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Fruit vendor in Dharwad, India (Photo: Pikist)

The pillage of resources: A glimpse into the lives and labor of marginalized women

Lives of women dependent on natural resources, such as land, forests, rivers, and mountains, are being tossed asunder by the appropriation and expropriation of these resources by corporations and the state. The neoliberal economy has accelerated processes of proletarianization and pauperization, which had otherwise been continuous in the history of “development” and industrialization. Throughout, patriarchy combines with hierarchies of caste, ethnicity, and class, as well as state hegemony, including the tool of stigmatization, to exploit women’s labor, intensify control over their labor and mobility, and further reduce access to means and resources. To intimidate growing resistance, the criminalization of landless peasants and contract workers by the fabrication of police cases has become the modus operandi in India. This pauperization of people and the stigmatization caused by criminalizing entire communities has its roots in colonial times. In the case of women from Denotified Tribes (DNTs, nomadic tribes), the stigma since colonial times continues to ensure their vulnerability while their labor is increasingly exploited.

The neoliberal state plays a manipulative role, both through its presence as well as its absence in the lives of women from marginalized communities. The state is nowhere in sight when they are systematically deprived of any means of autonomy or advancement in terms of education, training, nutrition, healthcare, and so on. It refuses to bear any responsibility and leaves citizens to their own resources or lack thereof. Women fend for themselves by performing excruciating labor as they build their lives, their livelihoods, their homes, and the tenuous future of children. Just as they begin to see a semblance of dignity and minimum security in their lives, intervention comes from the state or from capital via the state.

The hitherto role of the state’s inaction turns into action—targeted action in forcible displacement, appropriation of whatever resources in terms of tilling of the land, growing of trees, tending to livestock, building of small huts or houses and rendering them as dispossessed as when it all began. The invisibility shrouding the relationship between the people and the state suddenly melts to make visible the iron hand of state power and other allied forces.

Often, marginalized communities are left even worse off as their entire habitat is irreversibly damaged. While people’s back-breaking labor to protect their land, rivers, forests, and mountains over generations remains invisible to society at large, corporations today seem to poison the water they drink and the very air they breathe, causing widespread death and disease. Widespread ecological devastation of the commons is the most distinguishing feature of unbridled capitalist expansion—that is, extractive capitalism. These everyday crimes committed by capital keep people’s resistance brewing even long after corporations begin production. But these sparks of resistance go systemically unreported by the corporate media. Here, we underscore some of these evolving dynamics in the dominant narrative of the pillage of resources in the Indian states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh.

The cost of resisting dispossession in Odisha

The Angul-Sukinda railway line is being built in the heart of the steel hub Kalinganagar in Jajpur district, which had seen a valiant people’s movement against coercive land acquisition by Tata and other companies. Thirteen adivasis were killed in a police firing on January 2, 2006. But the process of expansion, and hence more land acquisition, continues. On January 7, 2020,over fifty women threatened to commit suicide in protest against the railway line that would cut across their land. Villagers from Rangahudi, Bagharaisahi, and Duburi in Kalinganagar tried to prevent the construction work physically.1 Five platoons of police were deployed for the construction work; eight men were detained.

The villagers have had many rallies and dharnas against land acquisition since 2019. A woman named Gurubari Mahanto was injured after she was hit by a dredger in the midst of a conflict that took place when villagers tried to stop construction work. Saibu Mahanto, 46, of Bagharasahi village went to inspect his land on January 19, 2019. He found it reduced to rubble by the railway company and collapsed on the spot from shock. He was admitted to the Danagadi hospital. Hundreds of villagers rushed to the area and tried to stop the construction work. Saibu Mahanto went into a coma and died forty-five days later. On January 23, 2019, the villagers organized an innovative protest banging empty tin plates near the Biju Patnaik statue in Duburi Square. This was a “begging strike” seeking alms symbolizing the destitution caused by land acquisition. Two elderly women also died immediately after these protests. The construction of the railway through their paddy fields perhaps took a huge toll on their health, both physical and mental. The land had been their lifeline for generations and was the only fragile source of sustenance for their families. The farmers have filed a petition in court demanding justice. The court issued a stay order regarding the land.2 Therefore, when the contract company came with five police platoons to begin levelling the land on January 7, 2020, women confronted them with kerosene and match boxes. They fought with bare hands too.

