Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Community Resistance in Netrahat - Jharkhand

I wanted to provide this case narrative so that I could reference it for future need.

Case Report: Networked Resistance in Netrahat

The hilly plateau region of Jharkhand known as Netrahat was first used as an artillery firing range in 1956, notified under the Field Firing and Artillery Practice Act of 1938. For the last 37 years, up to 1994 the exercise has been conducted approximately three times a year lasting on average for about two days, but never more than 2 weeks. The process entails the mobilization of the army from its encampment at Namkun near Ranchi to the Netrahat hills. To reach the designated site the military must cross into the fields of local subsistence farmers in effect tearing up vital cropland and often during the monsoonal sowing season. Because of the serious danger involved with the exercise, all villages within the vicinity of the firing and impact areas were required to evacuate forcing people to make long journeys away from their homes. However, beyond the inconveniences associated with the exercises, the institutional arrangements surrounding the practice have only seemed to worsen what seem to be unnecessary hardships for the poorest sector of Indian society.

Though the Field Firing and Artillery Practice Act empowers the state government to provide the military access to certain areas for use or purchase; it also requires a set of guidelines to be followed for conducting the exercises. For instance, under the Act an area is made available for a specific amount of time through a public notification in the official gazette. This notification is essentially a declaration of intent to conduct the exercises, and is required at least two months in advance of the actual authorization to carry out the practice. Apart from publication in the local gazette, it must be published in local language newspapers, announced through beating of drums (a local practice of communication between local villages) and notices must be posted in centrally located public places. The same notification process is also to be repeated approximately a week before the actual authorization.

As an unfortunate example is the arrangement of notification, most area residents are not even aware of the intent to use the land until a couple of days before the army mobilizes to physically take possession of the area (PUDR, 1994). This has often left people unable to make sufficient preparations for the removal of livestock or the securing of other personal property before evacuating (ISI, 2004; PUDR, 1994). Unfortunately, little to no assistance is provided by authorities during this process. As a result, considerable numbers of livestock are lost during the exercises along with material damage to homes from stray shells and the degradation of crop land (Statesman, 1994).

Along with the problems of notification and the lack of time that people have to prepare resulting in the loss of life and property, the issue of compensation as prescribed by the Act has been a hotly contested (ISI, 2004; PUDR, 1994; Statesman, 1994). Though compensation for damages to life and property, as well as interference with rights and privileges are to be paid from the defense estimates, problems are rampant. In many cases no compensation is given or it is minimal, mirroring similar practices related to state-sponsored development programs (Kujur, 2006; PUDR, 1994).

However, in the case of the firing exercises the Revenue Officers dispatched from the District Collector in Ranchi (Jharkhand, State Capital) are to accompany the military during the process and to determine the amount of compensation to be granted to affected persons. The Revenue Officer (RO) is to consider all claims, determine the amount of compensation to be granted and distribute the funds. Unfortunately, the compensation is wholly inadequate; usually this does not amount to more than 1.50 to 2.50 rupees per day, per adult, and that is only if the villagers return home in time to collect (PUDR, 1994). Often they miss the distribution of compensation. Though a claimant can appeal the decision made by the RO, a commission headed by the District Collector is to decide such appeals and its decision is final, leaving the people without any further legal recourse (Kendriya Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004). Adding to problems within the process, it seems poor access to the RO has made it near impossible for many to pursue their claims anyway. Problems of corruption between the military and local governments, as well as the meager monetary reimbursements divvied out by the state government have all added to growing animosity and resistance to the exercises and the forcible displacement (Kendriya Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004; PUDR, 1994).

Round 1: 1992-1994
Despite the problems surrounding the practice, there appears to have been no apparent opposition except for minor indicators that discontent was brewing. Hardships in shifting people and property had increased due to state promotion of settled forms of agriculture in contrast to traditional nomadic practices. Yet, these hardships were minor sources of agitation in comparison to the rumors that the army had been quietly planning to permanently acquire a substantial part of the Netrahat plateau area (Hindustan Times, 1994; PUDR, 1994; Statesman 1994). By September of 1992 growing rumors regarding the impending land acquisition started to spread through the area villages, initiating the beginning of a full blown uprising. By July 1993 frequent military movement and aerial surveys gave further credence to the rumors. Again, this was amplified when a number of extensive surveys were carried out in 29 villages of Mahuadanr block by the local administration in later that year.

