Jagnu Gawre’s voice rose above the wind as his bike sped towards Modonar, an Adivasi majority village in the Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh. Riding pillion, I clicked photographs of the hills looming in front.

Pointing to them, Gawre, who is not yet 30, said that almost all the hills here have iron ore deposits. The Gond tribal youth resides in Chhote Parasgaon, a village in Narayanpur.

Narayanpur is a Maoist-impacted district in the Bastar subdivision of Chhattisgarh. Of its two blocks, Narayanpur and Orchha (Abujmad), the latter is considered ‘highly disturbed’. Our destination Modonar lies in Orchha, where Indigenous people have been staging a protest since January this year.

Gawre, whose family owns a paddy field and lives by farming, said the youth-led protest in Modonar also has the support of elderly people and women. They are protesting against mining activity and paramilitary camps in the area.

“A great wrong is being committed against the tribal population of Bastar in the name of mining. Several trucks ply on this route carrying iron ore from the Jayaswal Neco mine in Amdai Ghati, about 13 km from the agitation site. Many trees have been sacrificed for this,” he said.

Both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were formed in 2000 for the stated cause of uplifting tribals. But the mineral-rich states have witnessed massive Adivasi-led protests against mining in recent years.

The entire Bastar region is rich in iron ore deposits. Besides Amdai Ghati, the ore is mined in Bailadila, Dantewada and in Rowghat, which spans the districts of Narayanpur and Kanker.

Citing the instance of the Rowghat mines, owned by the Bhilai Steel Plant of the Steel Authority of India Limited, Gawre said that Adivasis are being pitted against their own here.

“A few among us are acting for the sake of the company in Rowghat. These people have turned against villagers. But the anti-mining protest will go on.”

The Bailadila mines owned by the National Mineral Development Corporation in Dantewada too have faced protests. A gram sabha there rejected a proposal to mine a sacred hill called Nandraj.

In Narayanpur, on November 4, a BJP leader named Ratan Dubey was killed, allegedly by insurgents, with the state going to polls on November 7 and 17.

On arrival at Modonar, protestors were seen seated along the edge of the road. While Modonar is home to about 70 households, the adjacent village of Hodnar is home to about 25.

Inside a temporary structure of bamboo and straw stood a youth. A Gondi multi-coloured flag was fluttering. Women too were part of the protest. One of them, Ramdei Korrami, said she has been coming here since the beginning.

Also from Gawre’s village, young Rutaki Salam had visited Modonar five times. But not being educated she declined to comment. Assiram Salam, the youth inside the structure, however spoke confidently. He lives in Aderbera, about 20 km away.

“The protest at Modonar is on since January 12. People gathered here are protesting against mining and the widening of the road from Chhotedongar to Toymeta villages to allow the smooth movement of trucks. It is a Fifth Schedule area and the gram sabha does not consent to this,” he said.

There is also a paramilitary camp with an Indo-Tibetan Border Police force in Chhote Dongar, near the site of the mine. Salam said that people do not want the paramilitary here. He said they had approached government officials, but nobody bothered to visit or respond.

“We got to know about the widening of the road when we saw vehicles. Many people here don’t even own cycles. Then why is the road being widened?” he asked.

Salam, 25, said the changes have turned his life upside down. Though people are by his side, he has lost his freedom of movement. Today, he fears going to the local bazaar and feels he could be arrested at any time. “The camp here has been made to sit without the consent of people. There was a huge agitation in 2020 when many were beaten up,” he said.

He has not been to the market since then. A member of the Muria tribe, he more or less stays put in Modonar now. At times he comes walking all the way from Aderbedra, with breaks in between, and sometimes rides his bike to the protest site. He said the protestors too are apprehensive about the paramilitary forces. Many also fear religious conversion.

“The government does not pay any heed to us. Indigenous people are trying to safeguard their identity. There are so many issues here. The main road is in bad shape and people do not have access to good healthcare. When women enter forests, they are stopped by the paramilitary. I have been called an ‘encounter’ guy several times,” said the youth, who has studied to Class 12.

