In Jharkhand's Barkagaon, Indiscriminate Mining is Threatening a Rich Cultural History

Many think of coal when talking of Barkagaon, but the region also has something else to offer – a rich cultural history.

The way in which mineral rich areas are often described makes it seem as if there is very little human presence there, or the little that there is, is totally inconsequential. Credit: Akshay Mahajan/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

I was out on a midnight stroll in Hazaribagh town.

Back home for a few days from Bengaluru, I decided to walk towards the road going to Barkagaon. That’s when I saw a series of trucks headed the same way. Some distance ahead I was stopped by two policemen who looked suspiciously at me, wanting to know why I was out so late. Saying that I was returning from a relative’s house, I asked where the trucks were headed. One of them replied that the trucks were headed to Tandwa mines via Barkagaon.

I asked the policeman if Barkagaon was worth exploring. He waved his hand dismissively. “No sir, only jungle and coal. All of Jharkhand now knows about Barkagaon, thanks to NTPC.” He was referring to the National Thermal Power Corporation.

Rift formation at Tandwa, near Barkagaon, which carries geological secrets dating back hundreds of thousands of years that are crucial for understanding the present. Tandwa is where NTPC plans to build the country’s largest thermal power plant. Credit: Arghya Bhaskar

I had deliberately asked him that question. The villages that fall within the Barkagaon community development block have been simmering with tension since October 1, when four of its residents were shot dead by the police in front of the NTPC office in Hazaribagh. They were part of a large group that had gathered to stage a dharna against the forceful acquisition of their lands by the NTPC to begin mining for coal.

Coal is the operative word.

Barkagaon is located in the northern part of Jharkhand, 27 kilometres from Hazaribagh. Part of the Karanpura Valley, which separates the north Chotanagpur plateau from its southern part and is drained by the Damodar river’s tributaries, Barkagaon boasts the largest coal block of Asia. NTPC, which is planning to build the largest thermal power plant of India at Tandwa, sees the coal coming from the villages of Barkagaon.

In 2011, after the exit of the Australian company Thiess from the area, following its failure to get mining operations off the ground due to Naxal presence, the NTPC decided to do the mining itself. It started entering the villages of Barkagaon with full force knowing that the might of the state was behind it. The Central Reserve Police Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal have also been deployed in Barkagaon, and their presence has created a sense of fear among the villagers.

A hoarding outside the forest department office on Canary Hill in Hazaribagh saying that the forest is the soul of Jharkhand. Lip service at what cost? Credit: Arghya Bhaskar

The description of Barkagaon given by the policeman – “coal and jungle” – made me think. The way in which mineral rich areas are described makes it seem as if there is very little human presence there, or the little that there is, is totally inconsequential. To many, it may even seem that the local population is actually holding up development by refusing to part with their land. Most of the local newspapers in Hazaribagh do not cover incidents such as the October 1 protest and firing. To the bulk of the national press, this kind of news often seems highly remote, unless its magnitude is such as to excite curiosity.

Viewing the region through a different lens

One meeting with 74-year-old Bulu Imam, a great chronicler of the region and its people, and you gain an entirely new perspective on them – not as backward, but as culturally rich, with an organic way of life in tune with the environment. Such examples could actually prod a world committed to the Paris Climate Accord to start asking some fundamental questions about a sustainable way of life in the 21st century.

Imam, who is the founder of the Sanskriti Museum in Hazaribagh and convenor of the Hazaribagh chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, has been at the forefront of a three-decade-long fight against open-cast coal mining. He has made it his life’s purpose to bring to the world’s attention the rich and unbroken story of human evolution in Karanpura Valley that starts from the Paleolithic and Neolithic period. This narrative, as he explained in his report to the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 2001-2002, “is complemented by the more recent contemporary village culture, manifesting folk painting traditions clearly connected with the region’s prehistoric rock art, spanning a period from the Palaeolithic, through to the Chalcolithic. A vibrant micro-lithic and neolithic culture, and the remains of a great Iron-Age Asura civilisation lie scattered on the floor of the North Karanpura Valley and its surrounding areas, now once more threatened by indiscriminate mining.” The area is rich in archaeological deposits, megaliths, dolmens and sacred groves.

Bulu Imam, a crusader for a way of life anchored in a region that holds vital evidence of a great pre-Aryan civilisation. Credit: Aashu Abhishek

Imam’s museum, which showcases stone tools from the prehistoric era as well as vibrant examples of a continuous mural tradition of the indigenous people, makes for a fascinating experience. As do the books in his huge library. Absorb their stories and you will see Jharkhand’s significant place in the history of human evolution, he says. It is this area that the NTPC seeks to cover with coal dust, representing a form of energy that is increasingly being questioned for its polluting nature.

In fact, it was largely due to Imam’s campaign that a World Bank loan to Coal India in 1999 was withdrawn. For his lifetime’s campaign against mining in the North Karanpura region, Imam received the prestigious Gandhi International Peace Award in 2011. It was an award he shared with Binayak Sen.

