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Murder At Pachuwara

January 23, 2012

The murder of activist-nun Sister Valsa John has a lot to say about India’s mining policy

Karu Tudu of Kolajuda village stands over his destroyed paddy field, covered in coal dust. Over 500 trucks carrying 2300 kilograms of coal each, travel pass his fields each day and are forced to dump some of the coal on the roadside by local villagers, who sell it on the black market.

This article appears in two parts in the Sunday Guardian on the 15th of January here and the 22nd of January 2012, here.

Everyday over 500 trucks travel the 35km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur in Jharkhand, carrying over 2300 kilograms of coal each. And everyday, hundreds of local adivasis and landless farmers stop the trucks, and unload a little coal onto the road for themselves to sell in the black market.

In the process, the paddy fields on the periphery of the roads are entirely covered in coal dust.

The police sometimes accompany the trucks carrying the coal and attempt to stop the locals from taking coal, and have often chased them away, beaten them, or arrested them. Yet the practice continues.

‘We make around 150 rupees a day, if a whole family sits to collect coal to sell it.’ Said one of the ‘scavengers’ on the roadside.

‘Why do you do it?’

Two brothers Badan and Darbo Soren who live in the village of Kulkipada have no choice. The coal dust has destroyed their produce, and it renders their crop unsellable.

‘We eat the black rice ourselves. No one will buy it.’ Said Badan, ‘Earlier we used to make some Rs.15,000 or Rs.20,000 per year.’

‘And there is no more mahua seeds, no more mango in the trees.’ Continued his brother.

The rains have failed in the last three years in a district where the rivers run with streaks of black coal. Families make a living out of the coal that travels their road every day, turning the entire stretch of the 35 kilometers into a black field, where children as young as six can be seen working to help their families.

The coal mining company Panem Coal Mines Limited, had also tried to acquire lands to build a railway line from Pachuwara to Pakur, but they faced stiff resistance from farmers like Badan Soren and his brother, who’d lose their farm land to the track.

Instead the dumper trucks travel everyday across a dusty road where both people have lost their lives to hit-and-run accidents, and in anger, the locals burn down the trucks, and an informal industry is born.

How The Free Market Murdered A Nun

Of the thousands of villagers who stop the dumper-trucks and collect coal on the 35 km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur, many are children under the age of ten.

The story of Pachuwara can be told by telling the story of the murder of Sister Valsa, a nun and an activist who fought for the rights of Santhal Adivasis, who would be a part of a compromise that would spell her own demise, when she was brutally axed to death in her adopted home in the village of Pachwara in Pakur district on the 15th of November, 2011.

Within hours of her killing, the mainstream media was quick to report that she was murdered by the Maoists. The Maoists denied it, even as an initial note, claimed to be written by them, condemned the nun and the activist to be working for the coal mining company Panem, and not in the interests of the people.

A few days later the police would arrest seven individuals who were associated to Sister Valsa. Almost all of them were local villagers/contractors who’d get work from Panem. One of the accused, Pycil Hembrom was the son of the president of the Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan that fought against the company and had a long history of working with Sister Valsa. And after the end of the agitation against the company and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the 30th of November 2006, he worked with them as an independent contractor.

Sister Valsa was living as a guest in the house of Pycil Hembrom and had only moved out eight days before her murder. A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

‘The MOU made a lot of promises, but the work only happened on their accord.’ Sonaram Hembrom said, who was present when over forty people had surrounded his house in the dead of night to look for Sister Valsa who was hiding in her room, and would eventually find her and axe her twice near her head and her neck.

‘They saw all that money and they got greedy.’ Said Sonaram’s neighbours, about Pycil and the other accused from Aalubera village adjacent to Pachwara.

‘Sometimes, the money we were supposed to get for one tree used to be Rs.50,000, but Sister would find out that we only got Rs.5,000. When we confronted them about this, they said it was a computer error.’ Continued Sonaram Hembrom. All the documents and registers that detailed all the financial dealings of the Project-Affected-Persons and the PANEM Coal Mining Company that Sister Valsa had kept, were appropriated by the police as evidence and are currently unavailable.

The History of An MOU

D. Marandi, once a farmer, now a miner at Panem Coal Mines Ltd at the rehabilitated site of Naya Kathaldih.

On the 19th of April, 1985, very close to Pachuwara, at Banjhi, and close to the collective memory of the elders of Pachuwara, the police had shot and bayoneted over 15 people including an ex MP Anthony Murmu as they were demanding their rights. Every year they gather in the thousands on the day of the incident to pay homage to their martyrs.

Years later, their rights were again usurped by the Panem Coal Mines Limited, who were given land by the administration, who used an infamous colonial era law, the Land Acquisition Act to acquire all the lands of Pachuwara and the nearby villages for coal mining. This has remained a story repeated across central India’s mining belt that gives birth to numerous protest movements and a direct confrontation with the state’s mining policy that has acquired lands by flouting laws, and violating tribal rights.

Almost all the mineral deposits in Central India are on Fifth Schedule land, which is protected by the constitution and has given local tribes authority over local resources. Yet the arbitrariness of the Land Acquisition Act allows the government to simply hand over lands to private companies, and the locals have always resisted, leading to brutal confrontations with the police and the administration.

