In Palghar a site of historic resistance, Adivasis once evicted, oppose a bullet train project

Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan boarded the Shinkansen train in Tokyo station to Kobe, in Japan on 12 November 2016. The Japanese government investment agency JICA invested in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet-train project which would displace 296 predominantly Adivasi villages. PIB
25 March, 2020

On 12 January, about one lakh Adivasis from western and central India came together at a field on the outskirts of Palghar, a town in a district by the same name, in Maharashtra. They had come to attend the Sanskritik Ekta Mahasammelan—a cultural unity convention—an annual gathering organised by a grassroots Adivasi organisation called the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, which primarily works in western India. This year marked the twenty-seventh edition of the annual event, which is held at a different Adivasi-dominated region each year.

The AEP did not choose Palghar by accident. For the past four years, the Adivasis of the district have been at the forefront of a struggle against the Indian government’s plan for two large infrastructure projects—the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail project, which will pass through five districts in Gujarat and Maharashtra when completed, and the Vadhvan port, slated to come up in Palghar’s Dahanu taluka.

The rail project is a proposed high-speed train line connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad—colloquially called the bullet-train project—first greenlit by the central government in 2017, and currently in the phase of land acquisition. It will displace Adivasis from 73 villages in Palghar, including two villages which had already been resettled for the construction of a dam. The displaced families from the two villages still await to see the fulfilment of promises made by the government, such as schools and hospitals, and fair monetary compensation. Meanwhile, the Vadhvan port will submerge parts of Dahanu taluka, and will eventually displace Adivasis of the region. The port, which the union government first proposed in 1997 and is currently under construction, will also pollute waters traditionally used by Adivasi communities.    

The Indian government has planned both projects without taking the consent of Adivasi gram sabhas—village assemblies—as mandated by law. The mahasammelan united Adivasi groups from across the subcontinent to oppose what the community sees as a consistent attempt to undermine Adivasi autonomy and evict them from their ancestral land. At the event, it was evident that the assertion of Adivasi culture also implies an assertion of their political autonomy and resistance. This includes the Adivasi resistance against their ancestral lands being routinely used for development projects.

The mahasammelan occurred over three days that included sessions on women, the youth and children. “The idea was to work throughout the year and meet once to discuss the issues and find solutions to them,” Satvi, a member of the Warli tribe and the founder of another Palghar-based grassroots organisation, called Adivasi Yuwa Shakti, told me. On 14 January, the day began with a march of about five thousand Adivasis opposing the land acquisition for both projects. “For us, Jal-Jangal-Jameen are not our property or ‘resource,’” Mukesh Birua, an Adivasi social activist from Odisha told the gathering. “It is our ancestral heritage.”

Banners of the AEP and the Bhoomi Sena, both founded by Kaluram Kakadya Dhodade, a Warli leader, flagged the road from the Palghar railway station to the venue of the mahasammelan. The posters were replete with the images of Dhodade. A ten-feet tarpa—a sacred musical instrument of the Warli community—stood at one side of the entrance to the venue, along with several model Adivasi houses that showcased indigenous knowledge, agriculture tools, and a sacred shelter for ancestral spirits, such as Wagoba. Wagoba is the highest ancestral spirit of the Warlis.

Opposite the shelter for Wagoba was a display of the Devi movement that had a significant influence among the Adivasi population in southern Gujarat during the 1920s. The historian David Hardiman, in his book, The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India, discusses a mass movement led by an Adivasi woman called Salabai. This came to be known as the Devi movement. Influenced by the Gandhian nationalist movement, Salabai called on Adivasis to give up alcohol and meat consumption, to follow the path of non-violence and to challenge the hegemony of landlords and Parsi liquor sellers. A hut was built beside the entrance, which showcased Salabai and her followers. Behind the hut depicting Salabai lay a huge banner that described the Devi movement and its teachings. These symbols and representations were telling of how Adivasi cultural assertion and pride are an integral part of Adivasi conventions.

The interaction between Adivasis of different regions was a moment that Adivasis do not get to experience often. The traditional attires created a sense curiosity and solidarity for each other. One could notice an Adivasi walking to a fellow Adivasi from another tribe, greeting them with the traditional slogan, “Johaar,” and having conversations about each other’s community and traditions. People shared contacts, clicked pictures together and made promises to visit each other’s native places.