With growing alarm over the prospective proposal, various groups throughout the region began to discuss and coordinate on how to address the rumors. The Church which had been a powerful social entity within the region for well over a century through its numerous schools, rural credit institutions and cooperative societies facilitated in the genesis and growth of movement to oppose any proposed land grab (PUDR, 1994). As an intimate and interwoven institution in tribal life that had worked hard to end practices of usury by non-tribal elites and in its direct involvement with producing relatively higher literacy rates, the Church served as an informational and organization fulcrum that had secured the trust of both the Christian as well as non-Christian tribals, making it a central actor. Along with the local tribal panchayats and other social organizations such as the area’s student unions, a highly dense network emerged in response to the troubles.

Initiated in Mahuadanr where in one of the tri-monthly meetings of the Christian Society, it was collectively agreed upon that the exercises would finally be resisted. In order to initiate this resistance Chhaoni Visthapan Sangharsh Samiti, a community-action association was created consisting of five representatives from each village in the area who would act as coordinators to assist in mobilizing village residents. Within two days of declaring their intent to oppose the exercise they were able to organize a major demonstration of around 10,000 people in the main village of Mahuadanr. The ‘circle officer’ was surrounded by protesters and local agitators delivered a number of memoranda written up for the Prime Minister, President, Chief Minister and the Governor. Meanwhile the movement spread out towards Gumla district. In order to mobilize more people and promote more effective coordination among the growing opposition, a number of additional samitis (or community action groups) were created to including a network of village samitis, as well as a regional, block and a central samiti.

The organization leading the struggle was renamed as the Netrahat Field Firing Range Pilot Project Jan Sangharsh Samiti to emphasize their specific focus and connection to the movement. The Samiti gave a call for a state and national level campaign demanding for a full repeal of the Act, specifically citing the rumored acquisition. But at the time the network still lacked any concrete evidence regarding the plans of the state. A hunt was on for gathering information. In November 1993 the Jan Sangharsh Samiti got hold of two Special Gazettes which had been published as far back as November 1991 and March 1992 through which the state government was publicly notifying 245 villages of Palamu and Gumla districts of an impending string of exercises to be carried out regularly over the next decade. Overall, the notification claimed to cover an area of over 100,066 hectares which would directly affect over half a million people (Jan Shangharsh Samati, 1997; PUDR, 1994). Not long after they launched their fact-finding mission the Jan Sangharsh Samiti was able to access a number of internal documents highlighting the exchange between the military command and the local state government indicating that a proposal for permanent acquisition had also been put in motion. Through the concrete substantiation of these rumors the Jan Sangharsh Samiti helped provide further momentum to the movement.

Along with the Church and panchayats, students played a significant role in furthering the movement, as well. They organized themselves under the banner of Palamu Students Union and Hira Barwe Students Union. The organizations undertook local campaigns aimed toward maximizing contacts and building up a network in the region through mass dissemination of information, holding local village meetings and coordinating with other organizations in and outside of the area. Within a period of a few weeks the organizations were able to effectively organize a series of rallies, demonstrations and public meetings. By mid December 1993 a newly formed Banari-Bishunpur Student Union also stepped in and together the Bharat Naujawan Sangh from Daltonganj in Palamu also coordinated a protest campaign. By now the public response had become an enormous display of public outrage over the clandestine proposal of the government and military.

In a very short amount of time the agitation had already become a mass movement with additional support coming in from a number of major political parties such as the Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and even the Bhartiya Janata Party; Vikas Bharti, an RSS organization even passed a resolution to oppose the pilot project. Along with the growing political support within the area, the Adivasi Yuva Sangh (AyS), a Delhi based organization which sought to encourage greater visibility of the issues taking place on the other side of the country by organizing a rally and sit-in in Delhi, aimed at personally delivering a series of memoranda to the President and the Prime Minister.

In response to the movement, different and often conflicting reports kept pouring in from the state government, army officials and politicians as well as from the media (Jan Shangharsh Samati, 1997; The Pioneer, 1994; PUDR, 1994). It is unclear whether this was a campaign on intentional disinformation or whether the government’s own channels of communication were out of sync. Regardless of the information coming out to the public nothing had been formally announced to the adivasi, which ultimately served to fuel an ‘atmosphere of wild speculation, confusion and anxiety.’

While the debate continued over the proposed acquisition the commanding officer of the 23rd Artillery Battalion had sent notice to the District Collectors to go ahead and evacuate the villages for its annual exercises. In an attempt to make a stand against both the firing practice itself and reiterate their opposition to a permanent military installation, more than 50,000 people assembled at the road junction connecting Netrahat with Mahuadanr and Ranchi on March 21, 1994. According to reports most came on foot, walking from their villages for two days carrying their food provisions with them. Overnight the land between the villages of Jokipokhar and Tutwapani was transformed into a massive settlement where temporary dwellings were constructed.

