Dalits, Adivasis of a Bengal village protest against industrial expansion in inhabited area

Residents of Sishujhumra are fighting, despite the local administration’s apathy, for the factory to shut down, lock, stock and barrel.

In Sishujhumra village, in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, a quiet movement of local residents is brewing against a huge dolomite factory, and an allied stone crusher unit, which poses grave health and safety risks.

Residents are fed up with the incessant noise pollution, with machines droning from 4 am till late evening, dumping and crushing stones near their houses; the air pollution caused by hazardous factory fumes; and the 10-12 wheeler trucks transporting construction materials to these factories, worsening the condition of already fragile village roads and causing accidents to locals.

They are fighting, despite the local administration’s apathy, for the factory to shut down, lock, stock and barrel.

Sishujhumra is an old village, finding mention even in the 1961 census. Of its total population residing on 4.27 sq. km of land surrounded by tea gardens, Himalayan foothills, and dotted with rivers, 39.63% belong from Scheduled Tribes like the Oraons, Santhals, Mundas, Mech, Sherpas, and Lamas, and 12.49% are from Scheduled Castes (Census 2011).

Owing to the numerical strength of ST and SC communities, the Gram Panchayat falls under the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP), which not only allocates special funds for income and livelihood support to tribal families, but guarantees the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006), and prevention of land alienation and displacement of locals caused due to development projects (section 8(7), points a, b, and c).

The illegal dolomite factory constructed in close proximity to locals’ houses. Photo: Sishujhumra Speaks/Facebook

Yet, this dolomite factory co-owned by industrialists Mukesh Gupta, Bikash Gupta, and Ankit Agarwal is not the first “development project” to encroach on the lands and natural resources of tribal locals in Sishujhumra.

Birsa*, a village resident, explains that over the past 25 years, much of tribal land used for agricultural purposes has been acquired by non-tribal individuals for building industries and brick kilns. Sishujhumra’s proximity to the highway has also facilitated this land grab.

“When I was young, each villager had their own piece of land on which they grew paddy, corn, or mustard crop. Till the year 2000, there were hardly 2 factories here. Now, there are 12 factories – making biscuits, atta, cement, tiles, etc – apart from 12 brick kilns”, he says. 

The Gram Panchayat, which provides the license and No Objection Certificate (NOC) for industries to successfully operate in the State, is bound by the West Bengal Gram Panchayat Administration Rules (2004), which stipulates that it “shall not accord permission for the erection of a structure… for establishing a factory, workshop, warehouse, or godown” in a “predominantly residential area” which is connected by “a road… having width measuring less than five meters” (Clause 31 a and b). Factories operating in Sishujhumra are illegal and flout government regulations on both these counts. 

The District Industrial Profile of Alipurduar (2018-19), compiled by the Department of Micro, Small and Medium Industries, noted that “Presently there is no declared Industrial area in Alipurduar District”, making Sishujhumra a residential area. As for the road, Birsa informs that its width is 16 feet or 4.8 meters, making it untenable for heavy vehicles to ply on. Residents allege these factories have sustained themselves through illegal methods, such as fudging NOCs and appeasing Panchayat members to obtain permission to function. A certain Panchayat member, when contacted about the same, declined to speak. These factories also maintain a group of musclemen, sometimes local youth, to intimidate villagers into silence.

A common village road in Mechia Dhura, Sishujhumra has sunken under the weight of trucks. Photo: Shishujhumra Speaks/Facebook

However, things are a bit different this time around. Even though the fear of musclemen persists, Birsa says that ‘Sishujhumra Speaks’ is the first consolidated movement stemming out of the area to be actively expanding through social media, and sharing with a wider community, all the off-line resistance. 

On 3 August, the villagers submitted a written petition to the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police, the Block Development Officer of Madarihat, along with Panchayat members demanding that the entry of heavy vehicles into Sishujhumrabe stopped immediately. In 2018, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had publicly addressed a meeting on this issue, saying that the Police, Panchayat and other local bodies should “jointly ensure that large trucks do not enter village roads and damage these”. Birsa says, “No serious action was taken in reality. Trucks keep traveling to and from factories, although the Police board at the mouth of Rahimpur more clearly prohibits them to.”

The board issued by Birpara police station was not enough to stop trucks. Photo: Sishujhumra Speaks/Facebook

The Ethelbari-Rahimpur road has sunken under the tremendous weight of these heavy vehicles and developed a number of dangerous, deep potholes, which have caused accidents to locals and overturning of small vehicles.

Auto-rickshaws refuse to enter or charge double to travel along with it. Given that the road leads also to the Primary Health Centre, middle school, and Post Office of Sishujhumra, locals demand that iron barricades be set up at key points to preventing trucks from entering and that they be metalled to avoid any further damage.

Akriti*, a resident, pointed out, “The middle school is right next to the road. Children play on the school ground and venture onto the road. We feel very scared because of these big trucks passing by. It is not possible to drive safely on a severely broken road”.

