Monday, October 31, 2011

The ongoing struggle of the adivasis (tribal people) in India

Swanky shopping malls, restaurants selling chocolate samosas, cafes promoting lattes and cinemas screening 3D films are what make up urban India today. 

Riding on an unprecedented boom, more Indians than ever have got large disposable incomes and are willing to splash out on everything from washing machines to BlackBerries and sushi to Margaritas. 

But while that is life in Indian cities, there is a completely different scene in the dense forests where nearly 100 million adivasi (tribal people) live. There, environmental destruction and bloodshed can be found, as India’s indigenous people are being displaced to make way for steel plants, roads, factories, mines and refineries.

Despite having followed a sustainable way of life for thousands of years farming, hunting and gathering, these tribes, the “refugees of India’s ‘progress’” as Booker prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy describes them, face a bleak future. Many are engaged in battles to stop their land, lives and livelihoods being taken away because beneath their homes lie India’s richest natural resources, namely uranium, bauxite, limestone, coal, marble, and iron ore, worth millions of pounds. Meanwhile the ecosystem is getting destroyed as forests get bulldozed for profit from heavy industries to fuel the Indian dream.

Orissa has more than 50 per cent of India’s bauxite reserves, the raw material for aluminium, worth a staggering £2 billion. 

But the fallout is everywhere. For example, 100 villagers from the Majhi Kondh tribe were displaced when a one million-tonne alumina refinery opened up in Lanjigarh in 2008.

The villagers were forced to leave their traditional mud huts and move into concrete resettlement colonies on the edge of the refinery. Now without land for grazing or forest produce, many have gone back to the hills.

“They had no means of making a living. They were sitting on concrete steps with nothing to do,” says Dr Jo Woodman, campaigner for Survival International, which successfully campaigned against proposals for a six-fold expansion of the Vedanta-owned refinery. The Ministry of Environment and Forest blocked the mining giant's plans in 2010.

40 Dongria Kondh from several villages blockaded the road to the proposed mine site, holding banners  
© Lindsay Duffield/Survival
Kumpti Majhi, a member of the Majhi Kondh tribe, explains: “We do not need jobs or money. We want to live here as we used to, peacefully. If the mountain is there, we have water, clean air and fruit. There may be some development, I may benefit, but will my son and my grandson?”

Many do not possess paper titles for their ancestral land, so do not even get any compensation if resettled. Even if they do, the money is quickly spent and does not provide a sustainable source of income, Woodman says.

But Vedanta also hopes to mine bauxite at the nearby sacred Niyamgiri Hills. No villagers would be displaced if this open-pit mine went ahead. But Woodman says the mountain is perceived by the Dongria Kondh tribe as the seat of the gods and they do not want to “sell it”. 

Dongria Kondh girl playing on a swing in the Niyamgiri Hills, India
 © Survival
“They graze animals on top of there, worship there, farm it and collect medicinal plants from it,” she says.

Although these plans were rejected in 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the case has now gone to India’s Supreme Court.

However, Vedanta Aluminium Ltd claims it is improving the standard of living of the tribes. On its public blog, it writes the region will “stand to gain from infrastructure development including power, access to primary education, quality healthcare services, employment generation, diversification of the agrarian economy, thus accelerating the process of economic development.”

But Woodman says: “The Dongria tribe doesn’t want anything from these people. For a community like the Dongria you can’t compensate the deep spiritual connection they have to their land. They don’t want the mines to go ahead.”

Dongria Kondh boy Kalia stands in front of the Niyamgiri hill range.
 © Lewis Davids/Survival
As a result of total despair, many adivasis have, controversially, turned to the Maoists, an armed insurgency trying to overthrow the Indian state, for protection.

“The state government keeps giving the green light to take away their lands and their ability to resist under normal democratic means is fruitless,” Woodman explains. “The adivasis feel extremely frustrated which fuels the Maoist insurgency and is why a lot of Maoists are adivasis.”

Author of The God of Small Things Roy has also taken up the adivasi cause, claiming that India’s growth rate is built on “taking land from the poor.”

In her recent book, Broken Republic: Three Essays, published by Hamish Hamilton, she writes: “The armed struggle that has broken out in the heartland is not the first, but the very last option of a desperate people pushed to the very brink of existence.”

The Indian novelist, who has spent time with Maoist guerrillas in the forest, says: “When a posse of 800 policemen lay a cordon around a forest village at night and begin to burn houses and shoot people, will a hunger strike help? When people are being brutalised, what ‘better thing’ is there to do than fight back?”

But the violent conflict has so far caused more than 10,000 deaths on all sides with Maoists, civilians and the police all getting killed.

Approximately 27 per cent of India’s coal reserves are in Jharkhand, another state where mining is rife. Robert Wallis, an American photojournalist, ventured into Hazaribagh and Ranchi districts in 2006 and 2010 to witness first-hand the impact of open-cast mining on the adivasi way of life.

