General

Corona Pandemic and Adivasi Labourers

By Gladson Dungdung

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Corona Pandemic had hit India at the end of January 2020. The MBBS students studying in Wuhan city of China, carried the virus with them unknowingly while returning home to enjoy their summer vacation. Later, the international tourists, NRIs, Indian tourists, students and Tabhlighi Jamaties became Corona carriers, and carried it across the country. When the Covid-19 spread in India, the Prime Minister Modi declared the country wide lockdown without discussion and consent of the Chief Ministers of states. The lockdown hit mostly the workers/ labourers, who depend on medium and small size businesses, real-estate and small industries for their survival.

The business entities, real-estate and industries were shut down. Consequently, approximately, 400 million workers/labourers[1] became jobless in one day. They were desperately waiting for reopening of the workplaces but the aggressive Covid-19 denied it. India was forced to extend the lockdown for four times. It was heartbreaking for the workers/labourers. They had nothing left to eat. Besides, the terror of Covid-19 overshadowed them. They lost their patience and decided to walk on the highways for thousand kilometers to reach their homes. A few of them died on the way caused by sunstroke, dehydration, scarcity of food and unavailability of healthcare facilities. Couple of pregnant women delivered their babies on the highways. Shockingly, after delivery, they walked for miles in the heat. Thousands of workers/labourers were also severely injured.

Who are these labourers? Why do they migrate to the cities? Why do they remain poor forever even after doing hard work every day? Why were they forced to walk on the highways? Who is responsible for the loss of many lives during the lockdown? These are some overwhelming questions one needs to answer. However, instead of finding answers, I would like to focus on the Adivasis, the Indigenous Peoples of India, who are 8 percent of the total population with approximately 104 million people. These people live in the natural resource rich regions of India, mostly the coal, iron-ore, Bauxite, etc. But the most interesting fact is that they don’t find jobs in the mining companies, which operate in their territories under the tag of development, economic growth and job opportunities. Hence, they are forced to migrate to the cities for their survival.

The state of Jharkhand is a crucial example to understand the dichotomy. The state has 40 percent of mineral resources[2] of India and 46 percent of its people are below poverty line[3]. However, 60% of Adivasis and Dalits (untouchables) are still below poverty line in the state. Presently, the state is producing about 160 million tonnes of various minerals annually, worth Rs. 15,000 crore[4]. So, it can also be called the rich state of poor masses.

The most shocking factor is that the Adivasis, who are presiding over the mineral wealth, are the poorest masses in the country, forced to migrate to the cities. The corona pandemic has fully exposed the corporate model of growth and development, which is bound to increase economic inequality. There are thousands of mining, Steel, power and other companies like Tata, Jindal, Asser, Vedanta, SAIL, etc. operating in the state for decades but they have miserably failed in providing jobs to the local Adivasis and other labourers. Instead, they have alienated them from their livelihood resources.

While monitoring Covid-19 cases, Chief Minister of Jharkhand, accepted that his government is batting hard for the safe return of 810,000 labourers to the state. Most of these labourers are either Adivasis or Dalits. A billion dollar question is why do these people are forced to migrate to the cities despite presiding over the mineral wealth?

The iron-ore rich Saranda forest of Jharkhand is an example to understand the main reason of Adivasis migrating to the cities. I’m bringing it here precisely because a few of Adivasis, who had migrated to the city of Bangalore and elsewhere, have returned to the forest after infected with Covid-19. ‘Saranda’ literally means a ‘land of seven hundred hills’[5] situated in the hilly tract of West Singhbhum district in the state of Jharkhand. The forest covers an area of approximately 847 square kilometers,[6] which is the abode of the Ho and Munda Adivasis. Approximately 25,000 Adivasi families, with a total population of about 1,25,000 people,[7] reside in the forest. Their economy is agro-forest-based. They used to agriculture practices, collection of minor forest products and rearing livestock.

Saranda Forest is estimated to contain 25% of the total iron ore of the country, which is itself a record. The exploitation of Saranda’s iron ore began in the early 20th century with the establishment of the Tata company,  whose principal mines at Noamundi were exploited since 1925[8] deprived the Adivasis from their livelihood resources. Their agricultural lands were acquired without respite, they were not given any job and collection of forest produces was also denied. They had no place to graze the livestock. They were forced to migrate from the region. As soon as mining activities multiplied, the miseries of Adivasis too multiplied.

Presently, 50 mining iron ore leases are operational, covering an area of 14,410.07 hectares. Besides, the Jharkhand government has sanctioned 22 new leases to several national and multinational companies, including Arcellor Mittal Company, Tata Steel, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd, JSW, Bhushan Steel & Power Ltd, Essar Steel Ltd, and Electro Steel Casting Ltd. Once these 22 new mining projects, which are in different stages of approval, are given the go ahead, an additional 9337.54 hectares, or more than one-seventh of Saranda Forest, will be opened up for mining,[9] which is indeed a severe threat to the continued existence of Adivasis and Saranda Forest itself, with all its outstanding wild life.

The mining activities have forced the Adivasis to migrate to the cities and elsewhere for earning. However, the covid-19 has forced them to return to their native, where they hardly have houses to live in. The major question is how would they survive? Who is responsible for making them resources less, landless and miserable? Can the State be held accountable?

[1] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/covid-19-crisis-can-push-40-crore-informal-sector-workers-in-india-deeper-into-poverty-ilo/articleshow/75032778.cms?from=mdr

[2] https://www.newsclick.in/Jharkhand-Polls-Mineral-Wealth-Going

[3] https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/45258/

[4] Jharkhand the Land of Mines and Minerals, 2011-12

[5] The Forest Resource Survey, Chaibasa, 2006.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Saranda Myth Pictured,’ CRPF Newsletter, Vol.7, April 2012.

[8] Forest Resource Survey, Chaibasa South – 2006.

[9] Bera. Sayantan  2012. ‘Between Maoists and Mines’, Down to Earth, April 16-30.

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