In March, police in the eastern Indian state of Odisha cracked down heavily on a protest by Adivasi (tribal) people being displaced by a railway expansion. It is the second time in 70 years that this community has been uprooted without adequate compensation. AdaniWatch has learnt that authorities were under instructions to ‘snuff out’ any protest that might impede the smooth progress of Adani’s coal from port to power station. And the source of this coal? Adani’s Carmichael mine in Queensland. Here, a special correspondent visits Odisha to investigate how some of the poorest people in India are being persecuted for the sake of Adani’s Carmichael business plan.
On 28 March 2022, police in Odisha came down hard on a group of Adivasi (tribal) people protesting against a rail expansion that threatened their homes. These were people in danger of being doubly displaced after their communities were uprooted in the 1950s to make way for a steel plant. Police beat some of the Adivasi as they herded them towards buses. Protest leaders were arrested and detained for over three weeks. Their leader is Deme Oram.
On 20 April 2022, after having spent 23 days in jail, Oram was released on bail. Six others were released alongside him. All seven had been arrested on 28 March for taking part in a protest against the construction of a rail overpass on the outskirts of the city of Rourkela. In the month since, the remaining fifteen have also been released on bail.
Since 2017, Oram has spearheaded a campaign by the Adivasi (indigenous) residents of villages surrounding the city of Rourkela protesting against projects that threaten to displace them. They argue that, having already been displaced without adequate compensation when the city of Rourkela was built around a government-owned steel plant, their community should not be displaced again. They insist that their consent be obtained for any development that takes place on their lands and have organised their campaign under the banner of the Bondamunda Anchalik Surakshya Samiti (Committee to protect the region of Bondamunda), or BASS.
The protests were triggered when four Adivasi homes were demolished without warning to make way for a rail overpass.
Every day since 16 March, construction workers would be met by peaceful protesters insisting that no construction should take place without their consent. In their favour were two orders of the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes, a constitutional body set up to protect the rights of Indian Adivasis. In response to complaints by Oram, the commission had twice – in 2017 and in 2019 – ordered that the Adivasis’ consent must be obtained before any work proceeded that might lead to their displacement.
On 28 March, this daily routine suddenly escalated when the construction workers were accompanied by a large contingent of police and district-level government authorities. They were there to ensure that the work took place unimpeded by the protest. When Oram and others attempted to meet with the government officials to present their case, they were ignored. Then, when the group attempted to occupy the construction site, they were rounded up by the police and detained. The protesters allege that they were subjected to verbal abuse, and then manhandled and beaten by the police while being detained.
About 12 hours later, the majority of the detained protestors were released, but Oram and 21 others were taken into custody. The case filed by the police charges the 22 accused with attempt to murder. Police claim that the protesters attacked them with weapons. The protesters say this is a fabrication.
‘The police could not produce in court any evidence that came close to supporting the charges they made against us, and so the court had no choice but to grant us bail and deny the police’s motion to hold us in custody any longer,’ Oram told this reporter over the phone after his release.
(Story continues below)
Escalated police repression on account of Adani’s coal supply
The organisation of which Oram is a member has been active in the villages around Rourkela for nearly two decades. It is the successor to an older organisation that worked on the same issues relating to displacement of Adivasis from the 1980s. The city of Rourkela was built in the 1950s to service a new steel plant. Adivasi residents of the area were displaced. Subsequently, protests and negotiations between the community and the government over their further displacement by new development projects are a feature of life in the area. Even the current flashpoint – the expansion of railway lines centred on Rourkela – is a conflict that has lasted over five years.
The March arrests, however, marked the first time that these Adivasi people faced police repression on this scale.
The reason for this escalation in police tactics, Oram’s advocates suspect, is that the railway expansion is now slated to carry coal mined by Adani in Australia. That coal will make a long, convoluted journey from Adani’s Carmichael mine in Queensland to its intended destination at the Godda coal-power plant in the state of Jharkhand. First the coal will be railed to Adani’s Abbot Point port, then shipped through the Great Barrier Reef and across the Indian Ocean to Adani’s port at Dhamra, and then railed through Odisha and Jharkhand to Godda.
According to knowledgeable sources in Godda, the power station is now around ‘70% completed’. As operations at Carmichael and Godda approach full scale, protests at Rourkela that might affect the passage of Adani’s coal are now seen as posing a threat to the projects' viability.
An associate of Oram’s who requested anonymity said that the organisation has been told by local authorities and police that there is ‘tremendous pressure’ from the highest levels of the state government to ‘complete the railway expansion and snuff out any protest’.
According to this associate of Oram, these orders were personally conveyed to the local administration by V Karthikeya Pandian, the state chief minister’s private secretary. He is described as the chief minister's ‘most trusted man’, ‘Odisha’s most powerful bureaucrat’, and often accused of playing an over-sized role in the state’s affairs.
