In 2017, over seventy gram sabhas—village councils—of the Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra fielded their own independent candidates in the zila parishad—district council—elections. Two of the candidates won. One of them, Lalsu Soma Nogoti, is the first lawyer from the Madia-Koitur community—commonly referred to as Madia-Gonds, and categorised as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, or PVTG, by the Indian government. Nogoti has been one of the community’s most prominent voices protesting mining and violence against indigenous people by the state security forces. He was also the only Adivasi fellow at the 2017 Indigenous Fellowship Programme by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
In an interview with the independent reporter Jyoti Markam, transcribed and condensed by The Caravan’s copy editor, Akash Poyam, Nogoti spoke about the ongoing struggle against iron-ore mining in Gadchiroli’s Surajagarh area. He discussed how the Indian state’s policies are against the interests of Adivasis, and why an employment-oriented education system does not fit Adivasi culture.
Jyoti Markam: In 2007, the conglomerate Lloyd Steel started iron-ore mining in Gadchiroli’s Surajagarh hills. Can you tell us why the mining poses a threat to the Madia-Koitur people and about the ongoing resistance movement against it?
Lalsu Soma Nogoti: The mine in Surajagarh started as early as 2005–2006 and covers 348 hectare of land—which is also the ancestral land of PVTG groups such as the Madia-Koiturs. But the most important thing is, the profit returns or royalty that the company claims to give can be earned by Adivasi families within just one year from the sale of tendu leaves, bamboo, medicinal plants and other forest goods. We have proven this in last few years. Surajagarh in particular remains a historical place since Veer Baburao Shedmake, a Koitur leader who rebelled against the Britishers, hid in the Surajagarh forest. Moreover, Surajagarh is home to Thakurdeo, the ancestral spirit of the Koiturs, and every year in January a large jatra [fair] is held on the hills [in his honour].
At present, I see that there are two different voices on the mining in Surajagarh. One group is completely resisting mines, which are taking place illegally. In fact, most of the ongoing mining is illegal, because wherever there are Adivasis, there is forest, and so there are minerals. And these regions are part of the scheduled areas under the Indian constitution, which provides safeguards for Adivasi communities, along with other safeguards under laws such as the Forest Rights Act or the PESA [the Panchayat Exclusion to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996]. This group of people, which largely forms members of traditional village bodies, argue that the company can do mining wherever they want but we don’t want mines in Surajagarh at any cost. They say, “Mining is destruction.”
The other group argues that the mining can take place in Surajagarh, however, the local communities should get work in the mines and benefit from it. Various organisations have been formed for resistance against mining. If the company sees that certain organisations or groups of people are resisting too much, then the company is offering them some money to keep quiet. As a result, some people are also resisting the mines, hoping that they will also get some money.