The Independent People's Tribunal on Land Acquisition, Resource Grab and Operation Green Hunt concluded its three-day proceedings on Sunday with the jury comprising of Justice (Retd.) P B Sawant, Justice (Retd.) H Suresh, Professor Yash Pal, Dr. P. M. Bhargava, Dr. Mohini Giri and Dr. K S Subramanian presenting an interim report to the public, Government and the media on the issues under consideration.
The interim report was prepared after the jury members heard depositions and testimonies from affected people and activists from the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa.
Presenting the recommendations of the jury before the media, public and Government, Justice Sawant said, “There is a perception within the Government and media that by organizing 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 are discussing here the problems of the tribals and the crisis that is pushing people to the brink of desperation and escalating the cycle of violence.”
It was 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. P M Bhargava noted that 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 was running out and there had to be some serious rethinking.”
Dr. Mohini Giri lamented that the Government took no notice of People’s Tribunals like these and their recommendations. She criticized the Government for its lack of understanding of the issues that affected people and implored them to do so immediately.
The interim report of the jury states, “Gross violation of the rights of the poor, particularly tribal rights, have reached unprecedented levels since the new economic policies of the 90’s. The Fifth 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 enormous and irreversible damage to the environment.
The first session of the day took stock of the situation in Orissa with regard 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 how corporate greed colluding with government officials was bleeding out the tribals.
Praveen Patel who presented a paper on the 'Political Economy of Mining' 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 ruins water supply for the Adivasis living in the area and leaves the company with zero liability. Protests are suppressed in a manner similar to that seen in other states: “...last year 14 people were 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.”
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 POSCO which would ruin the lucrative beetle vine cultivation as well as destroy the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of fishermen. He testified on the intimidation tactics used by the State-company nexus to kill the protests: “On 29 November 2007, state and company goons set fire to a village in my area. They occupied all schools and building 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 to 9,000 people in 200 villages. These people know nature and nature knows them. Soil, earth, water, trees—these are regarded as God and 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 journalist, stressed that lands in tribal areas were community property and did not belong to the State. Handing these lands to corporates must stop.
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.”
Several eminent personalities, including Arundhati Roy, Shoma Chaudhury, Bianca Jagger, Arun Aggarwal, Kavita Srivastava and Advocate Shanti Bhushan, addressed the second session.
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% 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 Government owned enterprises so that the profits could be distributed more equitably.
Shanti Bhushan asked civil society not to remain silent but condemn violent acts by Maoists. Accepting the fact that tribals had been exploited for years, civil society’s failure to condemn the recent carnage was being perceived as support of 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, Editor-Features, Tehelka, dwelt on the role of the media and accepted that the debates and discussions 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 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, who has returned from a visit to Orissa, spoke about her experience with the Dongria Kondh tribe. Despite being a foreigner she related to the problem of India’s tribals. Her experience of having worked as a human rights activist in Latin and Central America shows that indigenous communities everywhere are being pressured by the current development paradigm.
She said there was a lot to be learnt from indigenous communities and their ecologically sustainable lifestyle, and added, “I request the Government of India to introspect on 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, “it seems to me that war is a synonym for creating an ideal investment climate.” According to her, in the 1970’s and 80’s, democracy was the single largest threat to imperialist, capitalist western nations who overthrew democracies in Latin America. Now however war is being waged 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”.
The Independent People’s Tribunal was organized by a collective of civil society groups, social movements, activists, academics and concerned citizens.
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