Zendepar is a tribal dominated village in Korchi taluka of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra where the government has proposed that 46.25 hectares of traditional forest land be taken over for iron ore mining. This move has led to protests by the residents whose livelihood and culture has come under threat.
The villagers have pointed out many loopholes in the mining project. First, they claim that in 2003, the land was earmarked for mining without the approval of the Gram Sabha. This is directly in violation of the forest act that grants the villagers the right over the decisions related to usage of their forest lands. Second, the area of proposed mining is a direct attack on the culture of the people as it includes the sacred site of the tribals i.e., Raopath Gangaram Ghat. The Yatra takes place every year at that site and has a special significance for tribals who have been organizing it for more than a 100 years. This yatra has also been actively used as a medium to create awareness on laws and policies such as Forest Rights Act 2006, PESA 1996, the Atrocities Act 1989.
The traditional forest land which has been proposed for mining is the main source of income of the tribals. The villagers depend on forest produce such as tendu leaves, bamboo, Moha, Tori, Charoli, Jamun etc for their livelihood. According to the data of Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) and Maha Gram Sabha Korchi, the total business in 2017 from tendu was around Rs. 107,987,970, making it a significant economic wing of the villagers.
According to Adv. Lalsu Nogoti (Tribal Rights Activist), this proposed mining is going to affect the life, source of livelihood, and culture of the tribals. Also, it will be responsible for the degradation of the environment.
The background: The mining project was first proposed in 2006-2007 when the government authorities and contractors visited the village and asked the tribals to cut the trees and dense bushes around it in the name of a government survey. This process went on for many days, but villagers became suspicious when they found that the fallen trees were being removed from the village. They made enquiries and found that the area has been proposed for iron core mining. From that time onwards, the tribals have been opposing the move.
Following the protests from villagers, a public hearing was held in 2011 and again in 2017 but to no success. More recently, applications were invited from mining contractors to cut down trees. The District Collector on 09 June 2021 issued a permission letter to the selected mining contractor to clear the road to the mining site. It means that many trees and bushes will be cleared. This permission was once more given without the consent of the Gram Sabha.
Proposed mining and tribal rights: According to Mukesh Shende (Tribal Rights Activist and Project Director of Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi) , there are many legal Loopholes in the proposed mining project in Zendepar. The Nistar Patrak (a document in which community rights were recognised under the Princely States and Zamindari systems) prepared for the area, Sr. No. 82 where the mining is supposed to happen, is a traditional land of Zendepar village which is to be used for grazing and other forest-related professions. However, the administration has undermined this and given permission for mining. When the Village Gram Sabha made an application for Community Forest Right (CFR) under Forest Rights Act, 2006, the above said land was excluded from the CFR Claim. Sec. 13 (2) of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Amendment Rules, 2012 talks about the evidence to be used in determining the forest rights. The evidences inter alia include- the Nistar, traditional grazing ground, areas for collection of roots and tubers, fodder, wild edible fruits and other minor forest produce, sacred groves etc, among many other items. The Nistar Patrak was submitted as evidence for the determination of Sr. No. 82 under CFR, but this land continues to be excluded from the CFR which is a clear violation of the law. Villagers are demanding that due process be followed and their lands be protected.
Importance of gram sabhas: Under Sec 4 (k) & (l) of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), Gram Sabhas have been bestowed with an immense power to determine their governance. It mandates that the administration has to take prior consent and recommendation from the Gram Sabha for the acquisition of land in the Scheduled Areas for development projects. In addition, Sec. 24 of Maharashtra Village PESA, 2014, talks about the prevention of land alienation in the Scheduled Areas. In sub clause (1), it is specifically mentioned that, “The Gram Sabha shall ensure that no land belonging to Schedule Tribes is unlawfully transferred to Non-Scheduled Tribe person.”
Violation of Tribal Rights: In Samatha vs. State of Andhra Pradesh, AIR 1997 SC 3297, the Supreme Court heard the validity of mining leases granted to private corporations over the Borra Reserve Forest. This reserve forest was located within Fifth Schedule Areas of Andhra Pradesh. The Supreme Court held that Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation prohibits the leasing of Government lands, forest lands and tribal lands to non-tribals or to private industries.
Despite having such special and direct provisions in various laws regarding prior consent and recommendations of tribals before transferring land for non forest activities in scheduled areas, the government proposed the mining of Gadchiroli without the consent of Gram Sabhas. Along with Zendepar, the traditional forest land of villages such as Agari, Mhaseli, Sohale and Bharritola totalling 1017 hectares will be taken up for mining.
The FRA, PESA aims to give relief to the tribals from the 'Historical Injustice' but even after the enactment of these laws the injustice continues. The implementation of mining processes goes against the Indian Constitution.
Some questions: The Zendepar people’s struggle exposes how the ruling class dictates the tenets of “development” at the cost of tribal lives. Whereas mining is seen as an act of nation-building, there is less focus on providing quality education, health care infrastructure, and other basic amenities to tribals. This shows that the ruling class use us only to fulfil their own interest and the class-caste interest.
If they are so deeply concerned about our development then why are mining licenses not given to tribals themselves, why are they given only to non-tribals? Why don’t authorities ever promote tribals so they can own big businesses? They don't do it because they have to maintain a social structure that benefits them at the cost of the marginalized.
About the author: Bodhi Ramteke is a final year law student at ILS Law College, Pune. He hails from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra and has keenly studied the protests that have emerged over the proposed iron-ore mining in his region.