Quarries And Crushers

Do Adivasi Lives Matter?

Sudipta Pal

Four blocks lying in the south-western fringes of Birbhum, namely Mahammadbazar, Nalhati, Murarai and Rampurhat-I are mainly populated by adivasis. Most of the villages lack necessary facilities of communication even after 68 years of independence. But for the last five or six decades, the land of these adivasi dominated villages are under the forcible occupation of owners of stone quarries and crushers. Over the last two decades, the number of stone quarries and crushers has gone up concurrently with the expansion of the promoter raj in response to the growth of the house-building industry. It has been accompanied by organized resistance against oppression, which has compelled quarry owners to bow down. Towards the end of last January, this writer paid a visit to several villages of this region in order to have first hand information on this struggle. Travelling about 80 kilometers on a motol cycle with an activist of an adivasi organization, we crossed the Panchami market place and then began our journey along a dusty field. Then we had to travel through a sal forest, about five miles' journey. Then I sighted a village named Sagarbandi. A little before entering the village, I heard the sounds of stone crushers and saw the clouds of dust. As I crossed the village, I entered an area full of dust. In all directions there were sights of crushers visible within rising dust. Crusher workers, drenched with dust from head to foot, informed me that about 250 crushers were operating full time in the region. Among the workers, there were a large number of women, and everyday 3000 to 4000 female workers were carried in trucks to this region from Jharkhand, and made to work at abnormally low wages. Having to live with dust the villagers of Sagarbandi faced premature deaths, and many died before reaching fifty. In the Mahamumadbazar area, there are at present a total of 1200 crushers and 48 quarries, truckloads of stone slabs are brought from the quarries of Jharkhand, and these slabs are hammered into pieces, called chelis, by male workers. Female workers carry these chelis in baskets and put these into the crushers. These chelis are then shaped into stone chips of various sizes.

We then went to a village named Baramasia, where women of the village met and talked at length. While on the way to the village we sighted cultivable land immediately after the harvesting of paddy. On much of this land, we saw heaps of earth of quarries. A person we met on the way, told that land for quarries and crushers was acquired by means of threats or lure of money. It was usually followed by plots to acquire nearby land. One tactic employed for such acquisition was to drop stones on nearby pieces of land without permission, and in cases of protests, threats are issued through hired musclemen. Rape was a common affair. After the movement of 2010, incidence of such atrocities has, however, lessened.

Cultivation of paddy takes place on the pieces of land not yet eaten up by quarries or crushers. But the yields have fallen considerably owing to the depletion of water resources by the quarries and the accumulation of dust. Earlier, the soil was muddy during the harvest, and various pulses and mustard were grown. Now this has completely stopped because of drying up of ponds. Women rise in the morning, do their cooking and go to the crushers, where their job is to carry baskets, each containing 50-60 kilograms of chelis, over their heads. After they reach 30 or 35, they no longer have the capacity for work. Their average daily wage is Rs 120 to 125. The nearest college is two hours' walk, and only one boy, out of fifty households, goes to study there. The day when the villagers go to the hat in order to buy their necessities, they miss their duty and wage, because it is also one hour's walk. They have again to undertake 90 minutes' walk when they need to go to a qualified doctor. Two quacks however visit the village at regular intervals.

While talking with the women, we were shown the surroundings of the village. Many trees and plants continue to survive, serving as sources of some food to the adivasi people. There are quite a few medicinal plants used by the villagers.

A coal block named Panchami-Deocha lies in this very region. The Government of India is going to sell it to some private owner through auction. So, coal pits are going to be added to stone quarries. Now we visited the village of Talbanda from where the movement against quarrying was initiated in 2010. We came to learn that an outsider named Kalim Khan had opened a quarry on a land owned by an adivasi woman. Since purchase of the land of adivasis are prohibited, the outsider named Kalim Khan brought out a license in the name of that woman, and has been earning millions of rupees.

In February. 2010, stones flew from the quarry to the village, and the villagers came forward together to stop the workings of the quarry. The owner, accompanied by musclemen, attacked the villagers. Then the people of nearby villages arrived, drove away the musclemen. Ransacked the office of the quarry and stopped the functioning of the rest of the quarries owned by this owner. Then the villagers of Talbanda set up a camp and started a sit-in demonstration. This camp regularly drew the people of the villages, and quarries were closed one after another. But on 21 April, 2010, quarry owners, on the pretext of organizing a workers' rally, entered with hired hooligans and went on torturing the people with arms in one village after another. Many villagers were killed, the adivasi people began to take to flight.

The news spread beyond the borders of West Bengal into Jharkhand, and adivasis, using their drums, propagated the news. The Mahammadbazar market area witnessed a 30000-strong procession in protest against this oppression, leading to the closure of all the quarries situated in the four blocks of Birbhum.

But due to the continuous destruction of agriculture and the consequent compulsion of earning livelihood by working in quarries, the quarries started functioning after September. A meeting was held between the agitators, the owners and the government where the agitators placed a 22-point charter of demands. The principal demand was the running of the quarries according to law and provision of compensation for the destruction of adivasi land and culture. The owners and the government agreed. Quarries began to reopen in ones and twos. Torture on women stopped and in some places, emission of dust lessened. Provision of compensation up to a maximum of Rs 9 lakhs was made in case of death. But as the tide of the movement receded, illegal quarries have reemerged. To this has been added the official sanction of open cast coal pits.

In 2000, a movement, aided by an NGO, took place. In 2001, about three to four hundred people of the village Dholkata, armed with traditional weapons, stopped two quarries and a crusher from functioning. At that time, another adivasi village stopped the nearby quarry and brought about 30 acres of land under cultivation. From the villagers, we came to learn that although they were now dependent on quarries and crushers for livelihood, they were not happy with this occupation They are also aware of the harmful aspects of quarries. The man-days created by the cultivation of those 30 acres of land were more than that produced by the quarry. So the question is: why so many quarries?

Vol. 47, No. 43, May 3 - 9, 2015