Skilled & un­wanted

Tra­di­tional earth dig­gers and ma­sons, who mined the Bhatti area of the Aravallis for decades, dig in their heels as the Delhi ad­min­is­tra­tion tries to throw them out


Mem­bers of a com­mu­nity recog­nised as in­dige­nous civil en­gi­neers are now seen as en­croach­ers on their own land in Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary in Delhi

STAND­ING ON one of the hills near the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, at Delhi-Farid­abad bor­der, Ramji Lal is vis­i­bly per­plexed. De­spite walk­ing through the thorny shrubs and mounds of rocks of the Aravalli hills for al­most an hour, he fails to trace the patch of red sand, also called badarpur or ba­jri, which he used to mine.“I had a li­cence to mine the hillock, ”says the 60-year-old. “But I have not en­tered the area in the past 15 years.”

Lal be­longs to the Od com­mu­nity, the tra­di­tional earth dig­gers and ma­sons who for three decades mined Bhatti area of the Aravalli hills to pro­vide for Delhi’s con­struc­tion in­dus­try.But in 1990,the Delhi ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­tended the ad­join­ing Asola Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary to in­clude the Bhatti mines area and the com­mon land of nearby vil­lages. Overnight, more than 3,000 fam­i­lies of the Od com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing Lal’s, be­came en­croach­ers on the forest­land and lost their sources of living.

The com­mu­nity, how­ever, does not want to live this im­pov­er­ished

life for­ever and is determined to re­claim its right on the land un­der the For­est Rights Act (fra) of 2006.The law recog­nises the rights of Sched­uled Tribes and other for­est dwellers, who tra­di­tion­ally lived in or de­pended upon the forests. On De­cem­ber 15, 2014, hun­dreds of Od peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in a na­tional rally at Jan­tar Man­tar staged by for­est dwellers from across the coun­try to de­mand recog­ni­tion of their rights un­der fra.

In a mem­o­ran­dum sub­mit­ted to Tribal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Jual Oram, the Od peo­ple de­manded that fra should be im­ple­mented in Delhi as well. Af­ter Mumbai, this is the sec­ond ma­jor de­mand for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of fra from an ur­ban area.The mem­o­ran­dum also calls for recog­ni­tion of the com­mu­nity as a Sched­uled Tribe.

Used and abused

Ods, be­lieved to be descen­dants of Odang, a king of Odisha, are known for their skill in con­struct­ing ponds, canals and em­bank­ments and re­garded as in­dige­nous civil en­gi­neers. Folk­lore has it that Bha­gi­rath, an an­ces­tor of Ods, had vowed not to drink wa­ter twice from the same well. This re­quired him and his fel­lows to dig a fresh well ev­ery day, and that is how they ac­quired the ex­per­tise.

They have been lead­ing a no­madic life since the Mughals ruled South Asia, and were the main work­force be­hind the con­struc­tion of ma­jor dams and canals in the coun­try dur­ing the Nehru­vian era. They then mi­grated to Ra­jasthan and then to Sindh, Pun­jab and Pak­istan. When Bhatti mines started in 1959, in what is to­day known as Delhi’s South­ern Ridge, thou­sands of Od fam­i­lies mi­grated from Ra­jasthan, Haryana and Pun­jab to work with pri­vate quar­ry­ing com­pa­nies.

“By the 1960s, Bhatti mines be­came the main source of red sand, sil­ica and stone for Delhi’s con­struc­tion in­dus­try,” says Anita Soni, an an­thro­pol­o­gist who has been work­ing in Delhi on the plight of mi­grant labour­ers for two decades.

Fol­low­ing com­plaints that pri­vate mine op­er­a­tors were flout­ing safety norms, Delhi State Industrial Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion took over Bhatti mines in 1975. It was re­placed by an­other public-sec­tor unit, Delhi State Min­eral Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (dsmdc) in 1985.But the mines con­tin­ued to op­er­ate pay­ing scant re­gard to safety norms, and ac­ci­dents and work­ers’ ex­ploita­tion be­came the or­der of the day. In May 1990, a quarry caved in, killing seven work­ers. Fol­low­ing this, the Di­rec­torate Gen­eral of Mines Safety or­dered an in­def­i­nite clo­sure of the mines till dsmdc en­sured all safety mea­sures in place, re­moved the piled up de­bris and rec­ti­fied the area cov­ered by the mines. The cor­po­ra­tion, how­ever, re­fused to bear the cost in­volved in im­ple­ment­ing the safety mea­sures. It is al­leged that the Delhi ad­min­is­tra­tion de­clared the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary the same year to cover up the mess.

The abrupt end of min­ing re­sulted in the non­pay­ment of pending wages, wel­fare funds and com­pen­sa­tion against ac­ci­dents that oc­curred at the mines. The gov­ern­ment made no al­ter­na­tive ar­range­ment for the lost liveli­hood of the mine work­ers.

