Mining Resistance in India

Book cover

Community resistance has been astonishingly effective at stopping mining in India. This article draws from the book “Iron Will: Global Extractivism and Mining Resistance in Brazil and India”.


In 2010 and 2013, Markus Kröger, a professor at the University of Helsinki, visited India to research local resistance to iron ore mining. He had long, intensive discussions with some 200 experienced leaders of mass organisations, activists, scientists, lawyers, journalists, politicians and civil servants. To his surprise and great joy, he discovered that the resistance was very successful, against all odds. It managed to cut the gigantic national production in half! In 2019, Kröger returned to India to see if the successes were lasting. Indeed, that turned out to be the case. How had local organizations, together with some dedicated activists, been able to enforce such wonderful results?

Kröger wrote the inspiring book “Iron Will: Global Extractivism and Mining Resistance in Brazil and India” about that. Kröger thinks that the wave of astonishingly effective mining resistance in a large number of countries in the south of the world is an excellent and fast-working remedy against the climate catastrophe that is hanging over us all. In this first article Jan Paul Smit summarises Kröger’s research in India. See the second article “Mining Resistance in Brazil” which also defines key principles drawn from both India and Brazil.

Dutch original of this text. This translation appeared in the Commons Library first.

East India: The tough resistance in Odisha

In the Keonjhar district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, Adivasis (members of tribal peoples, the original inhabitants of India) managed to prevent several planned mines. The main reason for resisting was that they had seen with their own eyes the terrible consequences of mining in other villages. When a mining company wants to start a new mine, employees usually come and explain that the village will get electricity, a clinic, new houses, water supply, clothes, food. “And all for free. You can get a job with us and earn well. Let us build that mine.”

But the reality is that Adivasis lose their fields and their water is ruined. And if they get work at the mine at all, they earn very little. After a while, because of the enormous pollution from mining, there is nothing else for them to do but to start a new life somewhere else. Tens of thousands of Adivasis have disappeared. Nobody knows where they went. They have lost everything. Their village community, their customs, their gods. Everything. That is why several villages decided from the beginning not to allow employees of mining companies into their communities. Women in particular were belligerent. They stopped mining explorers’ cars and threatened to destroy their vehicles if they did not turn back soon. 

Once again, geologists from a mining company came to Keonjhar to search for iron ore. Again they were told they were not welcome and Adivasis blocked the road. The researchers then filed a complaint with the police against eighty villagers. After a few days, the police came and arrested those eighty. But the Adivasis told the police, “Why only those eighty? Take all of us. We are from six villages and we will all go with them. No problem. We are like one big family.” Then the police dropped the affair; arresting six whole villages was going too far for them. 

The Adivasis also routinely refused talks about the benefits of mining to their village and did not accept donations. Once, when the notorious Vedanta mining company sent a car with doctors for free medical assistance, the Adivasis detained the doctors and released them only after the company promised not to venture into their area again. Once, when the same company distributed a thousand school bags to village children, the angry residents collected all of them and burned them demonstratively in front of the government’s district office.

Also, for years, Adivasis, along with NGO workers operating in their areas, organised many demonstrations of thousands of people in Bhubaneswar, the state capital. They held banners with slogans like: “Stop mining! Stop iron ore! The forest is our life – we cannot live without our forest. We feel like a fish in water there. No one can separate us from our forest!” In this way they made it clear how attached they were to their own way of life, their own culture. They underlined this by playing their own traditional music with drums and special wind instruments. 

But the most important thing was that in practice the Adivasis were able to deny the employees of the mining companies access to their area. Otherwise, these frequent, large, energetic demonstrations would have had little effect anyway.

The Adivasis of Keonjhar received help from a few local NGOs. For example, they organised meetings in the city for activist Adivasis from different villages, where they could exchange their experiences and think together about the next step they were going to take. Sometimes the NGOs advised the Adivasis on certain procedures they were not familiar with, or put them in contact with lawyers or journalists from the capital. However, they were careful not to take the initiative away from the Adivasis.

In 2008, the district government had had enough of all the opposition and decided to break up the resistance with brute force. The police arrested fifteen people, including two village leaders and three staff members of a local NGO, for allegedly being Maoists. In India, this means that you want to overthrow the state by force. One can easily get life imprisonment for that. The detainees were taken to undisclosed jails, where, as it turned out later, they were severely mistreated. 

One colleague of the NGO staff had escaped arrest and immediately went to the district office to seek redress. However, when he discovered that he was also wanted as a Maoist, he fled to Bhubaneswar. There he gathered a group of people for an inquiry committee, including a member of the court, a couple of NGO experts, and a few experienced journalists. Together they went to Keonjhar and wanted to question the district administrator and the police chief. But they refused. Fortunately, many officials were willing to speak out and explain that those arrested were not Maoists at all, but people who were standing up for the rights of the Adivasis.