Gurbari Mahanto, who has four acres of land, lost her husband. She said:

When the police came on the 7th of January, I held the policewoman by the collar and hit her in the stomach. She held my arm and twisted it. In the end of the scuffle, I got so upset that I jumped into the pond. People thought I was dead. But I rose up on my own. I landed up paying Rs. 1,000/- to get my hand treated. They could have killed me that day. I was ready to die too. What can I eat if my land is taken away? There is nothing and nobody to feed me. I only get Rs. 500/- each month as old-age pension.

My daughter-in-law may give me 1 or 2 kgs of rice. She has to feed her children too. She earns a bit from construction work. They get Rs. 100/- a day while men get 200/-. We old people do not get any work.

There is no road to go to the other side. Our mobility is severely restricted. Now we have to literally crawl to go to each other’s houses.

When we tilled the land, there was enough food for all of us. I would earn about Rs. 20,000/- a year by selling the extra rice. We also had 15 mahua trees, which were all cut down. Mahua is important for us Mahantos. It is said wherever there is a Mahanto, there is a mahua tree. The leaves, flowers and fruits are all part of our lives.3

After having lost their land, their only source of income is now wage labor. Everybody has goats, cows, and poultry, but only for their consumption. Most of the men go for daily wage work in construction or other similar jobs. We were told that women do wage work only when there is no other earning member in the family.

Villagers claimed they have the land’s title deeds and are regularly paying taxes at the revenue inspector’s office in Duburi. But none of the women have pattas in their name in these patrilocal communities, making them even more vulnerable in the event of a death of a male spouse or any other calamity.

An elderly peasant said:

Everyone here was dependent on land. None of us have done any other work. We either worked on our own land or on others’ land—for seventy to eighty years. We were autonomous, self-reliant. We did not depend on any employers or any sahukar for our living. We were nobody’s prajaa.

We are not saying we will not part with the land. We only want compensation as per prevailing market rates. They can take the land, but isn’t it important what we get in return? The market rate at present is 45 lakhs per acre. Why does land that belong to the poor become free or cheap when taken by the government?

When they came to level all the fields, they did not even give us any notice. No notice and no compensation.

Another protest took place in Raygada district in the same week. On January 3, 2020, adivasi  women from the village of Paikakupakhal blocked the highway at Chandragiri in protest. Around forty-one women and eight children were arrested. There were three pregnant women among those arrested. Utkal Alumina International Limited—the bauxite mining company in the Kashipur block of Raygada that had also seen a protracted struggle against bauxite mining—deals in the mining as well as the processing of bauxite. Villagers continue to resist the alumina plant due to the environmental hazards caused by mining. And they have been demanding the promised jobs and stipends that never materialized. Paikakupakhal is situated at the entrance of the Baphlimali Hills, the source of bauxite. The mining and ferrying of bauxite right through the village has caused untold misery and suffering. On August 25, 2014, Central Reserve Police Forces descended on the village and physically assaulted the villagers,causing grievous injuries. On January 3, 2019, women blocked the main road at Chandragiri Square to draw the attention of company authorities. In an agreement made on October 17, 2019, the company agreed to pay ₹4,500 per month to twenty-five women.4 The agreement was signed by the Tehsildar as well as the Kashipur police. Yet these women were rounded up and arrested by the same police!

Criminalization of adivasis and dalits  is also happening in the villages around the foothills of the Niyamgiri Mountain. This community of landless dalits has been coping for too long with the environmental degradation caused by the Vedanta Refinery Plant in Lanjigarh. Their conflict with the company dates back from the time of land acquisition operations in the mid–2000s. As the production capacity of Vedanta Aluminium Limited increased manifold, the woes of the landless families, largely contract workers, also multiplied.

