Anti-mining protests by Adivasis, India’s indigenous communities, have in recent years drawn considerable attention. In many places across India’s mining tracts, Adivasis have been battling to protect their homes and local environments from the country’s expanding mining industry, which is intent on harvesting the coal that lies under their land. This, however, is only part of the picture. While stories about encounters between mining and indigenous communities – not only in India but also in other parts of the world – tend to focus on tribal opposition movements, the reality is often more complex and messy, and does not conform to the widespread but ultimately specious binary of “Adivasis versus mining corporations.”
I discovered this firsthand between 2015 and 2017 when I spent 18 months living and doing fieldwork in Karampot (a pseudonym), a coal mining-affected Adivasi village in the state of Jharkhand, eastern India. Once receding into a stretch of fields and sal woodland, the village is now abutted by a state-run, opencast coal mine, which has been encroaching on the land and forest surrounding it. Rather than an ongoing struggle by villagers against mining and land expropriation, however, I witnessed in Karampot a different dynamic – much less often documented but perhaps not less common. It involves not resistance but co-optation and fragmentation within the community, which effectively locks it into a dependent relationship with an environmentally detrimental extractive industry.
When, several years ago, it was announced that the mining project would be taking over agricultural land, this was initially met with protest. The pushback was organized by a local Adivasi political worker by the name of Budhram, affiliated with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) party, whom I got to know well during my stay in the village. Local opposition efforts, however, were short-lived: Instead of fighting an uphill battle against the expansion of the mine, Budhram soon shifted his focus to trying to deliver mining jobs to the community, as part of an existing but poorly implemented compensation policy for land loss operated by public sector mining companies in India.
Budhram’s approach was in fact not inconsonant with villagers’ – especially from the younger generation – own aspirations. Faced with declining subsistence agriculture and a lack of cash and work opportunities, for many villagers the expansion of the coal mine heralded not the destruction of a cherished rural way of life but, instead, an opportunity to fulfill hopes of economic security through the possibility of a coveted, regular job. Indeed, when thinking about dispossession, we cannot simply assume that people want to continue working the land. Often, they don’t: In much of rural India, agricultural plots lack any irrigation and are subject to demographic pressure, making farming difficult and unproductive.