There have been gross violations of the rights of the poor, particularly tribal rights, which have reached unprecedented levels since the implementation of new economic policies of the 90s. The 5th Schedule Rights of the tribals, in particular the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act and the Forest Rights Act, have been grossly violated. These violations have now gone to the extent where fully tribal villages have been declared to be non-tribal. The entire executive and judicial administration appears to have been totally apathetic to their plight. It could well be the severest indictment of the State in the history of democracy anywhere, on account of the sheer number of people (tribals) affected and the diabolic nature of the atrocities committed on them by the State, especially the police, leave aside the irreversible damage to the environment.
The Independent People’s Tribunal on land acquisition, resource-grab and Operation Green Hunt was held at Constitution Club, New Delhi from April 9- 11, 2010 with the jury comprising of Justice PB Sawant, Justice H Suresh, Professor Yash Pal, Dr PM Bhargava, Dr Mohini Giri and Dr KS Subramanian. The interim report by the jury members was presented to public, government and the media after three days of deliberations and hearings of depositions and testimonies from affected people and activists from the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa
The first session of the day took stock of the situation in Orissa with regards to industrial and mining projects, land acquisition and people’s resistance movements against such displacement and dispossession. Addressed by activists Praveen Patel, Praful Samantra, Abhay Sahu and photographer Sanjit Das, the narratives pointed out to how corporate greed colluding with government officials’ interest was bleeding out the tribals. Praveen Patel presented a paper on the ‘Political Economy of Mining’ and pointed out that under the current policy, foreign companies were getting away with virtual robbery, taking huge profits, paying very little in taxes and in fact exacting a huge price from the poor (especially tribals) who are displaced and who suffer severe health and livelihood impacts from the rampant pollution.
The problematic exploitation of iron and bauxite ore was further highlighted in Praful Samantra’s talk. For example, the sites containing the most bauxite ore are located atop mountains and correspond to the sources of numerous streams. Mining the ores amounts to ruining the water supply for the adivasis living in the area, though leaving the company with zero liability. Protests are suppressed in a manner similar to that seen in other states: “…last year 14 people have been shot dead. In the last six months, villagers have been banned from leaving their areas, even to go to the hospital. In September 2009, 30 innocent villagers were put in jail and branded as Maoists. We went there and fought for them because they were innocent. The administration assured us that they would be released but they are still in jail. Their families are starving now.”
Abhay Sahu, a leader of the anti-POSCO movement, spoke about the situation on ground. Local people have been protesting the proposed port project, to be built by the South Korean steel giant, which would ruin the lucrative beetle vine cultivation as well as destroy the livelihood of lakhs of fishermen. He testified on the intimidation tactics used by the state-company nexus to kill the protests: “On November 29, 2007, state and company goons set fire to a village in my area. They occupied all schools and buildings in the area. When people started fighting back, the police had to abandon their posts.”
Lingaraj Azad, a tribal rights activist, talked about the delicate balance of nature in Niyamgiri, Orissa where the Dhongria Kondh tribe has dwelled for centuries. The Niyamgiri hill is under threat from Vedanta Resources for its bauxite reserves. “We have abundant herbs and trees. In the hills, there are 8,000-9,000 people in 200 villages. These people know nature and nature knows them. Soil, earth, water, trees—these are regarded as gods and are prayed to. They have no material possessions except Nature, and all of it. There is no concept of private property, it is all for common use”. The Niyamgiri mining project has been receiving international media attention after the human rights violations at Vedanta mining sites were made public.
Ajit Bhattacharjea, a senior journalist, stressed that lands in tribal areas were community property and did not belong to the State. Handing these lands to corporates needed to be stopped. Banwari Lal Sharma appealed to the politicians: “We need to spread a message of peace and make these politicians understand that we are not their enemies but we are all friends. When they sell away the country they are selling away parts of themselves.”