Police repression unleashed on the Adivasi protestors
This reporter met with Adivasi residents of three villages who were at the agitation and faced the police on 28 March. The picture that emerged is as follows:
On the morning of that day, the Adivasi demonstration was occurring across a one-lane road from the construction site of the rail overpass, at an existing railway crossing called Kukuda Gate. About 200 protesters had gathered. When the construction workers arrived, they were accompanied by a large contingent of police officers armed with riot gear. Senior representatives of the district administration, including Jyotsna Sahu, the Tehsildar (revenue officer) and Executive Magistrate of the Bisra division of the Sundergarh district, were also in attendance.
The leaders of BASS, including Oram, approached Sahu and the police officials with a memorandum stating their position – namely that as per the Commission’s order, the Adivasi community members who were facing displacement for a second time were due to receive compensatory land from the state government and jobs in the Railways, and that their consent had not been sought prior to the commencement of the construction work. In response, the BASS members were told that the authorities present would pass the memorandum further up the line, but that in the meantime the construction work must proceed.
On hearing this, the crowd of protesters attempted to cross the road in order to occupy the construction site. The riot police then surrounded them on the road, preventing access to the construction site. Then, on the grounds that the protesters were blocking a public road, the police detained them, forcefully taking them into police buses and vans that were standing by. During this encounter, the protesters allege that they were verbally abused and manhandled by the police.
Koili Oram, a 70-year-old resident of Kukuda village, said that a male police officer taunted her saying ‘why should we listen to you tribals?’ He then grabbed her by the neck, she said, slammed her to the ground and kicked her many times in the ribs while she was prone. She lost consciousness. She was admitted to a hospital by the police, she says, without any of her family members being informed, where she was treated for two days before being released. Later, Koili Oram was able to identify the officer who assaulted her, together with his rank and the police station where he was based.
While Koili’s tale of police violence was the most stark, three other women reported similar injuries due to rough treatment by the police while in their custody.
After they were detained, the entire group of protesters was taken to a field in Rourkela city, where they were held by police for over 12 hours. Late at night, the majority were released after being made to sign statements promising not to continue their protest. Deme Oram and 21 others, all men, were placed under arrest.
Initially, for more than a day after their arrest, the police provided no information to BASS and Oram’s advocates, who then posted messages of distress on social media. These circulated across the country, saying that Oram and the others were being held by the police at an undisclosed location on unknown charges. Concerned individuals were urged to contact the local police and ask them to reveal where the arrested people were being held. It was only when calls were made to the police by journalists that the police revealed where the arrested group was being held – Bisra police station, and what charges they faced.
Most of the arrested were men in their 20s and 30s. When this reporter visited their villages, only women, children and the elderly were present. The men were either in jail or staying away from their homes for fear of arrest.
Meena Dhanwar, 25, and her prospective mother-in-law, Timbu Tirkey, of Kukuda village were particularly distressed, as her wedding to Timbu’s son, Sanika, that was scheduled for the 30 April, had now been thrown into disarray. Sanika was among the arrestees and in jail.
In Barhabas village, Deme Oram’s wife Pramila Oram, 41, asserted that the charges against her husband were false, and that neither he nor any of the other protestors had any of the weapons referred to in the police allegation. The police charged Oram and other arrestees with attempt to murder, claiming that they had been attacked with axes and iron rods. But according to Pramila, the protesters carried only water bottles and umbrellas.
After his release, Deme Oram added that the police could not produce in court any record of a single injury supposedly suffered by any officer in the alleged attack by the protesters.
At Barkani village, the conditions faced by Adivasis displaced from Rourkela are particularly stark. The village has no approach road, no electricity and no running water. High-tension electric cables pass overhead and the skyline is dominated by a massive electric tower. The village is not marked on any map, the residents explain, and is not recorded in the government’s records. The residents are not counted in the census, and face difficulty registering births and deaths, as well as in obtaining any form of government ID. This perhaps explains why the most enthusiastic participants in the protests have been the residents of Barkani, explained Sushma Mundari, 40. They have the least to lose.
With the protesters silenced, construction work goes full speed ahead
This reporter visited the construction site of the rail overpass at Kukuda Gate where the confrontation had taken place. It was around sunset, and a few workers and a supervisor were still present, finishing the day’s work. There was no visible sign of the four dwellings that had been demolished just a fortnight prior. The land had been flattened, trees felled and vegetation cleared. Deep holes had been dug for the foundations of the overpass’s supporting pillars.
