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Suor Valsa, l'omaggio dei gesuiti indiani
1 dicembre 2011

Il 15 novembre suor Valsa John, attivista per i diritti umani nello Stato indiano nord-orientale del Jharkhand, è stata freddata a colpi di pistola fuori dalla sua abitazione. Da 20 anni Valsa, appartenente alla congregazione delle Sorelle della Carità di Gesù e Maria, si batteva per impedire alle compagnie minerarie di espropriare la terra degli indigeni Santhal. Da molto tempo, infatti, le corporazioni del carbone cercano di estorcere i terreni della popolazione tribale per poi sfruttarla come mano d’opera nelle miniere. Nel 2007 suor Valsa era stata arrestata per aver organizzato le manifestazioni di protesta contro la costruzione di una miniera, e in seguito anche minacciata di morte.
La religiosa aveva lavorato spesso in collaborazione con i gesuiti di Dumka. In particolare con padre Tom Kavalakatt, direttore del Centro di azione sociale di Kodma, dove suor Valsa ha lavorato dal 1993 al 1995. Non a caso è stato padre Tom a celebrare i funerali della religiosa. In questa lunga intervista del 2009 concessa al sito www.jesaonline.org il gesuita parla dell’impatto e delle ragioni di fondo dell’opera svolta da suor Valsa. Il centro dei gesuiti per i diritti umani di Prashant ha inoltre voluto ricordarla con una galleria di foto.

The five-year-long struggle in Pachwara, Pakud district, Jharkhand, led by the Rajmahal Pahad Bacho Andolan (RPBA) against the Panem company's captive mining for the Punjab Electricity Board was a much discussed people's movement in India. The movement had three distinct stages: resistance, legal battle and settlement with the company. It was the negotiated settlement with the company and the corresponding MoU signed by the company and the people's representatives that continued to invite more attention to Pachwara. One of the protagonists of the movement unfolds the important events in the last five years of struggle and settlement. Tom Kavala, a key representative of the RPBA, modestly cautions that he does not want to extol the MoU as the model for all situations where people's rights over land and resources are poised against the interest of the State or corporate agencies. Tom Kavala, SJ., has been working with tribal communities in Jharkhand for the last few decades. Tom Kavala is one of the active persons associated with the RPBA struggle in all its stages. His role in connecting the movement to other social actors is substantial. Tom is also actively participating in various social issues in Jharkhand and neighbouring states.

The following interview is the summerisation of his telephonic and direct interactions with M.V. Bijulal of Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. More debates are needed among people who are engaged in similar movements to assess the outcome.

Q. How did the movement against land acquisition take place; what are the important facts related to the movement?

A. The movement's origin was something like this - Sr.Valsa George, a school teacher in Pachwara, chanced to see some government officials do a survey work. On asking them the purpose, she got a vague answer that it was "sarkar ka kam" (government's work). Sr Valsa was not satisfied and felt that something important is happening without proper information. She, being a person with constant interactions with the people of the villages, expanded her enquiry and found out that the land survey was a pre-runner to acquisition of 1151.70 acres of land out of which 674.2 acres was agricultural land for a captive coal mine for the Punjab Electricity Board. Valsa's frequent interactions with the villagers led to conscientisation of all the educated and non-educated people on the violations of legal and constitutional rights. The villagers came to realize the legal protective mechanisms like the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, the provisions of the Fifth Schedule, etc. Later, the villagers got together and decided that they will not allow surveyors to enter their villages and the surveyors were sent away. Soon, a notification in local dailies appeared of the official handing over of the land by the state to the company under Sections 3, 4 and 6 and Section 10 of the Land Acquisition. The people wrote to the District Collector and they did not receive any reply.

In the mean, time local protest meetings and rallies were organised by the vilIagers and the slogan was "jaan denge, zameen nahi" (we will part with our life but not with our land). The press was also contacted. Some of the political parties also said that they would not let the government to take the land. Initially the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and some leaders of the Congress party gave support to the movement and even came to the meetings. However, the political parties' support proved to be opportunistic and sometimes, the people had to ask some political party leaders to stay away from the meeting, as they suspected dubious designs in their activities. One should also see the active role of the media in keeping the issue alive in public and political locations ... good support was received from the political and media people. Support from media persons like Shaji, a journalist from Indian Express, Jharkhand, is important in this context. I would describe this situation as an ideal one in the sense that a combine of people's movement, politicians and the media that made constant assessment of the situation ... with the collaboration of three it was good force and that is how we stopped the survey personnel from entering the village. Active militant steps were initiated at village Baramasia, District Pakur, Amrapada Block in 2001. A road block was made out, with the villagers guarding it with bows and arrows and no outsider dared to enter. .. meantime, protest meetings and rallies continued.

