Above: KKJS Activists receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award from Justice Madan Lokur Photo: IRW
We are happy to share the story of Koel Karo Resistance even as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan gets the Bhagirath Prayas Samman at First India Rivers Week (IRW) meeting at Delhi on Nov 26, 2014. The Award is being given by Justice Madan Lokur of Supreme Court of India. The Award includes a citation, a scroll and cash prize. KKJS is one of he three awardees, the only organisation to get this award this year. IRW is being organised by Peace Institute, WWF-India, INTACH, Toxics Link and SANDRP. It is honour for the exemplary work done to protect a river. The citation says:
The Organisers of India Rivers Week 2014 have great pleasure in awarding the
BHAGIRATH PRAYAS SAMMAN
To Koel Karo Jan Sangathan
in appreciation of its dedicated, valiant, untiring efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo
Koel and Karo are tributaries of river Brahmani in the state of Jharkhand
threatened by the Koel Karo hydroelectric projects.
Koel Karo Jan Sangathan was born in 1976 as a community mobilisation
effort to conserve their sacred sites and
to look at alternative development paths in place of the proposed Koel Karo dam.
The Sangathan has carried on a long and heroic struggle in the face of
enormous pressures from the
vested interests, battling tremendous odds to forge one of India’s foremost
to save rivers, riverine communities and their culture. In Feb 2001,
8 people died in police firing
during the struggle. The project remains cancelled due to the struggle.
The Sangathan has demonstrated the use of many innovative methods of struggle
including people’s curfew and people’s check points. The Sangathan has successfully
mobilised support from villagers, academicians and political parties to ensure that t
heir rivers are still flowing free and pristine. Women of the river basin have played a
key role in the Sangathan’s work.
It is an honour to recognize and celebrate the
extraordinary and truly Bhagirathan efforts of the
Koel Karo Sangathan in ensuring the
integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo.
A brief story on the long and arduous struggle
According to the people of Munda tribe in Jharkhand, the whole planet was once under water. It is Sing-Bonga, the god of the Mundaris, who fashioned the earth with some clay from the bottom of the ocean. This he then populated with plants, trees, birds, animals, and finally, with human beings.
Thus is it that the Mundaris live on the land gifted to them by the Father of all human beings. Over the centuries, the already-sacred landscape became dotted with clusters of sasandiri- the stones marking the resting places of ancestors located at places specified by Sing-Bonga.
For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the Mundaris had to wage a long and hard struggle against the State to protect this sacred trust. Unlike how many other similar stories go, this ends in victory. That too, is a testament to the strength of the Mundaris and their deep connection with their lands.
The project: The story begins in the 1950s, when a hydro-electricity project was first conceptualised by the Bihar State Electricity Board. This project aimed to generate 710 MW of electricity by the construction of two earthen dams at a then-estimated cost of 157 crores. Of these, one was a 55-meter high dam on north Karo and the second was a 44-meter high dam on south Koel River.
The real cost of the project was far more than what any project report could budget for, and this was to be paid by the soon-to-be displaced Munda tribals. The 1973 project report estimated that 125 villages would be affected. This was contested by the locals who stated that 256 villages would be affected. Also at stake were approximately 152 sarnas (sites for ritual festivities) and 300 sasandhris (Mathews, 2011).
The people: The Mundari were largely ignored when the project was being finalised. Roads were built and offices established without consulting the villagers. It is only when land began to be bought up that the people of the affected villages came to know of the plans for their ancestral lands. At that time, probably because they were unaware of the full implications of the project, the Mundari were not opposed to the dam in principle. What disturbed them was the opacity and corruption in the land acquisition.
The struggle: This corruption caused the residents of the Koel and Karo rivers to form a group each to safeguard their interests. The dissatisfaction increased when the survey work led to damage of crops in the area. The two groups came together in 1976 as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan (Koel Karo People’s Organization) KKJS to offer united resistance to the construction work and demand that work be entrusted to local people. It is also around this time that incidents such as deaths due to drowning near Kutku dam and lack of proper rehabilitation for the displaced of Subarnarekha dam opened the Mundaris eyes to the danger that this construction posed to their way of life. Extensive agitation in the following years led to work being stopped in 1979 till the issues could be resolved. The following year responsibility for the project passed from the Bihar State Electricity Board to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, causing a setback to the negotiations.
Till 1984, the villagers successfully prevented any work on the site using a variety of non-violent means despite the presence of troops sent in by the State officials to enable the land acquisition officials. The Mundharis worked to prevent the troops and officials from having access to water, firewood and even preventing them from going out into the forest to defecate. “We told them they can’t defecate on our sacred groves..”, said Soma Munda of the KKJS in an interview.
In August 1984, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of force to acquire land. The Government of Bihar then offered to build two ‘model villages’ for the Mundharis to decide whether they would agree to relocate. The KKJS retorted that it would first be essential to relocate the sasandiri. The two ‘model villages’ were never built, and things were at a standstill for the next decade.
