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


Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece!

vivek said...

You quote Kumpti Majhi, a member of the Majhi Kondh tribe - did you interview him or have you been to Orissa?