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To expand coal mine, tribals want SECL to sacrifice goats. Will it?

Jayant Kumar Singh | Updated on: 15 June 2016, 22:39 IST

The South Eastern Coalfields Limited, the largest coal producer of India, is finding it hard to expand its mine in Lat area of Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. In its way stands a "divine" obstruction - Devlas.

Devlas refers to the land that the local Baiga tribe believes is the abode of its deities. One such holy piece of land lies in the middle of the plot the SECL is seeking to acquire.

The Baiga believe that their deities reside in the bamboo branches growing on Devlas. There are strict rules for removing the deities. Not following the rules, the villagers insist, is an invitation to divine wrath. So, what are these rules? Most important, the custom requires the sacrifice of a goat for every bamboo branch cut.

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Nobody in the region dares snap even a twig of bamboo from Devlas for fear of infuriating their gods. The age-old custom is meant to protect the nature, and applies equally to all members of the community irrespective of social status.

While the SECL is insistent upon acquiring this piece of land, the elders of Lat have made it clear they won't compromise on their custom. The tribals say the company has no other option but to perform the goat sacrifice if it wants the land. The problem is that there is a forest of bamboo on the land under question, which means that the SECL officials will have to sacrifice thousands of goats, if not more.

Senior SECL officials are in a fix. They are now saying "any decision will be taken only after gaining full knowledge of the Baiga tradition". Clearly, the company's management hasn't found a practical solution to the problem yet.

Matter of faith

Beejram Rathia, a resident of Lat, insists that the SECL will have to sacrifice as many goats as the bamboo branches it cuts. "Not even one goat less will do."

Moreover, the tradition mandates that the colour of the goat to be sacrificed must be decided according to the age, and length and breadth of the bamboo. Accordingly, the villagers are demanding black, brown, white or pregnant goats to be slaughtered.

This complicates the problem not only for the SECL, but for the Baiga as well. Since the bamboo branches to be cut are nearly impossible to count, they are unable to ascertain the exact number and types of goats needed for sacrifice. So, the villagers have decided to leave the decision to the gods. "We will plead to the deities to give us a final decision," says Rathia. But how will they do this?

We make decisions only after taking consent of local people. We'll do the same in this case: SECL

As per Baiga custom, they will make a deity "enter the body of one villager and seek instructions about the number and types of goats". They will then "pass on the divine verdict" to the company.

The contractors employed by the SECL have already "desecrated" much of the Baiga holy land by dumping the overburden of the mine. As a result, the main deity has been shifted to an adjacent bamboo forest, after, of course, the sacrifice of a number of goats. All expenses of the ritual were paid for by the SECL. It was only a temporary arrangement, however; another ceremony will be required for any permanent solution.

SECL manager Rajeev Singh has clarified that his company "takes decisions only after getting the consent of the local people and the same precedent will be followed in this case as well".

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First published: 15 June 2016, 22:39 IST
Jayant Kumar Singh @catchhindi

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