The report of the investigating committee received considerable media attention. It was clear that the police had gone way beyond their legal authority. But meanwhile the fifteen were still in jail. The NGO employee who had managed to escape now sought contact with Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. This led to the prisoners finally being released in 2012. Slowly but surely, the activists picked up the thread of resistance.

The resistance in Keonjhar decided not to focus on legal proceedings to stop mining. The state courts are always on the side of the mining companies. So there is no point in that. The activists also did not turn to official bodies such as the environmental department, for example, because the government in this area is thoroughly corrupt. Even when officials come to a village meeting to officially request permission for a new mine, they show up with many armed soldiers, to intimidate the Adivasis.

The activists did, however, make extensive use of the Right to Information Act. This was not a smooth process: they had to go through several rounds of requests to every agency that had information on mining projects, but in the end they got the data they needed. This is how the resistance found out where new mines were planned. Then activists could notify the villages in that area so that everyone was vigilant. They also explained to the Adivasis what their rights were. This proved to be very valuable.

Furthermore, the resistance in Keonjhar decided to actively use the right to vote. Until then, a politician visited several villages during election time and then treated the residents to a nice meal with lots of liquor. In return, the Adivasis would then vote for him. But from now on, politicians were only allowed to enter the area where the resistance was active if they signed a statement in advance that they would not give permission for mining. The villagers also decided to vote only for politicians who had spoken out clearly against mining. As a result, many politicians who were against mining were elected. 

Nevertheless, when a mine was built, Adivasi people sought out the party chairman and told him to go with them to tell the mining company to stop. The chairman did so, because like all the other politicians he had signed the declaration and was afraid of not being re-elected in the next election. This system worked well. Also there were now few politicians elected from outside, but almost exclusively Adivasis.

West India: The Miracle of Goa

In 2013, Kröger revisited a remote area in Goa, a small state in western India, having been there before in 2010. He had the curious feeling that something was not right, as if something was missing. Until he suddenly realised that this was the absence of terribly polluted air. Now suddenly he could breathe fresh air here. It was as if a miracle had happened. In the distance he could still see the brown patches where the mine labourers had been working, but the constant rumble of heavy machinery had given way to birdsong and monkey chatter.

The resistance was loosely organised. In 2007 – 2008, the Goa Federation of Mine Affected People was established, where for about three years some 25 activists met regularly for information exchange and strategy discussions. But apart from that, someone wrote poems, another went to all the agencies to find out which mining permits had been given to whom by whom, the next one called in the National Human Rights Commission, another prepared a lawsuit in the Supreme Court in New Delhi with the help of a legal NGO, and yet another tried to interest local and national newspapers.

Adivasis from the already existing mining areas claimed the rights they officially have and organised small blockades locally just about every day, which were widely reported in their own resistance media. Other activists established international contacts to bring global attention to the actions and a separate group made the documentary “Goa, Goa, Gone”. There was even someone who brought buses full of tourists from various Indian cities to the mining areas to have them experience the environmental pollution first-hand. 

In short, a waterfall of larger and smaller actions and initiatives. And all that without a manifesto, strict leadership or densely packed strategy. Perhaps most importantly, everything happened simultaneously, so that the information gathered by one could be used by another in a lawsuit, by a third in his daily blog, and by still others in a street protest.

What kept all these different activist groups and initiatives in touch with each other and with the general public all these years was GoaNet, an e-mail list with 60,000 subscribers. If, for example, there was an uprising in one village, it quickly spread to others, because people knew about it via GoaNet.

In addition, activists vented their feelings about the “attack on Goa” of “mining terrorism” at public meetings, two or three local newspapers sided with the resistance, and a few major national newspapers covered the conflict across India.

There were some tensions between poor villagers who suffered from the mining companies’ activities and affluent urban Brahmins. However, some Brahmins had joined the resistance and set up their own organisation for that purpose. That turned out to work well in practice, because now the villagers did not have to fear that the Brahmins would determine the direction of the resistance, and the latter could inform their own supporters and gain sympathy for the actions there. Which made the resistance stronger.

And then, in 2012, the miracle happened: the Supreme Court in New Delhi totally unexpectedly ruled that all illegal mining across India must stop. That is, mining without the proper permits, which concerned the majority of mines.

In the same year, an official commission of inquiry found that illegal mining in Goa had earned 350 billion rupees (= $6.32 billion) from 2006 to 2010, and ordered that this amount be remitted to the Indian government. Then in 2018, at the request of an environmental organisation from Goa, the Supreme Court decided that all 88 official mining licenses in Goa should be revoked. 