Conflicts take a deadly turn when companies backtrack on their earlier offers of jobs and compensation. Some contract workers have died. The hardships of women get compounded in running the family in two ways, besides the onerous responsibility of continuing with the day-to-day running of the household. The first is the foisting of false cases by the administration, and the second is the aftermath of a life lost in the conflict between the company and community. Let us trace the factors around the deaths of one adivasi and two dalit contract workers.

Harijan Pattnaik died in the Bhawanipatna district jail on August 23, 2019. When news of his death reached his wifeManorama Harijan, she collapsed from shock and grief. She was hospitalized in the Lanjigarh hospital; their children were devastated. He was the sole earning member of his family. He had been picked up by the district police on May 2 along with many other villagers—mostly landless Dalits—on trumped up charges. The administration imposed Section 144 in the area around the Vedanta Aluminium Resources refinery plant when his body was brought to the village.

The jail authorities did not inform his family of his illness or of his being taken to VIMSAR—the hospital in Burla. Instead of ordering a probe into his death in jail custody, government officials made Vedanta compensate the family. Since theimprisonment of the deceased and the arrests of contract workers had been orchestrated by the administration in the interests of the company, the company was made to bear the liability of a custodial death to merely pacify the family and quell the rising unrest in the villages. These negotiations effectively exonerated the district government from a death in jail custody.

An all-India joint fact-finding team put together by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations and Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan investigated the random arrests and repression of people in the villages around the Vedanta Aluminium Limited refinery plant after the death of a contract worker named Dani Batra.5 He succumbed to injuries inflicted in a lathicharge by the Odisha Industrial Security Force on March 18, 2019, at the gates of the plant. During these incidents, a constable of the Odisha Industrial Security Force, Sujit Minz, also lost his life. Minz hailed from Sundergarh district and belongedto the Oraon adivasi community. His body was found charred and burnt with his legs tied inside the compound. Instead of conducting a thorough probe into the entire set of events, the police and administration unleashed terror by arresting people allegedly involved only in the death of Minz. The first information report that named twenty-two persons and three hundred others led to people fleeing into the mountain for weeks and months under apprehension of being arrested. Harijan Pattnaik was one of the twenty-nine people arrested, all charged under grievous offences: IPC sections 147, 148, 149, 323, 325, 436, 302, and 506, and under the Arms Act.6

What was happening at the gates of the refinery plant that morning? Dani Batra, who was entering the factory gate for his morning shift, was caught in the scuffle that broke out between the protestors and security personnel. He too belongs to the same community and hails from the same area as the protestors. Villagers from Rengopali, Chatrapur, and Bandhaguda were demanding permanent jobs, education for their children, and provision of jobs for more people. The Odisha Industrial Security Force present took the law into its own hands.

Villagers living around the Lanjigarh plant also suffer the effects of ecological degradation. The pollution caused by effluents discharged into the Vamsadhara River has caused deaths and diseases among people dependent on the river. The creation of ash ponds has been the biggest environmental hazard to the Niyamgiri habitat, with its rich diversity of flora and fauna. The greed for bauxite is making the company flout all existing environment laws, which the state aids by providing security forces to crush the dissenting voices of its citizens.

That day, Dani Batra too was chased by the lathi-wielding security forces. He jumped into a pond for safety. Unable to swim, as he had already been beaten (perhaps fracturing his hands and shoulders), he drowned and died. His wife Saindri Batra said he worked hard to meet the needs of the family. He was an Ambedkarite and a practicing Buddhist.7 He was also looking after his unemployed brother and his family of two children.

Working-class families from adivasi and dalit communities, largely employed as contract workers, live in abject fear of corporate and state violence. They can be falsely implicated, like the villagers, in order to conceal the violence wreaked by the Odisha Industrial Security Force that led to the death of Dani Batra, or simply languish and die in prison over fabricated charges like Harijan Pattnaik.

