By Gladson Dungdung
30-year-old Raju Champia (name changed), resident of Chiria village located in the middle of Saranda forest in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, had migrated to Bangalore in search of a job. While working as a labourer in a construction site, he got infected with Covid-19, but wasn’t aware about it. When the countrywide lockdown was declared, he lost his job and was forced to return to his village.
At the outskirts of the village, however, he realized that the villagers had barricaded the village with bamboos. Forced, hence, to go to the quarantine centre, he was further shocked to be declared corona positive.
There are several migrant workers like Raju Champia in Saranda forest, who have been infected with virus and are now struggling to save their precious lives in the quarantines centres. The case of Chiria mines unmasks India’s development paradigm, which everyone must understand.
The Chiria iron-ore mines, named after the village called Chiria, is operated by the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), which is India’s largest Iron Ore producer/miner with reserves of 2,000 million tonnes. Chiria Mines is the most extensive iron ore mines in the Saranda forest, covering about 2376 hectares, which is 3 per cent of the entire Forest. The SAIL has been carrying out mining activities at Chiria since 1938. The SAIL operates five integrated steel plants based at Bokaro, Bhilai, Rourkela, Durgapur and Burnpur, which fully depend on the iron-ore of Chiria mines.
The SAIL produces 16.30 million metric tons of steel per annum and close to 69,808 are employed. Ironically, the SAIL has failed to provide employment to the local Adivasis like Raju Champia, whose livelihood resources were destroyed by their mining activities and has forced many to migrate to cities for their livelihood. The government despite claiming that they would provide jobs to local communities through the mining and industrialisation has, thus far not lived up to any of these promises.
Although the SAIL is a government of India undertaking, in functioning, it is no different from that of a private mining company. SAIL, in fact, not only denies jobs to the Adivasis, it has also shamelessly gone about destroying their agricultural lands and throwing them behind the bars when they have protested. In 1990, SAIL extended its mining activities in Chiria, and illegally sub-leased the excavation work to an Orissa based private mining company, ‘ORS India Ltd’, a unit of the Adhunik group, which was actively carrying out mining activities near Dubil village ─ located almost opposite to Chiria village.
Interestingly, ORS India Ltd, did not acquire the lands from the villagers. Instead, because the mining activities have been carried out at the top of the hill above the village, the mining waste descends directly onto their paddy fields during the rainy season. This has been happening for the last two decades. Consequently, 100 acres of fertile agricultural land has turned barren in the last two decades, without the villages receiving any compensation. The company claims that since it did not acquire the land from the villagers, it has no obligation to compensate the land owners. This is how ORS India Ltd tries to disown responsibility. The villagers didn’t just lose 100 acres of fertile land; they also lost a stream which was their life line, Dolbati Jharna. The mining dust, red mud and red water have had hugely detrimental impacts on the health and livelihood system of these villagers.
Since they had lost their major source of livelihood, inhabitants of Dubil and neighbouring communities organised a meeting, and decided to fight for their rights. In June 2011, they went to the company’s office to demand jobs, and staged a protest there. As a result, the company’s General Manager, Guchait Iqubal, filed a case against six key villagers – Ramlal Champia, Sukhram Champia, Mohan Hansada, Ramkishan Tudu, Budhram Bading and Ram Hansada, alleging that they were holding the company to ransom. On the basis of this complaint, the police arrested many villagers, and locked them up in Jail for 13 days. It is also peculiar that stations are always proactive in Saranda whenever they are asked to take any legal or illegal action to protect the interests of mining companies.
Another interesting episode in the entire story is that 50 villagers from Dubil have been working in Chiria as casual mining labour since 1991, but none of them were regularised. The Company’s unfair rules allow regularisation only after someone has worked as a casual labour for three year in a row, yet these villagers were not regularized even after working as casual labourer for a decade. Thus, villagers who lost their agricultural livelihoods are forced to become daily wage labourers. The agriculture land is covered by iron dust; the waters of the streams and river and other water bodies has turned red and the entire environment is polluted. The iron ore mining has destroyed the livelihood of the Adivasis. Consequently, the villagers of Dubil, Chiria and other neighbouring villages are forced to migrate to the cities.
Presently, the Adivasis are trapped from all corners. On the one hand, the mining activities have destroyed their livelihood resources, and on the other, they get infected with the Covid-19 virus when they migrate to the cities in search of jobs. A billion-dollar question is how will they survive?
The Corona pandemic has exposed the ugly face of the corporate model of development, which has looted the natural resources under the guise of growth and development, and brought tears and inflicted even hardship on the Adivasis.
 Forest Clearance for SAIL’s Chiria Iron ore mines, by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (Govt. of India), 2011.
 Dungdung, Gladson. 2015. Mission Saranda: A War for Natural Resources in India. New Delhi: Prithivi Publications. Pp 60.