"ONE day in 1987 a few men in half pants, wielding chisels and hammers and tapes and magnifying glasses, descended on our village. Then came the drilling machines. The men then started to dig wells. Nobody told us who they were or why they had come. Soon revenue officials descended on our hamlet and asked us to vacate. They offered Rs.5,000 a family. More men came, tractors started leaving loads of stones everywhere. We were not told anything. We heard that a road was to be laid, and soon enough work began," recounts S. Pollanna, headman of Nimalapadu, a tribal village in Visakhapatnam's Paderu panchayat in Ananthagiri mandal.
Nimalapadu village in the Agency area of Visakhapatnam district, the tribal residents of which fought a long battle against mining activities.
The people then realised that "development work" was in progress to mine the abundant mineral deposits in the area. Determined not to allow mining in their village, the people of Nimalapadu waged a struggle, which lasted 10 years, against the government and one of India's leading business houses, the Birla group. The dynamic non-governmental tribal rights organisation Samata took up the cause and filed a case in the Supreme Court on behalf of the villagers. In a landmark judgment in 1997, which has come to be referred to as the Samata judgment in honour of the NGO, the court ruled that the state had no right to grant leases - even on government-owned forest land - to private companies on areas governed by the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and that only cooperative societies solely run by the Scheduled Tribes could mine in such areas, subject to compliance with the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Protection Act. The Andhra Pradesh government was directed to stop all private mining within the Scheduled Areas.
Today, the 22-km black-topped road in the Eastern Ghats stands as a telling symbol as much of a tribal people's "struggle for land rights" as of the neglect of a people who made bold to stop Birla Periclase, a division of the Indian Rayons and Industries Ltd, from transporting calcite from the tribal areas to manufacture magnesia at its factory located 110 km away in Visakhapatnam.
According to the people of Nimalapadu, despite the court ruling, private companies are pressuring them to sell their land to allow mining operations.
Nimalapadu is one of the 2,400 fertile and resource-rich tribal villages in the hilly region of Paderu panchayat. Nestled in the lush forests at some 1,000 metres above sea level, it consists of three hamlets - Rallagavuru, Karakavalasa and Thuburtha. (While the 47 families of the first two hamlets fought tooth and nail against the mighty private companies from mining in their land, Thuburtha did not join the struggle.) The residents of Nimalapadu are agriculturists who grow, organically, paddy on wet lands and millets, pulses and spices on the dry lands. They harvest three crops a year, having managed to divert a small stream into the village. The water to their fields are fed by bamboo pipes. They also collect minor forest produce such as adda leaves (to make leaf plates), honey, gum and medicinal plants.
At the height of summer one expected to see parched lands and empty homesteads with the farmers away in search of work. Nimalapadu presented a different picture. Paddy stalks glistened in the terraced fields on hillslopes. It was the third crop of the year. The villagers manage to harvest eight 100-kg bags of paddy from an acre in every crop season. The land belongs to "them" and by all accounts they should be rich. However, social indicators show that they are impoverished, with no money to buy food or services. The tribal people do not have the wherewithal to make their resources pay. The assets that can pay - the minerals - leave them exploited, and they will have none of it.
Pollanna is clear about the decision not to let in private companies to mine their land. "Land is what will see us through, not only us but our children. We grow two or three crops a year. We are not dependent on anyone for our subsistence; we even make some money by selling some of our crops in nearby shandies or to traders from the plains. We will not give up our land for anything in this world. If we give our land for mining it will not make our lives any better. In fact, we will end up with no jobs, no land and no home," he says.
How long can Pollanna and his brethren hold on to their resolve? Andhra Pradesh is the only southern State with coal deposits. The tribal areas of the State hold a third of India's mineral wealth. The State has over 20 per cent of the country's limestone reserves and 27 per cent of bauxite reserves. Mica, calcite and gemstones are found in abundance here. The world's best granite, black galaxy, is found in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh.
According to Section 11(5) of the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, or Mining Act, which was amended by the State Act on August 14, 1991, no mining lease in the Scheduled Area should be granted in favour of non-tribal people. According to the Supreme Court order of 1997, the tribal people have patta lands in five enclosures of the Reserve Forest area and the right to cultivate those parcels.
