THE FIRST time Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee met Rabin Soren was five years ago; the West Bengal chief minister gave the 23-yearold his diploma for completing a government-run course in mass communication. The second meeting was on 9 July this year, when Soren was part of a 17-member delegation of Santhal Adivasi leaders. They had gone to Kolkata to register their grievances against illegal stone quarries and crushers in their villages in Birbhum district. This time, the articulate Soren made a lasting impression.
Last Saturday, when Bhattacharjee visited the district — and declared illegal quarrying will not be allowed — he asked for Soren. For over the past four months, Soren’s mass communication skills have seen him emerge as one of the leaders of 30 villages protesting their destruction by stone quarries and crushers; Birbhum supplies stone chips for all construction work in West Bengal’s southern half.
Stone chip prices have gone through the roof in the region — there are reports they have tripled — after all quarrying and crushing came to a halt following violence between Santhal villagers on one side and owners and labourers of quarries and crushers on the other.
After violence resulted in five deaths on 22 April, all quarries and crushers have been stopped in the Panchami region, which used to supply up to 1,800 truckloads of stone chips every day. The Panchami Mine Owners’ Association, representing 75 miners and 360 crushers, claims monthly losses of Rs 5 crore.
The villagers and miners have been engaged in tense negotiations with the district administration. The government has shown restraint in its handling of the situation, which was blowing up into a Santhal-Muslim conflict.
In real terms, it’s a conflict between those who earn from the quarries and crushers, and the Santhal villages that have to pay the price
In real terms, it’s a conflict between those who earn from the quarries and crushers — mostly Muslim entrepreneurs and labourers — and the Santhal villages that have to pay the price: tribal land gets alienated, overburdens have destroyed agricultural lands, explosives used in quarries send stones flying into their houses, stone dust covers everything, and waterways get damaged.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
“Once a quarry or a crusher starts on a spot, it doesn’t take long for the surrounding land to get destroyed by the stone and stone dust,” said Nilu Tudu, majhi (head) of the nearby Chanda village and the chief of village headmen. He remembered the land was in much better condition when he joined the army in 1971. By the time he retired in 2001, the land had changed. “You could not see clearly due to stone dust hanging in the air,” he said. This kharif season, with quarries and crushers gone quiet, his maize crop is much better.
Babulal Tudu retired from BSF in 2008 and returned to his village Talbandh. At the edge of his field is a 150-foot drop to the quarry run by Kamal Khan. “When they blast the rockbed with explosives, the stones often come flying into our village. Our houses are less than 50 metres from the quarry,” he said.
He showed cracks in house walls from the vibrations, holes made in roofs from flying stones. Two of his brothers have lost their land to the quarry. On the other side of his field is a stone crusher.
Quarry and crusher owners admit they have a simple way to bypass laws against alienation of Adivasi land. Since it can be sold only to other Adivasis, they get their employees or acquaintances to buy the land and then give them a consent letter to use their land for a consideration. Khan offered Babulal Tudu and Sidhu Hansda money to move out, and for good measure, threatened them with guns, they said. “Khan told me he would never let electricity reach the village and that we would have to move sooner or later to make way for the stone deposits underneath,” Hansda said. Tudu said Khan’s men had told him they would blast them out of the village. This has been happening for four decades now, for stone quarrying started in Birbhum in the 1960s, and among the first contractors was Najir Hussain Mallik, now the president of the miners’ association.
Over the past two decades, operations intensified with growth in construction. Quarries and crushers inched closer to villages. All this while, the district departments of land, mining, labour and environment allowed them to function.
“We have been mining here for more than four decades. For years we have paid taxes and revenues to the government. Suddenly, the district administration told us we are illegal in April this year,” Mallik said. “What is this terrible wrong that we have committed?”
He complained the district administration was pussyfooting, rather than doing its duty to maintain law and order. “We are Bengalis and law-abiding citizens. We provide employment to thousands. Instead of protecting us, the government is listening to tribals who are being led astray by NGOs,” Mallik said.
He said the government is going soft because of the CPM’s weak situation, and that the Trinamool Congress was handin- glove with Uthnau, an NGO, and author Mahasweta Devi, to incite tribals. Kunal Deb, who runs the NGO, has long opposed stone mining in the area. Pretty much everybody agrees that the CPM’s handling of the Santhal protest has been uncharacteristically sympathetic.
The CPM-led government seems wary and wiser after burning its fingers in Singur and Nandigram, which have become repeated points of reference in state politics, along with Lalgarh. The situation in Birbhum came very close to a dramatic confrontation that could have escalated and become an embarrassment.
On 7 February, blasting in Khan’s quarry flung stones into Talbandh. The villagers got angry and confronted the quarry operators. Tempers ran high and the villagers restrained three Adivasi workers, telling the others to ask Khan to come and talk to them the next morning. Instead of talking peace, Khan’s son Shammi arrived with a mob of about 30 — Khan claims they were labourers angry with the villagers, the Santhals say they were hired goons — attacked the village and hurled country-made bombs.
After the mob retreated and the police intervened, local quarrying and crushing stopped. The villagers and the miners met the district magistrate on 16 April. The Santhals insisted the mining operators show their permits and licences. “We knew their papers were not in order,” Soren said. The meeting decided all operators would submit their permissions and licences within two weeks. Khan’s quarry reopened on the condition that the operators will observe a series of precautions. “We worked out a compromise,” Khan said. None of the miners submitted any papers to show the legality of their operations.
Back in the villages, there was a new confidence that comes from collective action. The Santhals imposed a restriction on people who worked in the quarries from entering villages after 6 pm.
On 19 April, Bashir-ul-Sheikh, a stone chips supplier, was murdered in a Santhal village late at night. There are varying versions of the identity and motive of the murderer, but no denying that it started the unrest. Three days later, a mob of about 1,000 — mostly quarry workers and hired goons from Bharkata village — marched through the villages of Chanda and Sagarbandh. While police waited further up, they looted several house and hurled bombs, burning 42 houses. Four people died. As the villagers fled, some drew out their traditional drums and summoned neighbours with a rhythm that signifies threat.
‘When they blast the rockbed with explosives, the stones often come flying into our village. Our houses are less than 50 metres away,’ says Tudu
More than 5,000 Santhals gathered. Angered by the sight of burning houses, they decided to burn down Bharkata. The police tried to stop them but were helpless. It was Nilu Tudu and Soren who persuaded them to stop — by lying down in front of the crowd. This gave the Santhals an edge in the ensuing talks; they had stayed calm when the quarry owners resorted to violence.
A high-powered committee of the state government met under the chief secretary and gave a report recommending mandatory permissions for the miners. Based on this, the district issued a notification at the end of June, listing clearances required. Of the 400 crushers and 83 quarries stopped, the district has received applications from 166 crushers and 17 quarries to be regularised till now. Most of the papers are incomplete.
Mallik said the conditions are impossible to meet; they include a complete history of the land transferred, beginning with the original landholder. He said when miners and labourers run out of money, there is no telling what they might resort to. The Santhals are yet to decide their stand. Should they demand an end to mining, or that it be allowed if it meets social and environmental criteria? There is an uneasy calm, with many incidents of stray violence every day.
Photo: Sopan Joshi