Statehood first, ecology later

  • 14/06/1992

Statehood first, ecology later JHARKHAND today is closer to reality than it has ever been. This summer saw Jharkhand leaders sweat it out in Delhi while waiting for cabinet committee meetings to decide the issue. They don"t expect the Centre to grant statehood right away. A senior leader puts it this way, "We will probably get a union territory consisting of the districts of south Bihar, but the Centre has to act fast. We cannot wait any longer."

As if to underline this restlessness, south Bihar witnessed two successful bandhs and the very effective 10-day economic blockade in March. The virtual halt of the flow of valuable natural resources out of the region (See box: Ravaged region), which cost the national exchequer dearly, prodded the government to act. Giving in to the demands of the Jharkhand leadership, the home ministry tabled the report of the Committee on Jharkhand Matters (COJM) two years after it was submitted.

The COJM had dismissed the demand for a separate state or union territory and had suggested "politico-administrative measures endowing a certain measure of autonomy" to the south Bihar districts. They were to be governed by a Jharkhand General Council and a Jharkhand Executive Council, on the lines of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. The COJM proposal was rejected outright by the Jharkhand leaders who have threatened a total blockade if the Centre does not decide the issue soon.

This is not the first time that the Centre has been subjected to demands for greater autonomy from various regions. Whether it is Gorkhaland, Bodoland, Uttarakhand or Jharkhand, angry agitations which often turn violent have conveyed the message to the rest of the nation. Almost all of them indicate the erosion of the community system of governance, and the deprivation or denial of the basic rights of the people, usually adivasis (indigenous people).

Says Jahanara Singh, widow of the founder of the Jharkhand Party (JP), Jaipal Singh (who played hockey for India in the 1928 Olympics and died in 1970), "Normally such agitations are branded secessionist. But we need to ask who is to blame when people in a particular area, be it Nagaland or Jharkhand, are denied the status of human beings and have to fight for their rights. In Jharkhand, every effort was made to destroy the community, a process that continues even today."

Ranchi, which may eventually be Jharkhand"s capital, is like a besieged town today. On an average, it gets power for two hours a day. Water is scarce. Long queues at petrol pumps underline how neglected this region is. According to the COJM report, only 26 per cent of the villages of south Bihar are electrified.

Shailendra Mahato, the outspoken, young Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MP, points out angrily, "Look at how we are being victimised. The Suvarnarekha Hydroelectric Project will submerge 17,600 ha of land displacing 6,700 households from 89 villages. The Kharkai dam will submerge 12,753 ha of land of 72 villages, displacing 5,600 families. All our precious forests reach the saw mills. The big industrial projects like Hatia and Bokaro tell the same story. The people, their lands, culture, forests, were just cast to the winds."

But what would happen if the 50-year-old Jharkhand movement were to succeed? Will the new state become a colony of New Delhi rather than Patna? Will the militancy of the people make their leaders more accountable and revive the democratic traditions of community governance and resource management?

Mahato responds to these queries by stating that the "creation of Jharkhand will free us from external exploitation and social oppression by the nation, but it will not solve the problems of class exploitation. We have enemies within too". He continues, "Our own bureaucrats, politicians and party-members are corrupt and do not have the people"s interests in mind." To him, the real work would begin after the formation of Jharkhand.

Shibu Soren, the "guruji" of the movement and president of JMM, says, "I was a tiger in the jungles fighting for the rights of the people and went underground in the early 1970s for this. My entering electoral politics is a part of that fight. When Jharkhand comes I do not want any post but will continue to work for the people. I will not let politics make a street dog out of me."

Soren believes that the revival of traditional cultures is the only hope for the adivasi. Having run night schools, organised collective farming through baisis (village assemblies), and ensured that the people governed their own resources and solved their own problems, Soren is emphatic that existing legislation must be so amended as to empower local communities. He says he is willing to fight his own party members if necessary, to ensure that the present anti-people laws are changed and the forests handed over to the communities. "The forest department is anti-forest and quite redundant in an area where communities have always managed the forests." But can the JMM ensure all this? Jahanara Singh expresses her reservations, "The problem with the JMM is that there is no effective middle-level leadership. There are the people and the top leaders, in Delhi or Patna, while the middle-level leaders are as bad or as good as those of the other parties." Yet she admits that all the other parties, including the JP, is without a mass base and are all but finished. Only the JMM has some standing with the people.

