Environmentalist and founder of the green non-profit, Chintan
July 29, 2010
Where are you currently holidaying? Chances are, if you are on a trip to India, you would have seen the many dramatic images they put out for tourists.
In the 1980s, Indian government offices were lined with colourful posters with a breathtaking image that said ‘India’ in both English and Hindi. Sometimes, it would be a photograph of the Taj Mahal, and sometimes, one of India’s many indigenous people. I would stare at these posters with fascination — that was the closest I had ever come to these brightly dressed fellow Indians.
But you would have seen the newer ones, from the mid 2000s. The Incredible India campaign. The photographs this time showed another, slicker India. A skinny woman in silver leotards doing yoga on a mountainous ledge, for example. I’m struck by how the rural and the indigenous folk are no longer extravagantly advertised. But I also know there is a reason for this: they are now engaged in numerous David versus Goliath kind of battles against the government and giant private companies over their land and natural resources. The country is not officially proud to show them off.
To understand this better, think of the notorious Vedanta case. The story is simple, set in the beautiful Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa, Eastern India. The region is bauxite rich, forest rich and home to about 8000 Dongaria Konds — indigenous people of the area. Vedanta (which has been accused of taking on different names and avatars as part of its business strategy) has plans to set up a 10 billion dollar investment to mine the bauxite from the hilltops and refine it in their facilities at the bottom. Lawyers point out that Vedanta have failed to follow procedures for aspects of their Environmental Impact Assessment. For example, they have held public hearings based on one report, but later, hired a second consultant to prepare another report and submitted that for their clearances. The Dongaria Konds have turned down the idea of mining. They’ve been pointing out that their land is sacred for them, a resource that cannot be tampered with because it means their annihilation. Regardless of what happens, the brave Konds have made it harder for the government to parcel off their homes to a giant conglomerate. They’re not about to figure in the come-visit-India posters.
In South India, another battle has unfolded in the stunning wetlands of Sompetha, in Andhra Pradesh, where the powerful Nagarjuna Construction Company is building a power plant. Here, the defenders of the land are the rural folk, not wealthy by any means, fighting to keep their land intact. Like millions of others across the world, they farm on the land-small plots that don’t make them rich but keep their bellies full and their hopes alive for a better life for their children. This time, the tussle has turned tragic. The company got its clearances, but the local villagers blocked its work, because they did not want to lose their green assets. On July 14th this year, four of them were killed when the police fired at them as they blocked the company. Their lawyer, Ritwick Dutta, part of the environmental law firm Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, explained his own chilling experience only a few hours later. He said, ” Just when I was going in for their hearing in Delhi, I got a call saying the firing had begun. Within 15 minutes, the first person had been killed. By the time the hearing got over, they had killed 4 people. Can you imagine that? The judges are hearing their case in court and the police is killing their people on the ground?” Luckily, justice worked, in part. The courts canceled the clearance, not because of the killings, but because the company’s EIA had concealed important information. They had distorted was status of the wetland, downgrading it ecologically in their reports.
A bird’s eye view shows marginal communities standing up to the big players, even the government, in India. They ask for justice and struggle to conserve the planet their way. Every time they succeed in stopping a project even for a short time, several federal departments fight back angrily, because they see it as stopping India’s development. Who’s this development for? Thousands of poor don’t want it — that’s clear. Despite a race to consume in many Indian cities, they opt to live off their land in a sustainable manner. How tragic it’s costing them their lives! India has more poor than Sub-Saharan Africa, and an expanding carbon footprint. Perhaps these are the people we should put on our posters, not the ones for tourists, but for regular folks in cities, so everyone notices the grim, green battle rolling out in the Indian wilderness.