At around 1 pm on May 1, in 43 degrees celsius, a quiet, disciplined rally marched through the main market in Balimela, Odisha, and congregated near the bus stop for a public meeting.
International Labour Day in Odisha’s Malkangiri district saw over 3000 adivasis and workers march against everything from Operation Greenhunt and the Polavaram project – which will cause more backwater flooding than displacement in the area – to the failures of the public distribution system and the repression and arrest of its activists.
They marched under the decades-old Malkangiri Zilla Adivasi Sangh (MZAS), whose president Balraju Gamel spoke on how “this is not a country of land, but one of people”. The MZAS was established in the late 1970s when forest officials in the Manuskhunda jungle belt arrested adivasis from 40 villages for settling forest lands.
As they marched, the adivasis demanded proper implementation of NREGA, to stop forced migration, and of Indira Awas Yojana, as well as the reform of the education system for adivasis, comprising the building of schools, better teacher training and vocational training for students.
They demanded the handing over of pattas and the rights over forest produce. They demanded that the land that was grabbed by non-tribals and corporations be handed back to them. They demanded that all un-regularised workers be regularised.
They insisted that the Konda Reddis, Nokaduras, Dhurwas, Ranes, Gouds, Kumhars and Kamhars of the forests of Malkangiri, who have practiced adivasi culture for centuries, be classified as scheduled tribes.
Repeated in the banners, slogans and speeches, was the demand for the preservation of adivasi culture against state repression.
The MZAS is an independent adivasi body. On May 1, it marched with blue collar workers of the decades-old Balimela Hydroelectric Project.
Balimela is a deserted-looking town, with most of its shops shuttered because of the summer heat.
“How can Operation Greenhunt happen without permission from the Gram Sabha?” This was one of the queries posed by the protestors.
The sloganeering was entirely in Odia, and left to the lone vehicle with a sound system.
Amplified over the sound system were a range of demands, from jal, jungle aur jameen, to “adivasi par soshan daman band karo,” to the end of imperialist oppression.
“Return all the unused land of the Odisha Hydroelectric Power Corporation (OHPC) to their rightful owners.”
The banner above reads “American Imperialism should bite Iraqi dust.”
The lone turituri of the rally.
The protestors seldom raised the slogan of “lal salaam“…
…for fear of being idenfied as members of the CPI (Maoist).
Bideshi Gouda, whose father was in jail when he was born, is the convenor of the MZAS.
At the rally, Gouda questioned how a government can create policy concerning adivasis without consulting them.
The marchers resting before the rally at the Balimela Hydro Power Project Employees Union (BHPPE) recreation centre. While the BHPPE were part of the march, another union of the same South Corporation did not join the proceedings. Reacting to their non-participation, a journalist from Jeypore said they were casteist.
After the rest, the workers resumed the rally.
A kafila from Chitrakonda marching to join the rest of the protestors.
Mahesh Samrath of Naranguda village is the brother of Thrinat Samrat, who was allegedly kidnapped and murdered by the police in 2012.
Three vehicles came from Samrath’s panchayat alone.
The meeting was delayed as the police prevented some vehicles from joining the procession. The police has often treated the MZAS as a Maoist front. The MZAS meanwhile, has accused the police of posting anti-naxal posters and banners on the streets of Malkangiri, with their convenor’s phone number attached.
Finally, the meeting began.
Young boys at the meeting.
The meeting ended by evening, since many vehicles had to travel into the jungle. This vehicle would travel 53 kms to Tondiki Panchayat.