The Rowghat mines, in Kanker district are the second largest deposit of iron ore in the state of Chhattisgarh with an estimated reserve of 731.93 MT. Of this, SAIL (Steel Authority of India Ltd.) has possession of the largest block—Deposit F. This contains an estimated 476.45 MT or iron ore, and is expected to supply ore to their major steel production unit—the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) for the next 20 years. Mining operations are essential to feed the BSP, located about 200 kms north of Kanker, which is running out of iron ore in its current mines. The deposit-F is spread out over an area of 2029ha along Rowghat hills. The Rowghat deposits were discovered in 1983, but received in principle environmental clearance from the Ministry of Forests and Environment only in 1996. After delays in environmental clearances by the ministry in 2000, BSP was asked to submit fresh clearances by the ministry in 2004, which were submitted in 2006. In 2007, after receiving the renewed proposal, the matter was forwarded to the empowered committee of the Supreme Court. In 2008, the Supreme Court of India gave the final consent for forest clearance for mining deposit-F spread to SAIL and BSP.
The mines have faced local opposition, both by villagers as well as by the Naxalites—the banned armed group operating in large parts of Central India, specifically in tribal dominated regions. Opposition to the mines by the tribals is mainly owing to environmental, religious, and livelihood sustenance reasons. Another major concern has been the loss of biodiversity. The hills which are set for clearance represent only 0.26% of the total forest area of Chhattisgarh, but house close to 13% of its flora (Sharma, 2015). Apart from this, this region is part of an important wildlife corridor stretching from southeastern Maharashtra to northwestern Odisha. The forest department has even identified the presence of tigers in the region. The hills also hold cultural and religious significance for the tribal Gond community who celebrate their three-day Sesa festival in the hills. The Nurudi, Dugea, and Gond adivasis pay homage to Raja Rao—a deity housed in a temple near the Rao Dongri block of Rowghat mines, and believed to be protector of the region. This festival attracts thousands of adivasis from close to 300-400 villages from the region every year (Sharma, 2015).
However, since at least 2011, the region has been plagued with fear and violence, and the anti-mining mobilization which had sprung up was brutally, and systematically squashed using police, and paramilitary force. A local resident was quoted as stating that, “It is because of the forces that opposition to the Rowghat mines has been successfully quelled”. Forms of intimidation and violence which have been reported on conditions of anonymity by local adivasi (tribal) residents include arbitrary arrests, tortures, and sexual harassment of women. In 2011, the local Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar carried a report citing that officials of the BSP offered to pay close to 50 Cr INR (75 million USD) to set up a local division of the police force for “industrial security”. Although these reports were denied by representatives of the company, who stated that, “Our job is mine for ore and make steel, not to raise battalions...All our mines and premises are currently protected by the CISF [Central Industrial Security Force] and this shall continue”. However, the story was corroborated by an anonymous local police officer who stated that the company has “informally” been inquiring whether such a special force of the government for industrial security could be raised if the company bore the costs (The Hindu, 2011).
A local journalist reports the case of two farmers involved with the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti—the platform of social mobilization and resistance against the iron-ore mine. One farmer was arbitrarily picked up by the local police and kept under custody without filing any reports, and without informing the family, for a period of ten days. He was ‘made to squat on the floor, and kept tied to a table…and forced to sign on a blank sheet of paper’. Another farmer was similarly arrested for a period of 28 days, and when his approached the police for information, she was sexually abused. As can be expected, none of the allegations against the local police, or the paramilitary stationed in the area are acknowledged by the relevant government authorities. Two other farmers, prominent members of the Samiti, and leaders of the political opposition—Gawde and Korche, were also arrested. Gawde was arrested in January 2014, and kept imprisoned without conviction for close to a year before finally being sentenced to a 7 year imprisonment in June 2015 by a local court. Around June 2015, Korche was also arrested. Apart from citizens involved in anti-mining committees, even residents who are vocal about their political rights in public hearings are discouraged by through random arrests and police intimidation (Kumar, 2016).
The villagers were often termed as Naxalites or Maoists—the rebel insurgent group in the region to facilitate and justify arrests. An example of this can be observed by the following excerpt from an article published in The Hindu on the 29th of January regarding the arrest of Gawda: “On the direction of his senior cadres, Gavde, a self- styled social worker, had founded an organisation ‘Rowghat Bachao Jila Sangharsh Samiti’ to mobilise villagers against the proposed Dalli-Rajhara-Rowghat Rail Line meant to haul iron ore from the proposed Rowghat mines, the SP said. He had also arranged secret meetings of NGO workers with top Maoists, during which they chalked out strategies to oppose the project.” Most villagers picked up for random arrests such as these, are branded Naxalites, and slapped with close to 7-8 arbitrary charges. As lawyer Bharadwaj states: “Most cases were bogus and they don’t stand in court. But that’s after the accused has spent 2-3 years in jail. That’s enough to break a human being.” (Ghosh, 2014) In 2014, following years of brutal suppression of the local resistance against mining, the construction of support infrastructure was initiated. Eventually in 2015, the iron ore mine began operations. The support infrastructure includes a railway line by Railway Vikas Nigam Ltd., connecting Rowghat to Bhilai, which implies further displacement of local adivasi communities, and ecological degradation. This has resulted in another level of deprivation of the local communities—those related to compensation, which can be allocated only upon proof of residence and/or property ownership. In order to protect the compensatory right of the communities, the NGO Disha, ensued on a mission to file for Community Forests Rights (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act (2005)—an important tool for protection of tribal rights. According to the Forest Rights Act (2006), ‘no tribal can be evicted from forestland unless the recognition of forest rights is complete in that region’. Over a period of three years, Disha managed to file documentation for CFR for 20 of the 104. However, early in December 2015, the NGO was informed by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate that owing to ‘wrong documentation’, all the CFRs filed were null and void. Subsequently, the Chhattisgarh government began the process of filing the CFRs themselves. Through this process, large sections of land were lost to the communities by filing the CFR under different sections of FRA as those filed by Disha. An example is that of Totin dangra, which according to the Disha documentation had about 6,000 acres of land, but under the new documentation, was finally allotted less than 700 acres (Kumar, 2016). Given that operations have only recently commenced, the full scale of impacts on the lives and livelihoods of local communities in Rowghat are yet to be seen.