Right from the beginning, local people were arrested. Once the construction work for Vedanta was almost over, the company delayed enrolling people in the promised jobs. The women—largely dalit—fought against all odds for the jobs. When test production was carried out, one man died along with some cattle because the river was polluted. The collective shock gave way to rage. In protest, people broke the pipeline coming out of the plant and locked the company gate on another day. In retaliation, the administration and the company filed a first information report on ten women for theft. Five women were taken to Lanjigarh thana. The other five who were taken to the Bhawanipatna thana had two small children who were also arrested. The report, dated February 22, 2010, accused the women of entering the refinery premises and causing random violence for over three hours and stealing a few thousand tons of steel material! Jayanti Dakri, Nilabati Nayak, Purnami Bibhar, and Tulsa Bibhar said:

Kamla Bibhar passed away three months back. She was constantly worried about the fate of the court case. It has been eight years now and we continue to be branded as thieves and dacoits by outsiders. On the day we were arrested we were working in the fields and nowhere near the company. We have been punished simply because we persisted in demandingthe company for the jobs it had promised when it first came to the area. We saw before our eyes a few hundred workers being brought from other states. We want regular jobs even now. Is that not a reasonable expectation? Before the company came, we would earn from wage work in the fields. There’s no land left now. And the pollution is causing so much ill health and distress. What crime have we committed? We are still young. Out future is before us.8

The pain of bearing the stigma of criminalization is the invisible price women pay, especially after the land is acquired,and the company remains protected by the administration.

The mineral curse in Chhattisgarh

Chhattisgarh, yet another resource-rich state lying to the east of central India, was carved out from Madhya Pradesh as a separate state on November 1, 2000. Mining companies and other industrial projects have made inroads into Chhattisgarh as one of the most coveted destinations. Cheating by “the company” and the state is a common refrain heard across all villages. The constant promises of jobs for the young of each family and promises of compensation never seem to materialize. The mining mania instead is manifest in a series of ecological nightmares.

The documentary If She Built a Country  is a powerful depiction of the destruction of the habitat through widespread mining. The voices of women living in this region encapsulate tales of pillage and plunder of the commons.

“We grew pulses and wheat in some places, cultivated rice, onions and potatoes too,” says Janki Sidar from Nagramuda village in Raigarh district.

In a public hearing in the year 2013, where the villagers were to express their opinion about giving land to a company for coal mining, Revati from Gare village publicly announced: “I do not eat coal. I eat grain. I oppose the company.” Ravita Sidar, also from Gare, said in the film: “For 5 years I have been opposing the company. Cancel this public hearing.”

The women from Raigarh talk about their relationship with the land and the forest.

We have been trying to save our natural resources. We depend on tendu, chaar, mango, tamarind etc. We roast harra and eat it for curing illness. But now we keep falling ill. Due to mining, the road to the forest has been extended by 10 kilometres. So our access to the forest has been adversely affected. Plus the guards try to stop us from going into the forest through the mine. We do not listen. This is our forest.

We do not have land. I have taken this forest to feed my family, to grow small millets and grain. We have no other option. I have lived for days only on mahua to till this land and clear the forest floor of stones and bushes.

If someone does not own land, they can collect wood from the forest and sell it. We collect mahua and sustain ourselves. The forest is very essential.

Whatever land is remaining with us, let it remain. We will neither give it to the state nor to the company.

Women’s determination to protect the natural resources and the commons for their survival is expressed in a very telling statement made by Bhagwati Bhagat: “If the land was in women’s names, they would not have ever parted with it. We would havenever agreed. Most women would not have done it. Our life is our land. The fight is for the future so we may live well.”

And there is Janki Sidar who fought for fourteen long years and got her land back.

Like in Odisha, in Chhattisgarh too an old man collapsed after seeing the gaping hole where his land used to be.

