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Now lost in the forest

As a whistleblower’s story tells us, India views its tribals with scorn. Chitrangada Choudhury writes.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2011 01:05 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury

Incarcerated since May 28, hardware trader-turned-environmental activist Ramesh Agrawal has every reason to feel bitter. Instead, when I met the 52-year-old recently in the prisoner’s ward of the Government Hospital at Raigarh in Chhattisgarh, Agrawal was spirited, joking about the need to lock up people like him.

Agrawal was arrested after Jindal Power Pvt Ltd, the biggest corporation in Raigarh district, charged him with defamation during an environmental clearance hearing. The case, two months after the actual hearing, suggested vendetta.

It came on the heels of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) cancelling the company’s terms of reference for a proposed power plant, and writing to the state government to act against the company for beginning work without clearances. Agrawal had originally alerted the MoEF about the illegalities.

Agrawal’s arrest on flimsy charges and the repeated denial of bail are jarring in the larger context of environmental violations in Raigarh and its adjoining districts, a coal-rich belt where dozens of power plants are in the offing.

Several villages here are home to forest-dwelling communities protected in theory by two laws: the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (Pesa), and the Forest Rights Act (Fra). But in recent years, residents have watched laws being disregarded to facilitate the industrialisation of mines, farmlands and rivers.

Agrawal studied regulations, extracted documents under the RTI, tested claims made on paper against ground realities, and regularly wrote to the authorities about the violations he saw. In effect, he was doing the work the statutory agencies are meant to. He never heard in return, but persisted.

“When Jairam Ramesh came as minister, I got a response for the first time,” he said. But action from the Centre resulted in greater hostility on the ground. In the months before his arrest, Agrawal was physically attacked, and his shop damaged (the police made no arrests on his complaints).

Even under arrest, he laid out files on his hospital bed to draft a letter to authorities about the misrepresentations in a proposed power plant’s environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Agrawal’s experiences reiterate the urgency for a ‘whistleblowers’ protection’ legislation. Equally, his incarceration raises larger questions about how violent and violative mining and industrialisation in our resource-rich Pesa and Fra areas have become, and are taken for granted.

In a 2010 lecture, Ramesh had asked, “Is the debate really ‘environment vs development’ or is it one of ‘adhering to rules, regulations and laws versus taking the rules, regulations and laws for granted’?” Nowhere is tackling this non-adherence as challenging as in these areas.

The reasons are three-fold. The first is the deeply partisan role the executive and the political class — the district administration, the Pollution Control Boards, the police, MLAs, etc — have taken on. This draws upon a deeper tradition of constitutional disregard and misgovernance in tribal areas.

Because mining has become so profitable, and it makes ample economic sense to trick tribal communities into giving up their land, a tenacious culture of corruption has built up in the past decade around public life in these areas. This makes it difficult to contest illegalities.

Second, if public hearings around a project’s environmental impact or land acquisition are to be genuine, they must be held in the spirit of a conversation among equals. But hearings have been reduced to a token opening of the door to the people in the process of decision-making.

Last December, a petition with over 80,000 endorsers from across Chhattisgarh made the regular demands of implementing Pesa and Fra, but it also asked for an end to fraudulent public hearings for environmental clearances and land acquisition.

In the villagers’ eyes, the sole purpose of such hearings is for the State to facilitate their dispossession. In Pesa areas, the hearings are particularly alienating because of cultural barriers. Project documents are never conveyed in local languages like Gondi, and are filled with scientific terms that villagers can’t read, let alone make sense of, or petition the State on.

But these communities are not ecologically illiterate.

Finally, most of these areas lie in states witnessing Maoist insurgency. The Centre’s strategy has been to cast thousands of troops into these villages on the one hand, and crores of rupees into bureaucrat-driven physical programmes on the other.

Neither of these two measures challenge what lies at the heart of the insurgency: an exclusionary ethic of policy-making, corruption in governance, and the resultant alienation of the people. The state’s default reaction has become to criminalise dissent.

A common thread underlies all these problems: mainstream India views its tribal communities as inferior citizens; their knowledge systems and worldview are held as irrelevant and dispensable in the national project of double-digit economic growth.

We need urgent correctives in our land acquisition and environmental protection regimes to ensure that our model of mining and industrialisation is no longer grounded in deceit and violence against these communities.

(Chitrangada Choudhury is a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow at Columbia University, US. The views expressed by the author are personal)