At the first day of the mahasammelan, I met 14 Adivasi students from Jawaharlal Nehru University. They joined thousands of Adivasis from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, among other states, who sat through the day listening to the speakers, and spent the night under a marquee spread over the large field. The venue ground showcased stores and stalls of Adivasi entrepreneurs and food vendors. Stalls of Adivasi publishing houses, books and magazines in vernacular languages also stood conspicuously along the lines of stores.

Sunil Chouhan Bhil Nimbahera, a Bhil student I met at the mahasammelan, had travelled about 800 kilometres, from Chittorgarh in Rajasthan to Palghar, to attend the gathering. He said he had attended four conventions previously. Speaking about last year’s mahasammelan, he told me, “A whole busload of Adivasis from Chittorgarh had travelled to Dadra and Nagar Haveli to attend the event.” The Bhil community has a significant presence in these events because of their relatively high population among Adivasis in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the AEP is primarily active. Many youth and student organisations also participated in the event.

Vinayak Jadav, the publisher of Adilok—a Gujarati monthly magazine dedicated to Adivasi communities—said he has been visiting AEP events since the founding of the magazine in 2008. Anand Vasava, an assistant professor of linguistics from Gujarat University who is from the Bhil community, has been the editor of the magazine since. “Adivasis have a rich culture and history,” Jadav told me. “They have untold stories that need a platform to express themselves.” After running successfully for over a decade, Adilok now plans to expand its reach and work towards a Hindi issue, he said.

Aakash Kushram, the state president of the Adivasi Chhatra Sangathan—a student body based in Madhya Pradesh—along with thirty-five college students, had also joined the mahasammelan. He is from the Koitur community, also known as Gond, which predominantly resides in several states of central India. Kushram told me that the mahasammelan is crucial to them because every year, they conduct a march to the site of the event. During the march, he added, the group stops at villages to conduct workshops regarding the importance of Adivasi culture and the constitutional provisions under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. 

The AEP’s national conventions have been instrumental in creating awareness around Adivasi identity and rights over the past 27 years. “We have been forgetting our traditional culture after living in towns and urban areas,” Nimbahera told me. “Due to the influence of non-tribals around us, our culture is reaching the point of extinction. After becoming part of the AEP events, I realised that we should not let our culture die out, and preserve our ancestral heritage, customs, and rituals.”

More than one lakh Adivasis gathered at the Sanskritik Ekta Mahasammelan in Palghar, in January, spending the night under tents on a field outside of the town. They had gathered to protests against the Vadhvan port project and the bullet-train project which would displace Adivasis from their ancestral land. Neelam Kerketta


Palghar is a tribal-dominated district is comprised of a 37-percent tribal population, with several talukas in it categorised as Fifth Schedule areas. The Fifth Schedule of the constitution provides protective legal provisions such as increased Adivasi control over land rights as well as self-governance in predominantly Adivasi areas. It also provides for laws with specific applicability only to these areas. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, further protect the Adivasi community’s access to land and resources. These laws mandate prior consent of the community for land acquisition for any public or private project.

Residents of Palghar mentioned a range of government-led development projects that had been proposed on their ancestral land. “The Palghar district has over fifteen such ‘development’ projects underway,” Sunil Parhad, the director of the central office of the AEP, based in Palghar, told me. “There are many small projects under the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Similarly, the bullet-train project, Vadhvan port, dedicated freight corridor of railways, six-lane Mumbai-Vadodara expressway—all of these projects fall under the schedule areas of Palghar.” He continued, “The DMIC project falls from Vasai, at the end of Mumbai border to Gujarat, Dadar Nagar Haveli, Valsad and further till Dongarpur and Udaipur in Rajasthan—all of which are part of the Fifth Scheduled area.” The DMIC is a massive planned project to infrastructurally interlink Delhi and Mumbai, as well as 24 industrial regions in the states between the two cities.

The Mumbai-Vadodara Expressway, the bullet-train project and the Vadhvaan port stand out as three large projects that seek to acquire the most Adivasi land. Another industrial complex, the Dahanu Thermal Power Station, is spread over a thousand acres of land, both for the plant and for the dumping of ash. “It was a public sector unit initially, then went to the Reliance and now lies with Adani,” Parhad told me.