Q. How did the government and company respond to this situation?

A. The company came in the area and rented houses at Amrapada. They started luring the youth offering jobs. Six or seven joined the company's pay roll and were provided with food, drinks etc. However, the main function of these recruits was to disturb the meetings of the villagers, whenever they discussed furthering the struggle. These youths were stopped from interfering once the villagers had clear information that their intentions were to deliberately create tension in the villages. On being stopped from attending the meetings these youths adopted a new strategy. They went to the police and filed false complaints against many prominent people's representatives of the villages accusing them of non-bailable offences. The Parganeith (traditional head of tribal hamlets) and Sr. Valsa were not left out from these false complaints. The situation became such that whenever the accused in these petitions came out of the village (going to hospital etc.) some were caught and put in jail. It was clear that the company and the police were hand in glove. The police did everything possible to court processes and to extend the custody of those in prisons. Within a few months, there were 33 cases on various persons, like Sr. Valsa who had seven cases.

Q. How did the people react to this situation?

A. The situation was such that intimidation from the police literally made people immobile. Many leading activists, including Sr. Valsa, were forced to leave their village residences and had to take asylum in the forest for nearly a month and a half. Parganeith's son was studying in St. Xavier’s, Delhi, and he could not go out to meet him. People were divided in two groups, regarding the issue of compensation. Some said it is better to take the compensation offered while others were adamant on continuing the fight. Those who went into the fold of the company (dalals) campaigned for compensation and argued that if the opportunity was not used, people will lose the land and also the money.

Q. What was the decision of those 205 families who were the direct victims of the project?

A. Even after the threats from the police, the momentum of the movement was increasing in the villages. A few families among the 205 were influenced by the agents, who would visit their houses at nights with a lot of offers. About J 0 -15 of them fell for the enticements. It was alleged that the outside leadership of the movement did not want the Adivasis to develop.

Q. What was the approach of political parties towards the movement?

A. The ruling Bharatiya Janta Party and the JMM as opposition were equally non- committal. More or less, it was the same case with the Congress, except for the consistent support of Stephen Marandi, who was the most faithful among the politicians".

Mining Site
Hemlal, the local BJP M.P. had often attended the meetings in support. However, it was established that he was cheating the villagers and was also attending the meetings of the company dalals. Sibu Soren came to Pachwara during, the 2002 elections and said that, "if I win take it for granted that mining is stopped forever". This promise helped him to win by 94,000 votes, a majority of votes nearly 25 times more than the previous election. Later, Sibu Soren became the Minister for Coal, after which he stopped all correspondence with the RPBA. Some senior political personalities like Thomas Hasda, M.P. from Raj Mahal constituency of the Congress Party accused (in a letter to the State Governor) missionaries of working against the development of the tribals.

Q. Was it a lone struggle by the RPBA? Or did any other movements support the struggle? How do you assess the support factor in the times of direct opposition from the state and the company?

A. Many of us working with the RPBA did not really know what to do after the pressure mounted on the people through illegal detentions, threats and violence. We understood that it was really difficult to fight the police. We kept on asking what is our role ... we were also apprehending what was going to happen. It was during this time, June 2003, we came to know that the District Collector was coming down to meet the people in the project area. We contacted Bharat Jan Andolan, Mines, Minerals and People (MMP) and persons like Stan Lourdswamy of Bagaicha. It was decided that meeting with the Collector should be made as an opportunity to expose the anti-people design of the project. People like Xavier Dias of MMP had actually worked hard to get the media to the meeting. But, the DC did not come as he came to know about the media's presence.

