In 2007, Lloyd Steel—a Mumbai based Private company, received clearances to begin iron ore mining operations in Surajgarh hills of Gadchiroli—a predominantly tribal (adivasi) district with large reserves of high grade iron ore. Of the estimated 270 MT of iron ore in the state of Maharashtra, Gadchiroli has about 180 MT (Routary, 2016). However, the project has been stalled multiple times since being granted approval primarily owing to two reasons a) the protests by local villagers, and b) strong Naxalite (a banned organization, and an armed group) presence in the area. The region has been heavily militarized, with the presence of a large number of paramilitary troops for ‘industrial security’. In 2013, in a highly publicized event, the Naxalites in the region shot dead the Vice-President, and two other employees of the Llyod group (TIE, 2013; The Telegraph, 2013). Following the logjam, Devendra Fadnavis, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in August of 2015, requested the home minister to increase the presence of paramilitary troops in the region to help facilitate the process of continuing mining operations (DNA, 2015). In a press conference, Fadnavis states that, "Gadchiroli is mineral rich and along with mining we also want to push for setting up of industries to process the minerals. For that, we discussed as to how much additional security is required…We also want to impart skill training to local tribal youth to include them in this development process and along-side a strong road network should also be in place.” In February of 2016, a protest organized by the local tribals against illegal felling of trees for the purpose of construction of a road, resulted in halting construction briefly (Goyal , 2016). Extraction finally began in March of 2016, but were shut down within days, owing to opposition lead by members of political parties (TOI, 2016). On its first day of operation, the mine employed to 300 people as laborers, but soon a much larger number of people flocked to the mine demanding employment—which has been the key benefit promised to local people in return for ceasing their opposition of the operations (TOI, 2016).
There are multiple reasons as to why the local adivasi community has been protesting against the mining operation, despite strong state repression. This includes loss of physical space, dispossession and displacement, loss of cultural ways of living, and fear of further economic immiseration given the forest dependent means of living of the community. Lalsu Soma Nagote, the first Madia-Gond lawyer explains that their community is a hunting-gathering one and would lose its way of life upon destruction of the forests. He further adds that the socioeconomic conditions of the Gadchiroli tribals is not bad, and that “no one ever hears of deaths related to malnutrition” (Goyal, 2016). Another important factor is the sacredness of the shrine of Thakurdeo—the God of Gods, to the Madia Gond community, which would be destroyed in the mining operations. The Surjagad mountain ranges, which houses Thakurdeo, is the location where people from over 500 neighboring villages gather every year for celebrations. Opposition also stems from the experiences of other parts of the country where mining operations have been conducted with the promise of development and employment, with the end result dispossession and immiseration of tribal communities. This can be captured by the testimonial of the tribal activist Mahesh Rau who states that “The general experience across the country is that all that is promised is not delivered. What pro-people initiatives can these firms take when most basic things people here need are all in the ambit of government responsibilities?” (TIE, 2015).
The local adivasi community has been caught in between the Nalaxites and the State—facing harassment, brutality, and threat of life on a daily basis from both sides. A local youth, Raju Sedamake, was killed by the Naxalites for persuading villagers to agree to the project (DNA, 2016). On the other hand, the villagers also face harassment, arrest, and torture at the hands of the police and paramilitary forces if they are vocal about their anti-mining stance. Such people are commonly known to be branded ‘naxalites’ by the local police and arrested, detained, tortured and even killed. By July of 2015, six ‘naxalite’ women were killed in the region (Iqbal, 2016, The Hindu, 2016). In May of 2016, a local youth was captured by the paramilitary (called the C60) and beaten in front of the entire village for two hours. In a piece on The Wire, Iqbal related this incident following an interview with the local youth and states that during the two hour torture, “the C60 managed to break two sticks on him…(he) lost consciousness twice…they beat his wife when she protested.” (Iqbal, 2016). The president of the Surajgad Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (collective for the protection of the Surajgad hills), Gota recounts an incident on Martys’ Week (organized by the Naxaites), “on the 28th of July, 2016, close to 250 people were detained for eight days across various police stations of Etapalli tehsil” (Goyal, 2016). Another group of people was detained within the premises of the forest department during the same week. Lawyer Nagote recounts his conversation with people from this group who were released three days later. He states “People said they were not allowed to go home despite pleading that they had kids and cattle to take care of…how can you just detain people like this for three days without notice” (The statesman, 2015). Later that year, the Naxalites released a pamphlet appealing to civil society and citing 191 cases of police brutality between January and June of 2016 (Iqbal, 2016; DNA, 2015; Routary, 2016). The government responded to this by proposing the Maharashtra Protection of Internal Security Act (Bill), 2016 (MPISA)—the proposal for which was withdrawn by the state government within days of public circulation, upon being heavily criticized by members of the civil society, political opponents, and even political allies. The objective of the new law can be gauged by a particular section—Section 14 (6)—which states the following: “Any Police Officer may use such force as may be necessary, in order to stop the commission of any offence under this Act, within his view” (Naved, 2016).
Additionally, the process of obtaining approvals did not follow the law, as per the tribals. According the the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the PESA (Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act), tribals need to be consulted and grant their approval through the Gram Sabhas before their land is used for any projects. However, in a Tehelka report, tribal leader Gota states that of the 70 villages in the region, 60 villages voted against the mining project. Brutality, harassment, and intimidation by the state machinery, and to a less reported extend by the Naxalites, continues in this iron ore rich district.