Sonbhadra's daughters

Sonbhadra’s daughters: How a motley group of Dalit women run a fierce campaign to save the Kanhar river

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE media’s capacity for outrage is often limited by a bias of privilege. Thus it is that both the unjust arrests and the dauntless struggles of Sukalo Gond, Kismatiya Gond, Rajkumari Bhuiya, Lalti Paswan and Shoba Bharti have been overlooked by most mainstream news publishers as has been the Kanhar Bachao Andolan, the movement being conducted by the residents of 87 villages in Dudhi and Robertsganj tehsils of Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh against the Kanhar Dam Project, the projected benefits of which are doubtful and which threatens to submerge forests and farmland located on over 2,500 hectares.

On March 23, 2018, all these women were part of 2,500-strong delegation from 20 villages that marched to the district magistrate’s office to file community resource rights on behalf of their respective gram sabhas for 500 bigha of land as required by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). After this procedure got over, on May 18, Sukalo, Kismatiya, Sukhdev Gond and 22 others legally reclaimed three bigha of that land in Lilasi village that had been seized from them by the forest department.

Women at the forefront of Kanhar Bachao Andolan | Photo credit: Sweta Daga/People’s Archive of Rural India

The backlash was violent and strong. Local land mafia led by Baniya Agarwal families who had settled on the 500 bigha cracked down on them, armed with swords and iron rods, and forced them to leave the site. This violence was followed by police raids at some homes. However, on June 6, led by Kismatiya and Nandu Gond, the band of 25 met state forest minister Dara Singh Chouhan and got his assurance that their appeal would be looked into.

However, Sukalo, Kismatiya and Sukhdev were picked up from Chopan railway station by police even though the two women had no FIRs against them. A chargesheet was then filed accusing them of attempt to murder, assault, trespass and felling of trees under Sections 147, 148, 149, 307, 323, 504, 353, 332, 333, 336, 427 and 120B Indian Penal Code, Section 7 of Criminal Law Amendment Act, Sections 3 and 5 of Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 and Sections 5 and 26 of Indian Forest Act, 1927.

Also surprisingly, the Allahabad High Court sat on the habeas corpus petition filed for Sukalo and Kismatiya’s release on June for three months before dismissing it in September. The case is now ongoing at the local sessions court, Robertsganj. While Kismatiya got her bail approved weeks earlier, on October 4, Sukalo got her bail.


Dam-ning a river and crores of lives


But this is not Sukalo’s first tryst with the law. With 15 cases against her, the 51-year-old community leader was first arrested alongside 500 others on April 14, Ambedkar Jayanti, following a police firing on a peaceful protest against the dam which injured Aklu Cheroo, a protester.  Those arrested included All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) deputy general secretary Roma Malik and Rajkumari who is also an AIUFWP member. The two men who helped take Aklu to hospital were also arrested. All of them were also and shockingly charged under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code for attempt to murder. But no action has been taken against the police.

The 1976 map showing the original Kanhar project document

Many of the protesters had walked for days to reach the dam site. They were objecting to the revival of the Kanhar project.

Located downstream of the confluence of River Pagan with Kanhar near Sugawan village, the Kanhar dam had been first ideated to fulfil twin objectives of irrigating 108 villages and boosting the power supplied by the Rihand hydel project. It was originally approved by the Central Water Commission in September 1976 but had been kept in cold storage for over 25 years, ostensibly due to funding problems. But in the current decade, the project saw successive re-inaugurations — first by Mayawati in 2011 and by Shivpal Yadav next in 2012.

Yet, following a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) filed by Debadityo Sinha of Vindhya Bachao Andolan and Om Dutt Singh of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), the Justice Swatanter Kumar (retired)-led bench stayed any further construction on the dam site, vide an order dated December 2014, stating that the environment clearance granted to the project over three decades ago was not valid anymore in the light of new facts and due to climate change. But on an apparently contradictory note, the bench said the portion of work that had already begun could go on.

In the 43 years that have passed, the project cost has escalated from Rs 28 crore to close to Rs 3,000 crore.