Apart from trucks, the dolomite factory has brought with it other problems. “The factory is being constructed a mere 30 meters away from the boundary wall of my house”, says Birsa, “The noise makes it impossible to sleep at night, and in the day, the air is dense with dust. Large stones are being dumped in our fields. This has to stop! Living in my own house has become difficult”.

Several published papers, including one by the US National Library of Medicine, have directly linked excessive inhalation of dolomite dust with several respiratory and neuromuscular disorders. A dolomite factory in a residential area with delicate ecology has sounded multiple alarms in locals’ minds.

When the factory was initially being set up, it was rumored to have been a biscuit factory. With the coming of big machines, locals realized something sinister was going on. In illegal factories, untrained local youth looking to earn quick money by working on heavy machines, sometimes do so at the cost of their lives.

On 4 August, a 24-year-old laborer at a tile factory in Sishujhumra was electrocuted by a drilling machine and died on the way to the hospital. Birsa explains, “Industrialists are looking merely to get cheap labor while failing to introduce any kind of training or safety mechanisms in these factories. Unless they shut down, no one can guarantee another life won’t be lost in the dolomite factory too.”

An elderly man injured himself when he fell from his bike onto sharp stones on the broken road. Photo: Sishujhumra speaks/Facebook

On the road to development, Sishujhumra’s unplanned steering towards industrialization has proven unsustainable to the basic welfare of its villagers. Presently, it has only one Primary Health Centre, in a state of evident neglect.

“Peepul trees have cracked open its walls. I have heard from elders that earlier it had a delivery ward and resident doctors. Now, it is severely understaffed”, Birsa recounts.

The General Hospital in the neighboring Birpara town, though much newer, has better facilities. “The primary school has been turned into a middle school, but the village lacks a single library”, he adds. Birpara, on the other hand, has a higher secondary school and a college. 

Birsa notes that a large number of businessmen from Marwari and Bengali bhadralok communities reside in Birpara, making it a commercial and trading hub. Sishujhumra has over the years, become its hinterland, populated by socially disadvantaged Adivasis and Dalits. Factories owned by outsiders have been set up on its land, and the drying Dimdima river has been continuously mined for sand and clay to make bricks. The expansion into, and exploitation of Sishujhumra, has also been accompanied by stagnation or deterioration of “true” development criteria, such as access to clean water, electricity, education, and healthcare. 

Akriti says that in the part of the village where she lives, 8-10 households have to collect drinking water from a single tubewell, which is often out of order or does not give clean water.

“Our children survive on this dirty water. Now, in the monsoon when people fall sick anyway, all this dolomite dust is going to pollute the air and rivers further”, she adds.

She also mentions that her neighborhood, like many poorer ones, does not have an electricity connection, and they rely on a handful of solar panels producing insufficient light for everyone to share. “We need good roads and we really need streetlights, because elephants come into the village and destroy fields, sometimes houses too, at night. It’s dangerous enough living here, and factories are making matters worse”, she says.

The pothole-filled road connecting places of importance in Sishujhumra. Photo: Sishujhumra Speaks/Facebook

Birsa corroborates that the elephant problem has drastically increased and coincided with unchecked industrialization.

“When I was young, barely two times did elephants enter our village. In Alipurduar district, forest lands are now shrinking and factory units are destroying their natural habitat, leading them into human habitations”, he remarks.

He also remembers seeing cranes, vultures, and common small birds such as crows and sparrows visiting the village in summer and winter. Since the past two decades, their presence has steadily dwindled in Sishujhumra.

Seeing their traditional livelihoods under threat and lands grabbed, Birsa feels people may have somewhere accepted industries as a replacement for a school or hospital. “This is a trap”, he says, “as industrialization has worsened economic and social disparities”. Although some locals are aiding in the illegal running of the factories, and many resisting the temptation of easy money, both groups are suffering equally under its many hazards. 

When contacted over the phone, Manoj Tigga, the MLA of Madarihat block from the Bharatiya Janata Party, admitted that these factories were illegal, but squarely placed the blame on the ruling Trinamool Congress’ negligence, saying “all I can do is write letters”. Residents inform that Tigga had neither responded to the numerous tweets made out to him nor reached out to them independently about the illegal dolomite factory, which they believe cannot flourish without the implicit (at best) approval of the MLA.

What has worked instead, is that after a group of villagers submitted a written petition to the Alipurduar DM, Madarihat BDO, and the District Collector’s office in July this year, an inquiry was conducted in which locals problems were listened to.

Ever since then, the number of heavy vehicles on the road has reduced, although stone crushers continue to work for a fixed time, and construction of the dolomite factory still carries on, at a diminished scale.

Birsa is skeptical of this being a temporary pacifist move but is equally determined that the Sishujhumra movement, at its heart a communal imagination of historical justice and cultural preservation, will not stop until the dolomite factory packs up for good. 

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Sukanya Roy is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and New Delhi.