Maharashtra: Gadchiroli Protest Against Iron Ore Mining Reaches 150 Days
Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Needpix.com
Iron ore mining in Damkondawahi and Surjagarh has drastically affected the lives of villagers in the neighbouring areas. It has made the freshwater red, and loads of debris have been deposited in the fields of villagers.
Adv Lalsu Nogoti is one of the few people who has access to a mobile phone in the area. The residents are from the Madia community, which is included in the PVTs (Particularly Vulnerable Tribes). This is not the first attempt at mining that the district has seen. The villagers have been fighting for their land rights for over 10 years now, attempting to save their land from mining.
The immediate cause of the protests was how, without consultation with the villagers, the Gram Sabha Environmental Clearance was given to a private steel company to expand its mining operations from 3 million tonnes/annum to 10 million tonnes/annum. With this expansion, the company would have a crushing and processing plant in Aidri, Malampadi, and Bande villages. This mine encroaches upon land already granted to adivasis under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Mangesh (50) from Besewada has been sitting at the protest site in Todgatta since the very inception of the revolt. He has a family of four to cater to but keeps taking shifts and gives the protest most of his time. Occupationally, he is a small-scale farmer and earns only enough for the family to have two meals a day. Although Mangesh is not a very well-read person, he is all aware of how the big company owners were snatching the rights of the villagers.
"Earlier, they had tried to dump waste on our land. Now, they are saying they will take away this hill of ours. That hill is our worship place. We celebrate over there once every year. Would this not be hurting our sentiments?" questions Mangesh.
He firmly believes that in the name of development, as the government and the company owners have been trying to convince the villagers, they will only be deprived of their rights.
The villagers have peacefully protested in the same Todgatta for over five months. However, on a local level, as the protestors narrate, there have been attempts to malign their protest's image.
"Since we come in the red corridor, it becomes easy for anyone to say that the Naxals influence our protest. But we shall not give in to such baseless arguments. We have been peacefully protesting and will continue until our demands are met," said Nogoti.
Recently, five private companies were given a composite mining lease to lease six new mines totalling 4,684 hectares.
A four-lane motorway was being built in 2021 when it was abruptly stopped by fierce community resistance.
The government has yet to acknowledge these traditional borders in the community forest rights (CFR) granted to the neighbouring 13 and more Adivasi villages, even though the area for the new mines falls within customary bounds of forest use and occupation.
Due to red iron oxide discharge, chemical effluents, and enormous amounts of debris, the Surjagarh area's agriculture, health, and other facets of life have suffered greatly since a new mine opened. The area's pure water has turned crimson and is no longer potable.
Locals claimed that in the past, the forest provided all of the food, medications for ailments including stomach aches, fevers, headaches, snake and scorpion bites, etc., and the wood and bamboo required to construct homes. There was also plenty of clean water. They used to spend a lot of time on the mountain, where their sacred deities also resided. Now, the corporation and its police force forbid them from entering their properties, a local claimed. This was a typical incident in the area.
The health of those who use the water is significantly impacted by the extraction of iron ore, which permanently harms surface and subsurface water systems. According to a study from 2016, deaths have happened after ingesting quantities as low as 40 mg/kg of body weight, despite the fact that the usual lethal dose of iron is 200–250 mg/kg of body weight.
Adv Lalsu has written multiple letters to the District Collector and the Adivasi Kalyan Samiti, along with open letters to concerned citizens of Maharashtra appealing for help and support for the villagers who have nothing but the forest, land, and water.
"An adivasi cannot survive alone; we need a community around us. Several things in our culture need the involvement of forests and land. We worship the forest. How can we settle for the fact that in the name of our development, our God would be damaged? Since it comes under a Fifth Schedule Area, as per PESA (Provisions of Panchayats(Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996), Gram Sabha's consent is necessary for any such project. There has been a clear denial by the Gram Sabha, and the project is happening despite that," narrates Lalsu.
A few local activists and those like Lalsu who know and understand the law have been holding sessions with the protesting villagers and acquainting them of the legal problems that were there regarding the mining operations. They have been studying and narrating the law in the simplest terms to the villagers.
In the areas where iron ore mining has affected the freshwater and agricultural land, the sole occupation of the villagers has been snatched. Lalsu dictates how he saw the villagers in those areas sell liquor for a living to the workers in the mines. They are not happy but are left with no choice, he observed. The same will be the condition if the new operations begin.
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