Where do the battles for earth, water and sky end? Dayamani Barla and Aruna Roy in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury and Sanjay Dubey


Dayamani Barla and Aruna Roy in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury and Sanjay Dubey at THiNK 2011
Dayamani Barla and Aruna Roy in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury and Sanjay Dubey at THiNK 2011, Photos: Shailendra Pandey

Shoma Chaudhury (Moderator): To be an activist in India, to speak for a worldview that is seen to be a losing side of the game, is a very difficult business. It is these voices that really and truly keep us safe as a society. Dayamani Barla and Aruna Roy, in different ways, have been fighting this end of the battle. It is therefore a great privilege for us to hear Dayamani talk about the tribals, about why their relationship with forest and land and water is so special and why that protective relationship will keep even urban India and the idea of the way we want to progress, safe.

"The hated politicians, yes they’re responsible but behind the politician is corporate power, and money. Power today vests in many institutions” Aruna Roy
“The hated politicians, yes they’re responsible but behind the politician is corporate power, and money. Power today vests in many institutions” Aruna Roy

SC: So Dayamaniji, can you explain to us the special relationship between forests and tribals? Many people ask why tribals don’t just give up their land. They’ll be rehabilitated; they’ll get compensation. So why don’t they want to give up their land?
Dayamani Barla (in Hindi): I’d like to greet all of you on behalf of the Adivasis from Jharkhand, from India and the world. It is not only important for India but also the world to know and understand the relationship between the Adivasis and the jungle, land, rivers, mountains and environment. Adivasis are based in places where there are forests, rivers and mountains. The flowing water from the rivers and the chirping of birds, that is our history. Our language, tradition and community values developed from that. Every season, the forest gives us fruits, flowers, roots. We want to put this before the nation: the forest is our heritage; it is not merely our property. For other people, the forest is merely a forest, our land is just a piece of any land and the river means packaged drinking water which they see as a saleable commodity.

Sanjay Dubey (moderator): People in cities believe that industries are the need of the time. If you don’t extract minerals, don’t make steel, then there will be no development and we will not progress. So how do you balance the two? Are you saying we should do nothing?
DB: The whole world says that we will give you compensation. But I want to ask all of you in this audience: have any of you ever sold your mother? Can they give us the price for pure air and water, for our history? We feel that sustainable development means balanced development. Agriculture, rivers, minerals, community values should develop simultaneously. If you don’t develop agriculture, farming and the environment, then development is not possible in this country.

SC: Aruna, the important point that Dayamani is bringing to everyone is the idea of development. You’ve worked on the ground a lot; you’ve worked with policy issues. If tribal India is poor, if there is no health, no education, how is progress to come without industrialisation and urbanisation?
Aruna Roy: Well, I don’t work in a tribal area. I work in a very poor caste Hindu society, with people who live without any natural resources. We don’t have water, we don’t have forests, we don’t have fuel, we have nothing. So I come from another context. Having said that, if there is a genuine disagreement and a democracy cannot take it, then there is something wrong with that democracy. India’s people have been telling you that you have lopsided development if you think only of profit and don’t think of equity, justice. And if you don’t think of sharing, it’s written very large on the horizons of India’s future that we’ll have worse riots than we’ve ever had before and they will not be because you’re Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or some other religion. It’ll be because people are starving — people cannot see their children dying and, therefore, there will be a huge uprising against people who have it.

“Today, a dam that displaced 64 villages is giving water to the industrial area but there’s not a drop of water in the houses of those displaced”
Dayamani Barla

SC: We think of displacement as a disembodied word and so I’d really like Dayamaniji, who fought off Arcelor Mittal’s project in Jharkhand, to tell us her experience of it.

SD: Dayamaniji, what was the struggle for? Because the balance you spoke of, that is their argument as well. The younger generation wants employment.
DB: Post-Independence, more than one crore people have been displaced in Jharkhand, of which 80 percent are Adivasis. Where are those displaced people today? The government doesn’t have the figures. Neither does the media nor do social workers. Today, a dam that displaced 64 villages is giving water to the industrial area but there’s not a drop of water in the houses of those displaced. Today, they don’t have jobs, shelter or even clothes to wear. This is what tells me: no more displacement. All the mining that has been done in Jharkhand, whether you look at Hazaribagh district, Koderma district, Bokaro or Giridih, has left lakhs of acres fallow. Many lifeline rivers in southern Jharkhand have become polluted. The rivers of Bokaro and Damodar have been completely polluted. The water cannot even be consumed by animals or be used for farming or even for the plants. Many rivers have died.

Why don’t you want to convert fallow land into fertile land? Why don’t you want to clean polluted rivers? Why don’t you bring dying rivers back to life? To us, that is development. Those who have been displaced, who are doing labour — some are working as bonded labourers — give them rehabilitation, give them homes, educate their children, make them engineers. Then we’ll be satisfied with that when industries come, there will be development.

Jharkhand became a separate state in 2000 and since then, within 10 years, the state government has signed MoUs with 104 companies, of which 98 are for mining. Some company wants iron ore, some want dams, another wants coal blocks. Arcelor Mittal alone wants 12,000 hectares just for the steel plant and the power plant and then more land separately for mining and iron ore. If we allow all these companies in the name of development and allow foreign investment, not an inch of forest or land will remain with the Adivasis or farmers of Jharkhand. Our definition of development is that human values should develop, the environment should develop and the future generations should get pure air and water.

