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Mukta Jhodia: 'I will die for my bheeta mati'

By Suroopa Mukherjee

Mukta Jhodia, tribal woman leader and first recipient of the Chingari Award for Women Fighting Corporate Crime 2007, talks about her relentless struggle against the Utkal Alumina bauxite mining and processing project in Kashipur, Orissa

Mukta JhodiaAs Rashida Bee announced the Chingari Award for Women Fighting Corporate Crime 2007, in a crowded auditorium in Rabindra Bhavan, Bhopal, a diminutive, frail woman made her way to the stage and turned to face the flashing cameras with a smile that was both shy and gritty. Champa Devi Shukla read out the award citation, before the garland, trophy and prize money of Rs 50,000 was handed over to Mukta Jhodia, tribal woman leader and first recipient of the award, for her relentless struggle against the Hindalco-led Utkal Alumina bauxite mining and processing project in Kashipur, Orissa.

The Chingari Award, which is given annually on December 5, is as unique as the ceremony that marked the event. The audience consisted of survivors of the world's worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas tragedy, and their children (born with congenital defects), friends and well-wishers. They were all there in large numbers to applaud an evening that saw the confluence of woman power, both in the shape of the two women who were giving the award and the woman who was receiving it.

What added to the excitement was the media attention that the event had generated. Rashida Bee (Appa) and Champa Devi Shukla (Didi), both gas survivors and leaders of the impacted community, were realising a collective dream -- to recognise and felicitate a woman who represented the most marginalised people, adivasis, dalits, peasants, and their struggle against powerful corporations.

The Chingari Trust was set up in 2004 with the $ 125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize money Appa and Didi received in recognition of their sustained struggle for justice against the combined might of the Indian government, Union Carbide, and its successor Dow Chemicals. By instituting the award, they sought to create a common platform that would bring together women who were highlighting as well as challenging the pitfalls of a corporate-led globalisation.

In the words of the citation: "Mukta Jhodia, a resident of Sriguda Gaudaguda village in Orissa's Rayagada district, is a courageous leader who has been speaking truth to power for the last 13 years. She has, through her work, come to represent the voice of the marginalised communities of the region who have been struggling against the powerful company, Utkal Alumina International and its consortium of partner companies, which have been involved in bauxite mining in the plateaux of the Kashipur Kalahandi region. Mukta Jhodia along with a group of committed colleagues has had to face brutal repression perpetrated by the government of Orissa and the mining interests. She has proved to be a tenacious crusader against the violation of human rights and the plunder of natural resources by a venal bureaucracy and avaricious business interests... Hers has been, ultimately, a battle to protect her motherland or, as it would translate in the local dialect, her 'bheeta mati'. Her struggle has the potential to grow and encompass important issues of equity and livelihoods for the local communities."

I ask permission to interview Mukta Jhodia on the day she is leaving Bhopal. Instantly, she makes space for me in the room they are staying in, in the Chingari office. She speaks with enormous clarity and conviction, and she pauses at every point so that the translator can get across the meaning of what she is saying. When I ask her to express her feelings about receiving the Chingari Award, she looks at me with twinkling eyes and says: "I have to put a question to you. On what basis was I given the award?" I explain as best I can, but I think she was letting me know that awards are only institutional recognition. The story of her people's struggle goes way beyond any formal endorsement.

What follows is the story of this remarkable woman, in her own words.

Glimpses of Mukta Jhodia's early life: "I come from a family of farmers, and right from the early days I have been involved in sowing, cutting and harvesting the fields. We own about five acres of land where we grow rice, ragi, makki. We also grow fruits such as leetchi, mangoes and bananas. I never went to school but my children are more educated. My daughter knows how to read and write, and my younger son has gone to primary school. The village I stay in is very remote. But it is also very beautiful. Nature is lovely and grand; the beauty, tranquillity was all lost after the company came and spoilt the peace in our lives."

How the company changed their lives: "Once the company began intruding into our lives, village life changed. Now peace is lost, and there is trouble. People are divided along lines of those who support the resistance movement and those who support the company. I think the root cause of all this is fear of the police. Fear because the police can pick anyone up, without cause or reason, even as we go about our daily lives. One man, Vishwanath, was picked up and sent to jail. He has been there for the last two months. His wife and children are left without anyone to work in the field. Some villagers help in the field work so that they do not starve. Soon after his arrest, we held meetings. But we cannot trust each other because the company pays money to some to win them over. They act as spies. They tell the company to arrest dissident villagers in order to frighten the rest and silence them.

