41 coal auctions were cleared by New Delhi during the pandemic, most in forest & tribal areas. Chief Minister Hemant Soren of Jharkhand, a majority tribal state, talks to us about mining, migrant workers and hunger in his villages.
New Delhi: Hemant Soren, the 44-year-old leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is a second-generation politician and the country’s sole Adivasi Chief Minister.
His first act on becoming Jharkhand’s Chief Minister in December 2019—this is his second term—was to withdraw sedition cases lodged by the previous government against villagers in Khunti district who were part of the latest iteration of an Adivasi rebellion tradition called the Pathalgadi movement, launched this time in 2016 against the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government move to allow land sale to non-tribals.
In February 2020, Soren also ordered police in Dhanbad to drop sedition charges against people protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), tweeting, “Laws do not exist to intimidate and suppress people, but to make them feel secure.”
Soren also received national attention when he became the first chief minister to organise the first of many flights, from cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Leh, for Jharkhandi guest workers stranded in major cities after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice on 24 March 2020.
A former member of Parliament, Soren spoke to Article 14 on the inter-state migrant workers crisis through the months of the lockdown, why he is challenging the Narendra Modi government in the Supreme Court on coal auctions, and environmental policies in an era of climate crisis and pandemics.
How do you look back on the weeks of the lockdown, and the workers’ crisis? States like Jharkhand were particularly impacted.
When the Modi government declared the lockdown at four-hour notice without taking our state governments into confidence, they threw the country into a crisis. Policymakers and governments, and even this country as a whole, have clearly not paid as much attention as they should to the sheer scale of inter-state migration in this country, and the welfare of such workers. We have not done a study but most of those impacted were people from the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes.
For example, those who were stranded in Ladakh (at project sites of the Border Roads Organisation) were almost all tribals from the district of Dumka. We did not receive the requisite assistance to get them back. (Soren was among several Chief Ministers who sparred with the Centre over trains, and his letters to the Home Minister to arrange for flights for workers stranded in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Kargil went unanswered. He subsequently became the first CM to arrange for flights to bring back workers.)
The question in this entire arrangement is, how much do migrant workers benefit? People are migrating since several years and yet their economic condition remains vulnerable. Their rights are routinely violated. None of the labour laws that apply to them are being followed. Middle men and labour contractors have taken advantage of this. When our people needed to return to Jharkhand during the lockdown, they did not get the kind of help they should have. Now when you need them again, you are willing to even send flights for them.
I am not against migration, but I want the rights of my people to be protected wherever they go to work. We should be able to follow up from time to time on how they are being treated. A system has to be put in place for that. It is important that we know how many people are leaving the state for work, who they are and where are they working, so that there is a mechanism for my government to respond adequately and rescue them if needed in a crisis.
The agreement with the Border Roads Organisation, who wanted to take workers from here, was to that end—during the lockdown they did not even disclose to us that workers from Jharkhand are stranded there (in Kargil). It came to light when civil society groups raised the issue. If you need labour from Jharkhand to go and work on your projects on the border in Kargil or Ladakh, you have to treat them properly, pay them the statutory wages, provide for adequate housing and living conditions. Just today, I got the news that one of the workers from our state who had gone to work on a project for them has been killed in a landmine blast there. If we had not kept all the information of workers who are going there, no one in the state would have even known that one of our people has lost their lives.
You spoke out against the Centre’s move to auction coal blocks [41 auctions were launched in June 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic], and you have even moved the Supreme Court against it. What is your stance?
During the lockdown, I wrote to the prime minister that there is a crisis in the country on many fronts, including with the economy. In particular, small and medium enterprises which employ people in bigger numbers are suffering. States like us are especially struggling since we have to generate our own economic resources, and are left with very limited means to do so. For every rupee, we are having to look to the Centre, post-GST, post-lockdown, and there is hardly any relief announcement commensurate with the crisis. Jharkhand has to manage its resources properly if we have to not be dependent on anyone.
So, my thinking is we have to work collaboratively. There was no response to that but amidst all that, the (Modi) government announced the coal auctions without consulting the states (where the coal blocks are located). Why this hurry? Sometimes they are auctioning coal; sometimes they are selling trains, sometimes airports. They have become such masters of selling that through all this they have learnt how to buy and sell people too. Look at the crisis in Rajasthan—MLAs (members of legislative assemblies) are being bought and sold like vegetables in the market. Similarly, they want to sell off Jharkhand’s resources, but the impact of this since independence on our people has been horrible. The movement for a separate state of Jharkhand was in fact also a revolt against this mahajan (moneylender) culture, this monetising mentality.
Around the world, governments are distributing relief packages to their people. Here the government is doing none of that, and instead auctioning resources. In other countries, people hit the streets to demand accountability. Here, whoever raises questions is getting silenced. They have money to buy MLAs but no money for relief packages for the people of this country during such a time of crisis.
So, what is your stand?
Jharkhand is a tribal state. We need to assess what states like ours got out of this whole system of resource extraction. In this model propped up by the old laws like the Coal-Bearing Areas Acquisition Act (which gives the state the power to acquire private property citig ‘public interest’) or the land and mineral laws, local communities have not benefited. Meanwhile, all the protections given by the constitution to tribal communities have been violated. Most of the operations of Coal India Limited (one of the world’s largest mining corporations, and owned by the government) and other companies in Jharkhand are in Adivasi areas. Look at the land losers of those areas, and tell me who among them has benefitted in the last 100 years. We do not even know where they are now. Meanwhile, those who never had land here are thriving. In countries around the world from Australia to countries in Africa, we are seeing stiff resistance to mining because local communities are suffering.
Over the India and China border, you can understand that territory has to be protected. Then why can you not understand when Adivasi communities want to protect their land? Without forests, Adivasi communities cannot live. The land and forests are their bank account, their ATM, their primary asset. You have to think of development keeping these things in mind, because this is not the community which will turn Rs 100 into Rs 200. They are the small fish who are being eaten up by the big fish. We have to reflect on this experience of our exploitation.
Further, in this time of climate crisis and corona (virus) and air and water pollution, we have to think about how we are treating our natural resources and forests. If you go against nature, you will have to pay the price, which is what we are seeing with this coronavirus. But we humans excel at digging our own grave. Once we destroy natural forests, which came up over centuries, we cannot regenerate them artificially. We have already mounted the horse of vinaash (destruction) in the name of vikas (progress). Do we have to race it at such speed?
What is your vision for the state?
A representative of a private mining company came to meet me today, and I asked him—why do you only think of minerals when you think of Jharkhand? Your company does so many other things, from consulting to hospitality to healthcare—why do you not invest in such things in Jharkhand. Are we here only to give you our land and resources? The relationship cannot only be one of extraction. We do not want this model that turns us into slaves of other people. The government’s own companies like Coal India owe us lakhs of crores of rupees. How will private mining corporations be held accountable in these coal auctions? They will hire the most expensive lawyers and challenge us if we try to assert our claims.
The challenge before us is great, but our plus point is our people. They are okay with less money—with making Rs 500 a day, instead of Rs 1,000. We need a development model which will protect our internal resources, our forests, and give our people jobs – for example, enterprises such as sports and tourism.
When you took power, you said no one in Jharkhand will die of hunger. Yet the public distribution system system remains rife with exclusions, and people are even more vulnerable in current conditions. How are you addressing that?
All those whose names were excluded—the process has begun to register those names. We are trying to treat this crisis before us like an opportunity to assess what we need to do. We ran thousands of community kitchens which had a good impact on children’s weight—so we are assessing if we can continue with this to augment the mid-day meal scheme. We have reviewed existing programmes to enhance their welfare aspect and are looking to launch them from mid-August. When MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act) was launched (in 2006), it got proper attention and funds. But in the past years it was severely neglected. Now we are trying to bring back a proper focus on that by using it to boost the rural economy - for works like planting fruit-bearing trees, which will be entrusted to families for augmenting their income, building grassroots sports infrastructure and community water conservation projects.
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an award-winning journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board, and works on issues of the environment, indigenous and rural communities)