AR: We are sitting in a state that has sent the SEZ out. Do you know that? They brought all the political parties together and said there will be no SEZs in Goa and all the MoUs were cancelled. Today, mining in this country is not restricted just to tribal areas. Every state in this country is a victim of the mining policy. There are mafias growing around these mines, they are going to beat up people. In fact, in Rajasthan, if you use Right to Information for any mining issue, you’re beaten up. It is, therefore, very necessary for our voices to be heard, we need platforms like TEHELKA.

SD: Dayamaniji, what does the younger generation of Adivasis in Jharkhand want? What is their take on the matter?
DB: There is a people’s movement in Jharkhand right now, of which 70 percent comprise the youth. If the youth didn’t want to be a part of the movement, Jharkhand would have been destroyed by now. The people’s movement wouldn’t have been so strong and the companies would’ve acquired all the land. As for the youth, they also want to see how to protect the environment for their future generations, how to preserve the forests and land for them.

No one can say how many generations this land has been there for, and for how many more generations it will last. The forests and land have been feeding the Adivasi society generation after generation. So the Adivasi society keeps this faith: if this land, this forest, this mountain, the river remains, then our future generations will survive on this.

As for jobs, the company displaces a family and then talks about a relief and rehabilitation policy where the government says that only one member from the displaced family will be given a job. But the youth is now asking: why give jobs to just one member?

When we were sitting in the hotel garden at night, maybe some of you noticed but I certainly did, there are many trees like mango trees, banyan trees, peepal trees and there I saw a jackfruit tree too. In the dim nightlight, I thought, “Oh, there’s a banyan tree here. How old must it be?” The same banyan tree has been sustaining our Adivasi society for so many years. This is the thinking of the Adivasi society and even the youth wants to secure our future generations. The younger generation wants jobs but not at the cost of our forest, of our identity. If we want jobs, we’ve given you land first. We gave land to HCC and to the whole region and you want to displace us and give the jobs to other people. The Bokaro electro-steel company came in 2005 and took away the farmers’ land and promised us jobs and compensation. Till date, they have not given jobs to anyone and they employed 5,000 people, of which 3,000 were employed from Japan. How then will the youth trust the government or the corporates? If the government couldn’t provide jobs then those who come from outside, how will they change things for the better? We aren’t saying that we won’t accept jobs but not at the cost of our lives.

SC: Aruna.
Today, if you look at how power functions, the hated politicians, yes they’re responsible but behind the politician today, is corporate power and money. Power today vests in many institutions and many bodies. If we don’t understand this, we’ll lose all battles. We have people who are ostensibly speaking from our voice, for us but their brains are completely mortgaged to one kind of development. They don’t want to think outside a box. India is a very old country with lots of very wonderful traditions and some terrible ones. There are some terrible traditions against which we’ve been fighting and will continue to fight but it is a country of thinking people. Even an ordinary villager in this country has a thought process and has issues to discuss. They know about water preservation, they know about many things, have we listened to them? Why do we have all these statues of Mahatma Gandhi all over? I think it’s a sham. If we really have Gandhi in our hearts, we’ll go and listen to these people and there is one important lesson, and we have no time so there have to be one liners, I’ve learnt because of practice with many such happenings. We want to say things in complexities but we’re left with one liners. I’m going to quote a foreigner. There is a man called Jeremy Cronin who is a South African, he’s a political writer, a poet. He’s also the head of the Communist Party of South Africa. And I quote him because he’s so succinct. He says what is democracy? It is equitable and just. It is truth and speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power, making truth powerful and power to truthful. If in that case, when we speak the truth to power, if we face the bayonet, if we face guns, if we face false cases and if we are not heard, then where is power ever going to be truthful? When is power ever going to be accountable? So I think as a principle, if we hold this dear, then there will be equitable development. There will be development with justice. There will be development with humanity and there will be development of a different nature to what the world is selling. And I think that we believe in decentralisation and we believe in the fact that people can shape their own destinies, we should believe in it.

SC: Thank you so much. Like many of these sessions, it could go on longer but it’s really just to spark thoughts in our head. I’d also like to end this session with one very small thing. Four or five years ago, when the Singur and Nandigram conflicts had blown up, I walked through Nandigram and was asking this question, being a sort of ventriloquist for urban India, ‘Don’t you want industry to come here?’ People of Singur and Nandigram said we don’t mind. Bring agro-industries, bring other industries. The thing that they were really fighting for were equity, justice, as Aruna pointed out and consultation, consensus that if you’re going to take away our things, then can we discuss this? And the amazing part about policy, we didn’t really have time to discuss that, is that until the people on the ground resisted, the SEZ Act was passed on an old Land Acquisition Act, which allowed land to be taken away by force. The SEZ Act allowed land to be taken away in public interest but 70 percent of that land could be used for anything. Only 30 percent had to be used for the manufacturing that it said it could be used for. And until the people on the ground resisted, there was no relief and rehabilitation policy in India. It is only in the new Land Acquisition Act, which is being debated now, that R&R has become part of the Land Acquisition Bill, otherwise it didn’t even exist. It only came into being post all these protests and movements. So if at all we take something away from this session, it is what Aruna was saying, Dayamaniji was saying that we must listen when people are speaking on the ground. It is not because they are anti-industry, they’re only saying let’s do this the right way. Thank you so much for listening.