Narayanpur (Chhattisgarh): On 11 September 2022—to political acclaim and a blaze of publicity—a diesel locomotive hauled 21 wagons of iron ore 150 km northwards, from one of India’s largest mines in Chhattisgarh to a steel plant run by India’s largest steel company in the same state.
The train ran on a rail line nearly 30 years in the making, through areas where Maoists still hold sway, in the districts of Narayanpur and Kanker in Chhattisgarh’s restive Bastar region. It hauled iron ore from the Rowghat mines to the 67-year-old Bhilai steel plant of the Steel Authority of India (SAIL), 40 km west of state capital Raipur.
But underlying the acclaim was simmering tension that has led Adivasi to face off against Adivasi, rooted in the fact that the Rowghat mines have been opposed by many local communities (here, here and here), sometimes violently so, with some allied with the company and the government.
Mining has begun—those opposed said, backing their claims with documents—without due process of law, threatening to wipe out forests and consume many villages, almost all from Adivasi or tribal communities, many of whom depend on these forests.
Trucks were already transporting ore on a road built, they alleged, with forged consent of Adivasis, and in violation of environmental-clearance conditions. Some who blocked the road in March 2022 face criminal cases and even alleged police torture.
The tension was apparent less than two months after the train made its journey, when Article 14 met key members of the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti, the main resistance group spearheading protests for 15 years.
Though most Samiti members were from Khodgaon, a village at the epicentre of resistance at the foothills of Anjrel block of Narayanpur district, we arranged to meet at a secure location 15 km away.
Furtive, Fearful Protestors
The protestors arrived in ones and twos on motorcycles several minutes apart, so they did not attract, they said, attention from the police.
“We were concerned that police or paramilitary personnel would follow us, so we came separately,” said farmer Lakhan Nureti of Khodgaon, vice president of the Samiti. Sporting a tilak, dressed in tee shirt and trousers, Nureti is one of the most vocal members of the Samiti.
Over the next two hours, Nureti and other Samiti members narrated “reprisals” they had endured since early 2021, when mining began in Khodgaon panchayat, including physical attack, threats, custodial torture and fabricated criminal cases.
The perpetrators in most cases, they alleged, were police and paramilitary forces last year. From the middle of 2022, those responsible for much of the violence and intimidation, they said, was the Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti, a group allied with the SAIL, led by Khodgaon sarpanch Bishel Nag.
Asked for comment, Bishel Nag agreed to meet us, but did not say when and did not answer calls after that.
“Today, the situation is such that we can’t even participate in festivals and programmes of our community in the village, or talk to other villagers freely,” said Khodgaon resident and farmer Digeshwar Dugga, as others agreed.
“Fear looms across all the villages,” said a person close to the Samiti, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Several people have stopped coming to Samiti meetings or raising issues at meetings. They fear that they will be labelled as Maoists and charged under fabricated cases.”
The person added that the “atmosphere of fear” has made it hard to distinguish between those who were supporting the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti and those with the Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti.
Article 14 sought comment from the SAIL, the district magistrate (DM) and superintendent of police (SP) of Narayanpur and leader of Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti Bishel Nag about the Samiti’s allegations.
There was no response to calls, messages and emails over 15 days to the DM, the SP and a SAIL spokesperson. We will update this story if they do respond.
India’s Need For Iron Ore & State Violation Of Laws
The Rowghat iron-ore mines are central to the operation of the SAIL’s Bhilai steel plant because the company’s existing reserves at a captive mine called Dalli Rajhara—discovered more than a century ago—are likely to run out in five years, according to a SAIL submission to the union environment ministry in 2021.
Iron ore is critical to growing India’s exports and its domestic industry, especially steel, with mining capacity, according to this estimation, required to double by 2030. India is the world’s second-largest producer of raw steel after China, which is the largest importer of Indian iron ore.
India’s requirement for iron ore and coal frequently clashes with local communities, the majority of them Adivasis, as Article 14 has reported from Chattisgarh and Odisha. Half of India’s top mining areas are in tribal lands, such as Rowghat, but representatives of the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti said they were not against mining.
