For over four years, a brave family has refused to hand over their land to Adani’s coal-power project at Godda in north-eastern India. The power plant is the intended destination for Adani’s Carmichael coal. In 2018, Sita Murmu fell at the feet of Adani officials as crops on her land were bulldozed. Last month, she and her family addressed a tribal convention near the construction site, inspiring a struggle to protect indigenous rights in the region. They remain impervious to official threats and enticements to surrender their ancestral lands to the colossal power plant.
From pleading at the feet of an Adani official in 2018 to leading an Adivasi struggle four years on, Sita Murmu has come a long way.
‘I am ready to lead the Adivasi struggle,’ she says.
Four years ago, a viral video showed Murmu falling at the feet of an Adani official, pleading as bulldozers destroyed her family’s crop. The works were the initial stage of the development of the 1600 MW Godda coal-power plant, the intended destination for coal from Adani's Carmichael mine in Australia.
On 22 June 2022, Murmu addressed an Adivasi convention at Godda. While she told the convention of the depravations she had faced at the hands of Adani, she also told the convention that ‘we Adivasis will all burn along with the coal if environmentally destructive projects are not stopped in our Santhal Parganas region. This is a wider struggle for all the Adivasis of our region.’
The Santhal Parganas region has a history of rebellion against those forces that seek to exploit, enslave or expropriate Adivasis – be they British colonialists, or the Indian government and Indian corporations in recent decades. Murmu joins a long heritage of Adivasi leaders from the region.
Her brother-in-law, Anil Hembram, also addressed the convention.
‘The convention represented a larger picture – for all of Santhal Parganas and Jharkhand, and we were there representing our cause,’ he said.
The family has reversed some of the company’s land seizures of 2018. Back then, after the district administration destroyed the family’s crops saying that the land had been acquired for the project, the company fenced off the Hembram family’s land. Since then, the family has taken down the fence and reclaimed its ancestral property.
‘We have been gradually reclaiming our land for farming despite the administration and police trying to stop us. The administration would keep imposing curfews to stop us from farming our own land, but we didn’t stop,’ Anil Hembram said.
The family has made steady progress.
‘There are still a few fields left that we are yet to farm in, but we have reclaimed our entire plot of land that the plant was trying to seize with the help of the district administration. It has been three years now that we have been farming our land. In 2018 the administration destroyed our crop. In 2019 we were able to farm 50% of our land. In 2020 we were able to farm 75% of it. In 2021 we were able to farm 90% of it. This year we will try to farm all of it.’
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Anil’s brother and Sita’s husband Manager Hembrom continue to face threats of official action. (Manager is his name.)
‘The administration keeps trying to claim our land on various pretexts,’ Manager said.
He described the most recent example of such efforts.
‘On 18 April a notice was issued to us by the Godda sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). The notice says that our family is encroaching on 9.02 acres of land that was acquired by Adani Power (Jharkhand) Limited and asks us to appear before the SDM’s court to explain why we have encroached upon the land. It asked us to appear on 4 June. The notice was in my name but the official only came to serve it on me two days before the hearing, on 2 June. I wasn’t at home when the authority came to serve the notice on me. My family refused to accept this notice. Then, on the date that I had been asked to appear, since I didn’t, the SDM made a handwritten order stating “issue notice why (action under) legal section(s) should not be started.”
‘But when was this land acquired? How was it acquired?’ asks Anil.
‘We never got any notice that our land is being acquired. We never got any notice explaining on what legal basis our land was to be acquired, and how the compensation was being calculated. Our identifying information, our bank details, etc, were never taken. Our consent was never sought.’
‘Usually there is a first notice explaining the legal basis of land acquisition and the basis on which compensation is calculated,’ Anil went on. ‘Then there is a second notice calling upon the landowner to provide information and to sign, consenting to the acquisition. We never consented to anything and we were never notified. We never took a paisa of compensation. So how can we be encroachers upon our own land?
‘The notice (from the SDM) is part of a sham proceeding to intimidate us. Land acquisition is supposed to follow a process. We don’t accept that our land has been acquired. It was only on 31 August 2018, when bulldozers came and destroyed our fields, that we got to know that our land was being claimed for the Adani power project.’
In the midst of this bureaucratic intimidation, the Adani company is still trying to entice the family.
‘Now Adani officials want us to hand over one acre of our land for a roadway within their project site,’ Anil says. ‘They offer compensation for the full nine acres even though they will take only one acre. They offer jobs to members of our family, and they say that if no one among us is qualified, then they will give us a pension in lieu of a job.’
However, the family remains unwilling to give up the land – whatever the enticements or threats.
‘This is what I said at the convention yesterday,’ Anil emphases, “Adivasis are tied to land. We are the caretakers of our ancestors’ land. If we give over the land, our whole way of life will be destroyed.’
At the convention, he said ‘Adivasi existence is environmental protection. We have a 65,000-year history on this land.’
The fight is not just procedural.
‘Even if the process was conducted correctly, we wouldn’t consent to land acquisition. We will keep resisting acquisition while we have strength in our bodies,’ he says.
Sita Murmu added resolutely, ‘I am ready to continue the fight. Let them (Adani and the government) threaten and intimidate us. I will not give up the fight.’
The author is an independent journalist.