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The Koel Karo Struggle remains a testament to the will of the indigenous people in the eastern part of India, who used various means to resist a hydroelectric project that threatened to destroy their lives, livelihood and cultural roots.
The two dams proposed for the project would have submerged not only villages, but also sources of livelihood and sites of historical significance. The resistance is widely lauded for having forced the government to withdraw a hydroelectric project, a rare event in India. More tragically, it is remembered for the Tapkara firing, which has become a symbol of the violence perpetrated by the police forces against non-violent agitators.
The Koel Karo basin is in Jharkhand, an eastern Indian state that was carved out of the state of Bihar in 2000 (1). The Koel Karo basin is nestled between the Kaimoor hills, the Raj Mahal hills and the Vindhayachal Mountains, straddles the river basins of the Sone Ganga and the Mahanadi rivers. The inhabitants of the area are largely adivasis (indigenous populations) belonging to the Munda and Oraon peoples.
In 1955, when Jharkhand was still part of Bihar, the Koel Karo hydroelectric project was conceptualized, with subsequent surveys in the 1950s conducted by the Bihar State Electricity Board. By 1972-73, the project report had been prepared, and land acquisition began. The intention was to generate 710 megawatts of electricity. The rivers would be dammed at two points: Basia on the South Koel River and Lowajimi on the North Karo River. The two reservoirs would be connected through an inter-basin channel with a length of 34.7 kilometers.
The estimated displacement has been widely contested, with official estimates pegging it at 7,063 families from 112 villages, but community estimates going as high as 200,000 people. It is believed that 135 to 140 villages would be completely submerged, while 66 acres of cultivated land would be permanently flooded. Further, several sacred sites of the local population would be submerged by the project, estimated at about 152 sarnas (sites for ritual festivities) and 300 sasandhris (burial sites).
In the initial period of the project, access roads began to be built to the Karo area, but the labourers building the roads were brought in from other areas, and the locals were kept unaware of the intentions of the government. In 1974-75, following the creation of a blueprint for the project, an office was established at Torpa, a small city near the project sites. The Torpa office began to acquire land for the project. Only at this point did the local people become aware of the planned dams.
The villagers were troubled by the corruption pervading the process of acquisition, and united against cheating in the “measurement of land, in payment of compensation and giving of jobs.” They began mobilizing, and two organizations were formed: the Jan Sanyojan Samiti (People’s Coordination Committee) in the Karo area, and the Jan Sangarsh Samiti (People’s Struggle Committee) in the Koel area. Initially, the tribal and non-tribal cultivators had differing opinions about the mode of agitation, but by 1976, the two resistance organizations united to form the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan (Koel Karo People’s Organization) KKJS, with Moses Gudia elected as the Chairperson, and Halim Kujur as the General Secretary.
There had been reports by many villagers of poor survey work and destruction of crops during surveys, leading to a general demand that survey work be entrusted to locals, not outsiders. In 1977-78, this culminated in a significant agitation, the kam roko andolan (stop work agitation), which primarily focused on not allowing work to continue in the project area. The villagers successfully constructed a barricade at the village of Derang, and were able to stop the unloading of cement and steel by the Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB) at the train station in Pakra. On January 5th, 1979, the BSEB invited the KKJS for negotiations. At this meeting, the KKJS presented a 16-point charter, following which it was agreed to unload the materials at the station. In return, the government was required to delay construction until a mutually-acceptable solution to the issue had been found.
In 1980, the project was brought under the National Hydroelectric Power Cooperation, which meant that the new head of the project was far less approachable. The struggle intensified, with protesters damaging a vehicle used by land acquisition officials. Women also joined the struggle. The government was forced to initiate discussions with KKJS, and several rounds of discussions took place between July 1983 and May 1984, but bore no fruit. By July 1984, the Bihar state government sent in armed forces to secure the area, but they were resisted by the villagers. Women blocked access routes to the area, and prevented any access to drinking water, firewood and so on. In fact, rumours began to spread that the water meant for the troops was being poisoned by the villagers, leading to great panic among the troops.
In August 1984, B. P. Lakra of the Xavier Institute of Social Service submitted a petition to the Supreme Court. The Court responded favorably, issuing an injunction stating that the government was not permitted to use force to acquire land until a mutual agreement had been reached. This was a shot in the arm for the movement, and the armed forces had to retreat. The next ten years saw relatively limited activity on the project front, with mere official dithering. In 1985, the Government of Bihar announced that it would build two model villages, meant as rehabilitation villages, and then the villagers were free to choose if the new habitation was suitable; however, the government never fulfilled its promise. In October 1986, all developmental activities in the area were halted.
However, near a decade later, activity intensified when the government announced that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao would lay the foundation stone of the project on July 5th, 1995. This announcement was met with strong opposition in the area, with thousands participating in protests and demonstrations. On June 10th, 5000 protesters gathered in Torpa. On June 26th, 15,000 marched in Tapkara. This demonstration culminated in the declaration of a people’s curfew in the area, which meant that government and project officials were barred from entering the vicinity. In fact, the KKJS had declared July 5th to be a Sankalp Diwas (Day of Commitment). This led to the prime minister canceling his attendance. The state’s chief minister Laloo Prasad then announced that he would inaugurate the project, only to be met with similar protests. Backed by opposition political groups, the KKJS declared that it would prevent the Chief Minister from coming to the project site, and more than 25,000 people blocked the road by lying on it, preventing the Chief Minister’s helicopter from landing anywhere, leading to the cancellation of the event. This massive rejection of the Chief Minister’s entourage received solidarity from several NGOs and human rights organizations from across the world.