Sone is in critically modified (Class F) condition with discharge of mere 5.16 percent of Mean Annual Runoff (MAR) and it will require at least 34.2 percent of MAR to bring it to the slightly modified class (Class B), loss of aquatic species (the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute reported disappearance of 20 fish species from Sone in the time span between 1976 and 2011), huge magnification of carbon footprint owing to loss of lakhs of trees, and loss of infrastructure belonging to over 24,000 residents of 36 villages. There has been no forest and environment clearance granted to this project. As the NGT order stated, the clearance documents obtained 38 years ago are invalid in the light of climate change and the fact that there was little knowledge about the environment when those were obtained.

There was no cost-benefit analysis or social impact survey done as required by the 2013 Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, the new land acquisition act.

A dam that is bad in law


The project has also overlooked an important clause in the 2013 Act. Section 24 Subsection 2 states that “if the acquired land has not (been) used or (were) not in possession for five years, the process of acquisition would have to start afresh”. Ravi Kumar Jain, president of People’s Union of Civil Liberties and legal counsel for five village panchayats at the Allahabad High Court which have contested building of the dam, says that the government started taking steps to acquire land way back in 1977 but it never really got possession. The deadline for possession was January 2014, as per the new act, which is the law currently in force. That has got over.

Kanhar Dam Project endangers several districts and villages, impacting lakhs of people.


Also, during this time, the affected people were undergoing a “long period of uncertainty” and they should be compensated for it. In fact, only a few people actually got some compensation in the 1970s and most of the Adivasis were left out. Jain also mentions that according to the Constitutional (73rd and 74th amendment) Acts, the project cannot take place on the floodplains of the river, citing the precedent of Uttarakhand’s Tehri dam case.

With his arguments he is hopeful of a positive outcome but told this correspondent, “A Supreme Court constitution bench is currently hearing the matter of correctly interpreting this very Section. Till that verdict comes, the hearings of all cases pertaining to it have been adjourned indefinitely.” Thus, filed in 2008, this case is still ongoing.

Experts also point out that the project is a replica of the Rihand dam which also caused massive displacement of families but proved to be a disaster in terms of fulfilling irrigation promises. Water from that dam is now being used primarily by a couple of big business groups in the energy sector.

In fact and interestingly, in April 2015, the very month of the protest, the chief secretary of Chhattisgarh district which also shares Kanhar waters wrote to his counterpart in Uttar Pradesh that according to a survey, an area of 258.4 hectares was feared to be submerged in the state’s Balrampur-Ramanujganj district should the project take shape. Five villages will also be submerged in Jharkhand affecting a population of 12,400 people.

Ironically, the chargesheets in both incidents contain tree-felling (Sections 5 and 26 of Indian Forest Act, 1927).

“Cutting trees is seen as sin in our culture and we have strict fines and punishments if someone does that. Trees are our life and we are protecting them for our children,” says the pradhan of Sundari village. Sundari is set to be the first village that will be submerged by the project.


Shobha and Ram Gareeb | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga/People’s Archive of Rural India

‘We will not yield’


What is heartening, however, is that the AIUFWP has organised a massive democratic movement against the dam and for forest land encroached upon by the government. As mentioned earlier, the gram sabhas have filed community resource rights. Resettlement moves have begun and succeeded in some places despite all the odds.

Ashok Choudhary, who is general secretary of AIUFWP, told this correspondent, “In tribal communities, it is women who are the forest workers, collecting dry wood, honey, lac, bael, mahua, tendu and sal leaves and other forest produce which they sell to sustain their families. Men typically work as daily-wagers for landed gentry or in projects. So if the forests are lost, their livelihood is directly affected. Also, women, with their traditional social network, enjoy an advantage in terms of mobilising people in support of a cause. These are the things we have come to learn while working on the ground. It has been seen that women can be as undaunted as men when it comes to absorbing losses and facing down challenges. Credit goes to my late wife Bharti Choudhary in educating us about women’s crucial role in people’s movements and giving fruition to our idea of involving women.”


