18 Years On, Memories of Jharkhand's Adivasi Anti-Dam Struggle Endure

"We are quiet until the dam is quiet; we shall wake up in rage if the dam comes, like we always have."

Sitting on the banks of Karo River, Tapkara – a nondescript village, about 80 kilometres from the state capital Ranchi, in Jharkhand’s Khunti district – rose to prominence for difficult reasons. On February 2, 2001 , eight adivasi anti-dam agitators were gunned down by the police. Today, a modest memorial stands to remember the lives the community had to lose to secure its rights.

Late in February, 2019, nearly two decades later, resting squarely on a blue plastic chair outside his residence, in Lohajimi – a few kilometres from the site of firing – Soma Munda’s otherwise firm voice shakes as he recollects the incident of that fateful morning. “The Inspector had shouted “maaro, maaro, order mil gaya!” and then, there was chaos. They started firing, unarmed protestors succumbed to fatal bullets,” he recollected.

On February 1, the local police officer, along with a few officials, had come in their vehicles, destroyed crops worth a year’s labour by driving over them, and later uprooted the gate built at the entrance by villagers to stop intruders. They’d beaten up one villager who protested this. The peaceful demonstration by thousands of adivasis in front of Tapkara police station, that day, was to demand fair compensation for the crop-loss, and to seek the administration’s support for a respectful life for villagers.

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Memories of that day are intact for all, across generations, and the fear is still palpable in Lohajimi.

Neelmani Mundain was in her late thirties then. “It was my turn to stay back and take care of the home that day. My husband walked all the way till Tapkara to be a part,” she said. “We had to protest, or else where would we go? It was all those years that we fought to live. ‘Yeh vikas nahi vinas ho raha tha humara (It wasn’t evolution, but our destruction which was taking place)’,”she said. She had not known about the shootings until evening and had patiently waited for her husband and Soma Munda, the leader, to return. “I was shocked when I heard about the deaths. I was happy to see Soma Munda and my husband, but how could I eat that day? Eight of us had died, it could have been us, anybody,” she murmured.

For Soma Munda, the murderous bullets felt close. “The swollen crowd was getting restless, the local MLA had arrived, and there were demands for taking action against the inspector for the wreckage caused a day before. As senior authorities were awaited, someone permitted firing. We were unarmed. The bullets flew in from the edges; there was death and chaos. It was brutal. I heard 56 rounds being fired that day,” he recollected.

The memorial building at Tapkara. Credit: Abinash Dash Choudhury

The protest meeting was a culmination of prolonged attempts by the adivasis to safeguard their homes. Munda’s presence in the protest was not an accident. After serving in the Indian Army for 21 years, he had returned to his native place in 1976 and found himself involved in what would turn out to be one of the most successful anti-dam agitation in independent India. By 1977 he was part of the central committee of ‘Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan’, the front-line organisation which played a pioneering role in averting large-scale displacement.

After the shootings, Soma Munda, along with 11 others were arrested on charges of murder, and 4,000 adivasis were named in an FIR, implicated for murdering a police constable and torching a police van. “I did not even know that a constable had died until the next day’s newspaper report. None of us knew! We were grieving our deaths… they had implicated us after killing us. The law was theirs, the power and the story was theirs. But we knew we had to struggle or die,” added Munda. He was arrested in 2010 for a brief while. About 12 years later in 2014, they were all finally let-off.

The Koel-Karo dam project, which was first conceptualised in the second Five Year Plan of the government of India, was being steered by the then Bihar Government’s State Electricity Board. The final project report was completed in 1973, with the total estimated cost of Rs 137 crore. According to the report, two dams were to be constructed — at Basia on the South Koel River and at Lohajimi on the North Karo River.

The two dams were to be connected by a 34.7 km canal. To facilitate power generation, permission was given for the construction of four large power houses and two smaller ones, capable of generating 710 megawatts daily. The project would take up 22,000 hectares of land which would displace 1,50,000 people in 256 villages.

As government attempts to start the project gained pace, the movement picked up too. In 1978 ‘Kaam Roko Abhiyan’ began. The villagers stopped the unloading of raw materials in a newly-made godown at Pokra. The Munda adivasis – indigenous to this part of central India – had three demands which had to be fulfilled: economic, social and, cultural rehabilitation. “How would they give us our sarna sthal? We knew the dam can never come up with these demands because they would never be able to compensate for our cultural and social loss,” Soma Munda added.

In the midst of this struggle, the project was taken up by the National Hydro-Power Corporation in 1981. In 1984 as NHPC started to hold its fort, surveys began to take place and the company started entering the village with paramilitary force. “The fight against the company took a sharp turn hereon,” said Munda.

The ‘force’ created enormous troubles for the adivasis. Villagers formed special groups to keep it under check. The ‘janata curfew’ – a system where the villagers decided what time the forces could emerge from their camp – was enforced. It became impossible for the armed men to continue staying when the non-cooperation of the villagers reached tipping point, and they refused to share water and other basic amenities with them. Finally, the force retreated.

Neelmani Mundain. Credit: Abinash Dash Choudhury

It was in 1995, Soma Munda recalls, that came their masterstroke. On July 5, P.V. Narasimha Rao was scheduled to lay the foundation stone for the project. “We had news that he will come to inaugurate the place, and had planned to stall it. About 75,000 of us stood guard in an empty field the night before, and did not let his helicopter land. They cancelled his arrival,” he chuckles, “it did not stop there, Lalu could not bear to accept this and offered to lay the foundation stone the same day, but we didn’t budge. He, too, did not come.” It was an unprecedented victory for Munda and thousands of others.

The victory of indigenous residents across the Koel-Karo basin is a poignant story of survival. But it has cost them their lives, where, generations have come together to save their land in extraordinary unity. “This is a living example of how our sweat and blood has saved us,” Soma Munda said. Walking down the lanes, he points to the invisible structures, saying, “That would have been the longest canal joining the two dams, we’d have drowned with the water.”

The dam’s structure might never have come up, but for Soma Munda, it is a living enemy. “They think we have weakened. They must know they are wrong. We are quiet until the dam is quiet, we shall wake up in rage if the dam comes, like we always have,” he warns.

Abinash Dash Choudhury is a Skye fellow. He is currently based in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The visiting team, of which the writer was also a member, comprised of Vivek Kumar and Varsha Poddar.