Through a flurry of media, numerous rallies across the country and sustained contact with both state and national level leaders, the adivasi were effective in bringing public awareness to the issue in the Chota-Nagpur, as well as provide a window to the world of how the Indian state treats its tribal populations. When set against the fact that India had become a signatory to the UN’s declaration of the ‘Year of the Indigenous Peoples’ this opened the door for yet another wave of increased criticism as groups began to respond to the Nation’s own stated goals of providing inclusive and responsive policies towards its people (Kendriya Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004). With all of these elements coming together, culminating in the last stand (villagers blockade), it was finally acknowledged by the government that this was not just an uninhabited backwards region, but rather a place of serious consequence to their political legitimacy. Following the blockade of the military the government finally decided to put the firing exercises on hold for 11 years. Though this was not completely what they wanted it presented the villagers and their growing network of supporters with an opportunity to respond openly and directly when it was time to revisit the issue.

Round 2: 1999-Present
While it was thought that the next phase would be an open process of negotiation, just five years later in 1999 the Bihar government in coordination with the military had once again quietly extended the notification of the Project. This gave the army uninhibited accesses from 2002 till 2022 (ISI, 2004), reversing its previous decision without debate. Fortunately, the plans leaked to the public and notably much earlier than before. As a result, the people under the aegis of the reconstituted Jan Sanghash Samiti vehemently opposed the Project this time with only one demand; ‘the Project should be cancelled permanently,’ as well as all temporary exercises (ISI, 2004; Jan Sanghash Samiti, 2004). It seems they had grown tired of having to protect their land and livelihoods from those who would try to take it from them.

These announcements and the renewed commitment to local and national levels of agitation and advocacy sparked yet another clash between the governments’ public pronouncements and its actual policies regarding the tribal areas. Unfortunately, it has also helped fuel the more violent agitation taking place in the form of Naxalite militants striking out against elites and government installations throughout the region. Though it is not clear that this has been directly linked with the spike in Naxal violence, for many, the ongoing struggle has become a sign of the inherent untrustworthiness of the government and to the limitations of peaceful political action. These views have been growing, resulting in the growth of Naxal forces as well as their geographic sphere of influence throughout the entire Chota-Nagpur.

Despite the increased regional violence, in this second round of resistance the network that had emerged in the early 90s now has greater access to media, international supporters, as well as a developed body of useful strategic frames for advocating their case to the local and national governments, and just as importantly the public. Upon hearing of the government’s resumed plans for both the acquisition and renewed military exercise in the area the network quickly mobilized its media network, as well as local constituents, supporting government officials and began coordinating informational events both within the capital, and in Jharkhand. Since it had been several years since the nation had seen the images of protesters blocking military armaments in the newspapers, many of their tactics were about reifying the problems the tribals have faced within the minds of the public, as well as actively promoting a rapid process of conscientization of movement actors. They achieved this through providing the information and context of the problem taking place, highlighting the historical discriminations, framing it as ‘an ethnocide exacted upon the peoples of the region’ (ISI, 2004; Palamau-Gumla & Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004).

In highlighting the continued problems they activated the memory of the Sardovar Dam project and the millions of displaced peoples that were the result of the massive development program. They sought to remind both officials and the public that Netrahat was even worse; and that this was a case that did nothing to promote development of the people as had been argued by supporters of the dam project, rather Netrahat was in comparison a “senseless acts of forcible displacement” (ISI, 2004; Palamau-Gumla & Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004). To strengthen this argument and to represent the scale of the trouble they note that intended numbers of people to be displaced by the proposed project would even exceed the numbers projected from the Sardovar Dam (Jan Sangharsh Samati, 2004) (though this appears an exaggeration based upon the numbers available to researcher at the time). They also sought to promote a sense of pride and unity among the tribal groups in direct opposition to the dominate Hindus and the growing religious nationalism that has been spreading throughout the nation (Corbridge & Harrisson, 2000; Corbridge, 2003; Roy, 2002). Many of the rallies were accentuated with a festive atmosphere consisting of traditional adivasi dance and music. There were events in which old adivasi war songs and prayers were recited to evoke a sense of connectedness to each other and their land, a place of collective history (AIFAIP, 2001; PUDR, 1994).

This time however, they began to activate a larger sphere of nodes in the network based upon the growth in relations developed through the proliferation in communication technologies and an overall global peace and justice movement that was rapidly gaining steam among local and international NGOs in the form of regional international forums. These forums such as the World Social Forum (WSF) or the World Federation on Tribal and Dalit Rights (WFDTR) provided venues for groups such as the Jan Sanghash Samiti, South Asian Peoples Initiative (SAPI) and ISI to tell of the troubles taking place in Jharkhand. In bringing awareness to other groups they also sought these spaces as venues for the exchange of ideas and new strategies for engagement.