One of the most daunting problems for women dependent on subsistence agriculture and forest produce in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand is the heavy deployment of security forces, ostensibly to curb Maoist presence. This is plain coercion used by the state and capital while taking over the lands and natural resources of those inhabiting these regions for generations. The Central Reserve Police Force and paramilitary is permanently deployed in Chhattisgarh. Daily labor is fraught with the tension of dealing with security forces in the jungles and fields, or in random raids where people’s agricultural implements or livestock are confiscated or destroyed, including small savings. While adivasi men and women have to face the wrath of the state, women in particular become the target of brutal sexual violence by security forces.9 Yet, they dare speak up and question the mining operations that have upended their lives.

Lives uprooted in Jharkhand

Jharkhand, which was earlier part of Bihar, became an independent state with the passing of the Bihar Reorganization Actin 2000. The demand for statehood had gained momentum because of the abject negligence of the region for decades and itsdismal socioeconomic indicators. But development came through the plunder of the rich deposits of iron ore, coal, copper, mica, bauxite, graphite, limestone, and uranium. And the people of the land had to migrate to diverse destinations to sell their labor power for paltry wages. Jharkhand, which means land of forests, lays bare as forest cover is lost.

The public sector firm Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) has been carrying out uranium mining and uranium processing since 1967 in Jadugoda. Other areas of uranium mining include Narwapahar, Bhatin, Turamdih, and Bandhurang. The Turamdih Processing Plant was commissioned in 2003 to treat uranium ore deposits from Turamdih, Bandhurang, and Mohuldin mines. It became active when mining in Narwapahar reached its limits. We visited the tailing ponds in Turamdih and some nearby villages. People in Nischintpur village shared how water sources have been totally contaminated. One person said:

Monkeys and porcupines have died after drinking this water. There are no frogs, no crabs, and no fish in this water. If you dip gold or silver in this water, it turns black and human skin turns white. If cattle drink this water, they die. The company has not allowed anyone to take samples of the water. The water in the tube well is greenish yellow, sometimes red and black.

Dependent on subsistence agriculture for generations, their self-sufficiency stands eroded. He said:

The land has been totally destroyed and hence agriculture is over. Earlier we used to sometimes have both kharif and rabi crops. Most of the time we had only one crop as there is not much access to water, irrigation. But the crop was enough for consumption as well as a little for sale.

The people continue to be exposed to the disastrous impacts of radioactive emissions and effluents, although they have tried to challenge these since the 1980s and ’90s.10 There are health problems galore, especially gynecological ailments. One villager said:

There are severe health issues here like premature deliveries, miscarriages, impotency, infertility, skin infections and reactions. There is also blindness, polio and tuberculosis. But there has been no research or survey into the health conditions of our people. Nandup village has several cases of TB.

The villages on the other side of the mountain are worse off. The employees can access the company hospital, but the affected people from the villages cannot. They have to go to government hospitals. There is no transport available if there is any health emergency.

Young people with Bachelors of Technology expressed unemployment anxiety. Jobs in UCIL are going to “outsiders” and not to families whose lands have been taken by the corporation. Jema Guria, who was working in an IT company in Bangalore, said that UCIL never responded when she applied for vacancies. She said:

Local people do not qualify for work in UCIL despite having the appropriate engineering degrees. Engineers and officers are not from local areas but from North Bihar. Barely 25% of the jobs in UCIL have gone to displaced families. We have to think of long-term development.

Another young engineer named Raju said:

We were assured of jobs in writing when our lands were taken. Most people who were assured jobs are now sitting at home. We were told that jobs will be given according to the quantum of land that was alienated in terms of priority. Some of those with homes on forest land have got a few jobs. We were given very little compensation. Now people migrate to Punjab or Chennai for labor.