“As far as I was aware, the adivasis I spent time with had no connections with the Maoists," he says. "They were trying to use art as a means of resistance, and to preserve their traditional culture against the onslaught of mining.

 “The western media always wants to talk about Shining India, that image that all Indians aspire to – being middle class, shopping malls and Tata cars,” explains Wallis. 

“While this has been true for a minority of the population, it’s not for the majority, especially not for the adivasis who are suffering to enable Shining India to come to big cities. It is wreaking destruction on their lives,” he says. 

His photos, which were shown at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2011, include pictures of adivasis in their traditional mud or leaf homes, then in urban slums and resettlement camps, where they have been forcibly rehoused.

He describes the latter as "listless". They have "no connection with their environment anymore" and cannot continue their ancient traditions such as painting their mud homes or worshipping nature, he says.

Dispossessed of their homes and heritage and without work, they often ended up scavenging on the peripheries of mines, his captions state. One picture shows a couple from the Birhor tribe returning home having caught nothing as there are no animals to hunt owing to the destruction of the forest habitat.

"The result of these industrial projects is of no benefit to the tribal people as the electricity generated is going to places like Delhi and the iron ore is going to China" he adds.

"The whole landscape is changing," he says, explaining how one minute he photographed traditional tribal villages as of yet untouched by mining, the next he shot the remains of whole villages that had been wiped out and left crumbling on the edge of open-pit mines. He also saw roads dug through remnants of huge swathes of forest that had now vanished.

"My belief is that the only way India will really prosper if it protects its traditional way of life - some people may call adivasi life primitive, but it's sustainable," he adds.

 “It’s not that we believe that the minerals should be left in the ground,” argues Woodman. “We appreciate these areas are rich in reserves and it’s inevitable India is going to want to extract them but it’s recognised international mining practise that you don’t proceed with a mine against the express wishes of the local community. The mining companies need to listen to the community and respect their wishes, rather than thrashing in and not doing any kind of proper consultation. Of course there is plenty of land that should have industrial development because it has been ruined for agriculture,” she says.

Dongria Kondh children inherit their ancestor's jewellery at a young age, part of the history that ties them to their sacred homeland in the Niyamgiri hills: © Survival

The Indian Government is acutely aware of the ongoing crisis and is urgently trying to get it resolved. A subcommittee of  The Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Tribal affairs recently produced a detailed 284-page report,  named 'Report of the National Committee on Forest Rights Act', ,which following a lengthy investigation into adivasi rights in forested areas of India. 

The findings of the report, published in December 2010, matched what NGOs have been saying. It found that adivasis, 92 per cent of whom live in forests, had frequently been illegally removed from forest land without any verification or recognition of their rights, in violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, which was enacted in 2007 through the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, to correct the historic injustice done to forest-dwelling communities, an oppression which commenced in colonial times. 

The report also admitted that the rights of forest dwellers were indeed being ignored and tens of millions of them had been displaced from their homelands to make way for development projects such as mines, power plants, irrigation, dams and roads.

 It said the Forest Rights Act had been frequently violated, despite directives from the Centre to the contrary. The report discovered that the forest dwellers were generally poor and illiterate, either unaware of or unable to negotiate their rights and so huge swathes of land were being passed over to industry "unchecked."

 The report blamed complete confusion and chaos at a local administration level, blaming local officers for having no knowledge or understanding of the FRA Act.  It called for "an urgent need for the involvement of human rights organisations" in the matter and called for swift  action to enforce the Forest Rights Act was being implemented at a state level and for action to be taken against those who violated it and for roads, electricity and hospitals to be finally built in forest areas. © Naomi Canton 2011

India and China set to rule this century

India and China are set to dominate in a new post-western world but “that did not necessarily mean that the USA and Europe have had it,” the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has said.

Patten, now Chancellor of Oxford University, made the remarks in a speech he gave at a recent alumni weekend, held by the university.

Chris Patten speaking at Oxford
Lord Patten of Barnes, famed for handing back the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997 marking the end of British rule, told the audience of Oxford alumni that there had been a major shift in the global balance of economic power and that India and China would dominate this century, creating a new global hierarchy dominated by the East.

In his speech, ‘What next? Surviving the 21st century’, based on his namesake book, he spoke of a “fin de si├Ęcle” mood pervading America and Europe. But he said he did not accept that the world today was more dangerous than before, pointing out that at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which coincided with his first term as a student at Oxford University, “the world appeared to be teetering on the edge of nuclear Armageddon.” I don’t think that things are as dangerous today as that,” he added.

While the world knew what it needed to do in order to survive, at present it appeared to “lack the political leadership and international political capacity to rise to the challenge,” he claimed. “We know what needs to be done from the Middle East to climate change. We know the sorts of things the international community should be doing in order to find a sustainable solution,” he went on.

The former Conservative MP and European Commissioner warned that the world population, which increased fourfold in the 20th century, was set to increase from 6.9 billion by a further 2.1 billion by 2050 and the majority of that increase would be in very poor countries, most of which already faced political instability and considerable environmental stress. “The only rich country in the top 10 where population is increasing now is the USA,” he added.

