Gadchiroli, INDIA, Feb 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
T ribal groups in India's Maharashtra state gather at an ancient
shrine before harvest each year to give thanks and celebrate
their sacred land by singing, dancing and feasting.
This year, they injected a modern twist: a discussion about
the threat of mining on their densely forested landscape. A
threat so severe that villagers are displaying a rare show of
unity to campaign against exploitation of their hallowed land.
"The forest-dwelling communities have legal rights over jal,
jangal, jameen (water, forest, land) where they have been living
for generations," said Mohan Raut of rights group Bharat Jan
Andolan, which is backing the villagers' campaign.
"Why should they give up those rights for mines that will
destroy their land and their way of life?"
NATIVES AND MAOISTS
Largely inhabited by indigenous people, the eastern part of
one of India's wealthiest states has long been coveted for its
mineral reserves, be it coal, iron ore or manganese ore. It has
also been the hotbed of a decades-long Maoist insurgency.
For long-time residents, though, the hills and forests in
the Surjagad range are the sacred source of their history and
livelihood. This way of life and subsistence are increasingly
under threat as the state makes its big push into mining.
It is a story playing out across the nation.
Conflicts related to land and resources have affected
millions of people in India, stalling scores of industrial and
development projects and putting billions of dollars of
investment at risk, according to a recent report.
While legislation - such as a 2006 forest rights law and a
1996 act on tribal areas - aims to protect the rights of farmers
and indigenous communities over their lands, the laws are
usually diluted and poorly implemented, activists say.
Now it is the turn of tribal groups in the western state of
Maharashtra, already one of the most developed areas in India.
About 25 prospecting licences have been issued to companies
to look for minerals, covering more than 18,000 acres (28 sq
miles) of land, according to district officials.
Alarmed by the potential destruction, and backed by rights
activists, about 70 villages are campaigning against mining.
"The villagers have not been consulted, they have not been
told of the environmental or social impact, as required by law,"
said Raut. "These are vulnerable people who have lived here for
generations. The forests will be decimated by mining, which is
why the villages have unusually come together to oppose it."
LIQUOR AND LEAVES
Lloyd's Steel Industries, which received a mining licence in
1993, has had its operations hit by Maoists from time to time.
A company official was killed in 2013, and Maoists torched
dozens of the company's trucks last December.
Maoists claim they are fighting for the rights of poor,
indigenous people and say that mining only benefits wealthy
firms and the state.
The violence has abated, and prospecting licences have been
issued to about a dozen companies, including JSW Steel.
Most companies that have received licences have not done
environment or social impact assessments, or held public
hearings with villagers who are largely ignorant of the damage
that can be caused by mining, Raut said.
A spokesman for Lloyd's said the company had received "all
required approvals after due process".
A spokesman for JSW Steel said its license was secured
"after following the due process of law".
India's resource-rich forest land is primarily located in
the poorest areas, including some racked by extremist violence
. Resources are in high demand to fuel development
in one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
In the Surjagad range, tribal communities harvest tendu
leaves - used in hand-rolled cigarettes - and other forest
products such as honey and the leaves of the mahua tree for a
fiery liquor. They also cultivate millet and rice.
Last year, the 70 village councils sent a notice to the
state government, asking it to cancel all licences, fearing
mining will destroy their place of worship and their tradition.
A district official said all procedures were followed.
"The district has no industry: the mines will generate jobs
and growth," A.S.R. Naik, Gadchiroli's chief revenue official,
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
JSW Steel has said its project will generate 172 jobs.
Campaigners say these are inadequate, and that villagers anyway
lack the skills to benefit.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Paola
Totaro and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
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