Samiti members said they wanted to ensure that mining leases follow due legal processes, that the local community benefited from mining and preserve its culture and heritage, including the abode of a local deity called Rao Baba, located within the mining lease area.
“Rao Baba is the most prominent among our deities,” said Lakhan Nureti. “The entire Rowghat hills are considered his area, and he lives in the forests beyond Anjrel. Then, there is Mauli Mata, who took on the form of an old woman to prevent a king from invading Bastar.”
Samiti members have said that they were not opposed to mining and their demands centre on lawful mining — where procedures laid down under various laws are followed and permissions are sought.
We found that rights and the entitlements assured to tribals and other forest-dwelling communities through laws like Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA, 1996, the Forest (Conservation) Rules or the FCA, 1980, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006—but diluted by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—lies at the heart of the recent conflict in Rowghat.
It was also evident that despite his assertions to the contrary, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, whose party runs the government in Chhattisgarh, had not got his colleagues to follow assurances to Adivasis that mining would not disrupt their lives.
On 24 May 2022, Gandhi said at Cambridge University in England that he had a problem with the decision of the Chhattisgarh government in giving environmental sanctions to coal mines at what was once a “no-go area” for mining, the vast forest of Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district.
“I see the protest,” Gandhi said at the time. “I know the protest is going ,and I think in some ways the protest is justified.”
In 2015, Gandhi had visited Madanpur, the epicentre of protest against mining in Hasdeo Arand and made clear his party’s stand. "If you want to take over land from tribals, you have to seek their permission first,” Gandhi had said. “You can't snatch it without them agreeing to it."
Dilution Of Laws Requiring Adivasi Consent
In a 2013 judgement, popularly known as the Vedanta order, the Supreme Court reaffirmed consent from tribal communities and forest-dwellers through gram sabhas or general body of a village council before any land was taken away.
The gram sabha was required to give such consent so that land claims made by those who depended on forests could be considered and settled as mandated by the FRA and to ensure that projects seeking permission to “divert” forest land—a euphemism for cutting down forests—for non-forest use, such as mining, construction and other “development” projects, complied with the FRA.
But as Article 14 reported in September 2022, the union government amended the FCA and diluted clauses of the FRA, particularly the requirement of consent from gram sabhas, to speed up hand over of forest land to project developers.
The FRA was enacted to right injustices, apparent since the colonial era, in treating Adivasi and forest-dwelling or forest-dependent communities as encroachers on forest land. A 2009 environment ministry directive made the consent of affected villages mandatory before such transfer of forest land.
The dilution of these laws, experts said, was to allow forests to be transferred to industries without first getting the consent of tribal communities and forest dwellers under the FRA, a law that effectively gives Adivasis the power to veto projects.
But while Rowghat’s Adivasis face the effects of the watered-down consent requirements, the iron-ore-mining clearances predate the Modi government.
Mining Lease, Clearance Given By Congress Govt
SAIL’s interest in mining these the Rowghat Hills iron-ore reserves dates to the late 1980s, when the Bhilai Steel Plant, located around 100 km to the west of Rowghat hills, conducted “detailed exploration activities to…facilitate investment decision”, according to a 2016 SAIL feasibility study.
Between 2007 and 2009, SAIL received lease and clearances from the union ministries of mines and environment, respectively, to mine a ridge that comprises the eastern flank of the Rowghat hills, spread across Kanker and Narayanpur districts.
Called Deposit F in company documents, the mining lease area measuring 2028.797 hectares—the size of more than 3,790 football fields—was entirely carved out of the Matla Reserved Forest.
The environment ministry cleared the SAIL to cut forests on 883.22 hectares—or about 30 times the size of New Delhi’s Connaught Place—for the first phase of the project.
Though mining did not begin in the Rowghat Hills for nearly 12 years following the clearances, resistance to the mining did because of a host of concerns over the project.
A 2006 rapid Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)—quoted extensively in a 2014 statement on the Rowghat project by civil society group Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA)—said that at least two villages, Anjrel and Phulpar, would be displaced by the mines.
The EIA by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a laboratory run by the union government, acknowledged that Madia Gonds, Abuj Madias, Madias and other tribal communities living in the neighbourhood had an “interdependent relationship” with forests in the lease area.
