Why Dayamani Barla cannot give up her homeland
By keeping the tribal activist in prison on one charge or the other, the Jharkhand government is actually trying to demoralise the villagers of Nagri who’re resisting the large-scale usurping of their land in ‘public interest’
By G Vishnu and Soumik Mukherjee
ON 24 NOVEMBER, tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla filed her third consecutive bail plea in a month, only to be turned down by a District Court in Ranchi. Dayamani had surrendered on 16 October after a warrant was issued by the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ranchi, for a 2006 case against her relating to a protest demanding MNREGA job cards for villagers in Angada block, Ranchi. Though she got bail in this case on 19 October, she was not released as another case was slapped on her – for leading villagers of Nagri, 15 km from Ranchi, to plough land that had been acquired by the state government. The decision to plough the land – as villagers corroborate – was taken by the entire community as a token of civil disobedience in the face of losing their livelihood.
The charges against Barla include obstructing a public servant, rioting, criminal trespassing and defamation. She also received a contempt notice from the Jharkhand High Court for allegedly participating in the burning of an effigy of the court by a group led by Salkhan Murmu of Jharkhand Dishom Party.
As an earlier TEHELKA profile of the lady mentions, (Raise High the Roof Beams - Vendor of Tea and Truth, 22 August 2009), growing up in Arhara village in Jharkhand, Dayamani Barla, 44, could have been just one of the faceless thousands displaced by the world’s largest steel plant. Today, she leads the mass movement against it. She could have been another adivasi with a crumbling house and a buried story. Instead, she became a storyteller, the “voice of Jharkhand,” and as the founder of the Jan Hak Patrika, also the first tribal journalist from the state. Barla, who worked as a domestic help to fund her graduation, has even been subjected to an attempt to rape. It was in the late 90s that she went back to Khunti district to become a part of the mass movement against building of dams on the Koel-Karo rivers.
From 2005 onwards, Dayamani sustained the mass movement against Arcelor Mittal for six years, until the company as well as the government conceded defeat. In a spectacular show of mass strength, Dayamani had managed to mobilise people to keep up the dissent – miraculously avoiding the attrition that usually afflicts people's movement when family after family gives up on its land due to helplessness. By 2009, the movement had gotten so strong that even some Left-wing extremist militant groups felt threatened by their constituency being led away by Barla.
The $8.9 billion Arcelor-Mittal steel plant project, spread over 12,000 acres, would have displaced almost 70,000 people from 45 villages. The plant was proposed in the same block that had seen three decades of agitation against the Koel-Karo hydel project since 1973 – easily the longest people's movement against displacement in independent India – which has benefitted massively after Dayamani became a part of it in the late 90s.
From 2010 onwards, Dayamani has been spearheading the agitation against the Jharkhand government’s acquiring of 227 acres of farmland in Nagri to set up campuses of the Indian Institute of Management, the Indian Institute of Information Technology and the National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), by displacing 600 tribal families. “Clearly, the government is trying to crush the protest by slapping false cases on the leaders. It hopes to demoralise the protesters by keeping Dayamani in prison,” says journalist Faisal Anurag, a friend of Dayamani’s.
Jharkhand DGP GS Rath told TEHELKA that Dayamani had been evading arrest for some time until surrendering. “The warrant was issued for non-appearance. It is a judicial matter. The court denied her bail. She is the main accused in the Nagri case of 15 August 2012,” he said.
The Nagri land is a case in point of how a state meant for tribal people did everything possible to worsen the plight of the Adivasi people who are already plagued with poverty, hunger and illiteracy. Government bulldozers ran amok on the 227 acres of farming land – the only source of livelihood for the inhabitants of Nagri – in December 2011 when the winter crops were ripe for harvesting.
In June, TEHELKA was amongst the very few publications that covered the people's resistance in Nagri. According to the government, the land was acquired in 1957-58 for building a seed farm for the Birsa Agricultural University (BAU), but the seed farm never took off. The land was later allotted as a goodwill gesture to the IIM and NUSRL for free by the Jharkhand government. This is despite the fact that just 100 metres from this land, across a highway, lies a vast stretch of infertile land. Sources in the government said the barren land would be earmarked for a new Assembly building, and for constructing quarters for government employees.