Though the government has sought to re-visit the Netrahat issue, through the sustained mobilization of the local adivasi, the persistent media attention and the growth in international networks exchanging information and resources, things have remained as they were when the army left in 1994. It is now 2007, and there has yet to have been a renewed instance of military exercises in the region despite the military’s insistence and the economic benefit that the purchase would have for a cash-strapped government. In considering that already 18.5 million tribals that have been displaced in this region for various reasons, usually in the name of development, it becomes clear that there has been little to keep the government from carrying out its demands. However, over the years as India has sought to emerge into the world as a progressive and developed country, issues of marginalization and disastrous examples of blatant disregard for human and political rights only serve to frame the country as backward, just as elites intend to frame the adivasi as ‘backwards’. This has not sat well for many in government and as a result these networks have been able to use this changing sentiment to their advantage to successfully plead their cases to local and national level politicians sympathetic to their cause.

Despite entrenched social and cultural values that frame ‘low-caste’ elements of society and tribal societies as 4th class peoples who are stupid and backward, undeveloped and simply unfortunate; this case is interesting as it shows that with persistent action some of these very strong social and cultural blocks can be either overcome or circumvented. The case is also intriguing as it spans an entire decade and more specifically it represents a time in which the explosion in the usages of information and communication have become so powerful a tool for civil society. Similarly, there has been an emergence of a number of internationally organized conferences that have served to influence perceptions through the virulent exchange of information through usages of tactical media.

On the heels of the WSF, a number of researchers and activists affiliated with ISI, or directly linked through the organizational structures provided by the Church’s global justice network, such as Jesuits in Social Action (JESA) which forms a part of the South Asian Secretariat, helped coordinate the WFDTR which focused specifically on Indian social policies towards the most excluded sectors of the population. Together with these conferences organizations both in Delhi, as well as those within Jharkhand, groups such as SAPI and JESA have provided venues for smaller workshops and conscientization session aimed at sharing experiences and information regarding respective issues. These groups have also shared strategies, exchanged resources such as media contacts, or served as conduits through which smaller groups could thereby gain access to government officials and other decision makers in Indian society.

While ISI, JESA and the Social Justice Secretariat (SJS, another Jesuit institution) were not specifically associated with the initial thrust of the movement, as organizations directly linked to the Church and other Christian institutions by way of past collaborations, as well as the personal connections staff had with the movement; these advocacy and research centers began to take a much more direct role. Not only did they act as conduits for the flow of information and resources within the network, but as direct linkages strengthened they became central partners in the facilitation for mobilizing local constituents in the urban areas, such as Delhi. In fact, ISI and JESA both in coordination as organizationally connected, but separate bodies helped organize numerous rallies in Delhi to bring awareness to lawmakers in the capitol whose polices had a direct impact upon the adivasi.

However, as ISI Director Jimmy Dabhi states, “these forums are only so useful since it is like preaching to the converted” (J. Dabhi, personal communication, July 9, 2006). For him it has become more important to inform and influence the greater Indian populace. As a result it became necessary to develop a number of media tools, like video documentaries that would provide windows into social issues such as Netrahat, or would highlight the more general problems of tribal rights. Similarly, a host of web related media emerged through usages of e-mail listservs, collaborative websites such as: India-Seminar (http://www.india-seminar.com), India Together (http://www.indiatogether.org/) and the WFDTR conference site (http://www.wfdtrindia.org).

Together with these organizational enterprises, individual activists began taking advantage of the growing number of Internet cafes in Ranchi, and began utilizing the number of free internet hosting sites such as Geocities to publish open letters and documents concerning the situation in Netrahat. It is interesting to note that some of these same documents have thus been published on larger sites. Take for instance the open letter written by Cyprian Ekka, a Jesuit, which describes the situation in Netrahat (show on Geocities/ link no longer active) and then later published on the Asian Human Rights Commission (2002) and the Social Justice Secretariat websites (2002).

However, along with the uses of digital media through the web and video, nodes within the network realized early on the limitations of both video and internet communications in the region they are working in (such as: problems of access to communication technologies), and have focused much of their efforts in generating a wealth of written documentation and scholarly research useful in advocating their message. Through the use of well structured research that provides a contextual understanding of the historical, as well as cultural realities faced by tribal groups in India they have been able to not only activate the consciousness of concerned groups and area officials, but have been able to broaden the audience of their campaigns by speaking to distinct groups with distinct levels of media access and literacy. This approach in effect enabled the network to maximize its audience by tailoring the information and its presentation to fit the audience. As an example, through their research they are able to speak with authority to larger international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, DFID and in fact ISI is designated as being in special consultation with ECOSCO regarding regional development issues specifically concerning gender and tribal social welfare.

1 comment:

Gaurav said...

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