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Adivasis deprived of land rights for private mining project near President Droupadi Murmu’s ancestral village?

As many as five government officials have been booked by Odisha Police for alleged counterfeiting of signatures of Adivasi people whose lands have been earmarked for expanding a private mining project. 

By Ayaskant Das
New Update

publive-image Hundreds of Adivasis, whose lands have been identified for expansion of a private limestone project, undertook a three-day foot march in Sundargarh from 18 October to 21 October 2022 | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Did certain officials of the Odisha government allegedly collude with an NGO to shortchange Adivasi (Scheduled Tribe) communities in acquiring their land for a mining project less than 250 km away from the ancestral village of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to be elected as the President of India? 

In protest against the alleged high-handedness of government authorities in forcibly taking over their ancestral land, thousands of Adivasis undertook a three-day foot march to the headquarters of Sundargarh district in western Odisha last week. The land sought to be acquired by the Odisha government is for the proposed expansion of an opencast limestone mining unit belonging to the multibillion-dollar business conglomerate Dalmia Group. The mining firm, OCL India Limited - which after amalgamation with other group companies is now known as Dalmia Bharat Limited - is seeking to expand the production capacity of its Lanjiberna Limestone & Dolomite Mine in Sundargarh from 4.2 to 9.5 million tons per annum (MTPA).

publive-image The residents of Lanjiberna, Bihaband and Kheramuta villages in Odisha have been protesting the presence of OCL’s limestone and dolomite mines in their area. | Photo courtesy: Video Volunteers | Facebook

The Odisha police had booked four senior officials of Sundargarh district administration and a representative of a Bhubaneshwar-based NGO - which had been assigned to conduct a Social Impact Assessment report - earlier this year allegedly for counterfeiting signatures of numerous Adivasi people in the attendance register of a public hearing conducted for the project in August 2021. It was also alleged that at least two of the Adivasi men, whose names had been counterfeited, were not only totally illiterate but were also given to the practice of giving thumb impressions wherever their signatures were required.

“Sundargarh police have conducted no enquiry at all, nor has any action been taken, following the FIRs that were registered in April this year. Despite the three-day foot march, during which men, women, and kids belonging to various Adivasi communities of western Odisha had to spend their nights under the open sky, the district magistrate of Sundargarh refused to meet them when they reached the collectorate on 21 October. It was only after we threatened to go on an indefinite hunger strike that he met the protestors and accepted the memorandum,” noted environmental activist Prafulla Samantara while speaking to The Probe. Samantara had led the protests of the Adivasis.

As many as 13 FIRs have been registered against these officials following the directions of the Odisha High Court. The Probe is in possession of copies of four FIRs that had been registered in the Rajgangpur Police Station of Sundargarh on 4 April, 2022. These four FIRs are identical in content except for the names of the complainants. Each FIR has been registered against five persons under IPC sections 465 (punishment for forgery), 500 (defamation), 34 (common intention for committing a crime) apart from relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015.

publive-image A screenshot from one of the FIRs in the possession of The Probe. The FIRs have been registered against Odisha government officials. | Courtesy: Special arrangement

The officials named as accused in the FIRs are the Sub-Collector of Sundargarh district Abhimanyu Behera, Rajgangpur Tehsildar Sarat Kumar Bag, Rajgangpur Block Development Officer Piyush Lohar and Rajgangpur Panchayat Executive Officer Harbinda Pandey. Prafulla Kumar Rout of the Bhubaneshwar-headquartered NGO, Centre for Youth and Social Development, has also been named as accused in each of the FIRs. Rout had apparently led the team from the NGO that conducted the Social Impact Assessment study for this project. The NGO had been assigned to carry out the study by the State SIA Unit Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies, a public policy think tank of Odisha funded jointly by the state and the central government.

Notably, the FIRs were registered only after the Odisha High Court directed the police department to take cognisance of complaints by Adivasis about forgery. Certain aggrieved individuals had filed a petition in the high court alleging that Sundargarh Police had refused to accept their complaints about the counterfeiting of signatures in the public hearing’s attendance register. On 31 January, 2022, Justice AK Mohapatra’s single-judge bench of the high court issued an order to the district’s police department to register cases on the allegations of forgery.

