Since 2013, I have been travelling abroad to speak on Adivasi issues in different forums. I talk about our rights and the need to conserve natural resources. In October 2013, my passport was impounded on the basis of an “adverse police report”. My involvement in people’s movements against forceful land acquisition and disclosure of human rights violations in the so-called red corridor had attracted the attention of the police. After I requested top police officers in Jharkhand to verify my credentials, my passport was restored in July 2014. Thereafter I attended a couple of conferences in Denmark and the UK. Last November, I travelled to London following the release of my book, Mission Saranda: A War for Natural Resources in India.
This May, I was scheduled to attend a workshop on the environmental politics of South Asia at the University of Sussex, UK. On May 9, after receiving the boarding pass, I was stopped at the immigration counter at the Delhi international airport. The immigration officer said my passport has been impounded and, therefore, I can’t travel to London. Later, the regional passport officer of Ranchi clarified that my passport was impounded in 2013 but had been restored after proper police verification and clearance. The ministry of external affairs also confirmed that I had a valid passport. So under whose order did the immigration officer stop me?
The fact is many Indians seem to think that human rights is a western idea and like many other things western — dress, food and culture — a threat to “Indian culture”. In their definition, Indian culture is about submission to the Brahminical social order. Human rights activists are those who seek to protect Naxals and terrorists and, thereby, work against the interests of the country. We are seen as anti-state and our travels abroad are construed as trips meant to defame the country. We are even accused of being on the payroll of foreign agencies to undermine India’s progress. Whoever raises uncomfortable questions is seen as an enemy of the state. There is no willingness to engage with dissenting voices. But can democracy survive without dissent? Can India claim to be a true democracy if the state itself curtails the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution?
In the beginning I was accused of being a “Maoist sympathiser”. The fact is I have severely criticised the Maoist movement for its nexus with corporates. To me, the Maoist movement in Jharkhand today is almost synonymous with private security agencies, which guard anyone who pays. The CPI-Maoist does the same in the Saranda forests of Jharkhand, the eastern headquarters of the party for a decade. The state doesn’t dare to run a school here for the fear of Maoists, but more than 12 mining companies conduct their operations smoothly.
The Adivasis are perceived by the state as anti-development. We are seen as a sub-human crowd that sympathises with Maoists by both state and non-state actors. But what is truth? At least 1000 innocent Adivasis have been killed in fake encounters and more than 500 women raped or molested. Over 25,000 Adivasis are lodged in different prisons facing charges of association with Maoists. Over three lakh Adivasis were forced to vacate 644 villages in Chhattisgarh.
Land acquisition is the big issue and Adivasi land is a target. The Nagri movement near Ranchi was against the acquisition of prime agriculture land for a proposed education hub. We were not against the education hub; our argument was it could even be built on non-cultivable land. Instead of hearing us out, we were branded as people who were against IIM and IIIT.
The dream projects of Nehru, including the Heavy Engineering Corporation at Ranchi, Bhilai steel plant, Hirakud dam, Mayurakshi and Tenughat projects, were all built on Adivasi land. Over 80 per cent of the people displaced by these projects were Adivasis, who were not rehabilitated. How could people who did not have to surrender even one inch of land for such projects lecture us on national interest?
In Jharkhand, the state is taking away resources that belong to the poor and handing them over to the rich. The annual revenue from mines in Jharkhand is over Rs 150 billion, but 46 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. When so much money is coming from mining, why are people still living in poverty?
After much struggle, the Indian state accepted the historical injustice meted out to the Adivasis and promised to right historical wrongs through the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2006. However, the implementation of the act is poor. For instance, five lakh claims for titles were rejected in Chhattisgarh. The state government has repealed entitlement given under the FRA in Sarguja district to favour coal mines. Similarly, in Saranda in Jharkhand, 22 new iron ore mining leases were issues to private firms whereas 3,000 Adivasis of 30 villages have not yet been given identity cards so that they could be declared encroachers during forest clearance.
Should the state not be bothered about the ecological crisis its pursuit of unregulated growth has unleashed? The forest cover of India is only 12 per cent when the requirement is at least 33 per cent of the total land mass. However, the Union minister entrusted with the protection of environment, forest and climate change is busy issuing environment and forest clearances to private entities. From April 2014 to March 2016, the ministry diverted 34,620 hectares of forest land for industrial purposes and final clearances are expected for another 40,000 plus hectares. Who is to tell them that the economy cannot be expanded at the cost of ecology?