Reclaiming Land through Peaceful Struggles Adivasis in Sonbhadra and their Quest for Justice and Identity

26, Nov 2017 | Sushmita

In September 2017, Justice P B Sawant, Justice Kolse Patil and human rights activist, journalist and educationist Teesta Setalvad wrote a letter to the District Magistrate, Pramod Kumar Upadhyay of the Lodhi village in district Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh (UP) urging that senior officers of the police and administration look into all the alleged false and frivolous cases and serious charges brought by the administration against Adivasi and Dalit women leaders of Sonbhadra and their union leader Ms Roma. Here is the background of the events leading up to the foisting of such cases in the context of failure of implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. We also hope to shed light on police brutality and apathy of the government of the Uttar Pradesh in dealing with the Adivasi and Women leaders.

At the confluence of River Pagan with Kanhar, near village Sugawan in District Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, Adivasi and Dalit women are leading an immaculate battle for the rights on their ancestral land. This confluence is also the site of the Kanhar Irrigation project located to its downstream. The Sonbhadra district is rich in minerals like bauxite, limestone, coal, gold and provides for a breath-taking landscape, and hence a site of conflict between multinational companies like Hindalco supported and facilitated by the Government of Uttar Pradesh and Forest Department bureaucracy and the Adivasis who struggle to protect their identity and existence.

Displacement without Resettlement

“Our struggle is neither against the Gam nor against the brokers; we are demanding our rights. We are demanding our land” says Rajkumari, a fiery activist of the Kaimur Kisan Andolan which is part of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). It has stopped raining just a while back and the earthy scent of fresh rain is still in the air. Rajkumari is seated in a red chair that is fixed in the mud. She speaks with great clarity on the Kanhar dam project. She says that private companies and contractors can’t make the dam without displacing the people of the region. “And so, if the Adivasis’ lands are getting submerged because of the construction of the dam, then should they not get an alternative piece of land? An access and restoration of basic services?” She questions!

The Kanhar project was originally approved in September 1976. It proposed a 3.003 km earthen dam with a maximum height of 39.90 m from deepest bed level which may be increased to 52.90 m if linked to Rihand reservoir. The project envisaged submergence of 4131.5 ha land of 111 villages which includes parts of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The project was abandoned since 1989, but the construction work started on 5th December 2014. Information accessed under Right to Information Act (RTI) revealed that the project does not have a valid ‘Environment Clearance’ and ‘Forest Clearance’.

The dam proposes to feed water to Rihand reservoir. The water from the reservoir is being used for the generation of nearly 25-30000 MW of electricity in Singrauli, which itself has seen several violent assaults on Adivasis. The then chief minister N. D. Tiwari promised 5 acres of land, one job in each family and a house measuring 40’x 60’, apart from access to basic services like education, health, electricity and water to the 11 affected villages of UP namely Sundari, Korchi, Nachantad, Bheesur, Sugwaman, Kasivakhar, Khudri, Bairkhad, Lambi, Kohda and Amwaar. In 1983 it is correct that compensation payments were made at the rate of Rs. 1800 per bigha (approximately Rs. 2700 per acre) to the then heads of households. After this the villagers got no notice whatsoever.

In 2012 when the foundation stone of the dam was laid, it was claimed that now a consolidated sum of Rs. 711000 would be given to the heads of households as identified in 1983 and houses of 45’x10’dimensions would be constructed for them. So, the farmers were in physical possession of the lands all these years. Further, the earlier households multiplied and hence there was a need for a newer calculation that would take into account the other households who would lose their livelihood and land. It is also very pertinent to mention here that in the meanwhile the Forest Rights Act, 2006 came into existence and though many of the farmers were granted Pattas under the Act; the government refused to compensate them for the loss of such lands. This went against the spirit of the Act.

Incident of Police Firing

The work of the dam started in December 2014. The villagers, protesting this, sat on a dharna. They were intimidated all the while. While the SDM and District Magistrate did not intervene, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of which about 150 jawans were deployed at the dam site, interfered. After the Tehsildar assaulted a young man Atiq Ahmed, people rushed in from the weekly market and a fracas ensued. Right from that day, cases were foisted on 16 named and 500 unnamed persons.

Despite this, the villagers continued with their peaceful protest. However, the government did not start any negotiations with the villagers and at the same time, the work for the dam progressed. Hence, on 14th April the villagers decided to shift the venue of the dharna closer to the site. The PAC opened fire and a bullet passed through Akklu Chero (Cherwa) – an adivasi of Sundari village. 39 persons were injured, 12 of them seriously. The deployment of the PAC was increased to about 500-1000 jawans.

