The aspirations of India to achieve the status of a developed country is met by much applause and encouragement. This is because development, to many, is associated with improved standards of living, enhancement in technology and innovation, improved productivity, growth and prosperity. The catalyst to this process is industrialization, the phenomenon that has been driving nations since the mid-eighteenth century. Industrialization is the change in economic and social activities from an agrarian society to an industrialized, urban society, brought about by the introduction of machinery, technology and mass production.
Even in the mid-eighteenth century, this change was not always welcome. The name Luddites, a radical faction, still resonates through history for their protests against industrialization. The machinery introduced in the textile industry in the 19th century, replaced the workers, leaving them without a job and income to sustain themselves. This led to mass rebellions by the Luddites, who destroyed textile machinery through protest. Loss of jobs and income is one of the many costs of industrialization and it is not confined to history.
As India strives to achieve its status of development, the cost is borne by the Adivasi (tribal) community of India, who have now come to associate development with displacement, starvation, disorientation, migration and death. With the advent of neoliberal policies and globalization, powerful and influential people (a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, and industrialists) have extracted natural resources from tribal habitats, in order to scale up and feed into the process of mass production. In this move, the local people are displaced from their homes and are stripped off their identity. They are sent packing with sugar-coated words promising compensation. That’s all it remains – words – never put into action or seen through. The Adivasis are left to fend for themselves, knowing that the prospect of restoring their forest-based livelihoods and their daily sustenance is bleak. The hunt for food and water is a daily challenge, with days of starvation common; braving weather without a roof over their head is seen as their “cost for survival”; children, who should be in school studying and playing, are forced to work, and their dreams of a better life are squashed with the blink of an eye. In 2009, around 245 families of the Baiga community in Chhattisgarh were evicted from their homes, in the name of conservation of tigers. The families were moved to an area where their traditional livelihood of collecting Sal leaves, Tendu and Bamboo was no longer possible. The families did not receive any title deeds to land for farming, nor did they receive the full compensation owed to them under the Project Tiger Relocation Scheme. Under similar excuses of conservation, India’s Supreme Court ordered more than a million Adivasi families living on forest land to leave their land homes. This was despite the Forest Right Act of 2006, which gave the tribespeople living on forest land for three generations before December 2005, the legal right to forest resources, as well as to live and work on the land.
Thus, the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (2016), seem to be weak attempts to empower the Adivasi community and protect their homes and forests. The true objective of their legislation, which was to empower forest and tribal people, and provide them with basic human rights, has never seen the light of day, as they continue to remain in the hands of forest department officials who fail to empathise with the plight of the Adivasi and continue to put our forests under threat.
Thus, in the fight for survival and the basic human rights, Adivasi have become a lone wolf. Mobilization and activism have become powerful tools at their disposal, allowing them to voice their concerns. Tribal women’s collective activism has become a strong force against these problems in their habitats. Women no longer stand still while they face oppression from power industrialized societies and patriarchal systems that prevent them from living a decent life. They have transformed their worldview, believing that they too are equal to men and the rest of society. They have become more professional and strategic in their action, thereby gaining voice and visibility, and creating a new political space for themselves.
Several activists have emerged from different tribal communities, such as Dayamani Barla, a tribal journalist and activist in Jharkhand. Jharkhand, being a state rich in natural resources and land, the strife between the influential people and the Adivasi communities are regular. However, even the rich and affluent could not turn a blind eye to Dayamani Barla’s protests, as she rose to limelight for her activism in opposing Arcelor Mittal’s steel plant for 6 years in Eastern Jharkhand. ArcelorMittal wanted to set up one of the world’s biggest steel plants in that area. The land requirement was around 12,000 acres, along with a new power plant. According to Barla, if the multinational steel corporation had its way, it would displace forty villages and cause massive destruction of forests. It would also affect the water sources and the ecosystems, threatening the environment and the source of sustenance and livelihood of the indigenous people living there.
With such a destructive force, any form of compensation seems meager, that is if compensation is even given. The youth were promised jobs, but none wanted jobs at the expense of their homes. Barla believed that the people would not survive such alienation from their land. While tribal communities and villages have changed in many ways, the tribals have not changed much in their values and cultures, continuing to remain close with nature and their language. Thus, she along with her organization Adivasi, Moolvaasi, Astitva Raksha Manch (Forum for the protection of tribal and indigenous people’s identity), fought long and hard to ensure that they would not have to face such a situation. Daymani Barla believed that with such exploitation by powerful people, the Adivasi communities’ connection with nature and land is ebbing away. She speaks of this intricate connection between tribals and nature like that between a mother and a child. They take care of the forests and their land throughout the year, and in return the land provides them with their basic necessities to sustain themselves. Putting a price on such a relationship in the name of compensation, is an impossible task for the tribal community.
They believe that the jungle and land are their right, and not something that is sellable. Taking away their land and resources in the name of development and in the supposed interest of all the citizens, is an insult to them as well as the process of development itself. The idea of sustainable development is known better by none other than the tribal community. Placing urbanization and industrialization as the synonyms of development is a flawed idea, and does not capture the balance required to ensure sustainability and equality. Development should also involve preserving nature, reviving the now contaminated water, and restoring destroyed land. It should be providing people with the basic amenities to live – food, water, clothing and shelter. Development should also involve educating the youth to be better citizens of tomorrow, not removing them out of schools and forcing them to fight for survival. Only if the development equation includes all this, can it actually be called balanced and sustainable development.
With all the advancement in technology and science, Dayamani wonders why such measures are impossible to achieve. Instead, protestors and promoters of this version of development are put in jail or attacked for voicing their opinions. Without rule of law, justice and transparency, the right of people to participate in decision making processes and having a chance to voice their opinions, and the right to oppose the powerful who think they know best, development will not be achieved.
Dayamani Barla and the tribals of Jharkhand, have fought off 104 companies looking to steal their lives off their hands. If they had not fought them off, the tribal community would have become history. The one-sided view of development is no longer feasible. More voices such as that of Dayamani Barla need to be heard, and given importance to. Only then equality and development can be achieved in the way we hope and dream about.
Shreya Ramchandran is a second-year undergraduate Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University, and a prospective minor in psychology.