“If people protest in Mumbai or Delhi, it becomes the talk of the nation,” said tribal rights activist and lawyer Lalsu Soma Nogoti. “But a protest over here will never become the news.”
“Here” is a series of villages surrounding the Surajgarh hills and forests of Dandakaranya in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli. It’s home to Madia -Gond tribals, Maoists and, critically, deposits of iron ore, currently being mined by private companies.
The protest began on March 11 and has crossed 90 days. But the Adivasis’ pushback against mining has a bloody timeline dating back 15 years.
As reported by , Lloyd Steel was cleared to begin mining operations in 2007, which it commenced in 2011. In 2013, Maoists shot dead company officials. Three years later, village representatives passed a resolution demanding the government cancel “all present and proposed mining leases”.
But mining continues, , despite violating terms of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, by which mining cannot take place in these parts without permission from villagers. Gadchiroli has 1,567 villages of which 1,311 come under PESA.
Yet other companies got mining leases too – including JSW Ispat, Gopani Iron & Power, and Gadchiroli Metals & Minerals – and to protect these companies, the area is also dotted with police camps, where security forces grill Adivasis on why they’re entering or exiting their own villages.
The latest protest was triggered by a proposal for six new mining sites in the Surjagarh hills. Fearing that mining activities will soon reach Damkodwadvi, the villagers began their sit-in protest. More than 5,000 Adivasis gathered at Todgatta village near Damkodwadvi, where they’ve remained for the last 90 days.
Villagers protesting at Todgatta village of Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district.
Apart from threats to their homes and livelihoods, the Adivasis are also harassed by both security forces and Maoists – caught, as always, between violence on both sides.
‘Protesters beat up, threatened they’ll be termed Naxalites’
For the last seven years, Mangesh Narote has had to visit the local police station once a week. He said it’s because he’s been protesting against mining since 2013. In 2017, he was booked under section 353 for protesting outside Gatta police station . He was protesting in connection with the sexual assault on two tribal girls.
“They make me sit there from 11 am till 9 pm,” said Mangesh, 55, who lives in Beshewada village. “They tell me I’m a Naxal supporter just because I am protesting against mining.”
Mangesh’s stance against the mining is clear.
“We’ve been against it ever since we heard about it in 2014. This area is lush, green, beautiful and rich in minerals…We Madia-Gond are forest people. Our lives are based in the forest, and the forests are protected because we take care of them,” he said, adding that Surjagarh is the most sacred place for Madia-Gonds as the shrine of their ancestral tribal god Thakur Dev is located in the hills.
Mangesh said that authorities have been “harassing people who raise objections against mining” since 2016. Those who protest against mining are called to the police station, where they are allegedly “beaten up and threatened that they’ll be termed Naxalites”.
“It's mental harassment which has been going on for the last six years,” he said.
At least 70 gram sabhas have registered their protest against the mining operations so far. Despite the opposition, mining resumed in Surjagarh hills two years ago and now, five companies have won contracts to begin mining operations at six more locations in Damkodwadavi hills. These companies are Natural Resources Pvt Ltd, JSW Steel Ltd, Universal Services Pvt Ltd, Om Sairam Steel, and Sunflag Steel.
“The administration has proposed mining at the six sites within the range of 20-25 kms of Surjagad mountain. They also plan to propose mining at Damkodwadavi,” said advocate Lalsu Nogoti. “Madia-Gond are a primitive tribe and have community forest rights. But the government is giving some of the CFR areas to the mining companies. As per Forest Rights Act section 3(1)(E), primitive tribes have their habitat rights. Surjagad patti, Todsa patti and Vinara patti are our habitats.”
“They haven’t taken permission from even a single gram sabha,” said Sainu Vicchami, 30, who lives in Jharewada village. “Our livelihood depends on the jungle. The villagers in Surjagarh hill get employment worth around Rs 8-9 crore in a year from the forest produce of tendu and bamboo. If mining takes place here, we will lose our employment, besides losing our culture and tribe.”
“Our jal, jungle, zameen will be destroyed,” he added. “We will be displaced and our future generation will have to live like beggars in the towns and cities.” The villagers complain that because of the ongoing mining in Surjagad hills, their houses are constantly coated with dust. Children are unable to go out to play.
But Neelotapal, the superintendent of police in Gadchiroli, told Newslaundry the police “have not intimidated anybody”.
“Some people who are part of the protest – who are already on our records – are routinely called as part of preventive proceedings,” he said. “But we firmly believe it’s a Naxal-sponsored agitation. The Bhamragad area committee issued a pamphlet intimidating village heads to support the protest.”
