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As land bleeds, the struggle for 'Jal Jungle Jameen' in Gadchiroli continues

Villager from Surjagad say, as others begin their tale of the "laal jeher (red venom)" infiltrating their agricultural lands and turning their streams blood red. 

By B. Mohita
New Update
Gadchiroli tribals fight for jal jungle and zameen

Read in Hindi | The color red evokes different meanings, sentiments, and undertones in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. As you move towards the Surjagad patti in the Etapalli tehsil of the district, you only begin to understand just why. The colour marks its presence conspicuously here. It screams and demands attention, a testimony to acres of forests being decimated to disentomb the untapped iron ore reserves that lie hidden under these very forests. 

"Yahan sab kuch hi laal hai (Everything is red here)", we overhear a villager from Surjagad say, as others begin their tale of the "laal jeher (red venom)" infiltrating their agricultural lands and turning their streams blood red. 

Surjagad village maharashtra
Surjagad village maharashtra

Despite being the epicentre of the bloodbath, the Surjagad Hill holds a special significance in the hearts of Adivasis based in the area- but for entirely different reasons. 

Ranu Norote, a resident from the Jharewada village, guides us to a small makeshift shrine of Thakurdeo situated at the base of the mountain. He narrates to us the legend of Devon ke dev (god of Gods) Ohdal, more famously known as Thakurdev who is believed to reside on the hilltop.

Devon ke dev (god of Gods) Ohdal
Ohdal or Thankurdev housed in a small shrine in Surjagad

A three-day jatra or annual procession is carried out every year in January. The procession is visited by no less than 15,000 Adivasis across Maharashtra and neighbouring Chhattisgarh”, Ranu says beaming with pride. However, pointing towards the hilltop, he laments “The actual shrine is on the top, on the other side of the Lloyd mines. Since the mining restarted, we can no longer access it except during the jatra.”

Now, Ganesh* (name changed) from the Mallampadi village takes us to show his patta or agricultural land on which he depends for his family's sustenance. 

“Ever since the company started its operation again, debris from the mines land up on my field whenever it rains.” Ganesh is amongst several other adivasis who are dependent on rainfall and the local streams from the hills for irrigation, but monsoons have become stressful for them lately. “These streams used to irrigate my field in the past, now they bring destruction. The seeds fail to shoot where the debris deposit,” he adds ruefully.

Lloyds Metals and Energy Private Limited havoc in tribal villages
A part of Ganesh's field covered in silt

Ganesh also recounts the case of Ajay Toppo who died by suicide in 2022 when the administration denied him compensation after silt from the mines destroyed his crop. Although the company boasts of having in place retaining walls, garland drains, and plantations as part of its “Dump Stabilization Measures”, cases like that of Ajay Toppo and Ganesh emerge as standing demonstrations of their inefficiency and systematic apathy.


Surjagad and Mallampadi are among several other villages situated at the foothills of the Surjagad hills. It is here that Lloyds Metals and Energy Private Limited (LMEL) was given clearance to begin iron mining in 2007 as reported by Land Conflict Watch. The company has been granted an iron ore mining lease over an area of 348.09 hectares at Surjagad village for 50 years. As per government reports, the entire lease area falls in the Bhamragarh Reserve Forest. The work on the mine has been largely staggered, mainly due to resistance from local communities and the threat of Naxalite violence. But, since it restarted its operations in 2021, villagers from Mallampadi–a village located 4 km away from the mine–say that LMEL has seen more consistent work, even as Adivasis protests against it. Moreover,in 2021, LMEL joined hands with Thriveni Earthmovers Pvt. Ltd., which saw the scale of the mining reach full capacity in 2022, as per the LMEL website.

timeline of lloyds metal mining in Surjagadh area of Gadchiroli

In March 2023, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change granted LMEL the environmental clearance to excavate up to 10 Million MTPA (metric tonnes per annum) of iron ore from an earlier 3 Million MTPA. The company has also been allowed to build a crushing and processing plant. This move has been widely contested by conservationists. As per experts, this capacity expansion would extract about 800 to 1,000 trucks of iron ore daily. Hence, causing “irreparable damage” to the local ecosystem. 