In December 2000, the new state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar, and the opposition party (the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha) told the newly-formed government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to expect dire consequences if the Koel Karo Project was resumed.
The Tapkara Firing
On February 1, 2001, on the pretext of a search operation for members of a Maoist guerilla group, armed troops were sent to the site of the project in Tapkara, where they removed the barricade that had been erected by the KKJS. Amrit Gudia, a villager who was passing by, protested to the police contingent about their removal of the barricade, following which he was assaulted until he lost consciousness. Another villager, Lorentius Gudia, then accosted the policemen, only to be assaulted himself, following which the policemen fled the site. The KKJS held a meeting in the evening, to review the immediate steps that needed to be taken to deal with the situation. They decided to hold a peaceful sit-in at the same site where the barricade had been placed. The next day, February 2, a crowd of about four and a half thousand gathered at Tapkara. Under the leadership of Raja Poulush Gudia, Soma Munda, Vijay Gudia, Poulush Gudia, and Sader Kandulna, they submitted a memorandum of their demands to a police officer present on the site. The demands were as follows: “The police officials must replace the uprooted barrier back…with due respect and in accordance with tribal customs. Both the injured victims – Amrit Gudia and Lorentus Gudia – must be paid compensation of 50,000 rupees each. The twin guilty officers-in-charge R.N. Singh [from the Tapkara Observation Post] and Akhshay Kumar [from the Rania Police Station] must be suspended with immediate effect and be removed from the area.”
This last demand was important because the two offending officers were not from tribal communities. As organizations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) have argued, only tribal police officers should be posted in tribal areas.
After some time, a local BJP politician, Koche Munda, arrived and addressed the gathering. He left the site for some time, at which point, a sudden police firing took place, leading to the death of 8 people (seven adivasis and one Muslim) and the injury of some 30 people on the site. There are several contesting versions of what happened. The official police version claims that the crowd got agitated after being incited by a local timber merchant, after which they were warned several times, then tear gas shells were released into the mob, following which the shoot order was given. Several eyewitnesses and policemen, after a fact-finding team visited the site, revealed that the two policemen involved in the thrashing the previous day began assaulting women and youth who were sitting in front, following which some of the local youth got enraged and began pelting stones at the crowd. The police fired some shots in the air, after which the crowd began dispersing, and the police started firing indiscriminately at the retreating crowd. The site of the firing was immediately renamed the Shaheed Sthal (Martyrdom Site). The firing was met with outrage across the country.
Every year, henceforth, February 1, 2 and 3 are days when members of the community gather at Tapkara, the site of the martyrdom, to remember the supreme loss undertaken by many against the repression of the police forces. On August 29, 2003, Arjun Munda, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, announced that the Koel Karo project was being scrapped. The reason stated was financial difficulty, and exorbitant rise in the project costs and estimates, since the initial formulation of the project. Following this momentous announcement, on February 1, 2 and 3, 2004 the KKJS organized a large programme at the Tapkara martyrdom site, and February 3rd was declared as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day).
On July 21th, 2010, the Governor finally completed the closing of the Koel Karo project, giving official sanction to the announcement made about seven years earlier. All offices of the project were closed, and all employees promised rehabilitory employment in other government agencies.
The KKJS has maintained its role as a social organization, involving itself in the day to day affairs of the members of the community, and has taken initiatives to run cooperatives in several villages. They have also involved themselves in developmental activities of all villages in the area.
The Koel Karo movement represents the focused struggle of both adivasis and non-adivasi populations in the face of sustained pressure by the government. The movement responded strongly to the threat of displacement by a project that had been initiated without their consent, which, in fact, they learnt of only after planning was complete and construction work was underway. The resistance that the people mounted represents the community’s ability to form active organizations, to resist a variety of government machinations, to exhibit the strength of community solidarity, and finally, to remain uncompromising in its aim of closing down the project. Its success remains an inspiration for other social movements in India and beyond.
This article is available in French: Le Mouvement social Koel Karo dans l’Est de l’Inde
Kiro, V., Smitu Kothari and Savyasaachi, “Culture, Creative Opposition and Alternative Development: Sustaining Struggle in the Koel-Karo Valleys,” in P.T. George et al (eds.) Dissent, Self-Determination and Resilience: Social Movements in India, New Delhi: Intercultural Resources, 2010
Shukla, N. “Under people’s protest Jharkhand closes Koel-Karo project”, in Coal Geology, 2010
Claus, Martina and Sebastian Hartig,The Koel Karo Hydel Project – an empirical study of the resistance movement of the Adivasi in Jharkhand / India, University of Kassel, Germany, 2004
People’s Union for Civil Liberties, “The adivasi struggle for land rights at Koel-Karo: Jharkhand PUCL Report on Killing of eight tribal villagers police firing at Tapkara Jharkhand on 02.02.2001,” in PUCL Bulletin, September 2002
Koel-Karo project, Central Chronicle, December 22, 2000