The Bailadila Hills of Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh are one of the largest deposits with the best quality of iron ore in the country. The NMDC began mining operations in the regions in the 1960s, and currently has operates over 14 deposits in the area (Kunjam, 2016). The presence of mines have coincided with militarization in the region, harassment of villagers, spread of Naxal influence (Thaindian New, 2009; The Pioneer, 2012), and gross violations of the constitutional rights granted to the adivasi (tribal) communities granted under FRA (Forest Rights Act (2006)) and PESA (Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act) (Nithin, 2006; Kaushal, 2014; Bhattacharya, 2016). This implies that the first rights to the land belongs to the local tribal communities, and any expansion of mining operations or opening a new mine requires permission of the local communities. However, the public notice for conducting the public hearing which is constitutional right of the predominantly tribal community in the region was not provided.
The mining operations have impacted over 52 villages in the region who are largely dependent on farming (Foil Vedanta, 2016). Farming in the region has been severly impacted owing to flow of iron ore tailings from the hill, rendering them barren. Water bodies in the region—which represent the source of both domestic consumption, as well as the small scale farming operations conducted by the villagers, have been severely impacted (Kunjam, 2016; ). Additionally, the forests and land hold religious and cultural significance for the tribals (Oneindia, 2008), and mining represents a form of desecration of this cultural heritage and way of life.
The tribals in the region have been protesting the iron ore mines in the region with no fruition. In May of 2008, a two day padyatra, in which close to 5000 tribal people from over 25 villages participated was organized against these environmental injustices (Oneindia, 2008). Protests against the water pollution, loss of agricultural productivity and cattle death, was submitted by the villagers to the District collector in 2013, upon which some compensation—deemed inadequate by the villagers—was provided (The Hindu, 2014). On 18th of May 2014, a protest rally outside the NMDC office was organized by the tribals. This was the result of permission for forest clearance of a new deposit-Deposit 13, granted by the Union environment ministry on the 29-30th April (Kaushal, 2014). 2,500 tribals from 55 villages, including women, held placards expressing their resentment against environmental and health hazards generated by the iron ore mines in the region. The villagers have been facing acute difficulties given the pollution of their water sources, which has resulted in the death of their cattle as well as in the contraction of various diseases by people. The leader of the protest Ramesh Samu stated, “We will not tolerate this anymore…The mining corporation has fooled us by promising jobs. Our children are dying because of the polluted water. Our field are becoming barren and the cattle are dying too. The mining must stop.” The villagers stated that the pollution of water sources, which they depend upon for domestic consumption and watering their fields, has become so severe that the “water has turned red” (Kaushal, 2014). This has impacted close to 35,000 ha of land around the mines. The issue of iron ore mining has resulted in disturbance and threat to the daily lives of villagers both from the threat of disturbance from Naxals, as well intimidation and harassment by the ever increasing deployment of paramilitary troop in response to the Naxal presence (Bhattacharya, 2016; Sakal Times, 2010). In July 2010, a bandh (strike) called by the Naxalites again resulted in major losses in terms of ore transportation to NMDC (Sakal Times, 2010). A series of bomb blasts were conducted by the Naxals in the region, along with violence which resulted in the death of 150 people—including paramilitary, Naxalites, and villagers, in the state in 2010 (Sakal Times, 2010). 2010 also witnessed the largest Naxalite attack on paramilitary personnel, resulting in the death of 75 CRPF (Central Reserve Security Force) personnel (DNA, 2015). In 2011, the Naxals organized a series of protests. A two day long bandh in January which resulted in a 20% loss in terms of ore transported by NMDC, and a week-long bandh in in July (Siliconindia, 2011). The week long bandh which resulted in a 30% drop in the quantity of iron ore transported by the NMDC—a substantial hit to the company given that close to 80% of its total extraction of 21.15 MT in 2010-11 came from the mines in Dantewada (DNA, 2011). In 2012, two paramilitary personnel from the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) were killed by Naxalites, as a result of the iron ore mining operations in Badidila (The Pioneer, 2012), which resulted in a further militarization by the state machinery. In 2014, a protest with over 2000 villagers from 55 villages around the NMDC mine was organized owing to loss of agricultural productivity owing to the “red water” being generated by the mine (The Hindu, 2014). The organization Badidila Khadan Prabhavit Jan Sangharsh Samiti (Coalition for the Struggle for Citizens Affected by the Badilia Mines), at this protest submitted a 33 point charter to the NMDC. Demands included compensation for damages by the “red water”, setup of a water treatment facility for the existing polluted water, and reduction of release of iron ore particles into the local water supply channels (The Hindu, 2014). The villagers also demanded compensation for the damages suffered, healthcare and education facilities, and employment opportunities. In addition to protesting the existing mining operations, villagers protested the proposal to build a railway track for facilitation of ore transport in the region, which they believe with further facilitate mining operations, and result in ecological degradation and loss of land from the tribal communities.
Despite complaints of pollution by existing ores, forest clearance for mining operations were granted to Deposit-13 in 2014. In this new mine, spread over 317 ha, NMDC is expected to extract over 10 MT pa of iron ore-nearly half of the current overall NMDC extraction of 25 MT pa (TIE, 2014).
Similar agitations were held by members of 25 villages in 2015 against expansion of the NMDC mines (Bharadwaj, 2015). Despite this, in July 2015, a meeting was called to seek approval from the villagers for likely environmental pollution generated as a result of a slurry pipeline which was to pass through their village. The villagers stormed out of the meeting, citing a breach of their democratic rights given that the entire proposal was drawn out before consulting them and refused to give their consent. Instead, they began protesting against the decision, raised slogans, and called for cancellation of the pipeline (Bhattacharya, 2016). In late November 2015 deposit 10, operated by NMDC, which currently extracts 3.2-4.2 MT of ore per annum, recently held a public hearing in the region in order to obtain permission of the villagers for the expansion to production capacity to 6 MT pa. Given the region falls under Schedule Area, PESA [Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act] applies in the area. According to the villagers, prior information for the hearing was not provided even to the village head—the Sarpanch. In light of this gross violation of the constitutional rights of villagers, on the 15th of November, 2016, a large protest rally composed of the villagers from Bade Kameli gathered in front of the district administration (Kunjam, 2016). A letter was written to the Chhattisgarh Environmental Protection Agency and a meeting was conducted with the District collector (Kunjam, 2016). In March of 2016, seven CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel were killed by Naxalites. Following this, on the 4th and 5th of May, a bandh was called, and a Naxal group attacked the mines, and conducted a bomb blast setting an NMDC conveyer belt on fire and disrupted ore transportation (IBT, 2016).
As of 2016, intimidation, harassment, illegal and random detainment of citizens, disregard for constitutional rights of adivasis, and iron ore mining expansion is ongoing reality for the villagers of Dantewada.