Lalti and Shyamlal | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga/People’s Archive of Rural India


As if to prove his point, Sukalo told this correspondent that she was ready to go all the way to the gallows for her mission. “Why should I abandon the fight? Why should turn back from the cause for which I went to jail and took on difficulties? The enemy is afraid to openly threaten me. As for sending me to jail, even if they hang me, I will not backtrack,” she said.

Days after she was jailed, Sukalo began a hunger strike in prison. For five months she did not take vegetables, dal or grain. Made aware of her protest, Congress president Rahul Gandhi met her in jail. In August, the Congress submitted a petition to Governor Ram Naik seeking implementation of FRA in Sonbhadra district.

Sukalo is a mother of five. She has lost her eldest son to alleged but gross medical negligence at the Hindalco hospital, the nearest medical facility. The Hindalco aluminium plant, run by the Birla group, was supposed to be one of the beneficiaries of the dam. “Even though the hospital is mandated to provide free treatment to Adivasi patients, medical negligence of poor there is a routine practice,” Roma said.

Whither the right to dissent or reform?


Under Articles 19 and 32, every citizen of India has the right to question policy, form unions and associations, assemble peacefully to protest and help others secure legal representation. Roma (58), who is a master’s in social work from Delhi University and a lawyer, works for land, water and forest issues and has been mobilising the Sonbhadra movement since 2000. She has been arrested and jailed twice — once in 2007 and another time in 2015. Like others before her, Roma has been targeted with malicious criminal prosecution specifically for defending human rights and seeking accountability in the functioning of various institutions, not to mention exercising her fundamental rights to dissent and assist her fellow citizens.

Roma Malik (58), who is a master’s in social work from Delhi University and a lawyer, works for land, water and forest issues and has been mobilising the Sonbhadra movement since 2000. She has been arrested and jailed twice — once in 2007 and another time in 2015. 


“The trigger for the first arrest had been our slogan, ‘jo zameen sarkari hai, who zameen hamari hai’. It had been a civil dispute of encroachment and land-grab. They had also accused us of felling trees under the 1927 Forest Act, even though it had been replaced by the FRA. The cases were filed from 10 police stations in the region. In one case, there were, including me, 70 accused; in another, there were 100, in another there were 60 and so on. What was surprising was that, even though these had been peaceful protests, they had criminalised entire villages. They were building up a criminal history of these tribes. I was called a ‘dangerous woman’, a threat to the security of the area. It is a conspiracy to brand us as Maoists which has in fact failed,” Roma said.

The magistracy is the most important unit of the judiciary and the first and primary guardian of liberty. Before issuing an order for arrest, the magistrate is supposed to scrutinise the case diary.

Yet, the second time around in 2015, when Roma was arrested along with 500 others for demonstrating peacefully against the dam on Ambedkar Jayanti, police got prior signature on the arrest or kurki (land seizure) warrants from then Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate (ACJM) Sonbhadra SK Paswan, on the plea that Roma and the others were not attending hearings even when the summons had not been issued and they had no information about the case. The summons arrived one month after the police raid.

But if the oppression has been relentless, there have also been individual success stories. These have emerged from among the worst repression and financial, social and moral pressures. And continuing them is a daily challenge, but one that is not quite insurmountable as the Establishment and our society would have everyone believe.

Sonbhadra’s daughters


Fifty-year-old Shoba Bharti and Lalti Paswan (65) are the real faces of what could have been Sonbhadra’s #MeToo movement in actual terms. Together with their husbands and comrades, 55-year-old Ram Garib and 70-year-old Shyamlal, they are also the two ‘most wanted’ couples of the tehsil. All are Dalit by caste. Dalits form 20 percent of the population in Sonbhadra district.

While Shoba has led a successful movement of legally reclaiming 150 bigha of farmland and forest near Badi village in 2010 four years after she was raped by one Kalwant Agarwal, a small businessman (who had waylaid her after gaining her trust by helping her run the home following Ram Garib’s arrest for participating in the forest rights movement), Lalti and Shyamlal have spearheaded a 2006 resettlement of 62 landless tribal and Dalit forest dwellers on 58 hectares of forest land in Harra-Biraula where they have started cooperative farming which continues to this day.