The RPBA was open for suggestions for better strategies. The initiative for seeking legal intervention actually was the result of a broader consultation with other groups in 2000. The whole case was presented to various groups and the preparation of demands for maximum protection was reached, after frequent brain-storming sessions. "We shall go to the court", was the decision. Advocate Mr. Mulidaran was approached by Xavier Dias. It was a collaborative effort of the MMP, RBPA, Jharkhand for Justice, Stan Lourdusamy who joined together to fight the case.

The case was filed along with the RPBA and the legal process showed all indications for a conclusion not favouring the people, completely. We contacted the company and got the company reactions. We told the people what the company said and the MoU was the result of those extensive transparent consultative processes which was discussed in the Gram Sabhas of villages also.

Q. What was the media response to the people's protest?

A. By that time the issue was covered in all the local and national newspapers. Some of the local papers said that the movement was instigated by some foreign missionaries who were getting foreign funding. They reflected just another facet of what political personalities like Thomas Hasda had accused in his letter to the Governor.

Q. As you know people's struggles against land acquisition for private or public purpose is increasing in India. In Jharkhand itself, you have examples of sustained resistance to corporate or state projects for development including mining and dams. In this context how do you explain the MoU as a whole?

A. The MoU was, as I said earlier, the product of collective thinking and sharing of skills. Stan had information on the recent trends in land alienation of indigenous communities from different parts of the world. His inputs helped in formulating the document. MMP was part of our legal processes and they were the ones who arranged advocates for us to fight the case. They, after the MoU was signed, showed their dissent and accused the RPBA of selling the movement. The RPBA presented the MoU in the MMP annual meeting also. I don't want to project the RPBA's experience as a success story. It started as a "Jan denge jamin nahi denge" and ended with an agreement.

Q. It is the strategies that move struggles to face the edifice of the combination of powers. Do you think there was any other settlement/solution which would have served people's interest better?

A. At one point, the only way of engaging with the state and the company seemed to us as direct armed militant opposition to state power. We did consult the people on this option. They did not dare to face the state power, since their experience in jails and lock-ups were brutal. I believe that radical changes come through shedding blood. But in this struggle, we feel that preparing people to that consciousness and sustaining a militant mode would not be achieved. Also the drudgery of struggle and the constant threat of police forced people to take a non-militant option (some of the leaders and Sr. Valsa were staying in the forest to avoid raid and arrest for a month and a half).

Q. Why did the society decide to go for an out-of-court settlement?

A. The culmination of the court processes indicated two conclusions; both of them insufficient to uphold the people's rights. One, in the court legality of acquisition of land never came up as a serious concern, even after the clear linkages being established between violation of people's, community's rights and the land acquisition in the Pachwara case. We feared that in case a judgment came up allowing land acquisition it would become a landmark judgment negatively affecting the community's rights in other parts of the country, where the Schedule V protection as well as protective legislations like Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act are in force. Two, we did not want the court to refer to just a rehabilitation package of the earlier times (were apprehensive of what the proposed package in the upcoming judgment was going to be like). Withdrawal of the case was thus in the larger interest of the movement. On the other hand, the court order pressurized the company to negotiate. They knew that people's resistance will continue despite a court order favouring them. They were ready for negotiations and the demands of the RPBA were agreed to totally, except for the contention on the share of profit. It is not recognised as share of profit but as a share of benefit they agreed.

Negotiations started in October-November 2006. In two months representatives of the company and people's representatives (Stephen Marandi, Tom, Shaji and the Parganit) reached an agreement. The company was afraid of the people stopping them from acquiring the land.

Q. How do you find the company fulfilling their promises?

A. At the moment the only tangible process to assess is leveling of the mining pit. The first pit is already filled and it is more than fifty per cent of the mining area. Regarding other commitments they are not punctual. Health clinics with essential medicines and trained personnel are in place, the hospital is yet to be built. So are the schools. The expenses for schooling are to be borne by the company. The company has given jobs to forty people now working as night guards.

A New House
They had agreed to dig wells which are yet to be carried out. So is the status of implementing commitments on ensuring basic facilities, community facilities and training institutions as per the MoU. But they are responsive to the people's complaints. When the people demanded good wooden doors for the new houses built under the rehabilitation package the company provided them at once. Some houses in the lower area are prone to floods. There the company made a wall. There was frequent pollution from the coal dust spreading from the speeding trucks that carry them. Coal dust is also a threat to paddy fields. Now, all coal dumpers have been ordered to have automatic metal stoppers to stop the dust from spreading.