The petitioner, Bijay Dung Dung (51), a resident of Rambahal village under the Keshramal panchayat in Sundargarh district, alleged that though he had never attended the public hearing conducted on 25 August 2021, records pertaining to the registration of participants in the meeting carried his name and signature.

“… the petitioner, being an illiterate person, cannot write his name, far less putting his signature on the participants’ registration format. In other words, forgery and fraud have been resorted to by the public officials and officials of NCCDS , leading to the preparation of the favourable report in question on the basis of which petitioner’s land, including other lands of poor and tribal people, are being forcibly taken away by the mighty State in gross and blatant violations of statutory provisions and rule of law,” stated Dung Dung - who belongs to the Khadia Scheduled Tribe - through his petition.

Dung Dung and other Adivasi land owners of the region, who similarly found their signatures counterfeited on the public hearing attendance register, had been allegedly made to run from pillar to post when they had gone to the police earlier to get their FIR registered. They lodged a complaint at the Rajgangpur Police Station on 25 October 2021. Allegedly, the police station returned the complaint letters after around ten days without taking any action. Dung Dung also sent his complaint letter to the Superintendent of Police of Sundargarh thereafter via a registered post on 17 November, 2021. But allegedly, no action was taken by the office of the Superintendent of Police either. This prompted them to approach the high court with their grievance.

“The signature of another illiterate Adivasi landowner, Subash Kujur, who does not know how to write his own name and uses his thumb impression in government records, was also found on the public hearing attendance register. Land belonging to these Adivasi people has been identified for takeover by a corporate group in order to extract limestone. They have been tilling this land and living over it for several generations. Government agencies resorted to fraud and malpractice since they could not convince these landowners to part with their land,” said counsel for the petitioners, Ashok Minz.

Copies of FIRs dated 4 April 2022, which are with The Probe, have been registered on the basis of complaints by three different persons belonging to Adivasi communities: Cornelius Lakra, Dibya Lakra and Amrit Lakra. Like Dung Dung, these complainants also belong to the Keshramal panchayat.

publive-image The production capacity of a limestone mining project in Lanjiberna, Sundergarh is proposed to be expanded from 4.2 to 9.5 MTPA for which around 745.097 hectares of private land belonging to Adivasi people in the region will be acquired. | Bibol Toppo, Forum for Gram Sabha Committee, Sundargarh

Sources in the police department of Sundargarh told this correspondent that the allegations of the petitioners, as contained in the complaint letters that were filed with the Superintendent of Police earlier, were being enquired into when they decided to file a petition in the high court. The police have sought for caste certificates of the complainants as the officials have also been accused under the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015

“At present, we are conducting investigations into the allegations following the registration of the FIRs. Due course of action will be taken on the basis of the investigation’s outcome,” said Sundargarh Superintendent of Police Sagarika Nath.

More than 873 hectares of land spread across Rajgangpur and Kutra tehsils of Sundargarh is required for the limestone mining expansion project of Dalmia Group, as per its application submitted to the central government for obtaining prior Environmental Clearance. The land will be taken over from more than half-a-dozen villages, namely, Alanda, Bihabandh, Jhagarpur, Keshramal, Raiberna, Katang, Dhauraada, Lanjiberna and Kukuda, in these two tehsils. The lion’s share of this parcel, that is, 745.097 hectares, comprises private land that is under agriculture and village settlements. While 62.56 hectares of this mining lease area is forest land, the remaining 65.40 hectares is government land.

“But the land is being acquired by the government in a piecemeal manner and spread over a number of phases so that opposition unity is fragmented. Even Social Impact Assessment studies are being conducted in a piecemeal manner. Rehabilitation and resettlement packages are also being developed in small packages,” added Minz, the lawyer for the Adivasi families.