The work has proceeded continuously since the day of the arrests, explained Mahesh Tanty, Oram’s colleague in the BASS, who was not arrested. With the villagers terrorised by the police action and their leaders in jail, the demonstrations had stopped, and were unlikely to start again even after release of those still in jail on bail, given the seriousness of the charges levelled by the police.
Double displacement of the Adivasis of Rourkela
The city of Rourkela is a ‘steel township’ that was set up in the 1950s to service the Rourkela Steel Plant, a government-owned steel plant that was a part an industrialisation push spearheaded by the first Prime Minister of the newly independent nation, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Members of BASS told this reporter that when the city was first established, around 20,000 ha of land were acquired from the local community for the steel plant. This led to the displacement of people from 85 Adivasi villages that were subsumed into the new city. While they were paid market rates for the land and crops at the time, the community has successfully argued to the government that it was insufficient compensation for uprooting them from their lands.
Much of the land acquired in the 1950s was never formally taken possession of by the government or the steel plant and was subsequently handed over to various other entities. These include private industry, government entities such as the railways, security forces such as the Central Industrial Security Force, a paramilitary force responsible for securing industrial sites, and housing for the many who arrived to work in the new city from around India. As far as the Adivasis are concerned, these are all encroachments on to their lands. They argue that when the land went unused by the steel plant for which it had been acquired, it should have been handed back to them. Their claims of displacement and encroachment on these grounds, significantly, have been recognised by the state government and government authorities at the national level.
This recognition has largely been due to the efforts of the Rourkela Displaced Persons Committee, an organisation that was set up in 1981 to advocate for the displaced Adivasis, most of whom then lived in villages around the city of Rourkela, outside the city limits. BASS was established in 2004 and ‘inherited’ the work of this older organisation. Recognition of the Adivasis’ claim was the result of a struggle by the BASS in the mid-2000s against an earlier wave of rail development. A marshalling yard that was to be built by the South-Eastern Railways would have resulted in a ‘double displacement’ of the Adivasis, and it was in that context that the community pressed its claims to the government.
In 2008, the Odisha government, for the first time, recognised that this community had been displaced. In January 2006, an agreement had been concluded between representatives of the displaced communities, the Odisha government, the Rourkela Steel Plant, and the South-Eastern Railways that unused land in excess of project requirements would be returned to the local community, and the government would set up a committee to work out the modalities of the transfer. Subsequently, however, the Odisha government said that there was no legal provision under which unused land could be returned and so new legislation would be required. On 26 November 2008, this position changed again, as the state government’s Department of Revenue and Disaster Management released circular No AG-40/2005/49777/CSR&DM, ordering district collectors across the state to ensure distribution of 5 acres of un-irrigated and 2 acres of irrigated land to the Adivasis displaced by development projects.
The latest round of rail infrastructure development was initiated in the mid-2010s. The Railways sought to lay additional track alongside several existing lines to and from Rourkela. This promised to be a repeat of the negotiations that had taken place between the government and the community in the mid-2000s, or so it seemed, until the significance of this development to the Adani Group came to affect the government’s stance. The government was yet to come through on its commitment to provide land to the displaced Adivasis as compensation, and when the community learned of the planned expansion, it sought to hold the state government to its word.
As detailed in a report by the Indian news portal NewsClick.in, Oram successfully approached the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. The Commission ordered that the government must provide the promised compensatory tracts of land, that the Railways must initiate the process of providing employment to a member of each family that would be displaced, and that the consent of the Adivasis who were facing displacement must be obtained before any new work took place. While BASS pursued the slow-moving bureaucracy to implement this order, however, the hurry to complete the expansion work in time for the movement of Adani’s coal took over the government’s priorities. This led to the chaotic events of 28 March 2022.
Oram was optimistic after his release. While in jail, he conducted classes on the Indian constitution for his fellow inmates, and he is certain that he will be able to convince members of his community to mobilise once again. In the days immediately after the arrests, Oram’s advocates Subjajit Banerjee and Charan Mahato, along with Tanty and some other members of BASS, travelled to the Odisha state capital Bhubaneshwar and met with a member of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. Upon hearing their accounts of the violence the Adivasi protesters faced from the police, the Commission member assured them that it would take action.
While the commission has no enforcement powers, it still wields considerable influence. It has can summon high-ranking police and district administration officials and demand answers from them on the record. It can also order that cases be filed against the police officers under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which would classify the verbal abuse and violent detention as a caste-based atrocity. Oram is hopeful that he will be able to persuade the Commission to follow up on this assurance.
While such actions may lead to some measure of justice for the Adivasi protesters, and hopefully pave the way for them to receive the compensation that they are owed, the rail expansion now seems to be a fait accompli.
If the coal does travel its course to Adani’s power station, it will be because Odisha police crushed an Adivasi protest.
The author is an independent journalist.