal Steel was given a prospecting lease for an iron ore mine in an adjacent section of the Surjagad range. A host of other companies, too, applied for mining leases in the area, and the government came up with a list of 11 proposed mines that would destroy large tracts of dense forests. Nobody asked for the Adivasis’ consent in any of this, or gave a thought to the immense loss of biodiversity in times of climate change.

Lloyd’s second attempt at mining this year came after the establishment of several new security camps in the area. The government also cleared the deployment of additional battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force in the area.

At a meeting preceding the goat sacrifice, there was talk of this deployment among the Adivasis. Many thought it was to facilitate mining activities, to provide companies with protection so they could carry out their business.

Jal, jangal, jameen

Sainu Gota, former director of the state’s Adivasi Development Commissionerate and a resident of Gatta village, was among those who addressed the gathering. “Our forefathers have spoken about jal, jangal, jameen for ages, underlining its importance in our lives, our culture,” he said. “Our songs, festivals, traditions, everything is proof of how nature and its conservation is central to tribal life. And yet, when we talk of jal, jangal, jameen today, the government brands us Maoists.”

In the audience were several men who knew the implications of this first-hand. During Martyrs’ Week (July 28-August 3) observed by the Maoists, many of them, including Gota, had been summoned to police assistance centres via illegal letters, and detained for three days. Many had also been to jail multiple times on what they called trumped up charges.

The perma referred to these false cases when it was his turn to speak. “They’re doing these things to ensure we fall in line and say nothing while they go about selling our gods and our hills,” he told the audience that largely comprised traditional leaders of the Madia Gonds, one of India’s few primitive tribal communities.

Later, when the goat sacrifice failed, he recounted the Madia myth that says an animal’s consent to its own slaughter is a must, as a sign from the world of spirits that all is well. Now, clearly, all wasn’t well.

What was to be done? The perma conferred with the bhumiyas, gaitas and other village elders. Together, they made fervent pleas to the goat, assuring the gods and their ancestors that they would do all they could to save the forest. A good 20 minutes of pleading later, the goat relented.

Sainu Gota distributes booklets about mining and its impact at the August 9 meeting.
Sainu Gota distributes booklets about mining and its impact at the August 9 meeting.

Coming together

In November, the gaitas, bhumiyas and permas from the 70 villages came together to form the Surjagad Paramparik Ilaka Ghotul Samiti. Gota and others present at the August 9 meeting played a crucial role in its formation by reaching out to traditional authority figures and gram sabhas in every village, speaking to them about the importance of organising themselves. At its first press conference in Gadchiroli on November 14, the group made its opposition to mining clear.

“Our gods, the sacred groves where they reside, our jungles – everything is under attack from mining,” it said in a press note. “The government says mining will bring development and employment here, but actually, it is a design to displace us and destroy our culture.”

The indigenous people are wary of openly opposing mining for fear of reprisals from security forces. In such a situation, the Samiti’s anti-mining stand is crucial, for the permas, bhumiyas and gaitas enjoy immense influence and recognition in their societies. “Ask any tribal here if he/she knows the tehsildar, MLA or collector and he/she will draw a blank,” said Lalsu Narote, the first lawyer from the Madia community, who lives in Bhamragad town in Gadchiroli. “But each of them not only knows the perma and gaita of their own village but also those of neighbouring villages.”

Narote said he believed the Samiti’s open stand against mining and the endorsement of the same by diverse sections of mainstream society in Gadchiroli on December 5 would encourage more indigenous people to be vocal about the denial of their rights.

The state, too, recognises the importance of these authorities. On more than one occasion in the past, it has tried to co-opt these traditional leaders, hoping to use their influence to gain legitimacy among the people. As part of such efforts in the 2000s, several gaitas were made police patils in exchange for a fixed remuneration.

This appointment as agents of the state, however, made the gaitas suspect in the eyes of the Maoists. The rebels killed several gaitas, accusing them of being police informers. Many others quit their posts following threats, bringing to an end the state’s efforts to enlist the support of the traditional leaders.

The Surjagad Paramparik Ilaka Ghotul Samiti has two representatives – one male and one female – from each of the 70 villages. The anti-mining resolution was drawn up after discussions with and letters of support from all 70 gram sabhas. In effect, it has the backing of most of the indigenous people in the area.

Seeds of change

But while such a mobilisation was significant, it mattered little on the ground. Mining activity by Lloyd’s continued with the company, by December, extracting close to 300 truckloads of high-grade iron ore every day. However, like the previous time, the activity came to a grinding halt on December 24 after Maoists torched 80 vehicles belonging to the company and its contractors.

According to Narote, the Samiti isn’t thinking much about the company, for it is just one of many. Instead, it is focussed on organising people in and around Surjagad around the questions of their rights, history and identity. Attempts at forming similar committees are underway in neighbouring talukas. In Bhamragad, another densely forested taluka with a list of mines against its name, traditional authorities are likely to announce a similar committee in January.

In many parts of the world, traditional authority figures have played a crucial role in anti-mining struggles. Opposition to mining by some clergy in a number of predominantly Catholic countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Argentina – has been a major obstacle in the mining industry’s efforts to expand into Latin America. A prominent Church official in El Salvador stated the opposition to mining in rather stark terms: “Catholicism promotes life. Mining threatens life.”

The Surjagad Paramparik Ilaka Ghotul Samiti’s stand is similar. In the coming weeks and months, it plans to take up the celebration of tribal gods and goddesses such as Baablai, Kamarmutte, Lingo-Jango and Beddamaida. The idea is to educate the youth about the richness of their culture.

A task as complex as linking spirituality, the environment and mining requires work in several places and spaces. Gadchiroli, with its resilient indigenous people who depend on the state for almost nothing but often get hunted down as Maoists, is making a beginning.