Matters picked up again in 1995 when the then Prime Minister, PV Narsimha Rao declared his intention to lay the foundation stone of the Koel Karo project. The Mundaris resisted this by astonishingly simple and effective means- nearly 25,000 people lay down on the roads effectively blocking access.
In December 2000, the state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar. Just two months later, in February 2001, the police fired 75 rounds (unofficial estimates say 150) on a peaceful crowd at Tapkara killing eight people and injuring more than 30 (PUCL,2002). The Tapkara shooting understandably sparked censure from the country and may have forced the government’s decision regarding the dam.
The result: In August 2003, the Koel Karo project was scrapped, ostensibly for financial reasons; The price had escalated from Rs.157 crores in 1976 to Rs.3,000 crores in 2003. However, the KKJS as well as several others who have been linked with the struggle consider the sustained resistance to be the primary reason for the project being scrapped. It took another seven years for the government to shut down all offices and reassign staff. But on 21st July 2010 the Koel Karo project became history.
The reason why: Koel Karo is today one of the very rare instances in India where tribal peoples have successfully persuaded the government to shelve a sanctioned project. This is not due to any dearth of such similar struggles by equally determined people throughout the country. What is the difference?
One reason put forth by anthropologists is the strong sense of tribal identity. The Mundari have a strong and democratic tribal leadership system which continues today. They have a history of asserting their rights since the 19th century. The Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1903) which safeguard the rights of tribals to their land is just one of the instances where they have brought pressure to bear on the government to maintain their tribal identity. In that respect, they see very little difference in colonial rule and the current government, both being secondary to tribal government. This is the reason that the Koel Karo struggle was able to mobilise people in their thousands and present such an united front. While the tribal governance may account for the united resistance put up by the Mundharis, their motivation however came from a far older source.
It came from Sing-Bonga Himself. The Mundharis quite simply had no option but to hold on to their land. It is here that their ancestors were, and all through the resistance, not once did Sing-Bonga appear in a dream and give them permission to relocate the sasandiri. This deep and inviolable connection with the land was key to the struggle and manifested itself in the resistance slogans. Initially, the slogan was “Jaan denge par jamin nahin denge (we will give our lives, but not our lands)”. After Tapkara, they changed it to “Jaan bhi nahin denge, jamin bhi nahin denge, dam ko rok lenge” (we will give neither our lives nor our lands but we will stop the dam)”.
The struggle was lead by a number of tribal and non tribal leaders, notable amongst them is Ms. Dayamani Barla, who was involved with Koel Karo since 1990s. She says, “The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?’
Later when Ms. Barla was imprisoned while upholding tribal rights, she wrote from the prison, ” I never overlooked the questions raised by the Jharkand people. The flowing water of the Koyal, Karo and Chata rivers is a witness to this. I learnt to write with my fingers in the mud and sand of this land. On the banks of the river Karo, while grazing my sheep, I learnt to bathe and swim. The shade of grass and trees covered with dew filled in the sky, gave me love.”
Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan puts the success of this movement down to persistence. The Mundharis successfully kept up an unrelenting and non-violent resistance for nearly three decades. To put this into perspective, it is in December 1929- only 18 years before achieving freedom- that the Indian National Congress passed a resolution calling for complete independence. Even dominion status was only demanded since 1916, when the All India Home Rule League was established. By that count, the Koel Karo struggle has lasted as long as India’s struggle for self-rule in one way or another.
And finally, Dharmadhikary points out one overwhelming lesson that present and future struggles can learn from Koel Karo. ‘Such struggles,’ he says ‘can be won.’
– Chicu Lokgariwar, firstname.lastname@example.org
Author is with India Water Portal and is based in Uttarakhand
Bela Bhatia, Resistance and Repression, Frontline 2001 http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1805/18050430.htm
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Dayamani Barla, The Voice of Jharkhand http://kractivist.wordpress.com/tag/dayamani-barla/
About Koel Karo Struggle from Friends of Narmada http://www.narmada.org/related.issues/koel.karo/koel.karo.appeal.html
Vasavai Kiro, Smitu Kothari, Savyasaachi, Culture, Creative Opposition and Alternative Development: Sustaining Struggle in the Koel-Karo Valleys
 The Telegraph, 2003. Dam warriors in praise for son-of-soil. 05 August 2003. URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1030805/asp/jamshedpur/story_2234167.asp
 PUCL Bulletin, September 2002. The adivasi struggle for land rights at Koel-Karo. URL:http://www.pucl.org/Topics/Industries-envirn-resettlement/2002/tapkara.html
 The Telegraph. 2003. Dam warriors in praise for son-of-soil. Jamshedpur.05 August 2003. URl:http://www.telegraphindia.com/1030805/asp/jamshedpur/story_2234167.asp
 Basu Maushumi. 2008. ‘Indian woman with a steely resolve’. BBC News. 21 October 2008. URL: