In the eastern Indian state of Odisha, a struggle by tribal people against displacement by a railway that will carry Adani’s Carmichael coal to its power station at Godda has exposed the violation of rights conferred when India became an independent nation. This story describes how this controversy has its roots in an old Indian fault-line between territories governed by the British Empire, and ‘princely states’ – territories governed in colonial times by native Indian rulers. The violation of indigenous rights enshrined at independence in 1947 has prompted leaders to call for a secession of a former princely state from the state of Odisha.
When India and Pakistan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, there were 565 territories in the Indian subcontinent known as ‘princely states’. These were territories that were nominally ruled by a local royal who had pledged allegiance to the British crown and were not formally within the territory of the British empire. After independence, the rulers of those princely states that were to join the newly formed Republic of India signed an ‘instrument of accession’.
One such princely state was Gangpur, which is now a part of the Sundargarh district in Odisha. A railway-track extension that is being built through a part of Sundargarh to carry Adani’s Carmichael coal to the coal- power project in Godda violates the terms set out in the instrument of Gangpur’s accession to India, say the descendants of Gangpur’s Adivasi (indigenous tribal) residents. It is the latest in a long line of such violations that they have endured, they say, and they are now beginning to reconsider the assimilation of the former Gangpur into the state of Odisha.
This was the message that a five-person delegation representing the Adivasis of Sundargarh district delivered to the Governor of Odisha – Ganeshi Lal – on 27 June.
Ganeshi Lal ‘assured the delegation that he would write to the Odisha Chief Minister recommending that they be rehabilitated and resettled as per law, no further projects are taken up in the area, and no penal action is initiated against them until then’ according to a report in NewsClick.
Under the Indian constitution, the Governor is the formal head of a state government, who acts on the advice of an elected Chief Minister. Crucially, the governor is the ‘custodian’ of tribes and tribal lands, and is meant to ensure their welfare, and that no actions by the state encroach upon their lands, forests, livelihoods, and rights. It can be argued, however, that over the years, the Adivasis of Sundargarh have gotten little to no protection at all from the Governor of Odisha (formerly Orissa).
They were first displaced from their land in the 1950s-60s when two large projects of early industrialising India were set up – the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP), around which the city of Rourkela was built, and the Mandira dam, on the Sankh river, that supplies water to the RSP. Then they continued to be displaced as lands that had been acquired for the RSP were handed over to various other entities – both government-owned and private – for various purposes, as the city of Rourkela grew.
In recent times, the Adivasis who were pushed out of the Rourkela area have been facing further displacement due to various projects that the South-Eastern Railways have taken up in the area – these consist of the Kolkata-Mumbai freight corridor, a road overpass over this track at a location called Kukuda Gate, an expansion of the Rourkela-Ranchi line from single to double track, and the installation of a siding track on both lines. (A siding track is on the side of a railway where rolling stock can be parked)These projects have driven the Adivasis of Sundargarh to desperation.
(Story continues below)
‘In 2006 we had raised a huge agitation, after decades of struggle,’ said Ram Chandra Sahu of the Rourkela Displaced Persons Committee, who was a part of the delegation that met the Governor. ‘We had gotten many assurances from the government. Though there was no provision to give compensation or to return unused land when the land had originally been acquired for the RSP, the government had assured us that we would be given 7 acres (5 acres un-irrigated and 2 acres irrigated) land per affected family, and that the law would be amended to allow unused land to be returned to the original owners/tenants.’
‘But now the Odisha government is going back on the promises made to us at that time,’ Sahu said.
The government is supporting the railway-expansion projects that are causing further displacement without fulfilling any of its promises of the past 20 years.
For Deme Oram, the President of the Anchalik Surakshya Samiti Bondamunda (Bondamunda Regional Protection Committee), the terms of the struggle are clear. As he prepares for the meeting with the Governor he says ‘these meetings and approaches to the government are an avenue for us to exhaust all available legal and procedural remedies to our issue.’
The real struggle is elsewhere.
‘From the day that Gangpur acceded to the Indian Union, the terms of accession have been violated. We don’t expect anything from the government,’ Oram said, ‘so we will struggle to be separated from the State of Odisha. If the government can turn Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory from a State, then why not Sundargarh? It can merge Sundargarh with the State of Jharkhand, or convert it into a Union Territory.’
Oram is out on bail at the moment, after having spent three weeks in jail in March-April. He was arrested on March 28 2022 under charges he and others describe as ‘fabricated’. The police claim that he led an assault on police officials at Kukuda Gate. Since 16 March, his organisation had been in the midst of a peaceful protest at the site of the road overpass construction. On 28 March a confrontation took place with police officials and district administration staff who had arrived to ensure that the construction work was not impeded.
At Kukuda gate, two fields of Arhar Dal (pigeon pea lentils) and three businesses owned by Adivasis were demolished – without notice – for the overpass project. This triggered the protest. Meanwhile, the Rourkela-Ranchi line has been eating into farmland that around 700 families of four villages are farming. The four villages – Kapatmunda, Barhabas, Kukuda and Barkani – are comprised of Adivasis who were earlier displaced by the RSP and Mandira Dam projects. The lands that they are farming are all technically owned by the Railways or by the RSP and leased to the Railways. Rice is the main crop.
The additional railway track on the Ranchi-Rourkela line will eat into about 40 ha of land farmed by some of the Adivasi residents of the four villages. Most of it is already owned or leased – on paper – by the Railways. The Railways requires an additional hectare of land that is not in the hands of the Railways or the RSP. A gram sabha (village council) held by the residents of Kapatmunda and Barhabas villages has rejected the sale of this land to the Railways. The protesting Adivasis who are represented by the Bondamunda Anchalik Surakshya Samiti are concerned not just with these 40 ha, but also with the entire stretch of land that they farm but do not own. Of this, about 1200 ha are directly owned by the Railways, while 310 ha are owned by the RSP and leased to the Railways.
An earlier, similar, confrontation had taken place with the same cast of characters at the site of the Ranchi-Rourkela railway extension project back in 2020. Both for the Railways and the state government, and for Oram and the Adivasi community that stands to lose its land, the two projects are linked. If the projects proceed, the Adivasi community would have been forced to give in and accept that promises made to them over the years starting in 2006 will be broken. From the point of view of the Railways and the state government, the projects going through are necessary to meet key development objectives.
At present, the Ranchi-Rourkela railway extension project is in stasis. A partial track has been laid alongside the existing line but work has not proceeded in recent months. When this correspondent visited, the Railways’ security guard patrolling the site, who declined to give his name, was at pains to point out that the only construction work taking place was a new signalling cabin to replace an out-of-date one near the Bondamunda railway station, and that this cabin’s construction was not a matter of dispute. Oram however pointed out how a section of land has been flattened recently to lay track on, on the pretext of repairing a crack in a rail bridge on the existing line.
This particular project is of significance to the Adani Group’s Carmichael-Godda-Bangladesh project. Coal mined by the group at Carmichael is set to travel along this railway from Dhamra port on Odisha’s coast, to its 1600 MW coal-power project at Godda, via Rourkela and Ranchi. After Rourkela, the line turns East towards Talcher, to eventually reach Bhadrak, where a private railway from the Dhamra port joins the public rail network. An expansion of the line to a double track is key for the large coal supply that is set to travel along this track.
At Kukuda Gate, meanwhile, work has been progressing slowly since Adaniwatch last visited in April.
‘The administration broke up our protest and grabbed the land but has not done much work since then,’ said Oram. ‘The objective seems to have been to break up the protest, not to proceed with the construction work urgently.’
The two locations are less than a kilometre apart, and the two railway lines meet briefly at Rourkela station before separating again.
Oram insists that his and his community’s issue is not with the Adani Group in particular.
‘The companies come and go. In Odisha we have seen struggles relating to Vedanta, to Tata and so on. Our struggle is for Adivasis,’ he says. “The land acquisition that took place for the Rourkela Steel Plant was itself illegal and violated the instrument of accession signed with India by the ruler of Gangpur, and it should have been declared null and void by the Governor of Odisha at the time.
‘The Land Acquisition Law of 1894 did not apply to Gangpur, and the state-level law used by the Odisha government to acquire the land should have been declared inoperative in Sundargarh. Ever since then, all further land re-allotment from the RSP to others has been illegal, and the land should have been returned to Adivasis. This is our issue.’
‘Gangpur was primarily an Adivasi kingdom. Now this area has been taken over by non-Adivasis. They outnumber the Adivasis, and they have pushed Adivasi communities away from our earlier settlements,’ Oram adds.
‘It is the duty of the Indian state to protect us Adivasis. If the state of Odisha is not protecting us, if it is mistreating us, then the Indian state must step in.’
With such a fundamental fault line in the make-up of the country being exposed by this struggle, it should come as no surprise that India’s intelligence agencies are keeping a close eye on the scene. After their meeting with the governor, the delegation was met by three officials of India’s domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), two from the State IB and one from the Central IB. The officials identified themselves and asked the delegation a few questions before taking copies of a representation that the delegation submitted to the Governor.
Subhajit Banerjee, an advocate in Rourkela who is representing Oram and was a member of the delegation to meet the Governor said ‘when the Governor realised we are raising the issue of merger (of Gangpur) with India, he realised it is outside his remit. He then said he would take our issue to the President of India.’
Historians recognise the early years of independent India’s history as a period of re-organisation of states along linguistic lines that changed the boundaries into which the British empire had administratively divided India. If struggles like the one in Sundargarh proceed to their logical conclusion, a new era of re-organisation may be on the horizon.
The author is an independent journalist.