The mining lease area is of cultural and religious significance for Adivasis, who consider it the abode of several deities, the most prominent of them Rao Baba, the guardian deity of the hills, depicted astride a horse, carrying a sword.
Every year, tribals from a region that extends from north Bastar to Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra visit the Rowghat Hills with idols or stones representing their gods and goddesses for a conference of gods, presided over by Rao Baba.
The Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti began organising people and protests in 2007. Senior activists and lawyers in Narayanpur town told Article 14 that in 2013-14 the Samiti became defunct due to pressure from SAIL, the political interests of some members and “fabricated cases” against key members, such as Badri Gawde, who was arrested for having Maoist links.
In 2016-17, the Samiti was constituted afresh by Somenath Usendi, a resident of Aturbeda village in Kanker district and about 15 educated tribal youth living in and around the project area. Usendi was elected president of the Samiti in 2017, re-elected in 2022 with Nureti as vice president.
The conflict over mining in the Rowghat Hills intensified in early 2021, when a security camp housing the Border Security Force (BSF) and District Reserve Guard (DRG) was established in Khodgaon and a 7-km road connecting the village to State Highway 5 was concretised and widened.
A slow trickle of trucks carrying iron-ore from the mine ran along this road in the months. This transportation, the Samiti alleged, was “illegal” because it violated conditions in the environmental clearance, such as ensuring that trucks plied only in the day.
Follow The Laws: Adivasis
In conversations with Article 14, Usendi, Nureti and other Samiti members said their demands were that mining be stopped unless the laws meant to protect their interests were followed.
For instance, they said, section 4(e)(i) of the PESA states that the gram sabha shall “approve of the plans, programmes and projects for social and economic development before such plans, programmes and projects are taken up for implementation by the Panchayat at the village level”.
Section 4 (i) of the Act states that gram sabhas must be consulted before acquiring land for development projects in “scheduled areas”—designated areas in nine states where powers are devolved to gram sabhas and panchayats.
These scheduled areas are supposed to enjoy autonomy protected by the Constitution. Laws passed by Parliament and state legislatures do not automatically apply to them; development projects in scheduled areas cannot be cleared before rehabilitating those who live there.
But gram sabhas on the peripheries of the lease area were neither informed nor consulted before mining was cleared in the Rowghat Hills and iron-ore began to be transported by road.
According to section 4(5) of the FRA, no one can be removed or evicted from forest land unless rights under this act were recognised and duly verified.
But several residents of Khodgaon panchayat told Article 14 that their individual and community claims over forests in the mining lease area were neither recorded nor verified before the forest was given over to the mine.
How Many Villages Will Be Displaced?
Another key contention of the Samiti concerns the number of villages likely to be affected by the mines.
The SAIL claims no village will be displaced by the mine, but Samiti president Usendi claimed the homes of many families from nearby villages, such as Anjrel, Hichadi and Palakasa, located on the fringes of the mine will be engulfed.
The SAIL says 22 villages will be affected by mining, while the Samiti says 55. Many residents have moved out, and those left behind are desperate to do so.
“We are concerned that sludge and run-offs from mining on the hilltops will pollute the land and water in these villages, and thousands will be forced to flee from the area,” said Usendi.
The NEERI rapid EIA report on the Rowghat project lends credence to these fears. It faulted the SAIL’s decision of locating “overburden dumps”—or soil and rock removed while mining—on ridge-tops rather than at the foothills.
“If the OB dump is created at this wrongly selected site...(it) will have devastating fall-out effect on the biogeography of a very large area of high ecological importance,” said the rapid EIA, as quoted in the 2014 CBA report.
Another contention of the Samiti is related to economic benefits of the project for local communities.
The Samiti demands that after individual and community forest rights in the mining lease area are verified, and the project receives consent from affected gram sabhas, 50% of the profits should be shared with the gram sabhas, according to a recommendation made by what was called the Bhuria committee, commissioned by the union rural development ministry in 1994-95.
Threats & Reprisals
The Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti has also played a leading role in challenging legal violations across Khodgaon panchayat since mining began in 2021.
For instance, in March 2022, Khodgaon residents discovered that ore was being transported late at night, in violation of clause 8 of the environmental clearance for road haulage granted to SAIL in January 2022.
