Unrest in Sundergarh district, Odisha: Urbanization as “development” vs constitutional safeguards for tribal people

Rail roko agitation by Sundergarh’s tribal people

A People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) fact-finding team* visited Sundergarh, a scheduled district of Odisha, from February 16 to 20, 2015 to make a spot inquiry into the recent unrest among the tribals and the way the administration clamped on them. Excerpts from the team’s report:

The fact-finding process was initiated after the affected in the region and some local activists in the area sought an independent civil society investigation into the brutal suppression of the adivasis of Sundergarh district who have been protesting against the inclusion of their scheduled villages, especially Jagda and Jhartarang Panchayat into the Rourkela Municipal Corporation. This included information that huge numbers of villagers were getting arrested in the region, and that on January 20, 2015, when the villagers organized an economic blockade as a sign of protest, several villagers including women and children were severely beaten up.

The fact-finding team met villagers from different villages who were arrested, beaten up or who are still running under fear of arrest owing to pending FIRs against them. On the first and second day of our visit, we met various local leaders and had detailed conversations where they gave a deeper historical context to the entire issue. Women of the villages, who were arrested on the day of the economic blockade, were released on bail during our visit, and we were able to meet and interact with them. There were old and young men and women who were severely beaten up, they also spoke to the team and described the events of that day.

Jablun Ekka, George Tirkey, Lily Kujur, Sunita Singh, Tej Kumari, and Ramnath Toppo, gave detailed accounts of the circumstances in which they learnt of the notification regard to the inclusion and how the villagers  have been protesting against it right from the very beginning. Other than the villagers the team met the Additional District Magistrate, Station House Officer Brahmanitarang, had telephonic conversation with the Superintendent of Police, Sundergarh, and went to the Municipal Corporation to speak to the officers and obtain documents relating to the transformation of Rourkela Nagar Panchayat into a Municipal Corporation.


Sundergarh is a Schedule Five district in the north-western part of the state of Odisha. It has been a site of multiple movements for the right to self-determination historically, and also one of the regions that has made great sacrifices for the development of this country. As much as 67 per cent of the population lives in the rural areas. Sundergarh is the 2nd largest tribal district of Odisha having 51% of tribal population. The entire district is a Scheduled Area, thus making the Fifth Schedule as well as Acts like PESA, OSATIP and special schemes meant for tribal communities under ITDAs applicable in the area.

The marginalization process of the tribal communities in Sundergarh started with the industrialization, mining and urbanisation of the district leading to large-scale dispossession, as also deprivation resulting from the alienation from forest resources on which tribal communities were dependent for survival. Setting up of one of the first steel plants of the country, Rourkela Steel Plant, resulted in large-scale displacement of adivasis who inhabited the Rourkela area, without any consideration for their resettlement and rehabilitation. Rules under Fifth schedule were violated while adivasis in the area were getting impoverished and their numbers reduced with every successive census after independence.

Present Issue:

The issue in dispute concerns the expansion of Rourkela Municipality into Rourkela Municipal Corporation which is being undertaken by the Rourkela Development Authority (RDA) reportedly as part of the implementation of Odisha Development Authority Act, 1982 for the planned growth of cities. News of its inclusion started flashing in the newspapers much before the notification with government claiming that the same is being to fulfil the aspiration of the citizens of Rourkela, and that it would cater to the need of people of the city by not only providing effective basic service delivery but also a citizen friendly urban local body for developmental perspective and growth.

But the present issue of forcible inclusion of adivasi panchayats into the proposed RMC without consulting the ST/SC (affected) populations is being perceived by the villagers as another strategy to deprive them of constitutional protections and convert them into a minority community of unskilled contract labourers. The primary reason for notifying Rourkela Municipality limits into a Corporation is to make the city eligible for up-gradation to a Smart City claims the villagers.

