Less than 50 km from the district headquarters of Palamau in Jharkhand lies Kutmu village, where men and women, young and old, gather around to sing, talk, and debate. This has become a part of their daily routine now.
Their mission? To save Dhajwa hill.
They can be heard chanting, “Dhajwa toot jaihen ta gaay kahan charihain? Dhajwa toot jaihen ta nadi kahan jaihain? Dhajwa pahadiya bachai liha ji sathi Dhajwa pahadiya bachai liha ji... (If the Dhajwa hill is taken away from us, where will our cows graze? Without the Dhajwa hill, where will the river go? Please save Dhajwa hill, friends...save Dhajwa hill...)."
The Dhajwa Pahad Bachao agitation began over two months ago, on 18 November 2021, in the Pandu block of Palamau district. The protesters want to "protect the hill" from quarrying.
The villagers claim that a Ranchi-based construction company – Shivalaya Construction Co Pvt Ltd – has been carrying out illegal quarrying at Dhajwa. According to an RTI filed by them – a copy of which is with The Quint – a lease was granted to the company for plot no 1,046. However, the company has been mining stones in plot no 1,048, they say.
"The stone mafia is working under the protection of the administration and the police. So many hills, or what used to be hills, have been quarried out illegally and levelled in the last two years in the district, and yet, there has been no action," Yugal Pal, a Palamau-based social activist, alleged.
Officials, however, claim that the matter has been resolved.
Responding to The Quint's queries on the protest and allegations made by the villagers, Rajesh Kumar Sah, Sub-Divisional Officer, Palamau, said:
"There was a protest, but we ended it long back. The villagers initially believed that the lease was wrongfully given. Now they are of the opinion that if the lease is legal, then a proper demarcation should be done. That is where the matter stands currently."
Sooraj Singh, the lease-holder of the land in question, had entered into an agreement with Shivalaya Construction Co Pvt Ltd to mine the leased land. Speaking to The Quint, he said:
"The villagers are spreading lies and trying to stop my mining. If you check their background, you will find out that they were Naxals. I can end their dharna in a day. But I am just allowing them to carry on. I have all the papers."
Probe Revealed Illegal Stone Quarrying, but No Action?
Jharkhand has been making headlines for its illegal stone mining for a long time now. Local journalists and activists say that illegal stone mining in the state happens right under the 'nose and watch' of authorities – and Palamau is no exception. Villagers in Palamau allege that in their district alone, illegal stone mining has razed nearly 40 hills over the last two to three years.
As allegations of illegal stone mining in Dhajwa were raised by the villagers, the Circle Officer carried out demarcation of the alleged illegal stone mining site. He found out that stone quarrying activities were, in fact, being done at a place that has not been leased out to the company.
A letter by the Circle Officer to the landowner, dated 4 December 2021, addressed the issue and also 'strictly ordered' them to refrain from illegal quarrying, failing to do which action would be taken against them.
But the villagers complain that there hasn't been any administrative action against illegal mining yet.
Dhajwa Mountain Is a Part of Village Culture
The Dhajwa hill holds a great amount of economic and cultural significance for the villagers. Malti Kunwar, who is in her sixties, has been coming to this protest for the last two months. Speaking to The Quint, she said:
"We only go to eat in the village. Most of the time we are here. For the majority of the day, we are busy in the fields, while men graze their cattle upslope and children play. This mountain has been our strength and a giver of many things to us. We don't want it destroyed."
Sanjay Paswan, the leader of the Dhajwa Pahad Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (DPBSS), alleged that the government, as well as the administration, have failed to provide relief to the villagers.
"Dhajwa isn't just a cluster of rocks, it's much more than that. It provides water into the river that flows nearby, and it provides fodder to hundreds of animals. We worship the hills and the trees as part of our tradition. Where would we all go if the mountain is flattened and all the stones are taken away?" Paswan lamented.
"Once you break a hill or a mountain, you can't fix it back, right?" he asked.
The villagers in the Palamau district mostly follow the labourer-farmer pattern to earn their livelihood. A majority of families own their own land but the yields do not support the families through the year because the size of land per family is relatively small, mostly averaging 2 acre.
Did Police Try To Suppress the Protest?
Villagers say that police tried to suppress their protest, dismantled their 'shamiyanas', and took away their blankets and food grains.
On 20 November 2021, two days after the villagers started protesting against the stone quarrying, an FIR was registered – a copy of which is with The Quint – at the Pandu police station, in Palamau, on a complaint filed by workers of Shivalaya Construction Co Pvt Ltd. The FIR booked five persons and others under 12 Sections of the Indian Penal Code, including, rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, committing mischief by fire or explosives, putting a person in fear of injury in order to commit extortion, among others.
The complainant Sahil, in charge of the mining work for Shivalaya Construction Co Pvt Ltd as per the contract between the company and lease-holder Sooraj Singh, refused to comment on the matter.
One of the five persons booked under this case includes Sanjay Paswan.
"When we saw that our protests were not yielding any results, we decided to lie down in front of the machines and rollers until the work was halted. When we did so, they had to stop their work. Later on, the police were called. Policemen removed the tents we had put up, destroyed our grains, and took away our blankets. A case has also been registered against us."Sanjay Paswan
What Are the Villagers' Demands?
As the protest prolongs, villagers are relentlessly waiting for officials to act on their demands.
"We want action against the company for illegal mining and a total halt on mining activities. We also want them to pay for the illegal mining they have done. The officials must take action," said Sanjay.
"Stone mafia has become too powerful in the state. With the aid of officers, they are destroying our nature. This goes higher up in the chain, and that is why there is no action against these offenders," alleged Yugal Pal.