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No country for the poor

Sunday, 25 May 2014 - 8:43pm IST Updated: Monday, 26 May 2014 - 8:43am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The rights of the marginalised have been consistently trampled in the rush for ‘growth’

in my 10 years of activism, I learnt one thing — when they cannot buy you or intimidate you, they eliminate you. The word ‘they’ here refers to the all-pervasive, all-powerful billionaires who virtually control the purse strings of our convoluted democracy. Dare to speak up against them and you will have to face the consequences. To shut my mouth, I was offered a bribe. On my refusal, I was slapped with a defamation case and jailed for 72 days; only the Supreme Court could grant me bail. And when all the bullying and threats did not work, I was shot — twice in my leg. 

I walk with a stick now. It does not pain much. But the pain shoots up when I see the hopelessness the common man (the poor man to be precise) in this country is faced with. Earlier this month, it all came back to me. This happened not very far from where I live. In a midnight raid, the Madhya Pradesh police arrested four forest rights activists. Their crime:   they dared to speak up for saving the forests. In this day and age, where the scramble for a two-digit growth figure is supreme, they did the unspeakable and officially became an impediment to development.   

Of those arrested, two are members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) and two are Greenpeace activists who had been opposing a coal-mining proposal in the Mahan forests of Singrauli district. While three of them have been granted bail, one MSS member still languishes in jail. The Mahan coal block, which got a hasty final stage forest clearance from former environment minister Veerappa Moily in February this year, will destroy the oldest and the largest Sal forests in Asia with an estimated canopy density of 70 per cent. There are 54 villages within the 10 kilometre radius of the coal block. As per the 2011 census, there are around 77,000 people living in these villages of which around 25,000 are from various tribal communities. 

The forest is the main source of income for a chunk of these families as many of them have small land holdings, and thus agriculture alone does not meet their economic or nutritional needs. But sadly, these people (the marginalised sections) do not even have land titles, nor are their community forest rights recognised under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or the Forest Rights Act (FRA). This makes them ineligible for compensation if their land is taken away for ‘development’. 

Our Constitution has equipped us with laws such as the FRA and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 or PESA, but the lack of political will has resulted in these rights not being implemented. The Right To Information (RTI) Act, for instance, is a very powerful tool. It was through RTI that we were able to scrap the Gare IV/6 coal block allocated to the Jindals. I got two bullets as a thank you gift. But again, will our policymakers ensure protection to RTI activists and whistleblowers? Only two months after the Whistleblowers Protection Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha, RTI activist Chandra Mohan Sharma was found dead in his car. There is a fixed template of cronyism and corruption that we are forced to live with. The dissenters are systematically removed. 

Take the environment ministry for instance. Our environment ministers have been chosen carefully so that the ministry functions ideally as a ‘clearance house’ that ultimately clears 99 per cent of the projects. In the 10 years of UPA, we saw that the ones who refuse to abide by the environment ministry’s real mandate were skillfully removed. Wasn’t it why Jairam Ramesh was ‘promoted’ when he made some noise about no-go areas, to be replaced by Jayanthi Natarajan (a more pragmatic, industry friendly-face), who was later removed as she didn’t bend to the demands of industry? It was then only up to Veerappa Moily to save the ministry from its descent. After all, how else do you earn brownie points with the corporate honchos three months before elections? 

Mahan was among the big-ticket projects that were cleared. The Gram Sabha Resolution that forms the basis of this final clearance has been doctored, say villagers. The resolution, obtained through RTI, has signatures of people who were not even present in the Gram Sabha. And shockingly, it has names of people who have been dead for years. The tribal minister VKC Deo wrote to the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chauhan about this blatant violation of FRA, but to no avail. How can one expect a response from a chief minister who reportedly went on a 20-minute fast to get the Stage I forest clearance for the Mahan coal block?  

Trapped among corporates, politicians, and bureaucrats, it is the marginalised section that bears the brunt of ‘development’. For holistic, sustainable development, India does not need token ministries that are designed to favour the moneyed class. Development in its truest sense can only be brought about through people’s movement — a revolution. Gandhi once gave us a talisman: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her). Will he (she) gain anything by it? Will it restore him (her) to a control over his (her) own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” Unfortunately, we have forgotten his talisman. The only Gandhi we remember is the one adorning the currency note. 

The author is an environment activist and has recently been awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for his work in Chhattisgarh

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