It is to be noted that Rourkela is one of the proposed smart cities. Additionally, Sundergarh administration is moving ahead with the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) for creation of Greater Rourkela. The CDP envisages inclusion of notified areas of RDA including Rourkela Municipal Corporation (RMC) limits, captive township of Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) and adjacent rural pockets of Kuanrmunda and Lathikata blocks. The CDP draft proposal, prepared by the Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO) of the Union Ministry of Urban Development and Rourkela Development Authority (RDA), is ready for approval of the State Government. Reportedly, the geographical area of CDP would be 258 sq km spread over 52 urban and sub-urban pockets and 52 villages. The current notification might be the first step towards execution of this CDP.

But in all this, the current habitation patterns and people’s consent has not been factored in, said Mr George Tirkey, Present MLA, Birmitrapur and leader of Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Mulvasi Bachao Manch (SZAMBM). That is why adivasis from this area are protesting and resisting the inclusion which will result in the area losing the schedule area status and will affect their cultural identity, practices and traditions.

According to Census 2011, Rourkela Municipality limits excluding the captive township of Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) has a population of 273,217, which is 26,783 short of the criteria required for Corporation status. It was this reason that the government decided to include various neighbouring villages in the municipality fold, especially villages like Jagda and Jhartarang with huge population and land.

“We are fighting for our rights; we will develop on our own, provided the sarkar allows our Constitutional rights on our (lands) resources.”, one of the villagers to the team.

Notification and objections by the villagers:

On October 21, 2013, the State Election Commission of Odisha issued an Order not to conduct the election of Rourkela Municipality as the Government proposed a Corporation for Rourkela. On November 15, 2013, a notification was published by the Government of Odisha  (No: S.R.O.No.- 680/2013) inviting objections and suggestions from the people of the affected areas for the formation of a larger urban area in the district of Sundergarh within 30 days from the publication of the above notification.

Gazette notification 2222. S.R.O. No.-680/2013 specified the following areas to be under the Larger Urban Area and also asked for any objection or suggestion in respect of the said proposal to be submitted to the State Government through Collector and District Magistrate, Sundergarh within thirty days from the date of publication of this notification in the Odisha Gazette and the objection or suggestion as may be received in respect of the said proposal before expiry of the said period shall be duly considered by the State Government.

The notification was outrightly rejected by adivasis of the area. The respective gram panchayats responded back to the order through written memorandums and gram sabha resolutions. Within a month they filed their objection against the proposed inclusion. Their claim was that as a result of inclusion they would lose their natural rights over land and would not be able to avail benefits under the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996.

Objections raised by them in their memorandums:

  • Sundergarh Princely State known as Gangpur & Bonai State was merged on the 1st of January 1948 with the State of Odisha.
  • Sundergarh District was declared a Scheduled District in the year 1950, since then its administrative setup should have been as per the Fifth Schedule with Administrative control through the Union as per Article 339 of the Constitution of India.
  • After the coming of the Orissa Estates Abolition Act 1951, all general laws were applied, including administrative governance, land governance, etc. Successive batches of outsiders were settled in this scheduled area, thus violating Art. 19(5) of the Constitution of India, and also the rights of the scheduled tribes.
  • After the 73rd constitutional amendment, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, known as PESA ACT 1996 has been enacted by the Parliament to govern the rural areas of the scheduled areas. But till date the Government of Odisha has not implemented the PESA Act fully as Traditional Villages in the scheduled areas have not been recognized as per the provisions of Sec-4(b) of the PESA Act.
  • After the 74th constitutional amendment, the Municipalities (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act was passed in the Rajya Sabha in the year 2001 but lapsed since it was not introduced in the Lok Sabha. The result has been the vacuum of governance in the Urban Areas of Scheduled Districts.
  • The State government of Odisha enacted Odisha Municipalities Act in the year 2003 , which was made applicable to the whole area of Odisha including the Scheduled Areas. This was a clear violation of Art. 243ZC(3) of the Constitution of India, because only the Parliament was empowered and competent to make the Act/Law relating to the governance of the Scheduled areas. Subsequently, when this issue was challenged in the High Court and Supreme Court, a  notification by the governor came out extending the act to the Scheduled areas of Sundergarh. Supreme Court later held the act intra vires. It is to be noted that even though Governor has the power to pass a law with regards to a scheduled area, but the same can’t be done without any consultation with the Tribes Advisory Council. It is to be noted that, in identical circumstances in the case of the Extension of Panchayats, it was held that a mere Notification by the Governor, even under the Fifth Schedule, could not overcome the unambiguous prohibition in the Constitution, in this case the prohibition in Article 243ZC.
  • The Gram Sabha’s power has been violated in the whole process of RMC as there has been no consent taken from the Gam Sabhas.
Some of the women who represented before the  PUCL team
Some of the women who represented before the PUCL team