Four days later, on 18 April, there was a second round of police firing in which once again several people were seriously injured and some of the key activists of the movement arrested.

Arrest of Roma and other activists

Early morning of June 30, just hours before a big dharna and rally in support of a 100 day nationwide campaign for land rights and labour rights in Sonebhadra district of UP, Roma and Sokalo Gond (both office bearers of the All India Union of Forest Working People), along with other activists were arrested and sent to Mirzapur jail. Though many activists were picked up in the early hours on Tuesday morning, except both of them, everyone else was released later in the day.

Though Roma got released on bail, the multiple frivolous cases still remain foist on them. In an interview given to the CJP, Roma alleged, “They have charged us with false cases so that they can weaken our movements and so that we can be terrorised. We have been charged with extremely frivolous charges even in terms of our work.” She further adds, “The Forest Rights Act should have come into place just after independence, but it was not the government’s will to have an equitable land distribution for the forest dwelling communities.” She elaborated how the government interest has always been aligned with private-corporate nexus’ interests.

Failure to Implement FRA and Crushing Peaceful Dissent

On the one hand the government and the forest bureaucracy ensured that the FRA could not be implemented correctly and fully in the area giving a free hand to the likes of Hindalco, on the other, this nexus has continued repression through severe forms of harassment, illegal arrests and false charges. The charges against these activists are arbitrary and politically motivated; aimed at crushing the peaceful and democratic struggle against the illegal acquisition of land for the Kanhar Dam project. The Government of Uttar Pradesh has used the police to illegally stop democratic expression against the persistence of land acquisition in scheduled areas. Despite there being court orders, including from the National Green Tribunal, the state government has pursued and targeted activists who are protesting its illegal actions at Kanhar.  There are regular police visits to their houses, or else they have to visit police stations weekly at a great personal cost. Not only this, activists of Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan have alleged that on some occasions, police forcibly entered the room where women were sleeping, kept the women police outside the door and harassed women activists even when they repeatedly objected to the use of force against them

Excerpts from Roma’s interview


We are carrying forward the fight for Birsa Munda and other leaders against land reforms. The Forest Rights Act should have been passed when the country got its independence but deliberately, they did not let it happen so that our land can be given to the Tatas and Birlas.

We saw that after the enactment of the FRA in 2006, there was a flood of cases foisted on us. The government on the one hand does not implement the FRA, on the other is working with the Forest Department, the Companies, the brokers/contractors to break our necks. It has been 15-16 years that we have been fighting this fight. And we have not left our rights no matter what cases were foisted against us. We made our union and followed up on the cases. But now, we are facing difficulties in doing that.

The question of eminent domain continues. A decisive battle is being fought by forest dwelling communities. The situation in India is that almost 7000 villages do not exist on the Indian map. Though they have been connected to gram panchayats, but these have not seen the light of the day when it comes to development schemes. The fight against the Jal, Jangal, Jameen (Water, Forests and Land) is the most decisive battle that is being fought against the privatization of resources. This is a question of class struggle. This is a question of unity of all oppressed sections including adivasis, women, Dalits, artisans and others.


Challenges before FRA

Despite the enactment of FRA in 2006, most states have failed to implement the FRA in its true spirit. States like Maharashtra which have stood out in terms of recognizing Community Forest Rights (CFRs), have also, only achieved 18% of their full potential in terms of implementation of FRA. The Act has seen various dilutions, contradictory policies and litigations challenging the constitutional validity of FRA through the ten years of the Act being in force. The forest bureaucracy on the one hand and the non-state actors on the other, along with the complicity of the state has not only posed a challenge to the implementation of the act, but this dynamic has also perpetrated immense amount of violence on the indigenous people. The entry of private players and multinationals like the Hindalco in Sonebhadra, with vested interests and a greedy eye on the rich mineral resources of the land makes the situation more complex. All motives of the government are being driven by the best interests of these players. The lack of implementation of the FRA, hence, indicates a lack of political will to recognize the identity and existence of the adivasis and forest dwellers.

In this situation it becomes crucial to demand the immediate stopping of harassment of activists and local people. It also becomes crucial for the civil society groups to urge the UP government to take recognition of massive irregularities in Kanhar dam region, check for police excesses and stop the illegal land acquisition process immediately. An enquiry into the wrongful arrests, false and fabricated cases, and wrongful police action should be made by the government.


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