At a proposed calcite mining site at Nimalapadu.
But without the knowledge of the tribal people, the State government had been granting mining leases to private companies and individuals on nearly 2,000 acres (800 hectares) in the reserve forest areas of Ananthagiri mandal since the 1950s.
Several tribes have inhabited the Borra caves region in the thickly forested area of Ananthagiri mandal for generations. They possess pattas and have been cultivating the land for long. In 1967, 14 villages, where some 250 tribal families had settled, were brought under the Borra Reserve Forest. These families had owned 436 acres (174.4 hectares) in five enclosures. But several mining leases were granted in the Borra Reserve Forest area. Most of the 2,000 acres leased to Birla Periclase falls in this area; Unirock Minerals Pvt. Ltd. had 125.30 acres (50.12 hectares) in the reserve forest and 45.70 acres (18.28 hectares) in the non-reserve forest area; Kalyani Minerals had 48 acres (19.2 hectares) in the reserve forest and 32 acres (12.6 hecatres) in the non-reserve forest area; M. Seethrama Swamy was granted mining lease on 300 acres (120 hectares); and R.K. Deo in the Borra caves area.
Further, in the case of Birla Periclase, the State government even agreed to share 50 per cent of the road-laying cost. The task of road building was entrusted to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The State government went into a land acquisition spree, ostensibly for "public cause" although the road was intended for the company. No environmental clearance was secured for the project. The tribal people were not even informed, let alone called for a public hearing.
In order to protect the interests of the tribal people, Samata organised the residents of Nimalapadu. Their struggle is best reflected in the "22-km Birla Periclase road", which begins at Damuku village in the Paderu Agency area of Ananthagiri mandal and ends at Nimalapadu village, cutting across 15 villages. The width of the road is 90 ft, 45 ft or 25 ft, depending on the intensity of the resistance in that area to the mining operations.
In 1993, Samata filed a public interest petition questioning the power of the government to grant mining leases to non-tribal people in the Scheduled Area in violation of the Mining Act. A Division Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court held that the Mining Act did not prohibit the government from leasing out land to non-tribal people. Samata then went to the apex court and won the case in July 1997.
The State and Central governments are now trying to change the situation. An amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act is before Parliament, which, if pushed through, will circumvent the Samata judgment. Samata executive director Ravi Rebbapragada hopes that the new government at the Centre will be more sensitive to the plight of the tribal people.
When the tribal people thought it was time to rejoice, gloom descended on them in another form. To begin with, according to Ravi Rebbapragada, as Nimalapadu village opposed the mining plan, it was, and remains, blacklisted for any developmental activity by the government. Whether it is distribution of free tiles, grant of easy loans, supply of drinking water or accessibility to a mobile medical unit, Nimalapadu is not covered. The mining imbroglio has brought the tribal people, who lie scattered in 2,400 villages across the Paderu Integrated Tribal Development Agency area, problems galore from all departments - Forest, Revenue, Tourism, Mining and Health.
Says Pollanna: "The company and the government told us we would lose whatever we have if we fight against mining and that we would not even get the compensation other villagers were taking. But we went to court with the help of Samata. The company had to leave the area. Nobody can deprive us of our lands as the case is in our favour. But the companies are like monkeys. They keep coming back to take our land and we keep shooing them away. We believe that there is no future without land."
C.H. Somanna agrees: "Our land is our life. We grow three crops a year and sell forest produce in the shandy. The Collector came to our village and said that the government would find us land elsewhere. But we know that there is no land anywhere in the Agency area that is not occupied. So we told the government we do not want to move out. We are self-sufficient and do not even take government loans."
Recalling the 10-year struggle, Somanna says: "Even a sample mine exploration testing left us devastated. Several families, including a whole hamlet, were displaced. Many houses were destroyed and land was taken forcibly (meagre amounts were given as compensation) for building the road. The exploration has left deep holes - some several hundred feet deep - that make the land uncultivable."