These lands and forest have been destroyed by uranium mining. Sensing the unrest of the people, UCIL seems to be spending money on monitoring the local mood to preempt any “trouble brewing.” Besides, they have what is Free Hajiri—informers who receive a salary for doing no work except keeping tabs on what is happening. We were told that there are also dalals (middlemen) of the company in the village.

The story of Jharkhand is testimony to the fact that the impact of displacement runs throughout a few generations. Noamundi block, which is largely populated by the Ho community in over sixty-two villages, is home to the third- and fourth-generation family members of the oustees of TISCO, now known as Tata Steel. In the early decades, they were uprooted from their villages and thrown into the thick jungles when the land was handed over by the government to the Tatas. They had no land titles. The local Mundas—or tribal chieftains—gave them land to settle in. Ramtia, an adivasi activist of Oman Mahila Sangathan, took us to her father’s place in Gitilor, a small hamlet with sixty-five families.11 He recalled how his entire childhood was spent seeing his elders engaged in back-breaking labor to make the land cultivable for paddy requirements. But today the land does not sustain them, nor do they get wage work from the companies. Today, men in their twenties and thirties are migrating to Surat, Ahmedabad, Chennai, or Bhubaneswar to eke out a living. A worker who had just returned after some harrowing experiences in Gujarat described how four of them worked twelve hours a day and returned empty handed, as they were cheated. Their ancestors had land and were self-sufficient once upon a time. They only hear stories of clean water and clean air, of access to meat through hunting, of paddy cultivation. The intrusion of the cash economy has pauperized a few generations. Until today, it is the forests that they depend on for fuel, food, and medicines. And women are most involved in forest activities.

Women spend hours every day gathering forest produce. This hard work does not seem to be recognized as labor, even in women’s own perception. In a workshop organized by the Oman Mahila Sanghatan near Noamundi, many women said, “I don’t do anything.”12 When probed just a little, many answers came tumbling out. One woman said, “I get up at 4:30 am. Clean utensils, go to fetch water, go to the forest to collect fuel, come back and cook for the household, wash clothes, sweep the house, take care of children, send them off to school and then go to the fields to work.” Many women had similar routines. The younger lot going to schools or colleges is not absolved of responsibilities. “I get up at 5 am, clean utensils, cook for the household, sit on my cycle and go to school/college. I come back at 4 pm. Then fetch water and go to the forest to get fuel if my mother or sister has not already done so.” Some others like her said that they collect forest produce on Sunday mornings only and their mothers do it the rest of the week.

Life without the forests is unthinkable. It is their lifeline. Talk of extending the mines brings fears of being shunted out of their lands again. But they are resolute to resist. “Not One Inch More” is the slogan given by anti-mining protest movements in Jharkhand.

Ambika Das, a community activist, shared how Tata can do what it wants to in the land already in its possession in Noamundi, but that any plans of expansion will meet resistance.13 In her words:

Oman Mahila Sangathan, our organization, held a spirited protest against a public hearing that Tata planned to have inside its premises in the compound of the DAV school there. It was scheduled for March 12 in 2012.The company was planning to extend its lease. They had faced opposition in 2005 too and were therefore all set to crush any protest. They put pressure on my cousin who was working as a nurse in the Tata Mines hospital in Jodda. They threatened her that she would lose her job if I continued the protest. Her family and other relatives too began persuading me to let go. The Tata GM summoned me to his office and pressurized us to give up the protest. Instead of facing the protestors he tried to use the threat of my cousin losing her job. They never have answers for the questions we raise about our land being taken away for mining or about our jungles being destroyed by the company. They continue to expand their mining operations till even now.

