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Tribal activist takes on steel giant

By Moushumi Basu

Tribal activist and journalist Dayamani Barla, who won this year's Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime in India, discusses her battle against the entry of Arcelor Mittal into Jharkhand where she says 80 lakh adivasis have been displaced by industry

Dayamani Barla

From the days when she used to work as a domestic help, to taking up cudgels against steel giant Arcelor Mittal, in Jharkhand, Dayamani Barla's journey has been an incredible one. For the Mundari journalist-turned-activist, who hails from Jharkhand's tribal Gumla district, it was a rare moment of triumph when she was declared recipient of the 2008 Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime in India.

The award was presented by writer-activist Arundhati Roy on December 5, in New Delhi.

The two founders of the Chingari Trust, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, were there to present Barla a trophy, citation and cash prize of Rs 50,000.

The award is in recognition of the important role Barla has played in the ongoing struggle by indigenous people against Arcelor Mittal, in the twin districts of Gumla and Khunti in Jharkhand. "She was found to be the most worthy amongst the three candidates shortlisted by the jury, from several nominations received for the award this year," says Nirmala Karunan, chairperson of the Chingari Trust.

Thirty-eight-year-old Dayamani Barla, who earns her livelihood running a tea shop in town, is an unassuming woman. Sitting on a wooden bench in her shop, she sips tea with her fellow comrades. "The award has once again given me a forum to espouse the cause of lakhs of villagers in nearly 40 villages in Jharkhand," were her first words on receiving news of being nominated for the prestigious award.

The Mittals have proposed to set up one of the world's largest greenfield projects in the area -- a 12-million-tonnes-per-annum-capacity steel plant, at an investment of Rs 40,000 crore. "They will require 12,000 acres for the plant alone. They also want to set up a 1,500 MW power plant. If this is allowed to come up, can you imagine... lakhs of people will be displaced. We will not give an inch of our land," says a determined Barla.

Apart from the massive displacement, the project will destroy huge areas of local forests and water sources, putting the environment and source of sustenance of local tribes at risk. Trees are being felled in a number of villages and this is the confluence site of two local rivulets, the Karo and the Chata. "We will not allow this at any cost," Barla insists.

Tribal Community

Even if steel majors have made their presence felt across the globe it remains to be seen how they will eventually make their way into this tribal heartland. "Jaan denge, par ek inch bhi zameen na denge. Mittal ko baithne na denge. Hamare purvajon ka zameen nahin looto (We may give our lives, but will not part with an inch of our ancestral land. Mittal will not be allowed to grab our ancestral land)," say the agitating villagers led by Barla under the banner of the Adivasi Moolvaasi Asthitva Raksha Manch (AMARM).

Barla's prowess with the pen has played a large part in mobilising the villagers. Ek inch bhi zameen nahi denge (We will not give an inch of our land), a booklet written by her on the anti-Mittal movement, has flooded thousands of tribal homes. At public meetings across villages she shows video clippings of documentary films like Ek aur Ulgulan (Another revolt) and Kis Ki Raksha (In whose defence?). The former film is based on the tribal agitation against the Karo hydel project in Jharkhand, while the latter captures the spirit and determination of tribals from 245 villages across Jharkhand who oppose the government's plans to extend an army firing range in the forest area of Netrahat that they have occupied for centuries. In both cases, people's movements forced the army and the government to scrap their plans.

"Video is a very powerful tool in putting across the movement's message to the villagers. The two documentaries depict success stories of tribal movements in Jharkhand. These films are inspiring, re-igniting the embers within our people," says Barla.

She adds: "The struggle is not just against displacement. It's also about the protection of our culture, language, identity and environment." Nearly 80 lakh adivasis have been displaced under various projects in Jharkhand; only 5-6% of them have been rehabilitated. The erstwhile landowners have today been reduced to bonded labourers who have slowly migrated from their land. The adivasi population across the state has been drastically reduced to a mere 26%, Barla explains.

Barla's anti-Mittal struggle got her an audience in Europe last September when she was invited to participate in a five-day workshop of the European Social Forum (ESF), at Malmo in Sweden. She made her presentation in a public debate on 'Rights to Indigenous Life and Worldview -- Struggles against Mining', followed by a deliberation on 'Indigenous Peoples and Planetarian Environmental Justice'. Barla was selected for a panel of 23 eminent speakers from across the world to address a workshop on 'Working for a sustainable world, food sovereignty, environmental and climate justice', and other themes.

"For any tribal community, land is not an asset to be sold. It's their heritage. They do not look at the land as its master but as its protector for future generations," observes Barla. She believes that corporate houses are ignorant of the concept of subsistence economy among tribal societies that is rooted in agriculture and forest produce. "Natural resources to us are not merely a means of livelihood; our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture centres around it and does so for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us," she asks. "At best, in return they will offer a job to one person... can they compensate us for land that has been owned by so many generations?"

Barla is equally acerbic in her comments about journalism. The first Mundari woman journalist from Jharkhand, she received the P Sainath Counter Media Award for Better Rural Journalism in 2000 and the National Foundation for India Fellowship in 2004. She recalls having spent nights in Hatia railway station studying in the light of the platform in order to get her Master's degree in commerce.

"Do you know why I got into journalism? It was to get out the voice of the people. If you're thinking of change, you have to deal with these issues and not run away," she says.

Barla describes rural journalism as "full of sour experiences". Collecting news can be difficult because the stories she seeks out are often the ones the people who call the shots and the advertisers don't want told. Although the media in India is thriving, she says, the plight of tribals goes unheard. According to Barla, the media is largely owned by the rich, and since most journalists in India come from the middle class they are unable to identify with the issues of the poor.

Her words come straight from the heart, and they make you sit up and think.

It's hard to believe that Dayamani Barla, who could afford an education only by working as a domestic help in her younger years, has been invited to speak at a number of prestigious academic institutions across the US. She says: "I did not hesitate to make stinging attacks on the US; that it is basically remote-controlling the implementation of various policies in our country under the garb of globalisation and liberalisation. These may have benefited a handful in our country, but what about the rural populace? They continue to be cut off from the mainstream of development, even after 60 years of independence." As a case in point she refers to the policies related to Special Economic Zones (SEZs). "I consider them to be nothing but killers of the interests of rural farmers."

(Moushumi Basu is a journalist based in Jharkhand)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008