Shrugging off of his responsibility as the chairperson of the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes, Nand Kumar Sai on June 22 said it is the responsibility of those raising the voice against the injustices meted out to tribals to make the oppressed class aware of their rights instead of approaching to the commission, which – according to him – has limited powers.
He told this to a delegation of the Delhi Solidarity Group – a forum that advocates social justice – which had gone to the commission seeking justice and independent judicial inquiry into the murder of Jharkhand-based ST community leader Suresh Oraon on June 7.
“You should approach the authorities and ministries concerned in the state as well as the Centre. It is good that people have faith in the Commission and therefore, they come to us. But you must know that we have limited powers. Why is it that tribals are forced to live a miserable life in Jharkhand despite the fact that it had consecutive seven chief ministers belonging to the same community? Why is the state government not doing anything to stop atrocities against tribals in his state? Where is the Ministry of Tribal Affairs?” he asked the representatives of the delegation.
He advised them to go to the people and spread awareness among them. “You go to villages and conduct seminar and symposiums to make people aware of their rights. Tell them that if their land belongs to Fifth and Sixth Schedules (of the Constitution), it cannot be acquired for mining or other developmental projects. If such land has been acquired, the state will have to return it,” he told the group.
Reacting to the chairperson’s remarks about the Commission’s powers, Umesh Babu told Newsclick, “The ST commission has not been formed under a Parliamentary act, it is a Constitutional body that has immense power if exercised properly. But the problem is that the heads generally belong to the ruling party who succumb to the political pressure.”
However, Sai agreed to seek a detailed report from the state government on the action taken in the case.
Oraon, an activist and employee of the Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), was gunned down when he was attending a prayer meeting of Sarna Samiti – a committee of tribal men and women who follow Sarna religion and worship nature.
The young man, a resident of Purnadih village in Chatra district, had been leading the struggle of his and nearby villages since 2008 to protect the lands from the CCL and the land mafia.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 empowered the community in their battle against rampant land acquisition for mining purposes, infrastructure projects and industrialisation.
“Despite a long battle to realise these rights, their voices remained unheard by the administration and the company, and they were forced to trade their lands for a job,” alleged Babu, adding that “we have to see this in the backdrop of efforts to dilute Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act and Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the response of the people in the form of the recent Pathalgadi movement happening in Jharkhand”.
The CCL built its Purnadih coal mines on these villages after taking away tribals’ land that led to livelihood problems. When Oraon realised that although jobs were provided by the company, many were left out and were suffering from lack of proper rehabilitation and livelihood options he started fighting for these people and helped them get jobs and adequate compensation.
Hundreds of people whose land was acquired saw Oraon as their leader, though he consistently reiterated the need for legal information to be shared with all.
When the CCL started polluting Damodar River through its washeries, Oraon filed a case against the company in the Jharkhand High Court in 2012 and won it in 2013.
“His insistence on justice and delivery of rights to the people made him a primary target for many mafias operating in the region. He had got many threats to life in the past three-four years, yet he was not afraid and believed in the power of people,” Babu said.
“It is pertinent to reiterate that he was silenced because he was a champion of the people. Suresh is neither the first nor the last to be silenced for raising people’s voice,” he added.
In 2016, members of the Karanpura Bachao Sangharsh Samiti in Hazaribagh were gunned down by the police when they were protesting against the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which allegedly wanted to take their lands.
The delegation pleaded to the Commission to direct the police officials in the state to register a first information report (FIR) under the Scheduled Castes/Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against perpetrators who are engaged in not recognising forest rights of the ST community, polluting river used by them and creating unrest and threatening their lives.
It is also necessary – they said – to preserve the right of faith of the STs because Oraon was assassinated at the place of Sarna prayer meeting.
They asked for independent judicial inquiry into the murder, providing security to the people who are raising questions of rights and immediate recognition of land rights of aboriginal forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
In their charter of demands, they have appealed to the Commission to ask the state government to form a bench of the High Court to look at the human right violations unleashed on the people in mining areas.
Their last demand includes audit of the rehabilitation and livelihood options of displaced people with social categorisation like ST/SC/OBC/General because of the ongoing and completed development projects, including mining, industries and infrastructure projects, and implementation of the Forest Rights Acts in the state.