July 15, 2016

Jhodias of Kashipur: part of Paraja tribe deprived of its ST status

Indigenous communities across the globe are being victimised by the nexus between capitalist forces and political power. While corporate houses set their own expansionist agenda, people in power have always been instrumental in pushing the corporate agenda forward in the name of development. The story of the Jhodia community of Kashipur in Odisha exemplifies how the Indian government has cunningly kept a group of primitive Paraja tribe out of the list of scheduled tribe and deprived them of all rights given to them by the Indian constitution. All is made just to favour one of India’s largest corporate entity that heavily funds political parties to fight elections. 

Khageswar Jhodia (23), of Siriguda village in India’s Kashipur block, is angry over the news of non-inclusion of “Jhodia” in the official list of scheduled tribes (ST). To him, the denial of ST status forces the youth of his community, the Jhodia tribe, to migrate to far-away places as daily wage labourers. his community, the Jhodia tribe, to migrate to far-away places as daily wage labourers. 

“With my education upto higher secondary level, I could easily get a job nearby had I have the scheduled tribe (ST) certificate from the government,” he says. 

Same is the case with Jogeswar Jhodia, a graduate struggling for employment, and most other educated Jhodias in Kashipur, one of Odisha’s tribal populated block that has been in news several times for acute poverty, starvation deaths and epidemic like diarrhoea.

“Even though members of our community living in the neighbouring blocks enjoy ST status, we have been denied of it since 2001,” says Khageswar.

The Jhodias have been struggling to regain the official tribal status they are debarred from nearly 15 years ago. Their hope is shattered again as “Jhodia” didn’t feature in the list of 12 tribes that got the cabinet approval, on May 26, 2016, for inclusion as STs through a parliamentary amendment. 

The Jhodias: who are they? 

Historically, they are a sub-group of the tribal clan of Paroja – also spelled as Poraja, Paraja and Parja – and are referred as “Jhodia Paroja” in various historical documents and reports since British colonial days.

A tribe of endogamous culture, Jhodias are scattered across undivided Koraput and kalahandi districts of Odisha. Basically a forest dwelling community, members of it make their living by collecting forest produce and, also, out of multiple crop cultivation.

As referred in the clan, the colloquial term of “Jhodia,” independent of the word Paroja or Paraja, featured as their caste in the land records during the 1993-94 settlements, a year after Rayagada became a separate district.

This was not a matter of issue then because nobody knew that the omission of “Paroja” from their title would debar the Jhodias from the ST status as Kashipur was waiting to transform into a mining and industrial hot-spot.

With over 50,000 population scattered in about 85 villages, Jhodias are now a non-scheduled tribal community in the kashipur block, with an OBC (Other Backward Class) status. 

The bauxite allurement 

Kashipur drew global attention, during late 1980s and early 1990s, for being the home to rich bauxite deposit of Baphlimali and, thus, became an attraction for industrialists and mining companies.

Lured by the investment possibility, Odisha government, in 1992, signed an agreement with INDAL (then a PSU), Norsk Hydro of Norway and ALCAN (Aluminium Company of Canada) for a 100% export-oriented joint venture alumina consortium – the Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL) – in Kashipur. TISCO (a TATA group company) joined as another promoter, in 1993.

While the project was mainly dependent on bauxite mining from the hill of Baphlimali, steep opposition from the Jhodias and other tribal communities couldn’t make the project move for many years since signing of the agreement.

Because Kashipur block was predominantly tribal populated and was guarded by Schedule V of Indian constitution, the consent of tribal communities was prerequisite for everything – from land acquisition to infrastructure building. And, the difficulty before the state government and promoters was that most of the villages surrounding Baphlimali hill and the refinery site were populated with Jhodia tribal families who were totally against mining.

In the meantime, the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act was brought in by the Government of India through an amendment, in 1996. It further empowered the tribal communities living in the Scheduled blocks to exercise their say in every case of development and management of natural resources. The Odisha government, however, hasn’t yet implemented PESA Act in true form and spirit. 

Entry of the Hindalco 

As the movement spearheaded by the Jhodias almost stopped UAIL from moving forward, TATA group withdrew itself from the project in 1999. Later, in 2001, the Norwegian industrial major Norsk Hydro had to withdraw from the project in 2001 because of strong criticism in its home country for promoting the project in violation of the rights of tribal communities.