The blasts have caused four deaths; it scares cattle, harms farming and shakes the foundations of houses. In some areas the land has been mined to a depth of 300 feet. The tunnels stretch for up to two or three kilometres, and even go under some houses.
The breaking of the topsoil has also hampered the seepage of rainwater. For all the damage done, not one member of any tribe was given employment; anyway the project's opponents decided not to take up jobs even if they are offered. Says Somanna: "If we give our land for mining then we have to depend on them even to eat a meal a day."
Says a visibly angry Ramanna: "Even before mining activities began, the company, along with the BRO, violated human rights - lands were encroached even beyond the leased extent, standing crops were destroyed, thousands of trees were cut down and tribal girls were raped. But the authorities turned a blind eye."
Says J. Pandanna: "We decided to fight. Then we heard that in the Borra caves area Samata was helping tribal people to fight mining companies. We approached them. Samata helped us organise ourselves and also led agitations. But the government continued to lease out our lands to outsiders. Samata then advised us to file a case in the High Court. We lost the case in 1995. But Samata offered to take the case to the Supreme Court." Meanwhile, in order to mobilise people in other tribal areas against mining operations, the NGO took busloads of tribal people to Orissa and Madhya Pradesh for them to see first-hand the marginalisation of the tribal people displaced by mining and industrial activities and government projects.
Pressure was building on the tribal people from government officials and the companies to give up their land. Says Ramanna: "(M.G.) Gopal (the then Collector) put a lot of pressure on us. We told him categorically that we will rather lose our lives than let the mining companies in." Says Pollanna: "The offer goes up to Rs.30,000 per acre. But we will not relent."
Did all villages agree to oppose mining? "Some villagers, particularly those who did not have pattas, were taken in by the promises of money and jobs. Some of them were also carried away by the road. Government officials put a lot of pressure. So they did not join us in the fight."
Says B. Ramanna: "The result of the Samata judgment is that the officials do not employ us as contract labourers or implement development schemes such as drinking water supply in our hamlet. We do not even get benefits like tiles for our house." (Samata has found out independently that the people of the village have been registered officially as recipients of tiles.)
Nimalapadu does not have a government school. Its health infrastructure is abysmal - an ancillary midwife nurse (AMN) visits the village once a month. The community health worker (CHW) cannot distinguish one tablet from the other. When Frontline visited the village, the CHW herself was sick and waiting for the AMN. Malaria was rampant in the village; at least one person in every household was affected. The CHW had run out of medicines and the village was desperate for some help from "outside"; Nimalapadu, according to Sub-Collector Ch. Appalaswamy, is after all an "interior village". The village has no marketing facility. Most of those who have surplus farm produce go to the shandies to sell them, though, at times, traders come to the village and save the tribal people a 30-km walk to the nearest shandy.
A portion of the 20-km-long road from Damuku to Nimalapadu, which was laid by a Birla company for its mining project.
Repeated requests to officials for their entitlements have met with little success. According to Pollanna, when the tribal people approached the Mandal Revenue Officer two years ago for tiles, the response was: "As you opposed mining, the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) is not providing you anything."
Jeerugadda in the Borra Panchayat also faces similar problems. Says village secretary S. Madeswara Rao and Village Administrative Officer G. Devakumar: "Five companies - Kalyani Minerals, Nath Minerals, Varalakshmi Minerals, Unirock Minerals and Birla Periclase - have been mining in our village since the 1960s and have left our land totally devastated." According to Devakumar, despite the 1997 judgment, several companies continued mining illegally. Some companies Frontline contacted refused to respond on the issue. Only last year most of the people in this village got pattas. But people in Nimmamadi and some other villages in the Borra Panchayat have not got pattas. The reason, according to the officials, is: "The lands are close to the railway track and forests."
Jeerugadda is one of the villages that joined Samata to oppose mining activity. And, like others, the 25 families in that village also suffer for want of development activity. Government schemes are not implemented, no jobs are offered on government contracts; there are no loan, school or marketing facilities.
How long can the tribal people hold on? This is the determining issue, not just for Nimalapadu and Jeeragudda, but for the entire tribal area that is fighting for its rights.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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