In 2013, the railways ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the bullet-train project, that would run across 296 villages, over 508 kilometers. JICA is a Japanese government agency that provides assistance for development projects across the world. Four years later, the prime minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe laid the foundation for the project that is estimated to cost one lakh crore rupees. The project passes through predominantly Adivasi regions in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. This includes three districts in Gujarat and two in Maharashtra. Each of these districts—namely Navsari, Valsad, Surat, Thane and Palghar—have several talukas that come under the Fifth Schedule. In Palghar district, the project will occupy the largest amount of land, affecting 73 villages. The New Indian Express in November last year reported that about ninety percent of land in Palghar could not be acquired for the project due to the consistent opposition by the Adivasis of the region.

A 2018 report by JICA titled Indigenous Peoples Plan, Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Rail stated, “The overall social, economic and political status of the residents of the Fifth Schedule Area and especially the project affected tribal households show that they have become part of the mainstream society in most of the areas in the Gujarat and Maharashtra.” The report argued, “The proposed project will have little effect on the socio-economic and cultural integrity of the tribal population and the project will not disrupt their community life.” The language used in the report draws a distinction between “mainstream” and Adivasi communities, further reproducing the stereotype of the latter as backward or primitive, unlike the advanced “mainstream.” The report also identified the religion of various tribal groups as “Hindus”—a characterisation most Adivasis oppose.

While the JICA report argued that they would ensure “Free-Prior-Informed consent,” the people I spoke to in Palghar told me that the majority of the villages have not allowed JICA members to enter their villages and had staunchly refused to give their land for the project. Free Prior Informed Consent is a right for indigenous people that has been recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. FPIC is central to Adivasis’ self-determination and allows indigenous communities to give or hold back consent for any projects affecting them. Satvi told me, “In the past, authorities have tried to enter villages for land surveys but they have not been allowed. This has happened across Adivasi areas in Gujarat and Maharashtra because of the strong mobilisation and active presence of Adivasi organisations, such as Bhoomi Sena and Adivasi Ekta Parishad.”

While villagers in the area face the trauma of eviction, residents of villages like Chandranagar and Hanuman Nagar, in Palghar district, have already suffered from being displaced once. Thirty years ago, the residents of these two villages were evicted for the construction of the Dhamni dam and resettled in their current villages. Now, the proposed bullet train will pass through these two villages and people fear losing their homes again.

Hanuman Nagar is located about twenty kilometers from Dahanu. In 1989, about twelve Adivasi villages were displaced for the construction of the Dhamni dam. “The government moved us to this village and asked us to build our own houses,” Ramesh Ahadi, a farmer and resident of Hanuman Nagar, told me. “At that time, some people received two to three thousand rupees for their land. We were promised better hospitals, school and a market, but none of them have been fulfilled yet.” Similar to the experiences of many Adivasi villages displaced due to dams, the village doesn’t receive any water from the dam as it is diverted to Mumbai and to various new development projects.

Villagers in Palghar district, including in Hanuman Nagar, have not allowed the officials to conduct land surveys in the village either. Ahadi said, “On 26 January, officials from the Japanese company visited the village again and were attempting to bribe people by claiming they would pay remuneration of about sixteen to seventeen lakh rupees. The land we are cultivating is still not under our names.” The mahasammelan was an opportunity for Adivasis to hear how others had been affected by the bullet-train project, how they were opposing it in each region, and to take a united stand against a plan that threatened them all.

The other target of the protests at the mahasammelan was the Vadhvan port project. Earlier this year, the union cabinet approved the Vadhvan port in Dahanu taluka of Palghar, projected to cost Rs 62,544.54 crore. The port is being developed by a public-private partnership that includes the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and the Maharashtra Maritime Board. The Indian government in a press release claimed that with the Vadhvan port, “India will break into the countries with top 10 container ports in the world.”The statement also mentioned the project would be spread over five-thousand acres.

The port was first proposed in 1997 by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine that was ruling Maharashtra at the time. “The project could not proceed due to strong resistance from the Adivasi groups,” Parhad said. “It was re-initiated after the BJP government came to power at the centre.” He said that the port “would be 25 metres deep and it will lead to submersion of about 12 to 15 kilometers of land.” When I visited the seashore near where the project work for the port had started, its effects were prominently visible. One could see how the area surrounding the proposed port, especially the beaches, had muddy black soil due to pollution from the project’s construction.

