Suman Nath, Haldia Government College. This article was part of his ongoing fieldwork in Paschim Medinipur, where he enquires about the links between local governance and large scale political changes.
Fig 1: Wooden plank used to cross the newly constructed fence.
Until recently, Jindal Steel Works (JSW) project, in Salboni, West Bengal was commonly believed to be a successful case of land acquisition without major unrest even at a time when land related movements were at their peak in Singur. The amount of land acquired is about 4562 acres of which only about 500 acres is taken from the villagers and the rest is part of an existing animal farm and vested land. With lack of irrigation and fertile land the compensation seemed lucrative which is Rs.600,000 per acre of which 50 percent is given in cash and rest as share to the company and one job per family. A daunting delay in implementation of the project because of problems with coal block allocation and transportation of water, in December 2014 JSW declares to give back 294 acres of land to the villagers[i]. This initiative is dubbed by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as “a pro-farmer move on the part of the industry group.”[ii]
This article, part of my ethnographic work in twelve villages surrounding the proposed project area, reflects on the loss of vital livelihood supports of the people surrounding the project area and resultant forced migration.
The Villages and the vested land:
Among 12 villages, five are inhabited by the Santals and the rest are multiethnic: occupied by castes like Mahato, Teli, Bagal, tribes like Santals and also a few Muslims. These are located approximately 10 - 15 km away from the National Highway 60, approachable through the farm road--- the name suggesting previously existing animal farm. Each of the villages depend heavily on forest and domestic animals – a dependence which has been supported by now obsolete animal farm and now acquired vested land. The multi caste villages perform agriculture and people from both these and tribal villages work as casual labour to neighbouring Medinipur town.
Fig. 2: Tree roots soon to be used as fuel.
When I started my fieldwork back in 2008, only a few pillars were installed marking the boundaries of the project area without halting free access to the acquired land which was moderately forested. Major resources which have been supporting their livelihoods since time immemorial include fuel wood, fodder, food, and medicines. The vested land also provided a space for the people to do open defecation. With Joint Forest Management initiatives some of the villagers also invested in production of cashew nuts from cashew trees in the forest. Over the years they have looked after those trees only to see them chopped down. In several villages Jaher Than, the sacred grove – essential aspect of Santal spirituality had to be removed which entailed not only emotional burden over the villagers but also a huge cost in performing the ritual. Post 2010, the construction of a wall covering a circumference of approximately 40 km began. JSW chopped down all the trees, levelled the land blocking the natural flow of water from Western side to the eastern side on which farming depended. Without the forest, people continue to dig up tree roots in order to meet their fuel needs. People sold off livestock because the grazing land fell within the project area and could not be accessed any longer.
Fig. 3: Reconstructed Jaher Than.
Where does the money go?
“When I had money as the compensation, my elder son started a business venture, my younger son demanded a motorbike. I had to pay some amount to my son-in-law. My wife wanted an expensive television. My neighbourhood friend needed a loan... the rest I have invested in a scheme with high return and as it appears I have been cheated...” [Reported by one of the older villagers after getting the compensation money]
From 2008 onwards it became difficult to talk to the villagers because of the visits by the ‘investment advisors’. These investment advisors could pursue most of the villagers who got compensation to invest in a variety of schemes starting from mutual fund to chit fund. By 2013 I could locate most of the motorbikes bought are no longer running because of the lack of money to buy the fuel. I could not identify a single villager generating durable asset. By 2013 a committee supported by the All India Trinamool Congress demanding quicker commencement of the project started rallying. One of the local leaders reflects in 2013:
“...some of us are given some preliminary training with a promise of job. We are taken to visit other plants by JSW to have a feel what this place will be soon. Now that we have lost all our money and assets, we need the factory to start as soon as possible...”
The compulsive migration:
With diminishing livelihood supports villagers started to migrate from the end of 2013. The first to move out was a group of young men to Karnataka not only to work as construction worker but also to keep in touch with JSW Karnataka. Today most of the families have at least one migrant labour. In absence of these youngsters the sports activities in the villages have also taken a beating. One of the local coaches who enthusiastically formed a football team in A. B. R. Kherwal Gaota Club reports “JSW steel plant has taken away more than our traditional forest dependent lives. It has destroyed relationships, raised walls between the villages, making near places distant... more painfully they have dismantled our team. My players are now construction workers who will never return...” [recorded in December 2014].