"For the last many years I have been trying to mobilise members of my community to oppose the company. I have travelled to nearby villages and talked to people. I want them to realise that the company is acting out of greed, for our hills and plateaux are rich in bauxite and they want to set up mining-related industries there. In the process they are threatening to evict us from our own motherland. I make speeches and I try to fill them with the fire that rages in my mind. My husband and son are very supportive. They travel with me and take me from village to village. The path is dangerous, and in the rainy season it is difficult to travel by foot. What I want to tell everyone is that we are up against a powerful enemy; this company does not care for our rights and is ready to dispossess us of our land."

Different phases of the struggle: "Our group is called the Prakrutik Sampada Suraksha Parishad. I am only a member of the group. I have no official position of power. We have more than 1,000 members. Yes, you can say I have the inner strength to fight for the rights of my people. I believe I have the power to lead my people and inspire them.

"The only way we can show the company that we will go on resisting their attempts to take away our land, where we grow our crops and which provides us with our livelihood, is by actively stopping them from evicting us. So we did a chakka jam in Rukma village by stopping company cars and buses from entering the factory site. We were more than 2,500 people, and we sat from 10 am to 6 pm right in front, blocking the road and shouting slogans and carrying banners. The police surrounded us and literally formed a wall. People from three villages who have been displaced joined us. Ultimately, 26 villages will be affected. The government knows that the problem will keep becoming bigger and bigger if people's opposition to the mining project keeps growing in strength. So the police is instructed to use maximum force. We are constantly being threatened and false cases are being put on us. Many of us are in hiding and cannot travel openly. We take the path through the interior jungles and we do not travel during daylight. Life has become very difficult. The company also sends its goondas to attack our peaceful meetings, and if we protest then we are charged with kidnapping and even murder of company officials. But nothing can stop us. We keep creating blockades by digging up roads and taking out rallies and sitting in dharnas.

"Once we gheraoed the panchayat of Gaudaguda village and placed before them the larger issues of livelihood, public distribution system, healthcare and government schemes to rehabilitate displaced people. We did this because we wanted to draw in people who had stopped participating in the movement out of fear. We wanted to draw attention to the real problems faced by villagers. We wanted to keep the struggle going. In this connection, we held a rally. As a reaction to our action, the BDO (block development officer) advised the sarpanch to start providing ration to stop the movement. They believe in dividing the villagers by promising jobs. But the fight has to continue for there is real threat to our freedom."

The brutal face of repression: "The worst face of repression happened in 2000 when the police came to Maikanch and tried to stop us from taking part in a peaceful gathering to protest against the government's plans to allow mining to take place. The police was brutal and killed three tribal men. My co-workers and I, we stayed behind and faced the police and reclaimed the bodies. We refused to give information about our leaders and this enraged the police. They were armed and they threatened to rape the women and to attack those who are vulnerable, like women, old people and children. But no amount of threats can prevent us from being united. A few days later, thousands of people gathered to plan the next phase of action. I spoke to the gathering so that I could give them courage."

What inspires Mukta Jhodia: "It is our struggle that keeps me going. I remember my father's village. They were displaced. My father, his brothers and sisters had to leave the village. It is 15 years since I have met them. It is this separation from my loved ones that strengthens my resolve to fight. My land is being ravaged, lives are being torn apart. It is not enough to give us compensation. Money will finish one day, but land is forever. It is our natural wealth. Tribal festivals continue for 12 months of the year. But all that is gradually going. Once the company succeeds in displacing us, our heritage, our religion, our cultural practices will all vanish. I will never give up the struggle. I never feel fear. I feel angry and sad. And the smallest of our successes makes me happy. I fight for my'bheeta mati', which is my property, my right. I am ready to die for the hills, forests and the rivers."

On winning the Chingari Award: "Vidyaji was in Bhubaneswar and she gave me the news over the phone. I was happy for the recognition. My fellow members of the Parishad were also very happy. Our movement is going through a critical phase. People are afraid to come out and fight. What we need is strength of numbers. I want to ask more people to join. The award will be good for our struggle. When I go back I will show everyone the trophy and the pictures, and take them around the village. Also, people have taken my interview and I hope it will spread news about our struggle and make our movement stronger.

"It has been a good experience to meet people who are here fighting another company, which caused so much damage because of the gas leak. I am impressed by their work. I want to thank them for their 23 long years of struggle. If so many people can hold on to such a long struggle, then it gives us hope. I feel proud to have got the Chingari Award."

(Suroopa Mukherjee is staff advisor of We for Bhopal, a students group based at Delhi University and committed to the fight for justice for survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The aim is to create awareness about the pressing issues of environmental pollution, violations of human rights and corporate crime)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2007