The Gramsabhas (Village Councils) in the Surajgarh area fall under the fifth schedule of the Constitution of India. Under the PESA provisions, the Gramsabhas must be consulted before approving and allocating mining and big projects. However, Lalsu Soma Nogoti, an Adivasi lawyer and social activist, states that this was not followed in the case of Surajagarh and other Gramsabhas in the Damkondwahi area. Earlier, the administration had organised a jansunwai or public hearing on the expansion some 150 km away from the to-be-affected villages. This move was also severely criticised by activists and villagers.

Map Geographical depiction of the Surjagad and Damkondwahi areas
Geographical depiction of the Surjagad and Damkondwahi areas

On the other side, in February a petition was also filed before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court questioning the legality of permission granted to LMEL. The petitioner Samarjeet Chatterjee contended that the capacity expansion was more than 50% of what was actually allowed as per the guidelines issued by the MoEFCC, as reported by Times of India. The fact that the environmental clearance was granted after the approval for expansion is a loophole that will be covered by the Ground Report in a separate article on the legal dimensions of the Surjagad projects.

Further aggravating the situation in the sensitive region, the directorate of geology and mining (DGM) of Maharashtra in February, invited bids for 19 new mines in the state. Out of these, six blocks spanning an area of nearly 4,700 hectares belong to the Surjagad hill range. As per recent reports, composite license, which is a prospecting license-cum-mining lease, has been issued to five companies to undertake prospecting operations followed by mining operations in these blocks.

It was the culmination of all these moves that eventually led to the unfolding of a people’s movement in the village of Todgatta.

Damkondwahi Bachao Andolan

Situated about 80 kilometres from the Lloyds mine is the village of Todgatta under the Wangeturi gram panchayat, where an indefinite protest has been going on for 160 days now. On March 11th of this year, 70 villages from the Surjagad and Damkondwahi pattis/ilakas began protesting under the banners of "Damkondwahi Bachao Andolan" and "Paramparik Gotul Samiti- Surjagad". The protests started after the villagers got to know that a JIO signal tower and a four-lane road would be built through Todgatta. The protest is being led by the Madia-Gond Adivasis, one of the three Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) from the state. 

Damkondwahi Bachao Andolan

Todgatta, the epicentre of the protest, has seen the setting up of several temporary huts or dheras, to house the representatives from the different villages. Every morning, these representatives from each of the 70 villages gather at the village’s community centre or Gotul. The day begins with paying homage to social reformers, revolutionaries and the historical champions of Adivasis - Veer Baburao Shedmake, Birsa Munda, Rani Durgavati, Savitribai Phule, Jotiba Phule, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. The photographs are carefully placed at the centre stage. This is followed by reading aloud the preamble of the Constitution which has been translated into Madia, the language of the Madia Gond tribe. Later, important developments and day-to-day proceedings of the protest are discussed in meeting. The attendance of all protestors and visitors (if any) is also meticulously documented.

Damkondwahi Bachao Andolan
The preamble of the Constitution translated in Madia language

On being asked how the villagers have managed to sustain their protest for so long, Mangesh Norote, a resident of the Besewada village explains to us the unique way in which people participate in it.

“Representatives from each village, depending on the village size, take turns to stay at the protest site for three days at a stretch. This setup ensures that no one group has to leave out on their sustenance activities. After three days they return home and make way for the next batch of representatives. Although there are financial constraints, we are able to manage the logistics collectively.” 

Dheras or temporary huts built in Todgatta
Dheras or temporary huts built in Todgatta

Idea of development, and resistance

Ramesh Kaudo, a protestor, notes that the villagers had previously asked the administration for a road to be built between Gatta and Etapalli. This was requested as the villages face a complete loss of connectivity due to heavy rainfall. But, the villagers say that the government is rather ready to construct a four-lane highway coming from Chhattisgarh. And, they worry that this could be the forerunner to the mining activity in Damkondwahi. To this, Ramesh says, 

"It is not for us. It is for the companies and for their proposed new mines in Surjagad and Damkondwahi. Why would we want a four-lane road here, piercing through our forests? We weren't even asked before any of this was sanctioned. We won't let this happen.” 

