Archive for the ‘Chaibasa’ Category

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A Constitution’s Dead Army

April 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, a retired armyman’s body was being dragged by a police jeep as his adivasi brethren, armed with bows and arrows, helplessly tried to stop the convoy but were fired upon and chased away.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 9th of April, 2012.

Gangaram Kalundia was bayonneted in the police van, and then dragged across the village, for speaking for the rights of his people, and there was never any prosecutions against the police for his murder.

Gangaram was an adivasi of the Ho tribe, who joined the army when he was 19 years old, fought in the war of 1965 and the war of 71 as part of the Bihar Regiment, and had risen to the rank of Junior officer.

He voluntarily retired and returned home to find that his village Illigara in Chaibasa of West Singhbhum of Jharkhand (then Bihar), along with some 110 other villages would be submerged due to the Kuju dam project, that was funded by the World Bank.

He would organize his people to fight for their fundamental rights against displacement and the project exactly thirty years ago, to only be brutally murdered by the police early in the morning on the 4th of April, 1982.

‘This is where we placed stones to stop the convoy that had Gangaram,’ Said Tobro, then 14 years old, now pointing to a small woodland by the roadside, ‘and this is where we were, with bows and arrows, but the police fired upon us and chased us away.’

While Gangaram Kalundia was killed in 1982, a long agitation had still sustained itself, that had often driven people like Tobro underground, aware that the police were rounding people up. Surendra Biduili, 52, was a part of the agitation against the dam, and the eventual victory in 1991 when, ‘the World Bank withdrew the money.’

‘Their reports said that the dam would only submerge lands that had paddy,’ he continued, ‘but it was a lie, we were cultivating vegetables as well.’

It was much later when Gangaram had become a symbol for oppurtunistic politics, and his shaheed divas, would be attended by every other political party, or as Surendra would say, ‘First everyone used to be afraid to mention Gangaram’s name, now all the parties of contractors and dalaals come for his shaheed divas.’

In The Thousands

Gangaram Kalundia was not the only adivasi leader killed for representing the rights of people. Just a few kilometres away from Chaibasa, across the Sal tree forest, is the village of Bandgaon, where Lalsingh Munda was killed in broad daylight in the market on the 1st of November 1983. His concerns were that sacred grounds were being used by non-tribals and contractors as a waste dump.

‘You travel by bus to Chaibasa, well, back then, people used to get off the bus to piss into the sacred grounds.’ Said Phillip Kujur, a member of JMACC (Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee).

Phillip Kujur was also associated with Lalit Mehta who was brutally murdered in Palamau in May 2008, Niyamat Ansari who was killed by the Maoists in Latehar District on the 2nd of March, 2011, and on the 29th of December, 2011, Pradip Prasad was killed by PLFI extremists in the village of Mukka, Latehar.

Sister Valsa who fought for the adivasis in Pachuwara in Pakur District of Jharkhand was murdered on the 15th of November, 2011.

The roads in adivasi villages are punctuated with memorials for fallen leaders and activists.

The office for NGO Birsa in Chaibasa has a memorial stone with other names: Vahaspati Mahto killed in 1977 in Purulia, Shaktinath Mahto killed in 1977 at Dhanbad , Ajit Mahto killed in 1982 at Tiraldih, Beedar Nag killed in 1983 at Gua, Ashwini Kumar Savaya killed in 1984 in Chaibasa, Anthony Murmu killed in 1985 at Banjhi, Nirmal Mahto killed in 1986 at Jamshedpur, Devendra Mahji killed in 1994 in Goilkera. The memorial ends with the sentence, ‘anaam shaheed….hazaaron mein.’ (Unknown Martyrs, in the thousands)

‘When I was young,’ Said Phillip, ‘I was travelling with two veteran activists, who kept pointing to village after village saying, ‘here’s where another cadre of ours was killed’, and there I was, another man they trained to fight for people’s rights. Finally, I turned to them and asked, ‘you taught all these people how to fight, but did you teach them how to stay alive?’

