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From the pits of despair, a vote for future

Dalli-Rajhara (Durg), Dec. 1: The early morning mist hangs heavy on the red mountains of Dalli-Rajhara — the region’s biggest captive iron ore mines, 150 km from here. At a makeshift polling booth in the ramshackle Rajhara township, the miners have queued up to cast their votes.

The mood is sombre and the excitement missing. The grim faces in the queue speak of an uncertain future. The ore reserves are fast depleting and Rajhara has just enough iron to feed the Bhilai steel plant, a Steel Authority of India Limited unit, for another five years. The uncertainty has crept into the ballot boxes with the miners’ persistent clamour for a “secure future”.

Located on the southern fringe of Durg district, bordering Rajnandgaon, the twin hill-top mines of Dalli-Rajhara form part of the reserved (tribal) Dandilohara constituency. It is home to the Maria and the Halwa tribes with a smattering of backward castes and Harijans.

The hills are the microcosm of the region’s mining economy — encapsulating its boom over the past four decades and the gradual slump. The two mines sustained the Bhilai steel plant for over 40 years, spawning a large network of allied industries, urban settlements and bustling trade and commerce.

But they have outlived their utility. One of the pits, Aridongri, has been abandoned after its operation became “non-viable”. Even Dalli, a fully-automated mine, is not cost-effective any longer. A large number of miners has been handed voluntary retirement and recruitment frozen for the past five years.

The Bhilai steel plant is looking to another mine in Bastar —Rowghat — as an alternative raw material pool. As Dalli-Rajhara fades out of the mineral map, the survival of the mining settlements and the local economy is at stake.

This is slain trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi’s turf, the hotbed of labour exploitation, from where he launched his crusade in 1977. The innovative fight against oppression through anti-liquor campaigns, promotion of sports, healthcare, primary education and eco-awareness, peaked during the eighties only to be crushed ruthlessly with Niyogi’s murder in 1991 allegedly by the industrial mafia.

The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, Niyogi’s organisation, has fielded eight candidates and turned Dalli-Rajhara into its key battleground. Its candidate Janaklal Thakur, a former MLA, is pitted against the BJP and the Congress. “Niyogiji’s legacy lives on. We are carrying on the fight with his inspiration. His brand of trade unionism lent a voice to the miners,” said Thakur, after casting his ballot in the morning.

The turnout, though moderate, picked up during the day. By 11 am, the queue snaked along the compound of the Shaheed Hospital, built by Niyogi with a donation of Re 1 from each miner nearly 20 years ago.

The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha has picked up pertinent issues. “We want immediate implementation of the Dalli-Rajhara-Jagdalpur railway project to boost the area’s sagging economy, opening of the Rowghat mine so that unproductive labour can be relocated and extraction load eased off from Rajhara, and better civic amenities,” said Ganesh Ram, a party veteran.

For the average voter, change holds the key. Baleswar Netam, a Gond tribal, who works at the Rajhara mines, said: “The state is not keen to open up Rowghat. It wants Rajhara to bleed to death and the Bhilai steel plant to sink so that private parties prosper. It is not bothered about us.”

Civic amenities are also appalling. “The water is contaminated and tuberculosis is rampant among the miners. We want better healthcare and a future for our children,” said Ravish Thakur, a Halwa tribal miner from Rajhara.

As Dalli-Rajhara dies, his party is using Niyogi’s legacy to regroup the demoralised industrial work force. “Niyogi is not a person, he is a stream of thought,” said Anup Singh, echoing the slogans on the walls of the miners’ huts.

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