In East Singhbhum district of the eastern state of Jharkhand in India, about 20 kilometers southeast of the city Jamshedpur, one of the first centers of the steel industry in India, lies Potka Block . In 2005, Bhushan Power and Steel Limited arrived in Potka block with a proposal to set up a 2.6 million tons per annum (mtpa) steel manufacturing unit (later increased to 3 mtpa) with a 450 MW captive power plant (later increased to 900 MW). For this purpose, it required an area of 3,500 acres of land. Opposition to the process of land acquisition began in the village of Pichli in 2005, the first proposed site of this plant, with the formation of a local organization, Khuntkatti Rayat Bhumi Suraksha Samiti (Khunkatti Rayat Land Defense Committee) . The company shifted its site twice after this, where two more such local organizations were formed, Bhumi Suraksha Samiti (Land Defense Committee) in 2007, with its center in Kalikapur village, and Bhumi Raksha Vahini Kisan Morcha (Land Defense Farmers’ Front) in 2008, with its center in Roladih village. The company was successful in finally finding sellers of land in Potka village, the headquarters of the block. Since this acquisition of land has taken place, Roladih, that lies at a mere 3 km from Potka, has become an important center of the movement.
In this article, I explore the way in which resistance to the company’s attempts at forcible land acquisition, in close collaboration with state officials and institutions, took the shape that it did. In particular, it engages with nature of claims that the movement makes in resisting the attempted land acquisition, who those claims are made by, and what implications this has for our understanding of anti-dispossession politics. The article is based on my doctoral research work. Fieldwork for this purpose was conducted for a period of six months between September 2011 and April 2012, during which period I was based in the village of Roladih and worked with the local organization, Bhumi Raksha Vahini Kisan Morcha (BRVKM).
Roladih village is located in the district of East Singhbhum in southeast Jharkhand. While East Singhbhum is amongst the most industrialised and urbanised of the districts in Jharkhand, the majority of the population continues to be employed in agriculture with paddy being the primary agricultural crop of the region. The demographic composition of Roladih is made up of both adivasi  and non-adivasi communities. Four communities inhabit the village of Roladih - Bhumij, Santhals, Patros and Das. While the two former communities are adivasis, the latter are caste Hindus, both castes falling under the official category of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Santhals and Bhumij constitute the majority, making up 76 per cent of the total village population. There are other caste Hindu communities that own land in Roladih, but reside in the neighbouring villages of Sarmanda and Bhumbri. This section is made up predominantly of Mandals or Sunris. Both Sarmanda and Bhumbri have a large Mandal population, an important landowning community in Potka.
The movement of resistance to the proposed land acquisition by BPSL, in conjunction with the state, is made up primarily of Adivasi peasants. In order to understand the particular shape of the movement it is important to understand through what motivation and in what material and historical context communities partake in the resistance. In the next section I lay out some of the key claims of the movement in resisting BPSL’s attempts at acquiring land, followed by a section that addresses concerns of what is it precisely that is being opposed, by whom, and why.
At the start, it is useful to lay out some of the key claims of the movement. Why are ‘people’ resisting the introduction of a proposed steel manufacturing plant? The movement against the proposed land acquisition by BPSL (henceforth referred to as the anti-BPSL movement) has raised a range of concerns around which peasants and farmers, predominantly adivasis, have mobilized against the company and its endeavor to bring ‘development’ to Potka. The primary concern remains that of land, that serves as a key resource, the source of food, for subsistence peasants. The loss of land in exchange for money is fiercely resisted as money comes to be seen as a finite resource that can only sustain for a few years at best, while land is seen as a resource that subsists, quite literally, generation after generation. Along with this question of the loss of the land is the issue of where they would go, once displaced, since BPSL has made no mention of a resettlement site. Instead, it has merely offered a price for the land and ambiguous promises of employment.
The question of employment is a second critical area of concern for the movement and one it constantly raises. The movement has pointed out that large factories are usually technologically advanced and require skills at handling such technologies with which they are not equipped, implying they are less likely to be employable in such a workspace. Instead, they are likely to be employed in contractual daily wage work, often more heavily employed in the process of construction of the plant and its auxiliaries, and left to fend for themselves once this work is complete. Further, the promise is a shaky one, with no guarantees or legal enforceability. The promise itself only grants one job per family, being far from providing enough for an entire family that is otherwise engaged collectively in cultivation.