Worse, all the three mine work­ers’ colonies that fell within the ambit of the ex­panded sanc­tu­ary were de­clared “unau­tho­rised”. This in­cluded the big­gest San­jay Colony where the gov­ern­ment had set­tled mine work­ers be­long­ing to Od com­mu­nity in the 1980s and had made bud­getary al­lo­ca­tions for the devel­op­ment of the colony. This came as a rude shock to the peo­ple. “The gov­ern­ment had al­lot­ted us houses, is­sued ra­tion cards and im­ple­mented devel­op­ment schemes in the colony. We even fielded our

can­di­date who won in the pan­chayat elec­tion,” says Lal. A few years later, em­bold­ened by a Supreme Court or­der of 1996 to make the Ridge “en­croach­ment free”, the Delhi ad­min­is­tra­tion de­mol­ished two of the three colonies. The San­jay Colony has been fiercely re­sist­ing the forced evic­tion till to­day.

The res­i­dents’ re­luc­tance to va­cate the land has not gone down well with the for­est depart­ment, which has erected fences to sep­a­rate it from the sanc­tu­ary to “pre­vent fur­ther en­croach­ment”. Res­i­dents al­lege that the colony has been de­prived of ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties, such as roads and san­i­ta­tion. Most of the schemes ini­ti­ated dur­ing min­ing have been forgotten. “They stopped the con­struc­tion of the higher sec­ondary school eight to 10 years ago. They got the ve­teri­nary clinic shifted out of the vil­lage six years ago,” al­leges Baldev Od,r es­i­dent of San­jay Colony.

Asha Da­hag, an Od com­mu­nity leader, com­plains that the for­est staff and the mem­bers of the eco­log­i­cal task force, a unit of the ter­ri­to­rial army kept by the Delhi gov­ern­ment to pre­vent il­le­gal min­ing and “re­store” the for­est in­side the sanc­tu­ary, of­ten abuse women and chil­dren who go into the sanc­tu­ary to col­lect fire­wood.

This is when the au­thor­i­ties have done lit­tle to af­for­est the razed ar­eas or im­prove the bio­di­ver­sity in the re­gion. All that one can see in the Bhatti por­tion of the sanc­tu­ary are a few wilted saplings here and there and mon­keys (see ‘Simi­ans’ sanc­tu­ary’). The au­thor­i­ties have also turned a blind eye to­wards the land trans­ac­tions by real es­tate deal­ers in the re­gion. “Even the com­mu­nity land like grave­yard and the Ramlila Maidan in San­jay Colony are tar­geted by prop­erty deal­ers,” says a res­i­dent on the con­di­tion of anonymity. “Sev­eral farm houses have come up on the ridge land in all th­ese years. It is iron­i­cal that orig­i­nal res­i­dents of Bhatti mines are forced to live a mis­er­able life in the sanc­tu­ary while the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been al­low­ing out­siders to set­tle here,” says Roma of the All In­dia Union of For­est Work­ing Peo­ple (aiufwp).

We came first, foresters later

The Od com­mu­nity says that fra is now their only re­sort. The law not only recog­nises the rights of the trib­als but other com­mu­ni­ties who have tra­di­tion­ally de­pended on forests for their liveli­hood, in­clud­ing no­madic com­mu­ni­ties. How­ever, the non-tribal for­est dwellers, to be el­i­gi­ble for rights un­der fra, have to prove their de­pen­dence on forests for past three gen­er­a­tions or 75 years. Though Ods set­tled in Bhatti Mines in early 1960s, they claim their rights un­der fra be­cause when they came to live here even the for­est depart­ment was not there. “The land was de- clared a for­est land much later. We came first,” says Baldeo.

“Also in case of a No­madic tribe, this con­di­tion can­not be forced be­cause they have al­ways been on the move. They can’t show any proof for stay­ing at one place for 75 years. They went wher­ever work took them,” says Roma. This is a unique case where the for­est rights are claimed in a mu­nic­i­pal area. “The tribal af­fairs min­istry has clar­i­fied ear­lier that in mu­nic­i­pal ar­eas, the ward sab­has or the mo­halla sab­has can act as the author­ity to in­vite fra claims and de­cide on them in place of the gram sab­has in ru­ral ar­eas.The Ods will be soon claim­ing their rights to the mo­halla sabha,” said Ashok Choud­hary of aiufwp, which led the De­cem­ber 15 rally.

Ac­cord­ing to Roma of aiufwp, the gov­ern­ment has de­clared Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary with­out ful­fill­ing all re­quire­ments. Af­ter is­su­ing a pre­lim­i­nary no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sanc­tu­ary, the law re­quires invit­ing claims from the af­fected peo­ple, hear­ing their griev­ances and set­tling their rights. Then a fi­nal no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sanc­tu­ary is done.In the case of Bhatti mines, nei­ther the rights have been set­tled nor the fi­nal no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sanc­tu­ary has been done till to­day, she adds. Lal says his com­mu­nity would not stop fight­ing till their rights are set­tled.

(Left) Women and chil­dren from Od com­mu­nity go in­side the sanc­tu­ary to col­lect fire­wood; (be­low) Od com­mu­nity mem­bers protest at San­jay Colony in Delhi, de­mand­ing recog­ni­tion of their for­est rights over Bhatti area

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