He alleged the Gatta-Mendri road is being constructed by the public works department but that Maoists are “misguiding locals” into thinking the road is part of iron ore excavations. “Naxals don’t want it built because of their own apprehensions that police parties will visit the area.”
Advocate Nogoti said it is easy for police forces to defame a public protest in Maoist areas. “They just have to term it Naxal to raise questions about its credibility. They have been doing this for a very long time and in this case, they are doing the same.”
Suicide linked to mining in Surjagarh
On August 31 last year, Ajay Toppo, 38, had demanded compensation from the administration for the damage done to his field by the silt caused by mining on Surjagad hills. The resident of Malampaadi village had made the request at a Jansunwai, or people’s court, held by district collector Sanjay Meena.
Toppo was allegedly told by the government servant that he “did not have right over the land” in absence of patta and that he was not a tribal. On the same night, Toppo died by suicide. The incident led to widespread resentment against the administration.
Ajay Toppo's field covered in silt.
Notably, Toppo belonged to the Oraon tribe which is not scheduled in Maharashtra.
“Ajay was a tribal from the Oraon community. His family had moved here from Chhattisgarh,” said advocate Lalsu Nogoti. “They had been living in Malampaadi village for the last 25-30 years. They are engaged in farming and have also applied for the patta under the Forest Rights Act.”
He added that Toppo’s village is located on the foothills of the Surjagarh mountain, with silt from mining settling on the rice crops in farms and destroying them.
“Ajay had gone to attend the Jansunwai,” Lalsu said. “At last, the authorities had allowed people to ask questions. He requested compensation. But instead of resolving his problem, the collector insulted him publicly.”
Lalsu alleged that the collector told Ajay he wouldn’t get the compensation since he didn’t have patta and so his land would also be taken away. “He also told him he is not a tribal since the Oraon tribe isn’t scheduled in Maharashtra. This humiliation devastated him…If we go by his words, then he will not even consider our country’s president Draupadi Murmu as tribal in some states.”
Initially, Toppo’s family demanded action against the collector and held him responsible for his death. However, they were forced to withdraw the case, said Nagoti.
Ramdas Jarathe, a tribal rights activist in Gadchiroli, said, “We conducted a protest against his death , conducted a press conference and even wrote to the chief minister but nothing happened in the case. It was a tragic incident. How can a collector posted in the PESA area who is supposed to safeguard tribal rights himself exploit them?”
When asked about Ajay’s death, Gadchiroli collector Sanjay Meena said, “I went to a meeting in the field connected with the distribution of district mineral funds there. Because of some personal reason, an unfortunate incident happened and somehow got correlated. An inquiry has happened and everything was sorted out.”
It's significant to note that on September 22, 2022, a complaint with regard to Toppo’s suicide was registered with the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission.
Adding to tensions in the area, in October 2022, an Adivasi woman was by a truck driver working at the mines. It led to huge protests by the villagers across Ettapalli tehsil.
Increasing police presence, no politicians
Police stations are being built at a rapid pace on Surjagarh hills, activists and villagers told Newslaundry.
“The government is forcefully constructing police stations without taking the permission of gram sabhas,” said Vichchami, a protester. “This month they constructed a police station at Peepliburgi and have plans to bring more police stations at Todgatta, Morewada, Gardewada and Jharewada, among others. Security forces constantly threaten villagers for opposing mining, interrogating them on their whereabouts.”
On June 2, around 40-50 policemen along with six forest officials had visited Morewada village to survey land for the construction of a police station. However, they were met with the protests of the villagers. “We questioned them. We told them they cannot build a police station without the permission of the gram sabha, after which they left the place,” said Dasru Gota, 28, secretary at Morewada gram sabha.
One of the protesters against mining, Sushila Nogoti of Beshewada village, also alleged that the police keep threatening them for taking part in the protest. “They tell me I am protesting on the instructions of Naxalites. They just want to defame our protest.”
Security forces at one of the protest sites.
Protesters told Newslaundry they’re receiving no attention from politicians including Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is the guardian minister of Gadchiroli. However, students from across Maharashtra have been expressing support for the agitation.
A student leader of the Adivasi Yuva Chatra Sangathan, Rakesh Aalam, 25, said more than 200 students from across the state have taken part in the protests so far. “Police are harassing us. They have sent two notices on my name and called me for an inquiry too, but I didn't go. I have not committed any crime. I am just protesting to protect our forest, homes and livelihood.”
Aalam said their organisation took part in the protests after “studying the issue” and alleged that if mining continues in Surjagarh hills, “at least 40,900 people will get displaced.”
Newslaundry reached out to Aheri-Gadchiroli MLA Dharmrao Atram and Gadchiroli MP Ashok Nete. Both did not respond to our calls and queries.