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Valsa murder tells the story of Pachwara
JAVED IQBAL  Pachwara, Jharkhand | 15th Jan 2012

Karu Tudu of Kolajuda village stands over his destroyed paddy field, covered in coal dust.

very day over 500 trucks travel the 35 km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur in Jharkhand, carrying over 2,300 kg of coal each. Every day, hundreds of local adivasis and landless farmers stop the trucks, and unload a little coal onto the road for themselves to sell in the black market. In the process, the paddy fields on the periphery of the roads get entirely covered in coal dust.

The police sometimes accompany the trucks carrying the coal and attempt to stop the locals from taking coal. They have chased them away, beaten them and arrested them. Yet the practice continues.

"We make around Rs 150 a day, if a whole family sits to collect coal to sell it," said one of the scavengers on the roadside.

"Why do you do it?"

A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

Badan and Darbo Soren, two brothers who live in the village of Kulkipada, do not have a choice. The coal dust has destroyed their produce. "We eat the black rice ourselves. No one will buy it." Said Badan, "Earlier we used to make some Rs 15,000 or Rs 20,000 per year." "And there is no more mahua seeds, no more mango in the trees," continued his brother.

The rains have failed in the last three years in a district where the rivers run with streaks of black coal. Families make a living out of the coal that travels their road, turning the entire 35 km stretch into a black field, where children as young as six work to help their families.

The coal mining company, Panem Coal Mines Limited, had tried to acquire land to build a railway line from Pachwara to Pakur, but they faced stiff resistance from farmers like Badan Soren and his brother, who'd lose their farmland to the track.

Instead, the dumper trucks travel on the dusty road where people have lost their lives in hit-and-run accidents. In anger, the locals burn down the trucks. Yet the everyday reality is that the locals stop the trucks to steal a little coal, some say at the behest of the coal mafia. Nevertheless, an informal industry is born.

The story of Pachwara can be told by telling the story of the murder of Sister Valsa, a nun and an activist who fought for the rights of Santhal adivasis, who would be part of a compromise that would spell her own demise. She was brutally axed to death in her adopted home in the village of Pachwara in Pakur district on 15 November 2011.

Within hours of her killing, the mainstream media was quick to report that she was murdered by the Maoists. The Maoists denied it, even as an initial note, claimed to be written by them, condemned the nun and the activist to be working for the coal mining company Panem, and not in the interests of the people. The note that was surreptitiously taken away by the mining company officials who were quick to arrive at the site of the murder, did eventually find itself in the hands of the Superintendent of Police.

A few days later the police would arrest seven individuals who were associated with Sister Valsa. Almost all of them were local villagers/contractors who'd get work from Panem. One of the accused, Pycil Hembrom was the son of the president of the Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan that fought against the company and had a long history of working with Sister Valsa. After the end of the agitation against the company and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on 30 November 2006, he worked with them as an independent contractor.

Sister Valsa was living as a guest in the house of Pycil Hembrom and had moved out only eight days before her murder. A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

"The MOU made a lot of promises, but the work only happened on their accord," said Sonaram Hembrom, who was present when over 40 people surrounded his house at night to look for Sister Valsa who was hiding in her room. They would eventually find her and axe her repeatedly near her head and her neck.

"They saw all that money and they got greedy," said Sonaram's neighbours about Pycil and the other accused from Aalubera village adjacent to Pachwara.

"Sometimes, the money we were supposed to get for one tree used to be Rs 50,000, but Sister would find out that we only got Rs 5,000. When we confronted them about this, they said it was a computer error," continued Sonaram Hembrom. All the documents and registers that detailed all the financial dealings of the Project-Affected-Persons and the PANEM Coal Mining Company that Sister

Valsa had kept, were appropriated by the police as evidence and are currently unavailable.

n 19 April 1984, very close to Pachwara, and close to the collective memory of the elders of Pachwara, the police had shot and bayoneted over 14 people as they were demanding their rights. Every year they gather in the thousands on the day of the incident to pay homage to their martyrs.

Years later, their rights were again usurped by the Panem Coal Mines Limited, which was given land by the administration, who used the infamous colonial era law, the Land Acquisition Act to acquire all the lands of Pachwara and the nearby villages for coal mining. This has remained a story repeated across central India's mining belt, which gives birth to numerous protest movements and a direct confrontation with the state's mining policy that has acquired lands by flouting laws and violating tribal rights.

Almost all the mineral deposits in Central India are on Fifth Schedule land, which is protected by the Constitution and has given local tribes authority over local resources. Yet the arbitrariness of the Land Acquisition Act allows the government to simply hand over lands to private companies, and the locals have always resisted, leading to brutal confrontations with the police and the administration.

But of the 104 MOUs in Jharkhand, Pachwara is one of the two where work has started, as there was a settlement between the villagers and the company, a settlement that many still feel has to be completely understood.

"Our land cannot be sold, you people with a brave history can and must drive out this company," said Binej Hembrom, the parganaith (village headman), to the people of Pachwara in a meeting long before the agreement. He would eventually be one of the signatories to the MOU along with the company director Bishwanath Dutta.

Today Binej Hembrom is a senile old man, half-deaf, seemingly unaware that his son is in jail for murdering a woman who they once fought the company with, and some say, had won.

This is the first of a two-part article on the murder of Sister Valsa John. Next week: How the agreement was reached and the murder's aftermath.

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