The notification and subsequent hostility towards the demands of the people gave birth to Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Mulvasi Bachao Manch. Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Manch, Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Advocates Sangh, Nari Suraksha Manch and Adivasi Suraksha Manch, Jhirpani, came together and formed Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Bachao Manch. The Manch initially started by local adivasi leaders was later joined by an independent adivasi MLA George Tirkey from Birmitrapur constituency. Adivasis from various villages are part of the Manch, namely, villages from Jagda and  Jhartarang panchayats, Jalda, Dharamdihi, Tala Bali Jodi, Jhirpani, Chikatmati, Kalunga etc.

In October 2014, again, a memorandum was filed by the villagers. Paying no heed to the demands of the people, administration passed a final notification on November 14, 2014. In this final notification, the administration did lay off a few gram panchayats, but at the same time for some unknown reasons kept a few other gram panchayats though they had as well objected to their inclusion in the corporation. The notification read as:

“S.R.O. No. 514/2014: Second Notification of the final inclusion of the area under the ULB (urban local body) to be included in the municipal corporation area. It said that all the objections and the suggestions for the said proposed larger urban area were duly considered by the state government before deciding the areas to be included.”

According to the villagers, the said notification was neither announced in the newspaper, nor was the respective Panchayats informed. Villagers’ claims that even the 2013 notification was not informed to any of the villages. In both the instances, the leaders of the movement got to know of this through the internet. After the above notification, the aggrieved people of Sundergarh demonstrated in various different democratic ways for the cancellation of the said notification. The representatives of the aggrieved people also knocked on every door of the state machinery from the President to the Prime Minister to the Governor to all the Ministries concerned but with no response to their plight and prayers.

On November 25, 2014, under the banner of Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Moolvasi Bachao Manch, a Rasta Roko agitation was conducted in the Ved Vyas highway area, where thousands of villagers undertook the programme successfully from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. The tehsildar came to the spot at 6:00 pm and gave in writing that he would forward the demands of the people to the government to reconsider the issue of formation of (and inclusion into) the Rourkela Municipal Corporation. After a wait of more than 15 days, on December 20, 2014 villagers again went to the ADM, Rourkela to voice their objections but no assurance was given to them. This led to a decision by the Manch to conduct an economic blockade, if the notification is not withdrawn. The Manch called for a press meet on January 7, 2015 and declared that it would go for an indefinite economic blockade from January 20, 2015 onwards till the realization of their demands. On the 5th of January, Jual Oram, Minister for Tribal Affairs, also wrote to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development urging them to look into the grievances of the people and to follow the PESA Act.

On January 15, 2015, another press conference was called by SZAMBM where Prafull Majhi, MLA Talsara, George Minz (ex-MLA Rajgangpur), Halu Mundari, ex-MLA, Raghunathpur, and George Tirkey, MLA, Birmitrapur came out in support of the economic blockade.