There are serpentine queues of trucks loaded with iron ore going to Jamshedpur and Haldia port for distant shores. Sister Kita, a young woman activist in Chaibasa, said: “We need nothing less than a rail rokko programme to show the injustice of this continuous plunder of our lands and commons. Imagine our women being so anaemic and weak while there are trains leaving Jharkhand daily loaded with iron ore!”14

The persecution of the Pardhis in Madhya Pradesh

The Pardhi community is one of at least 150 communities that are now called Denotified Tribes (DNTs, or nomadic tribes).15 Spread across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra Gujarat, Rajasthan Chhattisgarh, and parts of Karnataka, they continue to live on the fringes. Although the Indian government “denotified” these tribes, it enacted another law called the Habitual Offenders Act. Thus, for the police, DNT communities are synonymous with criminal tribes. The stigma they bear makes them easy targets when police need to find a scapegoat or to perform routine extortion. While the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 and other environment legislation prohibited the tribe from entering protected forest areas, where they had lived for generations, they did little to rehabilitate the community. As a result, the Pardhi community is still unable to access social welfare measures, owing to a liminal position in terms of their official tribal or caste status. As recently as 2017, Indarmal Bai Pardhi, 30, from Bhopal immolated herself, allegedly due to police torture and extortion. Instances of detention, even sexual assault against Pardhi women,and violent exclusion from villages, are not uncommon.16

Increasing industrialization and the taking over of forest lands by the government or private industrialists has led to large-scale displacement of the forest-dwelling community, forcing them to the peripheries of their natural homes. Rampant discrimination, chronic poverty, and lack of access to education, training in marketable skills, and employment have undermined their participation in the sociopolitical and economic life of their new region.17

Prior to 1972, when the Forest Act made hunting illegal, Pardhi men hunted for food, as well as for exchange or sale. As they say, “We would hunt big cats for our livelihood and smaller animals—birds, wild boar and hare—for survival.” The Pardhi women were involved in myriad activities, including manihar—the sale of deer musk (kasturi), wild berries, and jewelry made from animal skin and beads.18 Some were involved in agricultural labor, selling medicinal herbs, selling other minor ware, and so on.

Indeed, life was tough even then. But the rendering of their only skill and only occupation illegal, in fact criminal, changed everything. The stigma of criminalization made the community vulnerable in the eyes of the state, its police force, and all of society. For them, the state is only an embodiment of repression and further deprivation—state presence as well as state absence.

The collusion of the state and society at large demonizes the community and controls it vis-a-vis any competition in the labor market. This has had severe repercussions in the lives of the people in the community; it also has had a severe impact on the women, their labor, access to resources, and autonomy over their bodies, relationships, and life in general. The continuous daily repression by the state and extreme contempt by society has made the community close and tightly bound. When the internal norms and rules by the community are transgressed by the youth or women, it is often at risk to their lives.

In a study of 221 households conducted in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, only 5 had no history of displacement or migration.19 The reasons for having to leave their homes, and sometimes land, were varied. These ranged from extreme hardship in making ends meet and lack of employment and access to forests to discriminatory treatment, lack of health or educational facilities, and conflict with goons. Once they have to leave their village and come to the city, there is continual displacement due to eviction drives in the city. Sangeeta from Rajeev Nagar in Bhopal said:

When we are displaced and dumped in another place, usually it is marshy land not worth living on. It is we who make it livable and worth something on the real estate market. Once we make it livable, we are once again displaced and dumped in another place where we have to repeat the same process with a lot of hard work. There are days when we cannot go out to do our waste-picking and cannot cook our meals.

Finding employment in the city is difficult once their identity is known. The usual stereotype is that Pardhis are thieves and, when they come to get work, they are usually doing a recce for their main work of robbery. The police invariably target Pardhi men when there is some crime committed in the city. The police have often barged into their houses in the dead of night to arrest people without a warrant. With much angst, the women never tire of narrating this complete trampling of any semblance of dignity.

Waste picking provides a livelihood for the Pardhis, who have had to contend with a hitherto absent state, with no social resources spent on them and no provision of educational facilities. But their free labor helps the local municipality, which otherwise would have cost the exchequer a large chunk of state revenue. Besides, the state is looked at as a benefactor that “allows” the street resources to be accessed by these women. They are also always available as a reserve army of labor duringtimes like the strike of municipal workers. Thus, the Pardhis come into the labor market as bearers of inferior labor or inferior bearers of labor.