Officials of the district administration of Sundargarh told The Probe that the company has proposed to acquire 422.05 hectares of land for the project in three phases. The project proponent has submitted an application for acquiring 109.03 hectares of land in the first phase, which will apparently not involve the displacement of any families. Hence, resettlement and rehabilitation will not apply to land acquired in the first phase. In the second phase, officials said, a process is underway to acquire land measuring 290.20 hectares from six villages, namely, Bihabandh, Kukuda, Alanda, Raiberna, Keshramal and Jhagarpur. This phase will involve the displacement of 495 families against which an elaborate Resettlement and Rehabilitation package has been formulated in accordance with the policy of the Odisha government.

publive-image A screenshot from the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Action Plan report prepared by the Odisha government for the Lanjiberna Limestone and Dolomite Mines, Sundargarh | Courtesy: Odisha government

“As per this package against the second phase of land acquisition, each adult family member will be entitled to a 1,000 square feet house over a plot of land measuring ten decimals. In addition, each adult member will be entitled to a one-time cash payment of Rs 17 lakh in lieu of employment. As per the provisions of this package, project-displaced families will also be entitled to certain monthly pensions. Presently, however, there is little progress in the matter owing to the stalemate with the landowners. They have completely refused to part with their land,” said a senior official of the district administration.

Local people told this correspondent that Gram Sabhas – meetings of councils comprising all adult members of any particular village which are mandatory in Adivasi-dominated areas as per provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 – were conducted on 26 January 2020 in Katang, Kukuda, Keshramal, Jhagarpur and Alanda panchayats during which resolutions were passed against the land acquisition proposal. 

“No notification was issued to the affected villages nor views of the respective Gram Sabhas of the area obtained before going ahead with the Social Impact Assessment study. Despite the fact that Gram Sabhas have already rejected the proposal for the land takeover by the company, the government is going ahead with other steps in the acquisition process. Most of the agricultural land in this region is multi-cropped, irrigated land. Not only our livelihood, but our identity also depends on this land,” said Bibbol Toppo, an Adivasi leader of the area.

A set of queries was emailed to Dalmia Bharat Limited, asking, amongst other questions, to furnish details of phases, if any, under which land required for the mining expansion project will be acquired. Details were also sought from the company about employment and jobs, if any, that have been guaranteed to the project-affected families. Its representatives, however, informed that the company would, at present, recuse itself from commenting on the issue.

publive-image Adivasis protesting against land acquisition for the expansion of the production capacity of Lanjiberna Limestone & Dolomite Mine in Sundargarh from 4.2 to 9.5 million tons per annum (MTPA). | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The Odisha unit of the non-profit human rights organisation People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) sent a fact-finding team to the project area in March this year to examine allegations of violation of Constitutional rights of tribal communities for land takeover. The three-member team said in its report finalised in May 2022 that local people had foiled attempts to organise public hearing meetings that were held to deliberate upon the draft Social Impact Assessment reports.

“According to SIA study report, the average landholding of the family is 1 to 1.5 acres only. Owing to mining for the last several decades, agriculture has been badly affected in the surrounding area. The water retention capacity of the land has gone down, slowly turning the once fertile land into dry land. Local people have been forced to leave cultivation in the winter season due to excess air pollution caused by limestone mining and cement factories. The water table is going down in the area, and safe drinking water is a big problem in many of the villages. The prevalence of TB is a common phenomenon; people are dying of this disease even after undergoing treatment. A small section of people are (sic) employed as drivers, security guards and as casual workers in the mines and factory, not as regular employees but as casual workers under labour contractors,” stated the PUCL committee in its report.

Further, the PUCL fact-finding committee also stated in its report that the district administration was going ahead with land acquisition even though it had been found in the Social Impact Assessment study that 88 per cent of affected families did not want to part with the land. This was in gross contravention to provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 – known popularly as the LARR Act – which makes it mandatory to obtain the prior consent of at least 80 per cent of affected families before the land is acquired for private companies.

“There have been protests against land acquisition, but these have been peaceful. On the other hand, the government agencies are openly violating laws and Constitutional provisions to facilitate land acquisition for a private company,” said PUCL convener Pramodini Pradhan.