It has been almost 250 days since the spark of protest made people gather here. As life in the open is not feasible, protestors have built a makeshift structure, locally called the lari. “It saves us from rainfall. People cook inside and sleep securely at night,” Assiram said smiling.

The elderly Suklu Mandavi came here on foot with his family members from Musnar, a village five km away. About 15 people accompanied him when he set out. As Mandavi’s village is near Amdai Ghati, there is dust everywhere and the soil has turned red.

Most families here have gathered from five or six nearby villages. They cook simple meals twice a day, mostly dal chawal.

Amidst the tough life of the protest, Class 9 student Bharti Baghel said, “I have been here before too and always come with my books.”

At the lari which Suklu’s family has built in a spot, a youth was busy preparing tea over firewood. Rakesh Mandavi listed the problems faced by the protestors.

“Access to clean drinking water is an issue. Though we bathe in a nearby nullah, its water is not fit for drinking. Families here take out water from a chua or natural spring and boil it before drinking.” There are other problems too, he said, handling a bow and arrow. There is a fear of bear attacks at night.

That afternoon, I accompanied Gawre to a place where bikes and bicycles were parked, close to the mine. Mine worker Radhelal Kachlam said the mining company employs many casual workers just like him. While there is a provident fund deduction, he would be happy to see a hike in the daily wage, which is way below Rs 1,000.

Across the mineral-rich states of India, mining has caused forced displacement, ecological damage and harm to wildlife. It has also failed to ensure social justice for communities marginalised by the mainstream.

Dalli Rajhara is a captive iron ore mine in the state with a rich history. Ore from here is supplied to the Bhilai Steel Plant. It is synonymous with labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi’s struggle to ensure official recognition for mine workers.

Having arrived in Chhattisgarh from West Bengal in 1969, Niyogi saw that miners were being paid very low wages, and formed the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh. His activism helped organise mine workers, open a hospital, and prevent alcoholism amongst them. He was murdered in 1991.

A forest department ranger from Chhattisgarh said on condition of anonymity that while the people’s protest in Bastar is for the sake of the forest, some are trying to gain political mileage too as elections are round the corner.

Raghu Midiyami, who rose to prominence after the Silger murders in Sukma, where the police shot dead four Adivasi protesters, said the protest in Bastar is against the exploitation of tribals and destruction of natural resources in the name of mining. Many paramilitary camps have been set up across the region to aid in mining, and they coexist with Maoist activity.

On our return, stopping his bike to show the poor condition of the road, Gawre recalled how the police had prevented him and his companions from going to Silger. “Because of our protest, the police and the paramilitary term us Maoists. But tribals will be finished in the name of development.”

Asked about the prolonged protest, Narayanpur superintendent of police Pushkar Sharma said efforts have been made to talk to the people, raise their issues at the right level and resolve them, but they are still continuing with the agitation. He claimed that the police had not arrested or detained anyone. “Many times there are false allegations against the police. We are taking action only against insurgents and have no problem with villagers.”

A Jayaswal Neco spokesperson, who declined to be named citing security concerns, said over the phone that the company is building a road from Amdai Ghati to Dhaudai. It would have been completed but the monsoon stopped work midway.

He also discussed jobs for the locals. “Some 1,000 workers from nearby gram panchayats have been employed in the company under the Mines Act of 1952. Development brings issues. But people are also enjoying the festive season. Those who used to walk have now bought bikes. Dharnas go on here and protesters are there,” he said.

Mine worker Tijuram Nag, whom I met at Amdai Ghati, said he used to work at a brick construction site for Rs 300 per day. Now he gets Rs 494 daily and four days off in a month. He agreed that some people are against the mine. “I start about 8 in the morning and finish by 4pm. It seems okay but I wish the pay was better,” he said.

This story was supported by the Narender Revelli National Media Fellowship 2023 administered by the Turaga Foundation and the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad