How do we bring peace and justice to the dispossessed and who is responsible?
Those who came to the Annual General Meeting at Kingsley Hall on 10 July 2010 were privileged to hear two presentations on the plight of the indigenous peoples of East India. The Adivasis are the tribal people of Orissa and Jharkhand state (formerly South Bengal). They live mainly in the forests and small villages preserving a culture that goes back for several thousand years and maintaining a balance between meeting basic human needs and preserving the natural environment. The Adivasis worship Nature and the spirits of their ancestors. Their megaliths and wall paintings are evidence of an ancient and sustainable civilisation.
The tragedy is that the land they occupy has been found to contain 40% of all India’s mineral wealth. Multinational companies have moved in to exploit huge reserves of coal, bauxite and other metal ores with scant regard for the needs of the Adivasi people. Photographer Robert Wallis showed a sequence of pictures which hinted at the rich culture of the past but vividly portrayed the depths to which the Adivasis have sunk. A people who lived sustainably on the land have been driven from their villages, seen their sacred spaces destroyed, had their water polluted and been forced to scavenge for bits of coal in the spoil heaps of the mines so that they have something to sell and obtain money for food.
The second talk was given by Felix Padel who emphasised the scale of the mining operations – open-cast coal mines, for example, several miles across and moving relentlessly across the landscape, destroying everything in their path. Felix recalled how Gandhi had seen the improvement of the villages of India as being the key to the welfare of the people. He warned Nehru that an industrialised India would never be independent. Nehru saw it differently. For him, the villages were concentrations of poverty and ignorance and therefore providing employment through industrialisation was necessary for the country to advance.
Nehru’s view prevailed and gradually more and more of the countryside has been given over to industry with few benefits trickling down to the poorest people. Roads and ports have been constructed to ship the minerals (and the profits) away to China and the West. In recent years the process has accelerated, driven by increasing costs for mining companies in other parts of the world and futures trading on the London Metal Exchange. The demand for steel is a major problem with firms like Tata and S R Steel exploiting a situation of rampant capitalism and being given support from the World Bank. Since 1947 some 30 million people have been displaced, about a third of them tribal people. Compensation or help with resettlement is rarely given. Inevitably, opposition has grown and the term ‘Maoists’ is used to refer to a range of disparate groups who are seeking to restrict the operations of the mining companies and the government that supports them. Most of the Maoists come from outside the area and have little knowledge or respect for the Adivasi culture. Some groups are well organised and ideologically driven while others are bent only on violence, attacking the police and committing atrocities against innocent people. The mining industry uses other militia gangs to protect their installations and control the population.
Felix saw little scope for effective action in relation to this dangerous and volatile situation. A new minister for environmental affairs in the Indian government showed promise and there was increasing opposition in Britain to British-based mining firms that are active in India. But the overall picture was depressing as a major part of one of the largest countries in the world appears to be sliding into a state of civil war.
For further reading:
- Out of this Earth: the East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel by Felix Padel
- Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy
Graham Davey is Treasurer of the Gandhi Foundation and has also organised many Gandhi Foundation Summer Gatherings.