But villagers of Nagri deny they ever gave up their land in the first place. A Right to information (RTI) application filed by the villagers revealed that in 1957, the then unified Bihar government had acquired land and given a total compensation of Rs 1,55,147.88 to 153 families. Of these, only 25 families accepted the compensation, at a rate of Rs 2,700 per acre. The remainder refused to let go of their land and declined the compensation. The money went back to the government the same year. Now, almost 60 years later, the same land is priced at Rs 1.5 crore per acre, bringing the value of the total land to around Rs 350 crore.
What is even more astounding is that villagers of Nagri kept paying land revenue to the government till February 2012. On being asked how revenue was being collected on acquired land, Deputy Commissioner KK Soan said, “The land revenue department has not received any revenue money after 2007, and neither has it issued any receipt.” He claimed that the land had been legally acquired in 1957, adding, “Just because 128 families refused to give up their land and did not accept compensation does not imply that the land was not acquired by the government."
When Soan was reminded of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, which stipulates that agricultural land cannot be sold or transferred to a non-Adivasi for commercial purposes, he said, “In this case, the land is being used for public purpose." But in the case of the villagers of Nagri vs the State, it is still unclear whose purpose, and especially what public purpose is being served. KK Soan has since been transferred. This stand of the BJP-led government has drawn flack from even its own ally in the state. “We asked the government to take notice of the plight of these farmers and shift the institutes to another location. No one heeded the call,” says Supriyo Bhattacharya, a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader.
Besides, the pertinent question is why wasn’t possession taken of the land ever since it was acquired 55 years ago. To which, Soan simply retorts, “There are hundreds of acres of acquired land in the state where possession is yet to be taken." But this simply raises more brows over the rationale of such acquisitions without any purpose.
When Tehelka contacted the newly appointed DC of Ranchi, Vinay Kumar Chaubey, he refrained from commenting on the case, citing it sub-judice. Later on, he went on to say, “No one has arrested her (Barla). She came and surrendered to the Jharkhand Police for her link with an old case.”
As is the case with most such projects, the setting up of NUSRL and IIM has many proponents in the middle-class of Ranchi. So much so that the Jharkhand High Court, while delivering a judgment against the people protesting the projects in Nagri, took into consideration a report on agricultural viability of the said land, created by law students who will be studying in the NUSRL once it's set up. Never mind the fact that the Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court Prakash Tatia is also the Vice-chancellor of NUSRL – a fact that the activists see as a simple case of conflict of interest.
Dayamani seems undaunted by all this. In a letter to Faisal from prison, she expressed greater resolve in the fight against displacement: “I have never deceived my homeland, never overlooked the questions raised by the Jharkhand people. The flowing water of the Koel, Karo and Chata rivers is a witness to this. I learnt to write with my fingers in the mud and sand of this land. On the banks of the river Karo, while grazing my sheep, I learnt to bathe and swim. The shade of trees covered with dew gave me love; how can I sell this? How can I not make into a part of myself the suffering of the society that taught me how to live?”
The jailed activist’s letter shows she doesn’t find her incarceration really shocking. She writes: “To protect the interests and rights of these people is our responsibility. And I think this is the only way for those who try to fulfill this responsibility. Only dangers and troubles are written in their fate, this is the reality of life... We will not give even an inch of our ancestral land. We hope this moment will not be the end of our lives because as long as the Koel, Karo and Chata continue to flow, we will fight this battle.”
A diabetic with blood pressure issues, Dayamani’s plea to the jail authorities to provide her with appropriate food went unheeded until CPM politburo member Brinda Karat intervened. “They weren’t even providing the right food. The Jharkhand government rewards those who break the Fifth Schedule and displace Adivasis, and imprisons Adivasis who fight for their rights,” Karat told TEHELKA.
Dayamani’s husband Nelson Barla, who runs a tea shop, sees little hope of her getting released soon. “She is fighting a lonely battle. In this case, both the government and the judiciary seem to be interested parties. For now, it appears that she has been cornered,” he says. “But she is not someone whose spirit breaks so easily.”
Interestingly, while Dayamini spends her time in prison for leading the Nagri movement, things have come a full circle for the village as the paddy – sown last monsoon on the acquired land as an act of defiance by villagers trying to retain their last source of livelihood – is ready for harvesting.
Ironically, last week at an anniversary function of the state, Chief Minister Arjun Munda had said that “farmers are the builders of this nation”. But the farmers at Nagri will have to wait. They can’t harvest their own crop as after court orders, any activity on that land would be considered an offence.
G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
Soumik Mukherjee is a Correspondent with Tehelka.