But of the 104 MOUs in Jharkhand, Pachuwara is one of two where work has started, as there was a settlement between the villagers and the company, a settlement that many still feel has to be completely understood.

‘Our land cannot be sold, you people with a brave history can and must drive out this company!’ said Binej Hembrom, the parganaith (village headman) to the people of Pachuwara in a meeting long before the agreement, but would eventually be one of the signatories to the MOU along with the company director Bishwanath Dutta.

Today Binej Hembrom is a senile old man, half-deaf, seemingly unaware that his son is in jail for murdering a woman who they once fought the company with, and some say, had won.

‘People in Ranchi, in the social movement’s think we sold out.’ Said Father Tom Karvallo, who along with Sister Valsa John was close to the movement at the time of the signing of the MOU.

‘But there was a lot of repression.’

‘Our people were being divided by the company. There were police cases on Valsa and others like Joseph who’d eventually be killed in an accident. And when we lost in the High Court, we had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the illegality of the land acquisition as this was a Fifth Schedule area. But the Courts are a gamble, it can really depend on the judge, or the climate of the time. And we were afraid, that if we lost, we’d set a dangerous precedent as there were so many other adivasi movements fighting for their land. And they would’ve all suffered if the Supreme Court had ordered in favour of the company.’

‘So we signed the MOU. And it was a good relief package, that we only got after such a strong struggle.’

The agreement was reached in Delhi on the 30th of November, 2006, after ‘persuasion’ by a section of outsider activists, and one, including Shajimon Joseph, then Resident Editor of The Hindustan Times, who’d eventually be a signatory of the MOU as a witness, who confirms there was police repression in the form of cases on Sister Valsa and other adivasi leaders, but also mentions there was no dissatisfaction during the signing of the MOU.

The Memorandum of Understanding itself was unprecedented. Apart from offering schools, healthcare, employment, rehabilitation sites, there would be a yearly stipend for each acre the company appropriates, and that the work for the construction of rehabilitated sites would be given as per the MOU, to local contractors and Project-Affected-Persons.

The money that came from Panem company for such work, would go to Sister Valsa, who directed the young contractors like Pysil to work in the area.

Five years after the Memorandum of Understanding, the promised hospital is still under construction.

The village of Kathaldih was uprooted, and the company has resettled them in a newer colony called Naya Kathaldih, where farming as all but stopped and most of the young men work as miners in the coal mine, waiting for the company to finish mining their lands, and then return it to them, so they can commence farming again.

Living In Fear

A truck that was allegedly burnt down by the Maoists. Yet there have been many other times, when local villagers burnt down trucks in anger after numerous hit-and run incidents.

Rajan Marandi and Pradhan Murmu were two other contractors arrested for the murder of Sister Valsa who lived in the adjacent village of Aalubera that is soon to lose their land to the company.

Rajan has five cars for himself, while Pradhan has around seven cars and all their cars remain parked in the village in front of their houses. The village is a village in fear, as the police has been searching for others who may have been present when Sister Valsa was attacked. Two boys who refused to give their names say the police has been searching for them, and they are innocent.

They quickly disappear when they’re asked about the relief package.

There are no village elders, and there is no one who is willing to talk about the impending displacement and rehabilitation.

One young woman whose family lost her land years ago to the petrol pump that fills over 500 trucks claims their family doesn’t get the monthly stipend, but refuses to go on record, in fear of antagonizing the powers-to-be.

‘They’re all filling their own pockets,’ she said.

‘Isn’t there anyone who takes up these issues?’

‘There’s no one.’

‘Who speaks up against the company?’

‘No one.’

‘Over here,’ said another young boy Chappu Deheri in Pachwara who was asked the same question, ‘Only Sister Valsa and her samiti used to.’

Aalubera is also the home of Advin Murmu, a 20 year old boy who was arrested for the alleged rape of a young girl who lived in the house of Sonaram Hembrom along with Sister Valsa.

According to her father, Advin Murmu and three other boys had kidnapped the girl on the evening of the 7th of November, and while the three boys had disappeared, Advin kept the girl all night in an empty home at Aalubera.

The girl was only let out in the morning and she had gone to her aunt’s house. The family along with Sister Valsa would take the case to the police on the 9th of November, six days before her murder.

The Superintendent of Police, Mayur Patel claims that there was no rape, and that the girl and the boy knew each other, and the girl’s family is merely protesting the fact that the boy is a Christian and the girl’s family is Sarna.

The family however claims, that Pycil Hembrom and the contractors wanted them to drop the rape case, threatening that they’d lose all their lands and their home if they persist to fight them. The family especially indicted the local sub-inspector of police, Daroga, as someone who wanted to give the family Rs.50,000 to forget the so-called imaginary case.

The Inspector has since been suspended for dereliction of duty after the murder of Sister Valsa.

Advin Murmu has since been arrested and according to the Superintendent of Police, for both incidents. Advin Murmu’s brother, also a contractor, claims his brother is innocent while his bail application was rejected by the Courts.

Photography Post-Script

‘The blackened, unsellable rice of Badan Soren of the village of Kulkipada.

Badan Soren and his house, next to the 35km road where 500 trucks travel everyday carrying 2300 kilograms of coal.

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