Shoba and her comrades have named their resettled colony Durga Tola as a means to remind themselves of their own power and courage. Shyamlal and Lalti, meanwhile, remain themselves landless and work odd jobs for daily wages along with their three sons. They have five grown children. Shoba and Ram Garib own three bigha just outside Durga Tola and subsist on seasonal farming as well as odd jobs. They have six children.

Sonbhadra’s daughters | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga/People’s Archive of Rural India


The price the four have paid for standing up for community rights, however, is steep and still being exacted. Shyamlal faces 21 cases and has been booked under the Goonda Act. The gritty activist won one of them in 2016 in a local court in Mirzapur, only to witness the forest department appeal that verdict in the sessions court. On February 3, the police picked him up, took him to the thana and declared him a history-sheeter. “They threatened to implicate me should any crime occur in the district and then let me go,” Shyamlal told this correspondent, quite matter-of-factly. Despite the injustice and the tremendous hardship, Shyamlal is cheerful, poised and articulate. Adversity and a lifetime of de-humanisation have failed to break him or steal his soul.

Lalti faces 16 cases and has been to jail four times. In 2010, the land mafia raided the village looking for the activists. The couple was beaten up badly and four men gang-raped Lalti. Undeterred, Lalti filed an FIR and a case. “Gopal Patel, van daroga Vyasmuni Dubey van daroga Vijayshankar Yadav, Govind Dubey,” Lalti names her assailants. She adds, “Not one of them has been arrested.”

“It all started with the enactment of FRA. When the forest officials saw they were fighting a losing battle, they cracked down with the help of police and the upper caste land mafia. A case of illegal quarrying was filed when we used mud and stones to construct kuccha houses, trespassing when our cattle strayed into the forest, tree-cutting for collecting dry wood for cooking and when we demonstrated, FIRs were filed accusing us of instigating riots and vitiating peace,” Shyamlal explains.

Shoba, for instance, is fighting two legal battles. She has filed a case against Agarwal in the ACJM court, and another against the forest department for attacking her, her three daughters and 18 others with sticks, bows and arrows and swords and setting her house on fire when she locked herself inside it. “The attackers came in a mob comprising both men and women. While they went about beating us, police and forest department officials, who had arrived in their jeeps, stood by and watched over them. When we ran out to flee the flames, they arrested us.”

The women and girls were driven to Mirzapur prison where they stayed for 15 days. They were released only when the AIUFWP staged a protest at the DM’s office. Shoba then filed her counter-case. However, police closed the investigation and, according to Vinod Pathak, her advocate, made her sign on an affidavit which they allegedly used to implicate her in court. Hearings continue.

Apart from daily character assassination attempts on her and her daughters, Shoba and Ram Garib sometimes do not find people to give them work or help them till the land. “It is because villagers are persuaded against helping us by officials and local strongmen,” she says. Lalti has been called a dayan or a witch. But for every person who mistreats her and Shyamlal, there are several others who hold them in high regard.

“The entire village stands with us,” says Shyamlal. Janki Gond, a resident who is also an AIUFWP worker, said, “Even though they are treated as criminals by the officials, to us, they are no less than heroes.”

Shoba has been verbally intimidated with the threat that shooters from Jharkhand had been hired to eliminate her. “It’s not that there aren’t moments when the resistance seems futile. But I look back and see the distance we have travelled and then there is no regret,” she told this correspondent. “We are fighting the good fight. What have we to be ashamed of?” Lalti says.

A moderate hope


“There are about 75 cases pending against various community leaders invoking the old Forest Act and the old land acquisition act, and even the IPC by way of framing baseless and frivolous charges. The CJP is working to quash them,” says Teesta Setalvad, secretary, CJP, and AIUFWP vice-president.

“In this ongoing election season, we are finding out from various political parties what their intentions are vis-à-vis the FRA, whether they are including policies to implement it in their manifestos. For that purpose, we have begun our own campaign. Whichever party comes to power, we will demand a three-day session in parliament exclusively on the FRA, so that all its anomalies, positives and negatives are laid out and discussed. The CJP and AIUFWP will contribute to this discussion. We hope to come out with a definitive solution.”