In the meantime, in 2000, some significant developments took place in regard to UAIL.

Hindalco, an Aditya Birla Group entity, finalised to buy ALCAN’s majority (54.6%) stake in INDAL, in March 2000, and became a major promoter of UAIL by virtue of this.

In August 2004, the merger of INDAL with Hindalco was announced, and, in 2007, Hindalco acquired the rest 45% stake of ALCAN in UAIL to gain complete control over the project.

“If the Birla (Aditya Birla) group’s entry marked the beginning of good days for UAIL, it’s from here that the bad days of Kashipur’s Jhodia community started,” alleges Makarand Muduli, President of Paraja Samaj. 

Victims of the battle 

Coincidentally or as the result of aggressive persuasion from the side of the promoters, the entry of Hindalco into the consortium of UAIL, in 2000, was followed by unprecedented coercive police action against the protesters. On December 16, 2000, police opened firing at a scheduled gathering of tribal protesters and killed three of them while injuring many. All three deceased were from the Jhodia tribal community.

The other but most important casualty was the ST status of the Jhodias. To justify its act of debarring the tribal community from its official status, the government officials take plea of a 1996 Supreme Court order, which observes that the list of STs notified by approval of the President of India as part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Order, 1950, and its amended versions were “conclusive” in nature and can’t be interpreted by the government or, even, the judiciary.

The particular SC order, however, came in a case that was of a completely different nature from the case of Jhodias who were very much a sub-group of the Paroja tribe and had been enjoying ST status for several decades since notification of the list of scheduled tribes in 1950.

Many smell a hint of conspiracy behind such withdrawal of ST status from the Jhodias of Kashipur to take away their rights over the land, forest and natural resources.

“We, the Jhodias, were considered the biggest threat to the project. Once their ST status was gone, the company and the local administration could forcefully acquire the land that belonged to the Jhodias,” says Sumani Jhodia, a woman leader of the community who has served as a member of Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) of Odisha from 2000 to 2006.

“A conspiracy or not, but the rights of Jhodias as scheduled tribe were already trimmed and were in such a trouble that nobody knew how long it would take to recover – few years, one generation or even more,” says Ratan Das, a Rayagada based Sarvodaya leader. 

Unfulfilled promises 

Since the denial by the district administration and local tehsil office, the Jhodias have been struggling to get back their status. The Paroja Samaj, the society that represents the whole Paraja tribe, has been supporting their cause consenting that that the Jhodias are very much a sub-tribe of the Paraja clan.

Under pressure from the tribal communities and civil society bodies, Odisha government, in 2002 and 2006, has recommended for inclusion of “Jhodia” as synonymous to Jhodia Paraja and a sub-tribe of the Paroja clan in the list of STs, by writing letters to the union government.

Delegations of Paraja Samaj have met the UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, in December 2013, and the tribal affairs minister Jual Oram, latest in March 2016, to apprise on the issue and to request their intervention for immediate inclusion of “Jhodia” in the notified list.

“Everyone has promised us to do the needful. The present tribal affairs minister told us in 2014 that we would get back our status in six months. But, even two years later, “Jhodia” didn’t feature in the list of tribes presented before the cabinet for inclusion in the ST list,” says Sumani Jhodia.

According to noted tribal leader, former chief minister of Odisha and, at present, a BJP leader, Giridhar Gamanga, “the list of tribes from Odisha has not yet been presented before the cabinet and it may happen soon. 

"Once the Odisha list comes, Jhodias will be in the list of STs.” 

Available documents like the standing committee on social justice and empowerment (2011-12) report on “The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Second Amendment) Bill 2011” says that the proposal for inclusion of “Jhodia” in the ST list has been referred for the second time to the Registrar General of India (RGI) , on December 23, 2011, for comments/ views. The first time it was sent to RGI’s office was on April, 10, 2006. This was probably the last standing committee that examined the case of Jhodias.

As per the modalities set for inclusion or exclusion of a community, once the claim receives a positive note from the RGI, it has to go to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for further examination. After NCST approval the claimed case qualifies for inclusion in the list of STs through an amendment. As usually, before the bill for amendment is introduced in the parliament, it requires the cabinet node. 