Sangeeta, a nineteen-year-old from Dodru village, part of the Adivasi Yuva Chatra Sangathan, says that development is not what they are protesting against. Rather, she raises questions as to what constitutes development.

"My people need hospitals, government medicine centres, clean drinking water, and electricity supply. We need education. The villages do have schools, but teachers are always absent. The government has not paid attention to it. That is the kind of development we want. Instead, it is bringing police stations, drones, highways and mines destroying our jal jungle jameen and turning us into servants of the company. Is this what development is?" she asks. 

Activists from the Yugma Collective, have been looking into the legal aspects of the protest. They explained that the Community Forest Rights (CFR) have been strategically under-allocated in the villages surrounding Surjagadh Hill Ranges. As per the documents shown by the villagers of Dodhru, the allocation happened way back in 2015-16. However, the residents of Dodru and Nenwadi villages weren’t aware of this partial/under-allocation of CFR land until much later. Villagers informed us that, the forest officials stopped them from further accessing the forest produce which they have been using for generations. 

Community Forest Rights certificate, as shown by villagers of Dodhur
Community Forest Rights certificate, as shown by villagers of Dodhur

Sushila Norote, one of the most active women protestors, states that the police have registered false cases against the protestors as an act of repression. On further inquiry, several other protesters also informed of pending cases against them- primarily under Sections 110 and 353 of the Indian Penal Code. Despite the peaceful and constitutional nature of the protests, they are branded as "Naxals", bemoan the villagers. Frequent interrogations and detentions by the police have become an unfortunate but indisputable part of their lives, villagers added. Past accounts of police brutalities in the region as reported by Javed Iqbal for The Wire serve to legitimise villagers’ constant fear, and threat.

Protestors note that the strategic placing of new police camps in the form of police assistance centres is a tactic from the past. They fear that the increased police presence in the areas where new mines have also been proposed would be used to exacerbate the repression. Thus, opposition to the police camps has been a major issue in the region. They say, we already have traditional gram sabhas with mechanisms to deal with minor law and order issues within the community.

“We can go to the nearby Gatta police station. We do not want constant surveillance and restrictions on our movements on an everyday basis. We have been freely moving in and out of these forests for generations”, villagers say. 

Political neglect

Amidst this raging opposition to the mines and their expansion, Surjagad was visited by the state’s deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis at the same time we were reporting in the region. It must be noted that the leader is known to have taken the “guardianship” of Gadchiroli. Fadnavis, while inaugurating the Police Help Centre in Surjagad, said that mining in Gadchiroli is being done in an environment-friendly way. He further added, that some individuals have tried to obstruct the progress in the region because of their vested interests for all these years. The deputy CM claimed that the mines were essential to bring development and employment to the youth in the “Naxalite-infested” region. However, there is no recorded acknowledgment of the indefinite protest in Todagatta. 

A fight for forests, a fight for sustenance

Mangesh narrates to us local stories, and legends, emphasising natives’ relationship with forests and nature.“Bamboo, tendu leaves, mahua, tori, fruits and berries, medicinal herbs, fish, wood- everything we depend on for our sustenance comes from the forest. If they are gone what will we be left with?”,  he demands an answer.

He further explains the concept of the ‘Anul’ or soul- people of other worlds residing in hills and in streams and rivers. “We only take what is needed from the forests and rivers. We do not disturb them (Anul). They are our dev, or gods, we worship them. Harming them would bring destruction onto us: less rainfall, increased diseases

A fight for forests, a fight for sustenance

"We Adivasis worship the trees, the hills, the streams, and the stones. Forests are the basis for our livelihood. All our festivals, legends, and stories stem from them. How would city-dwelling people feel if a stone was hurled at their temples? There would be cases, riots even. But the government and these companies are taking away our stones, cutting off our trees, drilling through our sacred hills, and turning red our rivers. Our complaints fall on dead ears, but we will continue fighting for our jal jungle jameen." Lalsu asserts.

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