Ravaged region

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JHARKHAND stretches from Bankura district in West Bengal to Surguja in Madhya Pradesh; and from Santhal Parganas of Bihar to Sambhalpur in Orissa. Approximately 1,87,646 sq km in area, it has a population of 30.5 million according to the 1981 census.

Adivasis constitute 30 per cent of the population, while the sadans (the artisan castes) account for another 50 per cent. Both these groups have had a symbiotic relationship, and shared a common sarna (sacred grove) culture over the years. They are also united now by two centuries of exploitation at the hands of the dikus (outsiders).

The natural richness of Jharkhand, its flora, fauna and mineral deposits, has been its undoing. Even Abul Fazl, the author of Akbarnama, (chronicle of the life and times of Akbar), wrote about this region, but Fazl's khand (abode) has lost its jhars (trees) today. The sal (Shorea robusta), kusum (Schleichera trijuga), mahua (Bassia latifolia), kend (Diospyros tomentosa), karam (Adina cardifolia), and palas (Butea frondosa) trees, which once proliferated in these forest have all but disappeared or been replaced by scraggly eucalyptus. The elephants of a bygone era trumpet and roar only in folklore. Indiscriminate, and often illegal, mining of coal, iron, copper, mica, limestone and bauxite has taken its toll.

The area has witnessed a lot of climatic change. Nicholson, a British administrator, in a pre-independence study, discovered that the Chotanagpur plateau had large areas under forests towards the turn of the century. In fact, it used to receive frequent afternoon showers during the summer months, which favoured tea plantations.

As the forests disappeared in the years between the two world wars, although there was no apparent reduction in the monsoon rainfall, the afternoon showers decreased so much that the tea gardens were wiped out. The climate also became drier in the hot and pre-monsoon months from March to June.

The early years of the present century saw big industrial concerns establish themselves in the region, adding considerably to the problem of land alienation. The most notable of these was the Tata Iron and Steel Company at Jamshedpur, which was followed by the Hindusthan Copper Mines, the Indian Aluminium Company, the National Coal Company and the National Coal Development Company (now Central Coal Limited).

With independence came the five-year plans which increased industrialisation and urban expansion around Ranchi, Rourkela and Bokaro. Big power projects, like the Damodar Valley Corporation and the Patratu Thermal Power Plant, which engulfed thousands of acres, were built to supply electricity to these plants. A large number of ancillary industries grew around the big industries. This meant the displacement of hundreds more.

Along with the land, the jungles disappeared. As early as 1880, Captain Henry Gray reported the denudation of forests in the Barkagarh region. A major cause of the destruction was the expansion of the East Indian Railways during this period. Contractors illegally chopped down trees to provide sleepers.

To add to the problem, more than 20 lakh ha of forest land were taken away from the people by the government under various forest acts, especially the Bihar Private Forest Act of 1947. Traditional community rights to the forests were curbed even further thanks to the Bihar Forest Produce Regulation of Trade Act of 1984.

Traditionally, the land was commonly owned by the village community. People had the right to use it, but not sell or destroy it. A household owned the trees on its land, but those on community lands belonged to the village, with individuals being granted rights to their produce.

Each Mundari village had its burial ground, sasandiri, where stone slabs recorded the name of the kili (clan) to which the ground belonged. No one outside the kili could own land in the village. Even today, each village has its own sarna, which is a key indicator of the boundaries of Jharkhand. The sarna dharma, religious beliefs based on the natural order, govern the life of the villagers, both adivasis and sadans, irrespective of whether they are Hindus, Christians or Muslims.

The adivasis were great water harvesters. Community labour was used to construct and maintain run-off storage systems like the ahars (rectangular catchment basins with embankments on three sides) or hirs (larger ahars).

But all this self-possessedence is now increasingly becoming a thing of the past. The media stereo-type is angry tribals with bow, arrows and clenched fists.