Domestic violence is a common feature in Pardhi households. As with any community that has faced systemic contempt and hatred, it becomes manifest in brutal internal conflicts. Often, there are severe casualties, including murder as well as self-harm in the form of suicides. Usually, violence by Pardhis is unleashed on their own community people, even family members, rather than on communities that mete out brutal treatment on them, the police, or any other arm of the state.

The Jaat Panchayat wields almost total control over most aspects of the lives of the community, including marriages. This often translates into a complete lack of autonomy for the entire community. As there is no alternative, given the entirely hostile atmosphere in society, women tend to abide by them. In the rare times they do defy the Caste Panchayat, they face severe repercussions on their access to networks, including their own families.

Despite women being the backbone of the household economy, women’s labor, both paid and unpaid, is controlled by the males of the households. Earlier, in some instances, the men helped in some of the processes of waste-picking work, especially insorting the waste. However, waste itself has lessened due to the work of the municipality. The constant inflow of migrants from the agrarian crisis in rural parts means many more people resorting to this last option of waste-picking for livelihood. Therefore, it is Pardhi women who still do the waste picking, which is the work that is most consistent and feeds the family.

Gender roles seem to be changing only to the extent that they benefit patriarchy. There have been a few Pardhi women who have refused to be bound to men. And the few women who married outside the community have had to pay a price. The struggle to overcome oppression and exploitation as women within the community becomes even tougher due to the continued marginalization and criminalization the community faces from the state and society at large.

To conclude, processes of appropriation and accumulation—forces of extractive capitalism—interact with and reinforce the class, caste, ethnicity, and gender fault lines in different contexts, communities, and scenarios. Women are resisting despite and against these forces of capital, the state, and patriarchy that work separately and jointly to undermine their autonomy and control their labor and mobility in ways that reinforce their power over them. As these struggles erupt against capital expansion, it is women from marginalized communities today who populate the canvas of social change and resistance.

Notes

  1. See Ashis Senapati,“Tribal Women in Odisha Attempt Mass Suicide over Rail Track Construction,” Down to Earth, January 7, 2020.
  2. Farmers at Receiving End of Sukinda-Angul-Dubury Rail Route,” Orissa Post, January 20, 2019.
  3. Interviews with the community in Kalinganagar, January 28, 2020.
  4. Reported by News 27, a regional TV channel, available at YouTube/OqxnbwM9uwc.
  5. CDRO AND GASS,“Corporate Loot and People’s Resistance in Niyamgiri,” Counter Currents, August 20, 2019.
  6. How Many More Arrests and How Many Deaths of Dalits and Adivasis to Take Place in Niyamgiri Region?,” Counter Currents, August 25, 2019.
  7. Sampad Patnaik,“At Ground Zero of Vedanta Protest: A Family Mourns, Police Probe Conflicting Reports,” Indian Express, March 22, 2019.
  8. Interview on December 16, 2018.
  9. Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, Bearing Witness: Sexual Violence in South Chhattisgarh (Mumbai: WSS, 2017).
  10. See the film Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda, available on YouTube.
  11. Discussion with villagers of Gitilor, February 1, 2020.
  12. Participated in the workshop with members of Oman Mahila Sangathan on February 2–3, 2020.
  13. Interview with Ambika Das in Noamundi, February 1, 2020.
  14. Interview with Sister Kita, February 4, 2020.
  15. National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, Report, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, 2008), 42.
  16. Asmita Bakshi, “Transforming Her Tribe,” Mint, October 30, 2019.
  17. Rakhi Bose, “With a Million Tribals Facing Eviction, This Pardhi Girl’s Journey from Forests to Classrooms Is Inspiring,” News18, March 26, 2019.
  18. Bose, “With a Million Tribals Facing Eviction.”
  19. “Majal – A Study on the Life of the Pardhi Community,” Muskaan, Bhopal, 2019.

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