Subsequent actions by the state to stop the protest:

On the same day i.e. January 15, 2015, seven people were arrested and taken to Thana Raghunathpalli. Four of them were from Brahmanitarang and three were from Barsona village, Suidihi gram panchayat.  Seven arrested were: Jablun Ekka, RamnathToppo, Santosh Kr Barik, Charan Bhumij, Pancha Oraon, Jagdish Singh, and Etwa Oraon. They were all arrested under an FIR which was filed on November 25, 2014, the day when the villagers held a rasta roko agitation. The case against them was for rioting, threatening to kill etc. RamnathToppo and Jablun Ekka , leaders of the Manch, from Brahmanitarang, told the fact-finding team that police came around 12 at the night and asked them and other people from his village to come to thana with them. They were all arrested and sent to jail the next day, after which on the January 22 they were released on bail. The same FIR also names George Tirkey and “34 others”. After this, a spate of arrests and detentions began on and from January 15, so as to break the resistance of the people and foil the proposed economic blockade. A total of 72 people were arrested between the January 15 and 19. None of them were granted bail before the January 22.

The day of the economic blockade:

Nevertheless, the economic blockade was organized on the January 20, 2015. Initially, the plan was to protest at 7 points in the area – Kukra Gate, Ved Vyas Chowk, Rangeela Chowk, Kalaiposh (on National Highway), Karamdih (also on National Highway), Ujjwalpur (near the mines) and Hemgir. However, because many of the leaders and SZAMBM people were behind bars, the blockade could happen only at around two points – Kukra gate and VedvyasChowk. On January 20 morning at 8 am villagers gathered in their respective villages for the march. The procession began at 8.30 from basti Bijaptola of the village.

The economic blockade  agitation by the tribals continued despite threats
The economic blockade agitation by the tribals continued despite threats

Police arrived in large numbers, blocked people and chased them – men, women and children – into the fields. An old man called Johann fell unconscious. Boleros full of armed police surrounded the village from three sides. There were hardly 2-3 female personnel in the forces comprising of 12 battalions. The side of the thana was left open. So the gathering started running along the fields towards the thana.

Then the police started pouring in hordes from the thana side. The police tried to break the crowd into 4 parts and make them run to the four sides but the villagers stuck together. Forces started abusing and assaulting the crowd. One young woman recalled a male police officer first pushed her on the ground, started beating her with sticks and threatened her with rape. She further told the team that police officers were uttering terribly obscene words to the women of the gathering. They further said that the police also used racist abuses against the tribal people. There were more than 500 people in the gathering and the police beat them mercilessly. Many of the women and men sustained injuries while they were manhandled. Eleven women were later arrested for rioting and attacking the police officers on January 20 morning. The team checked the medical documents of the injured women, and few of them clearly showed injuries on head. Few of the women we met were still in pain and unable to move.

On the one hand was brutal oppression by the police, and on the other hand was a persistent protest by adivasis from other villages. Even after all this, more than 10,000 people participated in the blockade that day. The blockade at Kukra gate was led by George Tirkey and it lasted for 30 hours. After which, ADM went to the spot and met all the leaders and gave them an assurance that there will be a ministry level meeting where representatives of the villagers will be called. The blockade was called off thereafter.

Post economic blockade:

Following up with the assurance given to them, a meeting was held  on January 29 in Bhubaneswar with Urban and Housing Development Minister Pratap Singh Deo, State Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Executive officer of Rourkela Municipal Corporation. Some 15 representatives of the villagers went for the meeting including three present MLAs , 2 ex-MLAs from Congress, JMM , Lok Krantikari Dal and BJP and other members of the Manch. In the meeting representatives voiced their objections again. They reminded that the act of inclusion is in clear violation of their constitutional rights under 5th Schedule and PESA. To which, the administration argued that this inclusion is for their benefit only. Transformation into a corporation will lead to high land prices, more employment avenues, mayor will be an adivasi, and different wards will be reserved in the wards for ST/SC population. Villagers further argued that this all will lead to them losing their culture and heritage. After a 2 hour long meeting, they were again given vague assurances of some further action and contemplation in future.