In recent times, K Singanna, one of the first organizers of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District of Odisha was shot thrice in his back in a police firing incident on the 20th of November, 2009. Since then, another leader Nachika Linga has been living underground in fear of arrest, or death, as posters calling for him to be caught ‘dead or alive’ were posted all over Narayanpatna after the firing. Both individuals were responsible for organizing the Kondh adivasis to claim their rights as per the Fifth Schedule, to free themselves as bonded labourers on their own land.

In Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Muria and Koya adivasis committed to taking the cause of their people via rallies, writ petitions, and organizing them to fight peacefully for their rights, have almost all been arrested as alleged Maoists. Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA, has faced repeated death threats and his own cadre, responsible for working in the villages, have been in and out of jail.

On International Labour Day, the 1st of May, 2008, in Kalinganagar Industrial Park of Jajpur, Odisha, one of the leaders of the Anti-displacement group, Dabar Kalundia was attacked outside the gates of the Rohit Ferrotech Steel Plant and escaped, but Omin Banara (51) was killed.

In Memory of Gangaram

‘They all talk about Gangaram, but they don’t care about his wife.’

Birangkui Kalundia, widow of Gangaram, lost her only daughter when she was giving birth to her grandchild. She was widowed by the state, and her daughter would be another statistic to those 80,000 women who die every year due to childbirth.

Her brother-in-law, would also cut ties with her, often dividing the produce of Gangaram’s 15 acres for himself, leaving her out with nothing, and after his death, she moved out of the village his husband fought for, to move in with her new caretakters, her nephew and his wife, where she lives with a quiet pride to this day.

She still holds onto the medals won by her husband, the citation for his President’s Medal,  speaking in soft tones unforgivingly about the men who killed her husband, coming to terms with injustice in this life, to a hope for justice in the next.

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The Last Of The Asbestos Miners Of Roro

January 8, 2012

Ex-miner Dansingh Bodra with the corroded helmet of his deceased neighbour Vijaysingh Sondi at the village of Roro, Jharkhand.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 8th of January, 2012.

When miner Dansingh Bodra was asked about the people from his village who he worked with, in the asbestos mines of Roro, who have all died before their time, he slowly starts counting, first to himself, and then loudly: ‘gyaara…. Pooliya Sondi……….. baara………Rohto Gop……..taira….Bagan Sondi…….. chowda….. Vijay Singh Sondi…….. pandra……Gono Sondi….. sola….. Harish Sondi….. sattra, Sukmon Sondi…… atthra….. Rahto Samadh.’

Dansingh himself suffers from cancer, a huge protrusion grows out of his stomach.

It took him five minutes to remember the dead. A few seconds to denounce the company that laid them off one fine day when the mines shut down in 1983.

‘They gave us nothing, no healthcare, no pension, just these illnesses.’

‘I worked in the mines for 12 years, and from that day itself I used to cough, and slowly it started to get worse.’

A man with a lump growing out of his stomach remains a testament to the reality of internal colonization, of a company that currently earns aggregate revenues of over 800 crores, of industrial development and the idea that mining offers jobs.

Dansingh Bodra awaits death in a village where his three grandchildren sleep behind him suffering from fever.

The mines have long but closed down, but the dust and pollution that emanates from them, still spread across the fields.

Even today, as per law, especially as per section 22 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, all asbestos mines have to be closed but the Hyderabad Industry Limited of the CK Birla Group, did not close their mines at Roro village at Chaibasa, West Singhbhum, Jharkhand and the asbestos fibres that are blown into the wind, that seep into the fields and rivers, still exist 30 years after the mines shut down.

‘So many people died before they turned forty,’ Said Birsingh Sondi, who points to his neighbours house, ‘There lived Mangalsingh Sondi, who was 25 when he died and he never even worked in the mine, his father Sukmon worked there, and he died a few years ago too.’

Asbestos, whose use, manufacture and extraction is banned across the European Union, is still used widely across India and is part of a 4000 crore industry dominated by around 18 companies who justify the use of asbestos as a substitute for affordable roofing, who claim that chrysotile asbestos can be safely manufactured and used without risks.