Rich cultural history

Inspired by Imam’s towering passion, I decided to explore some of the sites around Barkagaon. My first halt was at the megalithic site in Pankri Barwadih village, about 25 kilometres from Hazaribagh, which the NTPC has its sight on. The sight of the tall and imposing stones in a big field had a magnetic feel to it. Most of the megalithic sites were used as burial grounds. Some like the Pankri Barwadih site reveal the indigenous people’s intricate understanding of nature and science, according to Hazaribagh-based Subhashis Das – the local, self-taught megalith expert who is invited the world over to talk about this unique heritage of Jharkhand and its pre-Aryan settlements.

It was Das who discovered the Pankri Barwadih megalithic site more than 15 years ago and along with it the astronomical wisdom of its people. He realised that the megaliths were so positioned that they enabled the community to observe the transiting sun on the two equinoxes (March and September). On these days when day and night are of equal duration, the sun appears to jump out of the two megaliths. Das gave it the name equinox site. Today, a large number of people come to the site to witness the spring equinox. 

Megalithic site at Pankri Barwadih, Barkagaon, an instance of ancient astronomical wisdom. The megaliths are so placed as to witness the transition of the sun during the two equinoxes. Credit: Arghya Bhaskar

Megaliths are just one aspect of the wisdom of these pre-Aryan cultures. This area is also home to pre-historic rock paintings dating back to 9500 BCE. The lineage of this earliest art tradition, when the early settlers worshipped cave art, can today be seen in the wall paintings of village houses in Barkagaon. Tribal women usher in the season of spring and weddings with their Khovar wall paintings and herald the season of winter and harvest with their Sohrai wall paintings. The area also boasts four rock cut caves from the Buddhist tradition dating to 600 CE.

Khovar wall art painted during the spring and wedding season by the tribal women: inheritors of pre-historic rock art dating back to more than 8,000 years. Credit: Arghya Bhaskar

Rock-cut cave at Mahudi Hill, Barkagaon. Credit: Mihir Vatsa

Imam and Das are both passionate about the area being declared a world heritage site. For the story they tell does not belong to Jharkhand or India alone; it belongs to humanity as a whole. If the land is taken away for mining, the cultural memory of thousands of years nourished by it will be destroyed.

As I turned back, I looked at the lush green paddy fields all around which anchor the fertile valley’s memory. Spotting a farmer working in his field I stopped to converse with him. He said agriculture was the mainstay of most villagers; it sustained them. Moreover, he said his harvest was good this year; he will be able to live on that rice for three years. This is one of the main reasons why many villagers do not want to sell their land to NTPC, he said. He pointed out that those who were willing to sell their land, roughly about 20%, were not happy with the compensation package.

In fact, the villagers are none too happy with the announcement of the chief minister of Jharkhand and NTPC officials last August that only those with a minimum BSc degree will be eligible to seek a job. This has only hardened the resolve of many villagers to not part with their land.

Rice fields, Barkagaon. Credit: Arghya Bhaskar

I thought of the summers when we in Hazaribagh, weary of power cuts as long as five to six hours, wished efforts could be speeded up to generate more electricity. In itself it is not an unreasonable thought but now that I was aware of several dimensions to the issue, it was no longer only about me, an urban Indian wanting his share of progress. The issue was far more complex – and complicated.

As things stand right now, those with might on their side are getting their way. Last month a news report in The Pioneer pointed out that NTPC has started mining activity in the Chirudih and Pankri Barwadih area of Barkagaon without getting a no objection certificate from the forest and environment department. The report also mentions that the state president of RJD, Gautam Sagar Rana, and social activist, Dileshwar Mahto, have claimed on the basis of an RTI query that the forest land on which NTPC has started its operation has not yet been transferred to it.

One of the mines falls in the forest area near Chirudih, 40 kilometres away from Hazaribagh. According to Imam, the forest department has given away 500 acres of land to NTPC on the grounds that the only inhabitants of the forest were snakes and squirrels. In reality, the forest is a wildlife corridor for animals migrating from the North Chotanagpur plateau to its southern part and vice versa. Elephants, deer and bears are some of the bigger animals inhabiting these forests.

Seeing the government move ahead in the region, local companies from Bihar and Jharkhand too have started mining operations, says Narayan, a resident of Barkagaon. Over a phone conversation he remarks that some few villagers have even become ‘brokers’, instigating residents to give away their lands. “There are some within us who are spoiling the atmosphere of the village. The government is now trying to break our unity,” is how he looks at it.

The villagers of Barkagaon have been left to their fate. Sitting MLA Nirmala Devi, who was one of the main organisers of the October 1 dharna, continues to be in prison. There is not much enthusiasm among other local leaders to support the villagers.

Meanwhile, the situation in Barkagaon is getting tense by the day. I can’t seem to get one thought out of my mind – what story will Karanpura Valley narrate a few years from now?

(With inputs from The Wire desk)

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