Meanwhile, district administration officials named as accused in the FIRs have distanced themselves from the public hearing process in which names of Adivasis were allegedly counterfeited in the attendance register. One of the officials who has been named as accused in the FIRs told The Probe that the onus of conducting public hearings in a smooth and transparent manner lies entirely upon the State SIA Unit, that is, the Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies.

publive-image Hundreds of Adivasis undertook a three-day footmarch in Sundargarh from 18 October to 21 October. The foot-march began from Rambahal in Keshramal panchayat of Sundargarh and culminated at the district headquarters after covering a distance of almost 100 kilometres. | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“As officials posted at various levels of the district administration of Sundargarh, we were only attendees in the public hearing. There was an attendance register at the venue in which we, too, entered our names like other attendees. But, in any case, irrespective of the allegations, it is only a matter of time before the facts come to light because the entire hearing process has been videographed,” said the official on condition of anonymity.

On the other hand, the NGO has claimed that it has no reason, whatsoever, to be suspected of counterfeiting the signatures of those who did not attend the public hearing. The NGO is one of the empanelled agencies of the State SIA Unit, and it was assigned to conduct the study after formulating necessary terms and conditions as per the guidelines of the LARR Act, 2013.

“The role of our NGO was only to support the State SIA Unit, in terms of manpower and logistics, for conducting the Social Impact Assessment study. Public hearings are mostly attended by large numbers of people. There exists no formal procedure for establishing the identities of those who attend public hearings. Anyone who attends a public hearing also has to enter his or her name in an attendance register. These entries are not supported by proof of identity either. We have no reason to counterfeit signatures of attendees,” the NGO’s founder Jagadananda told The Probe.

The final SIA report that has been submitted by the NGO to the State SIA Unit has covered six villages under Rajgangpur tehsil of Sundargarh from which an area of 290.20 hectares of land will be acquired for expansion of the mining project. This report also mentions that the four public hearings that were conducted on the draft reports between 23-25 August were not entirely smooth.

“The district administration, Sundargarh, conducted the above public hearing programs amidst a lot of protest by the villagers. On the other hand, some villagers were also found to be supporting the proposed project,” states the SIA report.

Earlier, the public hearing conducted for the project on 3 February, 2018, as part of the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study, was also mired in problems. On the day of the hearing, nearly 600 people forcibly locked the gates of the Dalmia Industrial Training Institute in Jhagarpur, where it was being conducted, in order to block the entry of officials into the venue. These agitators demanded government authorities to first conduct meetings of Gram Sabhas before going ahead with any other procedure pertaining to the expansion project.

publive-image Dalmia Industrial Training Institute in Jhagarpur | Photo courtesy: DITI | Facebook

Sundargarh is categorised under Schedule V of the Constitution of India, owing to the preponderance of the tribal population of the district, which thereby confers special rights upon local communities over land ownership. As per the Census of India data last published in 2011, Scheduled Tribes account for a whopping 50.75 per cent of the total population of the district. This is more than twice Odisha’s average of 22.5 per cent of Scheduled Tribes in the state.

In the EIA study report, which was later submitted to the central government in order to obtain Environmental Clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC), the project proponent stated that nearly 3,000 persons finally attended the public hearing in which issues pertaining to employment for local youth, social welfare activities like the supply of drinking water, electricity and healthcare facilities were raised.

“Authorities explained that conducting the Gram Sabha is not required as per EIA Notification, 2006 and amended thereafter. Therefore, the public hearing was conducted in front of the playground gate of DITI . Around 3000 participants attended the public hearing, and about 600 put their signatures on the attendance sheet. Furthermore, 52 persons took part in the deliberation and expressed views in the public hearing,” said the project proponent in the EIA report.

publive-image Noted activist, Prafulla Samantara, led the three-day foot-march by Adivasis to protest against forcible land acquisition. Samantara sat on a dharna at the district collectorate in Sundargarh on 21 October following which officials accepted a memorandum from the protesting people | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Sundargarh is also the home district of India’s former tribal affairs minister Jual Oram, a senior leader of the ruling BJP-led government at the centre, who is the sitting MP of the Lok Sabha constituency. The district occupies a prominent place in the mineral map of Odisha due to its rich mineral deposits, including iron ore, manganese, dolomite and fire clay apart from limestone. However, tribal communities in the district have often been at loggerheads with the government against the corporate takeover of their lands for the exploitation of minerals.