Many of the issues do come up in the meetings of the joint committee for overseeing the implementation of the resettlement and rehabilitation package. The committee meets every month. The committee has decided that environment is one non-negotiable dimension.

Resettlement is done in the nearby area (1 km away) for 52 families and 5 extra houses were also constructed as per the MoU. All persons above 18 are considered as a family. Preparation of eligible members were finalized after the verification of the Gram Sabin Works for irrigation, storing water and leveling of un-cultivable land have been started.

There's a problem regarding over-speeding of trucks. A few people were killed and the response of the people was militant. On one occasion when a school teacher was killed they burned seventy-eight trucks. Several cattle also died due to this speeding problem. At present the speed factor is under control.

Q. How about the housing scheme? How's it different from the previous environment in which the villagers were living?

A. The houses are built in cluster format. As of now, 78 concrete houses are constructed. AII houses look alike; roads in between the houses are pucca.

Q. How do you see the changes once the mining started?

A. Life is affected - An addition of 400 trucks plying all through the day and night. There are complaints of excessive alcoholism by outsiders. The outside population is connected to the whole activity on an everyday basis work in garages, hotels. The local food habits have also changed. Tribals are being cheated since they have little knowledge about the things they purchase. Brothels have come up. The Gram Sabhas are watching these developments closely.

Q. Do you see this feasible: the requirement of minimum loss of 3 acres for direct employment? How many families will benefit from this? Can you respond keeping in mind (1) the land holding size in this area and (2) the trend among people to accept compensation in place of employment?

A. In the resettlement process the Paharia people in Barmisa (where the resettlement is done) are affected. Paharias are nomadic tribes and were Iiving for many years on the government land taken for rehabilitation. As their stay was illegal they were not compensated. Moreover, Barmisa is not part of the group of villages affected by mining.

Q. It was a situation where the legal intervention also failed to endorse the constitutional and legal human rights protection guarantee to the affected people. And the critics have accused the RPBA of going back from the militant mode to a settlement. How do you respond to this situation?

A. The most positive thing I would highlight is the supremacy of the Gram Sabha which is still intact. Another important dimension is the change in the local life situation due to unmanageable money flow, which the people are not familiar with. It affects them culturally. It is a sudden change with lot of shocks. I am sure that the RPBA still has a big role. The usual game of political parties dividing people did not work out here. No politician could interfere in the deal. The movement was quite strong; media's and Valsa's presence was strong. The movement kept the politician away from the issues. It was a situation where the government and the political parties were busy facilitating coal for the company, ignoring the rights of the people. The state represented the interest of the 'chosen people' i.e. the company. The movement gave a fitting reply by awakening people to all processes .related to mining. In the m6vement, it is the people's assembly which brings out solution - that is their greatness. They are participants in the' democracy. Look at what's happening in other places like land acquisition for Eastern Coal mines in Chaparbita near Pachwara. Most politicians supported the company and the R&R factor is never addressed properly.

Q. A small company has entered a MoU with Gram Sabhas while huge companies are facing resistance for years - what is the point you would like to highlight in this regard?

A. The Gram Sabhas have power to take decisions. The constitutional relevance of people's bodies at the grassroot level is thus maintained. Also, the negotiations led to forming understanding between the people and the company, respecting and implementing people's needs. Out of 27 members in the implementation committee, 24 are people's representatives, thus keeping away bureaucrats and politicians from decision-making processes.


"Conceptually a step ahead", is how Tom Kavala summarises his observations on the agreement between the company and the RPBA. This agreement does not have many parallels in recent times. While it is important to agree to its significance, there is also a need for critical reflections on the social, political and economic issues connected to the reaching of the agreement, as well as the implementation of it. A few questions would indicate the themes where further discussions are needed.

In the context of widespread public discontent over land acquisitions for various projects in the name of 'public good', how does this agreement contribute to the idea of collective bargaining and consensus? What is the role of political parties in like situations such as Panchmahal where the land take-over issue was not addressed by the political elite in a sustained way? How is the RPBA experience different (in terms of processes till agreement followed by its implementation) from other movements. Does it provide a model to emulate?

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