Finally, the movement asks a critical question of those pushing forward such an idea of development – if you take away all the cultivable land to make steel, what will we eat? An important aspect of the mobilization against the company is to draw on past experiences of surrounding populations who have been displaced by other projects, similarly introduced under the broad banner of bringing in ‘development’, be it the establishment of the city of Jameshedpur over the land of 33 predominantly Adivasi villages, or the (in)famous uranium mine in Jadugoda established by the Public Sector Enterprise Uranium Corporation of India Limited. The history of displacement in Jharkhand, a region rich in minerals and other natural resources, is a long one. Each of these experiences of unfulfilled promises of rehabilitation and continuing struggles of the displaced and affected-populations is testament to the failure of these projects to bring about any upliftment in the lives of local peasants and farmers. Along with this historical experience, is the complete lack of mandated procedure in the process of acquisition, leading to sentiments of suspicion and distrust towards the company. Instead of presenting clearly the details of the project, its benefits, its impact and scope, local individuals have been targeted to play the role of dalals or ‘agents’ to bring other locals over to the side of the company and convince them to sell their lands to BPSL.
In order to locate some of these claims, this section looks at why such resistance emerges and from which sections. Amongst the foremost concerns in this context is the question of livelihood, the place of agriculture within the local economy, and the nature of changes such ‘development’ would introduce into the lives of locals, cutting across caste and class. As has already been mentioned, the region is predominantly agricultural with paddy being the primary crop. Based on a survey conducted as part of this research in the village of Roladih, it was found that a large majority of adivasis subsisted on agriculture and fell within the category of small and marginal farmers, while most OBC households depended on non-agricultural sources of livelihood. However, not a single family subsisted purely off agriculture and cultivation, and this was mostly supplemented with daily contract wage labor.
With the introduction of the company and the establishment of a steel plant, land as the key source of food, would be lost, adversely impacting predominantly those who subsist on paddy cultivation. It is for this reason that the large majority of those that participate in the movement are subsistence farmers and peasants. Without this source of food, the entire consumption requirements of a household would have to be met through wages earned through contract work. As this section is constituted predominantly by adivasis, they make up the large part of the anti-BPSL movement. The terms of exchange proposed by the company – money for land – is one that is likely to send already marginalized populations even further into the fringes of the economy, rendering already vulnerable agrarian communities more vulnerable as daily wage contract workers in the growing informal economy.
Alongside this, it is simultaneously important to remember that the phrase ‘local populations’ is not a homogenous term, and it is certain sections of the local population that, owing to its position within the local political economy, resist the steel plant, while other sections, differently placed, see their benefit in the establishment of the plant. These are the big landowning sections, predominantly Mandals (categorized as OBC), who also dominate in local businesses. These sections that have an existing footing, drawing on their caste network, in local commercial and entrepreneurial endeavors, are likely to benefit from the cash inflow as proposed by the company in exchange for their lands. This same money that remains as liquid finite money to spend on consumption for subsistence peasants, takes the shape of capital to be invested and profits to be made for the commercial classes. It is therefore, precisely this section that has sold the little land that the company has successfully acquired till now, even as large parts remain in the hands of those resisting the company. This material context, therefore, and a close analysis of the local political economy, its historical evolution, and the location of different castes and communities within this structure, is critical in understanding who resists and why they resist.
Each area where BPSL attempted to establish its plant saw the organization of the several villages in and around the site to be directly or indirectly impacted into a local organization that then led the resistance. In the third and final organization, with its center at Roladih, this process was preceded by a string of village-level meetings where (limited) information about the proposed steel plant and its possible impacts was shared with each village in order to garner their support for the anti-BPSL movement. This process was led by a select few educated and articulate members of the area, often those that had the experience of working with local NGOs and political activists. As a culmination of these meetings, the organization Bhumi Raksha Vahini Kisan Morcha (BRVKM) came into existence in February of 2008. Meetings, rallies, workshops and demonstrations of these various organizations, mostly those that address questions of Adivasi autonomy and self-rule, then serve as spaces where voices of resistance remain vocal and active, even as the movement’s actions themselves are often limited to responding to aggressions of the company, when and if they arise.
In addressing the question of movements against big development projects, this process is often posed as a position of anti-development movements. However, on closer analysis of why resistance arises in the first place, it is possible to unpack the opposition to delineate what is it that is being opposed. This article has demonstrated some of the concerns with one of the many ‘development’ projects that dot the landscape of Jharkhand. These concerns include a concerted disengagement on part of company and state officials in any serious way with their concern around livelihood and land, their consciousness of their position within the political economy leaving cash as money in their hands and not capital, as well as procedural questions of land acquisition and flouting of established norms. On closer look, these critiques pose serious questions to the manner in which development projects are implemented or even planned in India and demand a fundamental rethinking of the question of development.