In the midst of all the dialogue and negotiations, the state continued to harass the villagers with the intention to break their spirit. In the coming days more women leaders of the Manch were arrested. “While the police can do anything with us (beating, abuse, filing false cases to frighten and oppress us, inflict injuries and humiliation, etc.) but why our protest movements and demonstrations are termed as criminal activities?”, asked one of the villagers while talking to the team.

On February 16, when the fact finding team reached Sundergarh, all the members went to the court as on the very day 12 women who were arrested were granted bail and to be released. But since they were unable to procure the bail amount in time, the release was further postponed by a day. On the February 17, finally all the 12 women were released on bail. As a result of the release, the villagers organised a huge celebration in Jhartarang village where all the adivasis from neighbouring villages and Jagda Panchayat got together and congratulated the 12 women who remained strong throughout the time of their incarceration.

Cops present during the agitation
Cops present during the agitation

At one end was the celebration of their struggle and, on the other, was a situation of panic. At the very moment when these women were released, the police started searching for Lily Kujur, a firebrand leader of the Manch and, George Tirkey. Both had to go under hiding for some time to avoid arrest as there are 4 pending FIR against them, just like against all the other villagers. Both of them had to skip this meeting/ celebration.  It is to be noted that a day after the team left, Lily Kujur was arrested. She was released on bail on March 7, 2015.

Present situation:

Since March 7, 2015, villagers have been on a continuous dharna in front of the Rourkela Municipal Corporation office in Sundergarh. On March 18, 2015, thousands of villagers under SZAMBM led by Birmitrapur MLA George Tirkey organised a dawn-to-dusk shutdown demanding revocation of the notification on Rourkela Municipal Corporation (RMC) and also for removal of Governor SC Jamir stating the Governor as he failed to protect the interest of tribal people. On the same day, the issue was also discussed in the Odisha assembly. Party leaders of both Congress and BJP protested the inclusion stating that such a move by the state government to include two tribal panchayats of Jagda and Jhartarang in the proposed Rourkela Municipal Corporation is in violation of Constitutional provisions under Fifth Schedule and Article 244 clause (1) of the Constitution. And, the same cannot be done without holding gram sabhas until it obtains special permission from the President of India.

SZAMBM plans to continue the present protest until the government decides to withdraw the notification.

Official response:

The ADM in Rourkela stated that the protestors who are creating a law and order situation were not people from these two panchayats but were outsiders. On being asked whether the annexation of these two panchayats would lead to acquisition of land for urban infrastructure and residential colonies, the ADM claimed that urbanisation does not mean that the government would acquire any lands. The purpose of annexation of panchayats was to make available basic amenities and infrastructure like drinking water, roads, electricity, waste management, etc. and so the fear of losing land was baseless and according to him the protestors were misinformed. On the question of conducting gram sabhas, the ADM said that holding Gram Sabhas was not mandatory for taking consent for any Central government projects and that it was applicable only for panchayat level works.

Police response was, despite giving the target panchayats adequate opportunity for submitting objections and holding several discussions with the SZAMBM leaders to address their grievances, the protestors had taken law into their hands and created serious law and order situations by blocking the national highway and obstructing the movement of ambulances, school buses, etc. and therefore the police had to file cases against them and make several arrests in relation to November 25, 2014 road blockade. The villagers were agitating and had blocked school buses and ambulances. They had become violent and were using weapons during their demonstration. When the team inquired as to why and how was section 144 declared, the police claimed that the same was done to prevent people from rioting. Notice of the same was given to the villagers on the night of the January 19. When asked, villagers claimed that no notice was ever given to them. SP, Rourkela gave a similar response.

Rourkela steel plant and past betrayal:

During the entire, interaction with the villagers, one reason for the present opposition kept recurring was their past experience when the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) was set up. George Tirkey, present MLA , Birmitrapur, and one of the foremost leader of the Manch protesting against the inclusion added that one needs to understand the people’s current outrage over this Corporation notification in the context of the earlier land acquisition done for RSP.