By 2019, only one mine was still operating in Goa, proving that the powerful mining companies were unable to reverse the decisions of the Supreme Court. This was the incredible result of years of tenacious, energetic resistance, even at a time when the mining mafia had a grip on the state government, the national government in India was unconditionally on the side of the mining companies, and the price of iron ore was sky-high.

East India: Armed Resistance in Chhattisgarh

Mining resistance in India is generally nonviolent, no matter how aggressively the police act. But sometimes the government acts so intimidating and brutal, turns a deaf ear to the reasonable arguments, wishes and fears of the people and ignores their rights so seriously that there is nothing left for the people to do but either to accept defeat and misery, or to take up arms. No wonder that many choose the latter, also because there is a tradition of armed resistance in India. Ever since independence in 1947, many Indians have fought armed against social injustice.

The eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh is one such area where indigenous people are defending themselves with arms in hand against expropriation of their land by mining companies. Here the Maoists are active, also known as Naxalites. Their name refers to a revolt of small farmers in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal in 1967, after which Naxalism spread among Adivasi communities in Central and East India. 

In the 1980s, the Naxalites grew stronger, and in 2004 a large number of leftist groups united to form the CPI-ml, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), commonly referred to as “Maoists”. It is the only one of India’s more than seventy communist parties that sees armed resistance as the only way to reverse violence against Adivasis. 

Over 10 percent of India’s territory is (partially) controlled by the Maoists. In 2009, the Indian government declared the CPI-ml a “terrorist organisation”. In 2012, it launched a large-scale armed operation against the Naxalites under the name “Greenhunt”, deploying some 100,000 paramilitaries. The intention was to root out Maoism, the “greatest internal threat” to the Indian state. But it did not succeed.

In 2005, the demand for iron ore increased enormously and so did its price. Mining companies wanted nothing more than to open new mines as soon as possible in the iron ore-rich Chhattisgarh. The local population was an obstacle, because practically all areas with a lot of iron ore belong to the Adivasis. They did not want to see their fields, forests and rivers polluted.

Mining companies aided by the government therefore resorted to intimidation and violence. For example, several thousand policemen came to the village of Dhurli in the Bastar region in the south of the state on the eve of the village meeting that was to give permission for mining. The officers threatened the residents that they had better vote in favour. Only four of them dared to vote against. They were arrested in the middle of the night and taken away.

The situation in Bastar was made even worse by the brutal intervention of Salwa Judum, a paramilitary organisation founded by a member of the state parliament with good contacts with the mining industry. This militia razed more than 600 villages to the ground and expelled about half a million Adivasis, because they lived in an area where iron ore mines were to be built.

The purpose of all this violence was to make it clear to the Adivasis that they had better accept the mining plans. But the effect was the opposite: resistance actually increased. In fact, the state and mining companies artificially organised a civil war situation that allowed them to call any mining opponent a Maoist or terrorist and then to arrest and imprison them for an extremely long time or even kill them “in a gunfight”, instead of respecting the law that says that mining is only allowed if the Adivasis concerned have given their permission.

In the city of Bhilai, in western Chhattisgarh, stands the large Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP). It was keen to double its production and planned to establish a new iron ore mine at Rowghat, in the Bastar region. The Adivasis were very much against this mine and the railroad from the mine to the factory. The Maoists, who are strong in this area, were also resolutely against the projects. A spokesman for them stated in 2011, “The mountains in Rowghat are very important for the ecology of the area and for the Maria peoples who live there.” Moreover, “the Adivasis do not benefit from the mines.” The BSP announced that it would cover the cost of a police battalion (800 to 1,000 people) to protect the mine to be constructed. But the Rowghat mine and associated railroad are now off the table due to the threat of armed intervention by the Maoists.

In addition to armed resistance by the Maoists, there has also been nonviolent resistance. For example, in 2013 Adivasis from the Rowghat area held a number of smaller demonstrations of about two thousand people and also a very large one. There are even at least ten NGOs active in Chhattisgarh to educate the Adivasis about their rights. Yet friend and foe agree that armed resistance was the deciding factor in stopping the Rowghat project.

But it is not only the planned mine in Rowghat that has been blocked. Practically all new mining projects in India (except those in the Indian states east of Bangladesh) have been fiercely resisted and stopped from 2005 onwards – either through nonviolent resistance, or, if that proved unfeasible, then usually through armed intervention by Maoists. A number of existing mines were also closed or else their expansion plans were effectively obstructed.

Read the second part of this article: “Mining Resistance in Brazil“. 

Jan Paul Smit

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