“From the mine, mineral (sic) will be dispatched only during day-light hours, thus avoiding increase in night-time noise,” said the environmental clearance granted by the union environment ministry.
On 12 April, the Samiti complained about this violation in writing to the collector of Narayanpur, the ministry of environment and forests and other authorities. It also set up a barricade on the road in the Raut para neighbourhood of Khodgaon, and its members maintained a 24-hour vigil to stop the transport of iron ore until the government addressed their complaints.
Reprisals quickly followed, said Samiti members.
The first came on 31 May 2022, when around 15-16 DRG personnel led by a surrendered Maoist barged into Somnath Dugga’s home in Anjrel village, allegedly took him to the forest and tortured him for several hours.
Somnath Dugga and his son Hemu Dugga, both farmers, frequently attended meetings and demonstrations organised by the Samiti prior to the incident.
When Article 14 met the family in Khodgaon on 13 July, nearly a month and a half after the alleged attack, Somnath Dugga walked with a limp, and inflammation and lacerations were visible on his body, including the lower back, elbows and knees.
“They beat me up so mercilessly that I lost consciousness,” said Somnath Dugga. “But they released me only after I signed a statement claiming the police did not assault or threaten me.”
In a written complaint to the Bharanda police station about the alleged torture and illegal detention, Somnath Dugga’s mother, a day after the incident, asked for an FIR to be registered against the surrendered Maoist and DRG personnel.
The Samiti complained about the incident to the superintendent of police Narayanpur and other high-ranking police officials in Chhattisgarh, asking—unsuccessfully—that an FIR be registered.
Adivasi Vs Adivasi
Meanwhile, the barricade set up by the Samiti in Khodgaon was removed by administrative officials in the first week of August, during a prize distribution ceremony of a football tournament organised under SAIL’s corporate social responsibility programme.
When Usendi, Nureti and other Samiti activists met at the community hall in Khodgaon on August 23 to discuss how the barricade might be reconstructed, they were interrupted, they said, by 10-15 youth from the Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti.
“The group arrived suddenly and set fire to the log of wood we intended to use as a barricade, which led to a heated argument with us and other villagers,” said Samiti member Narsingh Mandavi, who works with an NGO in Narayanpur. “But a large police force arrived in no time and pacified the crowd. Weeks later, we discovered, quite by chance, that we were named in an FIR.”
The FIR, registered at the Bharanda police station the same evening, named nine members of the Samiti including Nureti, Usendi and Mandavi as accused. The charges against them included rioting, unlawful assembly, voluntarily causing hurt and wrongful restraint.
On 16 September, when journalists and members of the CBA visited Khodgaon to talk to villagers and members of Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti, they were attacked by a mob, allegedly led by Bishel Nag, the leader of the pro-government Adivasis.
“The mob heckled me and the visiting journalists and forced us to leave the spot,” said advocate Shalini Gera, who was part of the visiting CBA team. “But they were especially vengeful with members of the Samiti, including women, who were pushed and shoved repeatedly.”
“Somnath Usendi and Narsingh Mandavi were punched several times,” said Gera. “Nohrit Mandavi was held hostage in the forest and tortured for one hour before he was rescued by the DSP.”
Article 14 sought comment about the alleged torture from the SP of Naryanpur, but he did not respond to calls and messages. If he does, we will update this story.
‘Our Signatures Were Forged’
As Samiti members were speaking with Article 14, they were also preparing to file signed affidavits in court, stating that their signatures were forged and that they had not attended a gram sabha that allegedly approved construction of the road.
“The gram sabha was completely fake and did not happen,” said Lakhan Nureti. “This is to put it on record that we did not participate in it and that our signatures were forged.”
A member close to the Samiti said that many who were part of the Samiti have joined the Bishel Nag faction, members of which argue that the current situation is akin to the chicken-and-egg story.
“Their view is to let the mining start and see if it creates employment opportunities,” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Their accusation against the Samiti is that they are not letting mining happen and, so, one will not know if these jobs [can be] created.”
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(Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and researcher based in Kolkata. Ajeet is an independent journalist and researcher based in Mumbai. )