The session after break saw several eminent personalities addressing the audience, including Arundhati Roy, Shoma Chaudhury, Bianca Jagger, Arun Aggarwal, Kavita Srivastava and Advocate Shanti Bhushan. Arun Aggarwal presented a well-researched paper on the economics of mining. According to him, revenue from mining activities to the state accounted for a measly 1.4 per cent of total profits while the rest was pocketed by the corporation. The politics of mining was so complicated and corrupt that the nexus could be tracked between the corporations, politicians and police. For him, the fact that the ultra left movement was situated in areas of mineral wealth concentration, mining activities and displacement of people was a point of great importance and not to be ignored. He recommended that all mining activity should be conducted by the government-owned enterprises so that the profits could be distributed more equitably.
Shanti Bhushan, in a surprise address, asked the civil society to not remain silent but condemn violent acts by Maoists. Accepting the fact that tribals had been exploited for years, he added that the civil society’s silence on condemning the recent carnage was being perceived as their support for Maoist violence. “How can you accept an armed resistance and overthrow of the State with violence? What is the agenda of the Maoists? If they mean well, then why don’t they give up arms and participate in elections? Let it be all done in the open.”
Shoma Chaudhury, Managing Editor, Tehelka, spoke on the role of the media and accepted that the debates on television channels were resolutely and sadly binary. The discussions on these topics needed to be made more complex, because they required a combination of solutions. “Keeping out perspectives — whether the government’s, civil society’s or of the general public — will only narrow down the discourse on these complex problems that we find ourselves in. This exclusion in itself is a very dangerous trend and needs to be arrested”. She added, “There is no place for violence in a democracy. Agreed. However, did democracy exist in the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa? Democracy does not only mean election. The judiciary, police, forest officials and magistrates all represent India’s democratic structure and it is these very institutions that have failed the people.”
Bianca Jagger, returning from a visit to Orissa, spoke about her experience with the Dongria Kondh tribe. She said that despite being a foreigner she related to the problem of India’s tribal people. Her experience of having worked as a human rights activist in Latin and Central America shows that indigenous communities everywhere are being pressurised by the current development paradigm. Saying that there is a lot to be learnt from indigenous communities and their ecologically sustainable lifestyle, she added, “I request the government of India to retrospect into why there is an armed insurrection to begin with?”
Arundhati Roy began by asking a very poignant question “Does the government want war or peace?” In the current context of anti-Maoist operations and rampant industrial activity that was displacing people, she said, “it seems to me that war is a synonym for creating an ideal investment climate.” According to her, in the 1970s and 80s, democracy was the single largest threat to imperialist, capitalist Western nations, who overthrew democracies in Latin America. Now, however, war is being carried on in Afghanistan and Iraq to install democracy and all its associated institutions. She questioned the nature of democracy, as it existed today, saying, “democracy and democratic institutions have been reduced to being vessels of free market capitalism”.
Presenting the recommendations of the jury before the media, public and the government, Justice Sawant said, “There is a perception within the government and media that by organising meetings like the IPT, we, everyone present in this room are supporting the Maoists and the death of the 76 CRPF jawans. Let me clarify this position for once and for all: We are not supporting the Maoists. We do not support violence in any form, State or otherwise. We here are discussing problems of the tribals and the crisis that is pushing people to a brink of desperation and escalating the cycle of violence.” It is clear that the State had let the tribals and the poor of this land down. Instead of restoring their faith in the Constitution of India, its judiciary and its spirit, the government asked for abjuring of violence. “Are these morals only to be remembered in such times, and to be forgotten when atrocities are committed by the State itself?”
Dr PM Bhargava noted that the civil society needs to stand resolute in resisting the current development paradigm and that the case of the Bt Brinjal was a case in point for small victories of the people. “The patience of the masses is running out if some serious rethinking is not done.” Dr. Mohini Giri lamented on the fact that the government took no notice of People’s Tribunals like these and recommendations that emanated from it. She criticised the government for their lack of understanding of the issues that were affecting people and implored them to do so urgently.