He explained that RSP had already displaced people of 92 villages under 32 mouzas (revenue circles) using a 1948 land acquisition act. Of 20,000 acres land acquired, the steel plant and RSP township was built over 15,000 acres, and the unutilised 5000 acres was returned to the State Government under the relevant provision of the Act. Reportedly the state government, instead of returning the unutilised lands to the original owners, allegedly sold it at cheap rates to builders and real estate agents and also allowed illegal colonies like Gopabandhu Colony, Timber Colony, Chachend, Tarapur, etc. to come up on rest of the lands.

Therefore now, when the people came to know about the annexation of their panchayats for Rourkela Corporation, they feared that whatever lands and homesteads they have would be snatched away from them in the name of building more residential colonies and commercial complexes. And that is why the people have decided to reject annexation and save their lands and villages from urban land contractors.

Agitation continues: Protest as on March 7
Agitation continues: Protest as on March 7

Findings and recommendations:

Clearly there is an absolute lack of understanding of the Constitutional scheme of the Scheduled areas and of PESA among the local administration, and there is insensitivity to the concrete threats the tribals are apprehending from urbanization. Thus a situation of alienation of the tribals has taken place which requires to be handled by administrators having such understanding and sensitivity.

The administration has clearly violated the procedures for taking consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas as the villagers came to know of the Notification of inclusion only belatedly through the internet. No Notification was ever sent to the Panchayats or published in local newspapers of wide circulation so that the villagers could access the information about the Notification. Thus the entire Notification process requires to be re conducted in a truly democratic spirit.

Despite the fact that the villagers had registered their objections and that they have organised themselves into a representative body, the administration did not consider it necessary to hold effective or serious discussions to resolve the issue, rather the attitude has been as if the objections are a mere formality and the representative body is a criminal entity. No groundwork has been done to study the impact of the urbanization on the life and livelihoods of the affected tribals. It is shocking that even sarpanches, and sitting and erstwhile MLAs, are all being considered as “trouble makers” rather than representatives of the people who can participate in a dialogue.

All leaders and active members of the Sundergarh Zila Adivasi Moolvasi Bachao Manch conveyed that they fear for their lives. We heard that reportedly the senior officials were planning to use the National Security Act against George Tirkey, a sitting adivasi MLA as if he was a die-hard criminal or a terrorist. The criminal justice system is being abused to criminalize dissent.

In these circumstances, a situation of panic exists among the villagers and continues due to the continuing surveillance and repression, arbitrary arrests and fabricated cases against most frontline leaders. Particularly the fear of persecution is accentuated because of the existing FIRs against unknown persons and particularly vague FIRs against “700 others”. The Government of Odisha should review the criminal cases that have been registered and quash vague and politically motivated FIRs.

No FIR has yet been registered against the police officers who physically harassed the women and men on the day of the economic blockade. The State must register FIRs and investigate objectively into the complaints of the people against police high-handedness to instil confidence in the people regarding the impartiality of the criminal justice system.

The apprehensions of the tribal people are well founded that the reason for annexing Jhartarang, Jagda and Balijodi is so that land can be sold or leased to builders, real estate agents, etc. in the name of creating better infrastructure and basic amenities. The issue of urbanisation in the Scheduled Areas needs to be considered at the highest level keeping in mind the Second Bhuria Committee Report, the lapsed MESA Bill and the concrete experiences of the tribal people in the urban centres of Scheduled areas. Adequate protection to the tribal communities requires to be provided in the urban areas.

*The team consisting of Isha Khandelwal, lawyer, Chhattisgarh PUCL; Ashish Beck, lawyer, Chhattisgarh PUCL; Sharanya Nayak, human rights activist, Odisha PUCL;  Dr PM. Antony, independent researcher, Ranchi, Jharkhand PUCL; Pranab Doley, activist, Odisha PUCL; and Atindriyo Chakrabarty, lawyer, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh PUCL.

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