But even the JMM appears to have failed to raise ecological concerns in their political battle. Most of those who have studied this region would agree with K Suresh Singh, the director general of the Anthropological Survey of India, and a COJM expert. According to Singh, "The Jharkhand movement has always been a political movement for a separate state. It has no connection with ecology."

N E Horo, president of JP, which has been in the forefront of the struggle for separate statehood for nearly half a century now, laments, "Unfortunately most people do not understand what ecology is. The British and post-British imperialists saw us as drawers of water and hewers of wood. Adivasis are still considered beasts of burden, a process that began by indenturing us as coolies in tea gardens, then in coal mines and now in middle-class Delhi homes."

Horo sees the struggle for statehood as the logical culmination of the community"s fight for the restoration of its rights for self-governance and control over its resources. "Is this not ecology?" he asks.

The ecological, social and economic history of the region vindicates Horo who, like Soren, believes in restituting community rights over resources, but unlike him has clear, well- documented plans. The JP drew up a forest policy as early as 1983 and staunchly believes that "traditional panchayats are better than statutory panchayats, because the latter by their very size, rule out meeting community interests". Panchayat elections have not been held in Bihar since 1978.

Under Horo"s leadership, the JP fought in the 1970s for people"s rights to obtain royalties for collecting tendu leaves and other forest produce like sal seeds, kusum, and mahua. Unfortunately, their effort to replace intermediaries led to the formation of the Forest Development Corporation in 1976, which Horo characterises as "another den of thieves". The party"s "direct action" in 1978 for the restoration of forest rights involved the people uprooting all the trees planted by the forest department on community land.

Allegations, denials and counter-allegations cloud the issue. According to Horo, their month-long programme was meant more to shake up the department rather than destroy the forests. All precious trees were to be spared. However, the campaign did not have the desired effect because, he alleges, "the JMM entered the scene in league with the department and the contractors, and made a lot of money by cutting down big trees, including sal, while the villagers watched".

Soren contemptuously dismisses Horo"s allegation as "a tissue of lies, to malign me". According to him, the JP started a destructive programme, which it could not control. In fact, Soren takes great pains to state that not only does he consider trees to be the "bank account" of the adivasi, but that all the JMM cadres "have been instructed to ensure that in their areas a thousand trees are planted every year".

On his part, Horo says that his party has been constantly agitating for the restoration of tribal lands. If Jharkhand comes, Horo promises to "promote small- and medium-scale industries based on local forest and agro-products". To which Soren enigmatically replies, "Well, let a thousand flowers bloom. I hope they don"t turn out to be cauliflowers."

Whatever the political rhetoric of the leadership, the ground reality seems very different. "Jharkhand is like a cake," says Ratan Tirkey, assistant director of Ranchi"s Bindarai Institute for Research Study and Action (BIRSA). "Some come hoping to get a slice, some for the crumbs, while others are drawn just by the flavour."

Indeed, politicians of all shades, have jumped onto the bandwagon for a separate state, be it in the form of a Vananchal or Vanrajya. Says public interest litigation lawyer and "advocate general" of Jharkhand, Rashmi Katayayan, "Current political parties and the leadership has done nothing either in terms of people"s rights or in relation to the environment and development."

Surprisingly, despite the fact that eminent anthropologists, development experts and tribal leaders have understood its problems, the Jharkhand issue has not been linked to the erosion of community rights nor the solution sought in terms of restoring them. Horo is apologetic, "Practical politics requires many compromises. We have a people"s forest policy, formulated as early as 1985 and a policy for the people, to restore the traditional community governance system. But lately we are concentrating on the statehood issue as none of our aspirations can be fulfilled otherwise." But the banter of the leaders does not mask their confusion about what the policy of the future state should be regarding forests, land, industrialisation or even cultural revival. The suave Bindeswari Prasad Kesri, of Ranchi University"s department of tribal languages, who is also a convenor of the Jharkhand Coordination Committee (JCC), shows off the akhara (small stadium) built in his department "to revive traditional culture". The cement structure is almost grotesque in comparison to the indigenous adivasi structures.