Last year, around twenty-five villages had boycotted the Maharashtra assembly elections in protest against the port. “It was under Kaluram Kaka’s leadership that we have been able to do so,” Ashwini Thakare, a member of Adivasi Ekta Parishad, told me. “The ocean is only a few kilometres away. Once the Vadhvan port project is finished, our villages are going to be submerged. Where would people go?” she asked. The resistance of Palghar Adivasis to development projects encroaching their land has inspired others from non-Adivasi communities across the district to join the struggle. Similar to the Bhoomi Sena and the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, Parhad and others initiated the Bhoomi Purta Bachao Andolan—a movement comprised of both Adivasis and non-tribals who could be affected by the new projects.

The state government has not sought permission from the gram sabhas of each village affected by these projects. But according to the Section 4 and Section l of the PESA, this is required for any land acquisition in Scheduled Areas. “The government is trying to reach people through back doors by luring them with money,” Parhad told me. “While the officials have surveyed the private lands owned by sawkars”—or moneylenders—“for the bullet-train project, we have not allowed them to survey in Adivasi villages.” In 2016, the gram sabhas of Chandranagar and Hanuman Nagar villages had unanimously rejected the project. Parhad explained to me that due to the colonial land revenue laws, the majority of the land cultivated by Adivasis are in the names of sawkars. “Therefore, it is further a loss for Adivasis, since it’d be these moneylenders who will get the compensation for the project.”

Landlords in Palghar have been exploiting Adivasis since the colonial period. During the 1970s and 1980s, moneylenders and zamindars enforced begaari—a system of forced and free labour, practised primarily in princely states. The begaari system continued in many Adivasi regions till the 1980s because the princely royal families continued to hold power over those areas. “While the Adivasis have been tilling the land, it was named after these moneylenders and zamindars and Adivasis had to give a fixed ratio of the production to them,” Satvi told me.

Satvi’s organisation has been instrumental in getting the geographical indicator tag for Warli art. The tag provides safeguards of intellectual property rights to Warli artists and their unique style of painting. “Under such repression, Kaluram Kaka and others started a strong resistance and chased many of them out of Adivasi villages,” Satvi said. “Their resistance had forced government employees to return land to the tribals to some extent.”

In the late 1980s, Dhodade founded the Bhoomi Sena, which began as a movement to reclaim the land titles of Adivasis in Palghar, spurred on by the rise of resistance against begaari. The Bhoomi Sena remains one of the oldest Adivasi organisations in the region. “Adivasi youth mobilised themselves at the village level and the movement grew intensively in the region,” Satvi said. “The movement retaliated with the attacks on zamindars, money lenders and forced authorities to implement land regulations efficiently.” Dhodade later came in contact with leaders such as Ashok Bhai Choudhary and Waharu Sonwane—both working in grassroots movements in parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra, respectively—and started the Adivasi Ekta Parishad in 1993.

Stany Pinto of the Centre for Culture and Development, a research institute based in Gujarat’s Vadodara, wrote about the AEP in a book titled Social Movements in India. He noted that the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, “seeks to assert Adivasi identity through a cultural revival movement for ‘self-respect’ and ‘self-esteem.’” The organisation has led an ideological movement towards the unity and self-respect of Adivasis—and their identity, history, art and culture—for the past 27 years. The year 1993, when the AEP was founded, also coincided with the United Nations drafting its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was approved in 1994. The UNDRIP affirms the ownership rights of indigenous communities over “cultural and ceremonial expression, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.”


On 14 January, a large rally was conducted from the venue to the centre of Palghar town, in opposition to the two development projects. The rally however, did not merely consist of sloganeering. Instead, throughout the march people danced to Bhili and Warli songs. Issues pertaining to land rights are particularly central to the indigenous culture and dancing has always been a political act for Adivasis. As Ram Dayal Munda, an Adivasi intellectual and parliamentarian from Jharkhand, had once said, “Nachi se banchi”—dance to survive.

The mahasammelan merged both the continuing tradition of indigenous assertion and protests against the continued exploitation of Adivasi land. On the last day of the event, Jitendra Vasava, the president of the Adivasi Sahitya Academy, an organisation based in Gujarat that works towards promotion of Adivasi languages and literature, told the gathering, “Tum jitna jor se vikaas chillaoge; Utna jor se tumhare pahaad khodenge, nadi bandhenge, aur jangal katengeThe louder you ask for development, the harder they will dig your mountains, dam your rivers and cut your forests.