Some fundamental questions 

“However, instead of recommending for inclusion through an amendment in the parliament, the Odisha government could have set a commission to examine the case of Jhodias and order necessary correction in the land records issued to the Jhodias because everybody knew that they all were members of the Jhodia Paraja community. It was just a clerical mistake. But, unfortunately, the state government opted the process that was not only time consuming but uncertain also,” says Biswapriya Kanungo, a seasoned advocate and expert on human right and related laws.

“We are suffering because of the mistakes we never committed. It’s the duty of the revenue department official to note which tribe we belong to. If the right terminology was ‘Jhodia Paroja,’ it should have been recorded. We didn’t know what he wrote but we believed that he had put it properly because he was the man from the government!” – says Sumani Jhodia.

“Is the government that examines our case since many years unable to verify whether a non-tribal Jhodia caste ever existed in Kashipur block or in the whole of this region (undivided Koraput and Kalahandi districts)?” – questions Sumani.

“Because of the denial for the ST status, Jhodia children do not get facilities provided to tribal students in high schools and colleges. Pursuing higher education and getting jobs have become difficult for the youth,” says Prafulla Samantara, a social activist and president of Lokshakti Abhiyan.

How can a government drag thousands of people and several generations of the Jhodia community into such unimaginable plight for the reason that they raised voice to protect their land, the environment and natural resources?” – Samantara asks.

“Socially and culturally, Jhodias are members of the endogamous community of Jhodia Paraja and are very much a part of the Paraja clan. The same community members living in adjacent blocks of Raygada and Kalahandi districts are recognised as ST. Many of them have even fought elections from seats reserved for STs and have got elected as people’s representatives to the State Legislative Assembly,” says Paraja Samaj president Makarand Muduli. 

“It’s an irony that the tribe declared ST across the state is now debarred in only one block, i.e. Kashipur, just to uphold the interests of a company (UAIL), owned by one of India’s top industrialist families, that has enormous clout in the government and the political parties of the country,” he alleges. 

The “give and take” politics 

The state and central governments have been deliberately indifferent towards the case of the Jhodias, allege the villagers of Bagrijhola that is adjacent to the refinery plant of UAIL.

“The company doesn’t want it to happen because ST status to Jhodias would lead to troubles for the company. The land already acquired by the company may be legally disputed,” says a villager on a promise of anonymity.

“The civil society in the state also believes that the nexus between the company and the governments at the centre and the state plays active role against the jhodias. But, it is completely inhuman to stop a tribal community from getting its official status and live with dignity,” says Biswapriya Kanungo.

“It’s all a part of the give and take game between political parties and corporate houses. Keeping in view the amount Aditya Birla group has donated to BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and BJD (Biju Janata Dal) before 2014 general elections, one can’t expect the governments formed by these parties to give justice to the Jhodias against the interests of UAIL, says Bhubaneswar based senior journalist Debendra Prusty.”

According to Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW) reports, Aditya Birla group has donated 26.6 Cr rupees to BJP between 2004-05 and 2011-12, and another 63.2 Cr rupees in 2014-15, through its General Electoral Trust. So, it’s hard to believe that the present government led by BJP would do anything against its largest contributor of electoral funds.

In Odisha also, the BJD (Biju Janata Dal) led government may not pursue the case seriously in the interest of Jhodias because it has received the electoral fund of 10 Cr rupees from the same trust run by Aditya Birla group too. 

The larger perspective 

“We were harassed for opposing mining activities. Our people were killed. But, we never imagined that our fight to protect our land and forest would bring such sufferings to our children and grand children. This is the cruellest way used by a democratically elected government to suppress the voice of people,” says Sumani in a choking voice.

“This is against the very spirit of democracy. It is an example of how the government and its machinery can specifically target indigenous communities and can put their identity in danger to promote corporate agenda in the tribal hinterland of India,” says Biswapriya Kanungo.

“The story of victimisation of the Jhodias and their unending plight will frighten other indigenous groups living across India to raise their voice against any kind of injustice done by the corporate entities or any government agency. This will limit the very meaning of democracy,” he adds.

“It’s our right and, from the beginning, we have fought for our rights, fought against injustice, and we shall continue our fight till we regain what is rightfully ours,” Sumani says with agony and in a relatively confident voice.

In such a situation, as Sarvodaya leader Ratan Das observes, one can only hope that the Jhodias continue to fight democratically and keep their struggle non-violent.

“But, who should we blame if they opted the other way?” - Das wonders. 

The report was first published on July 15, 2016, at the HotnHitNews.

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