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Marching ahead for the rights of tribals

Oct 24, 2008

First woman tribal journalist of Jharkhand, India and activist Dayamani Barla has come a long way. Hailing from a low socio-economic background, she is now heading a tribal campaign against a proposed steel plant in her state.

Dayamani Barla leads the tribal campaign against Arcelor Mittal's proposed steel plant in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

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In recognition of her work, Ms Barla was recently invited to Sweden to attend a European Social Forum (ESF) workshop on the rights of indigenous peoples

She was also chosen as one of 23 speakers from across the world to speak on indigenous peoples' rights and environmental justice.

Paltry income

Ms Barla's life story is one of struggle, but also one of extraordinary determination and achievement.

Often sleeping on railway platforms, she paid for her education with what little income she had.

After completing a master's degree, she entered journalism, becoming the first tribal woman journalist from the largely tribal state of Jharkhand.

For her work, she has won prestigious awards.

But she earns her livelihood by running a small tea-shop in the state capital, Ranchi, which she claims is "one of the best places to listen to the voices of the people".

At the conference in Sweden, she spoke about the people from nearly 40 villages in Jharkhand who are expected to lose their land to the Arcelor Mittal steel plant.

Arcelor Mittal wants to invest $8.79bn to set up one of the world's biggest steel plants in the area.

The greenfield steel project requires 12,000 acres of land and a new power plant.

'Not an inch'

Ms Barla's group - Adivaasi, Moolvaasi, Astitva Raksha Manch (Forum for the protection of tribal and indigenous people's identity) - says apart from causing massive displacement, the project will destroy the forests in the area.

It will also have an impact on the water sources and ecosystems, thereby threatening the environment and the very source of sustenance for indigenous peoples, it says.

"We will not give an inch of our land," says Ms Barla.

For Arcelor Mittal, Dayamani Barla could prove to be as much trouble as the fiery Bengali politician Mamata Bannerjee has been for Tata Motors in the state of West Bengal.

"We will give away our lives, but we will not part with an inch of our ancestral land. The Mittals would not be allowed here - do not grab our ancestral land," is the message from Ms Barla and the villagers who back her campaign to save their land.

Arcelor Mittal's Vijay Bhatnagar told the BBC that his company was not trying to grab any land. He said that they were willing to wait as long as it takes to sort out the issue.

"We are trying to hold a dialogue with the villagers, they may have their genuine reasons for grievances, but we will certainly succeed in convincing them that the rehabilitation and resettlement policy of Jharkhand will be followed in letter and spirit by us," he said.

Local Congress party MP Sushila Kerketta believes the villagers will be won round in the end.

She says she has been holding successful meetings with local people to explain the benefits of the deal to them.

"If companies such as Arcelor Mittal set up industries here, it will largely solve the problem of unemployment," she says.

The villagers, under Ms Barla's leadership, however, are refusing to budge.

"Her campaigns have the ability to draw masses from the grassroots," says Ville Veikko Hirvela, social activist and a member of Friends of the Earth, and Etnia, one of the organisers of the ESF workshop.

"For any tribal community, land is not an asset to be sold, it is their heritage. They are not masters or owners of it, but its protectors for the next generations," he says.

Ms Barla says: "The corporate houses are simply ignorant of the concept of the subsistence economy of a tribal society that is rooted in agriculture and forest produce".

"The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations.

"These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?" she asks.

Source : BBC News
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