The JMM can only succeed through fear. Horo comments, "The JMM started as a Marxist front led by A K Roy of Dhanbad, but now it is a wing of the Congress. It consists of power-hungry wolves who thrive on rangdari abwabs (cesses charged by bullies)." Women head-loaders in Ranchi bazaar shy away from cameras or reporters, but confirm that they pay JMM cadres "for even the right to sit on the pavement".

The Jharkhand Chamber of Commerce backs the JMM to the hilt. But a member, Chandra Mohan Kapoor, who owns the posh Hotel Chinar in Ranchi, says, "The JMM will form a government at least once, but I do not know what will happen after that."

Mahato denies charges of corruption rather weakly, "My boys are better than those of the other parties, but in an atmosphere that is corrupt, who can remain a saint?" But Soren dismisses the charges as "idle rumours to break the movement".

The present movement has placed a lot of importance on the "revival of Jharkhandi culture". But, as historian Indu Dhan, principal of Ranchi College and a former vice-chancellor of Magadh University, asks, "What culture are they talking about? Jharkhandi culture is not just grass-skirt-clad women singing and dancing as tribals are shown in Hindi films and as some of the present leaders who lead dance troupes to Festivals of India seem to think. It is a combination of forest, land and women."

The women"s question has been clearly neglected by the movement. Jahanara Singh says that even in her husband"s days the women"s question was not given much importance, on the grounds that "adivasi women are happy with their roles and do not have any problems". She regrets the lack of efforts to conscientise women which, to Indu Dhan, is "one of the major reasons for the poor performance of the movement so far".

According to local surveys, women do some 60 per cent of the total family labour of gathering and roughly 70 per cent of this is devoted to firewood collection. While ecological destruction leads to a decline in general standards of nutrition and health, women are more directly and immediately affected being the providers for the family.

During A K Roy"s era, women did briefly assert their rights to economic independence and liberation from male oppression both within the family and outside. Women participated in JMM campaigns to seize land, harvest paddy on land appropriated by money-lenders, recover pawned articles and took part in village council deliberations.

These village councils were very democratic and men and women participated equally. These councils were not, however, institutions that decided the course of the movement. Women were not represented in the higher echelons of the party. Thus, while they participated at the level of mobilisation and action, they were not able to influence the course of the movement.

Today, in most parties be it the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) or the Hul Jharkhand Kranti Dal (HJKD), women do not hold key positions. The fledgling Jharkhand Mahila Mukti Samity (JMMS) has had its wings clipped with the ascent of the JMM. Most leaders hold forth on gender equality in adivasi society, with allusions to khorposh (maintenance rights) to land and crops granted to widows or unmarried daughters. But this institution serves local purposes because it keeps the land within the village and yet take care of the needy.

What is never mentioned is that often the khorposhdars were burnt or stigmatised and therefore marginalised. Even the debates initiated by the JMM in 1987 on the issue of women"s rights to land seem to have been submerged in the rising rhetoric over a separate statehood.

But ordinary people are not just passive observers. Vincent Lakra, the soft-spoken treasurer of the Xavier Institute of Social Studies (XISS), Ranchi, who filed a writ against the Koel Karo project in the Supreme Court in 1984, states unequivocally, "We need a separate state. The JMM can get that for us. But if they do not fulfill our aspirations, we shall dispense with them."

Lawrence Kerkatta, a young adivasi from south Bihar, who is visiting his sisters working as maids in Delhi says, "All our huls (revolts) were small compared to this ulugulan (smouldering ashes -- a protracted struggle). We shall not let it die till we get the right to decide our future." Lawrence is a potential oustee of Koel Karo.

A statue of Birsa Munda, who led a revolt against the British at the turn of the century, built by the Heavy Engineering Corporation ( one of the biggest eco-destructors of the area), welcomes you to Ranchi. "The statue," says Katayayan, "symbolises the plight of the average Jharkhandi today: manacled hands and bare feet walking mutely past the remnants of a forest-based culture lost with the denudation of the forests. Only a log is left behind for the adivasi."

Will the movement and its leaders unbind the Birsas and give them back what they have lost? Katayayan"s cryptic comment, "The movement is not a mass movement, yet the masses are moving", is borne out by villages like Raghunathpur (See box: "We can rule ourselves"), where the community has managed to organise itself and its environment. There"s hope yet that the people will eventually win, in spite of their leaders.

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