Speaking at The Sheldonian Theatre, where Oxford’s matriculation and graduation ceremonies are held, Patten said we can expect to see an explosion of growth in the numbers of people living cities (which increased 13-fold in the past century), especially in China (where it’s reckoned a billion people will live in cities by 2050). He said we could also expect to see an increase in energy consumption which had already increased 13 fold in the past century because industrial output had increased 40 times and also increased water use (which had increased ninefold in the past century), including possible conflict over water resources between India and China in the future and increased carbon monoxide emissions (which had already increased 17 times in the past century.) All of this was “posing probably the biggest issue for diplomacy, arguably since [The Treaty of] Versailles,” he claimed.

He then spoke of the India growth story and visible power shift already taking place. India has several multinational companies with global brands against which other companies benchmark themselves like Tata, Reliance and Infosys, he said.

“India now invests more in the UK than the UK invests in India,” he added.  He said by 2040 India would probably have the largest population in the world and Chinese pensioners would be the second largest.

China is currently the second largest economy in the world but, by the 2020s, China would overtake the USA to become the largest economy in the world, Patten said.

“It’s a world you can very properly describe as post western. Asia no longer has to define modernity in western terms,” he said.

But he pointed out that it was not all doom and gloom for Europe. While Europe currently had only had seven to 10 per cent of the world’s population, it still produced 21-22 per cent of the world’s output, he said.

 “And there here are serious problems confronting both India and China,” Patten warned and then spoke of the “steady federalisation of the polity in India”.

He pointed out that Gujarat, where more than 1,000 people were killed in the 2002 communal riots, which accounts for just 5 per cent of India’s population, actually contributes 16 per cent of India’s output and 22 per cent of exports.

He also spoke of India suffering from “a criminalisation of politics”, “terrible levels of corruption” which “have raised questions right across the board about the nature of representative democracy in India and about the integrity of legislature, judiciary and bureaucracy."

 “There are three Chief Justices in India today who face criminal charges,” he said. He said the country had “terrible infrastructure problems” and yet the country had “pockets of extraordinary prosperity and sophistication” surrounded by “terrible poverty and awful corruption.”

He then moved on to China. “China also faces huge problems despite its extraordinary economic achievements, with a 1600 per cent increase in its exports to America over the last 15 years, China faces, as does India, huge environmental challenges,” he said.

He said China faced the problem of how to rebalance its economy moving from substantial dependence on manufactured exports to greater investment in domestic infrastructure and greater encouragement of consumption. Despite a huge boom in exports, wages in China remain low. Wages in China, as a proportion of the economy, have fallen from approximately 53 per cent of GDP to less than 40 per cent. Patten also questioned how far China could open up its economy and embrace social and technological change, while keeping an iron grip on its politics.

He hinted that India and China may have to take centre stage not just economically but in global politics and international bodies and affairs too.

“With the US political system gridlocked and with Europe obsessed with its own problems, where will we look to for leadership?” he asked. He said bodies created in the 1940s such as the United Nations were falling to pieces and lacked “moral and political authority” and “ structures were needed” to deal with international cross border problems such as climate change and organised crime.

When considering whether leadership should come from Europe, the 67-year-old former student of Balliol College, who is also chairman of the BBC Trust, pointed out the currency union was falling apart because of the difficulties of running monetary policy with one hand and fiscal policy with another.

When asked about immigration, Patten, a Catholic, who oversaw the oversaw the Pope’s visit to Britain in September 2010, said that populations were falling fast in Europe, especially in Italy, Spain and Poland and the number of people in work supporting those in retirement was falling extremely fast. The consequences of rapidly ageing populations and lower fertility rates meant greater immigration would be required to provide jobs and services in Europe. But he warned Europe would see “some of the tensions” that arise when there is no rapid economic growth alongside mass immigration. He said immigration into Europe was also likely to increase owing to natural disasters elsewhere.

Responding to a question on why British schools weren’t concentrating on teaching Hindi and Mandarin in the light of his forecast, he replied, “My daughter learnt Hindi to appear in a Bollywood film,” referring to Alice Patten, who starred as struggling British filmmaker Sue McKinley  in the hit Hindi movie Rang De Basanti. In an apparent attack on Britain’s youth, he added: “We need to teach them English first.”

The alumni weekend, named Meeting Minds – 21st century challenges, offered a packed three-day programme of more than 120 events for alumni.

Oxford academics from a range of departments delivered lectures showing how they were tackling a range of global challenges from population growth to increased energy consumption, climate change, lives spent on social networking sites, the science behind earthquakes and emerging infectious diseases.

A highlight was a ‘Mathematical Tour of Oxford’ by Professor Marcus du Sautoy, who had presented the BBC documentary ‘The Story of Maths’, which had revealed that Indians had made many of the key mathematical breakthroughs in the world before the West had and before Sir Isaac Newton was born, including inventing the zero, despite common misapprehensions that Maths was a Western invention. © Naomi Canton 2011