The companies claim that the kind of asbestos used in India isn’t carcinogenic, even as all forms of asbestos are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the International Agency For Research On Cancer, who mention in a report that was published in 2010: ‘Epidemiological evidence has increasingly shown an association of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.’ It would go on the mention that an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

Yet the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, one of the main lobby groups for the continued production and use of asbestos, has repeatedly claimed, ‘Some five hundred other products and industrial processes are recognized as carcinogens, but this does not mean that we must prohibit their use.’

While the Lobby has often reiterated that chrysotile asbestos is safe, and that proper safety standards and use of asbestos, justifies the industry, the chairman of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, Abhaya Shanker, is also the Managing Director of Hyderabad Industries Limited, who says they closed the Roro mine, and that the mountains of asbestos tailings from the mine are not carcinogenic.

‘Roro is a finished chapter, a closed mine 30 years back, what’s the point of Roro? I don’t understand.’ He exclaims in a telephonic interview.

‘That is all an old story and that was all, an old type of asbestos and that is all done.’

‘The mine is safely handed over, and closed, and handed over to the government of India, and there is no danger to the public. It’s all bullshit.’

‘According to the Supreme Court directives in the CERC case, you have to monitor the health of your workers? Do you also monitor the health of your workers from Roro?’ I asked.

‘You can look at our world class health monitoring system, for our workers, …., for several years we keep calling them, for check-ups, for studying them…’

‘Even the Roro workers?’

‘The Roro workers are all finished, we would have done them (the survey) for a couple of years……and it’s been 30 years now, nobody would be alive now.’

A History Of Trying To Close The Mountain

Roro Hills at Chaibasa were first mined for chromite in the early 1960’s by the Tatas, and those mines were sold to the CK Birla Group, as the Tatas moved onto mining chromite at Sukinda, in Odisha, which itself, according to international environmental group Blacksmith Institute, is one of the 10 most polluted places in the world, where approximately 70% of the surface water is contaminated by hexavalent chromium, with 24.7% of the population living around the mines to be suffering from pollution-induced diseases.

When I had visited the village of Suanla in Sukinda in 2010, an old man scoffed at the media’s ability to highlight the issue and improve the lives of the people of his village. He claimed that over 30 people have died in the past few months. Some called the deaths in Suanla an exaggeration, but in the house of Markand Hembram, four members of the household had died within a year.

Quoting the report by the Blacksmith Institute, the government itself had gone on to say: ‘It is unique, it is gigantic and it is beyond the means and purview of the [Orissa Pollution Control] Board to solve the problem.’

Back at Roro, there were vocal attempts to close the mountain and clean up. Way back in 2003, a public hearing was held where villagers from 14 villages around the mines has spoken up about working in the mines and the health issues in their villages. The hearing was organized by Jharkhand Organization For Human Rights, and was paneled by a group of prominent doctors and advocates.

The report of the hearing was taken to the District Collector and Chief Medical officer who were given representations for conducting medical camps, to monitor health of workers and non-workers, and to detail a scientific closure of mines and to hold Hyderabad Industries Limited accountable to pay for health and environmental damages.

Yet till date, there have never been any attempt by any official body – from the Pollution Control Board, the Directorate General of Mines Safety, the Mining Department, the company or the local administration to remediate and clean up the mine tailings or do a proper mine closure.

‘Everyone wants the mines cleaned up.’ Said Birsingh Sondi, whose own fields run aground with asbestos dust.

At Roro, only three miners who worked with the Birla Group are left alive. But not everyone worked directly under the company as independent contractors had also taken on the responsibility of disposing asbestos dust, who paid workers Rs.1.50 per day, for working from eight in the evening to eight in the morning to do the work without any protective clothing.

‘there was no izzat in mining, we should never have allowed them here.’ Continued Dansingh Bodra, who had even worked underground, mining asbestos without any protective clothing, and there were accidents: Turam Sondi, Jida Sondi and Dausar Sondi were killed in the mines in a few years before the lockout and the closing of the mines.

‘No one should ever have worked the way we did.’

Photography Post-Script