Life and death - De­fend­ing land rights in In­dia is dan­ger­ous job

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Bhu­pen­dra Vira, an ac­tivist who tried to ex­pose po­lit­i­cal links to il­le­gal land deal­ings in Mum­bai, was watch­ing tele­vi­sion at his subur­ban home one evening in Oc­to­ber when he was shot dead. Vira, 61, had sought in­for­ma­tion un­der In­dia’s Right to In­for­ma­tion Act on en­croach­ments of pub­lic land and il­le­gal land deal­ings in a city that has among the world’s prici­est real es­tate. The ar­rest of a for­mer civic of­fi­cial and his son in con­nec­tion with the killing shocked the city.

A cou­ple of weeks later in an­other case, Nan­dini Sun­dar, a Delhi Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, was charged in the killing of an in­dige­nous vil­lager in the restive Bas­tar region. Sun­dar had just writ­ten a book on in­dige­nous peo­ple los­ing land to mining firms in eastern Chhattisgarh state. The en­su­ing out­cry led the state to as­sure the Supreme Court that those charged would not be ar­rested be­fore an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and that it would give ad­vance no­tice to them be­fore pro­ceed­ing.

The two cases high­light ha­rass­ment and deadly vi­o­lence against land rights ac­tivists in In­dia, cam­paign­ers say. Land is in­creas­ingly sought in In­dia for in­dus­trial use and de­vel­op­ment pro­jects, as one of the world’s fastest grow­ing ma­jor economies ex­pands. “More land is be­ing ac­quired for in­dus­try by the govern­ment, some­times force­fully, while per capita land avail­able is de­clin­ing,” said E A S Sarma, an ac­tivist and for­mer bu­reau­crat who has cam­paigned against sev­eral land-ac­qui­si­tion pro­jects.

“Mean­while, peo­ple are also more aware of their rights and civil so­ci­ety is more ac­tive, even as states in­tro­duce new laws to speed up ac­qui­si­tions. So the con­flict level has risen in re­cent years,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion. Home min­istry spokesman KS Dhat­walia said the min­istry is aware of the in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing those in­volv­ing Vira and Sun­dar, and “is tak­ing all nec­es­sary ac­tions as per pro­ce­dure”.

In the fight for land and the en­vi­ron­ment, which UK-based watch­dog Global Wit­ness calls “a new bat­tle­ground for hu­man rights”, com­mu­ni­ties world­wide are locked in deadly strug­gles against gov­ern­ments, com­pa­nies and crim­i­nal gangs ex­ploit­ing land for prod­ucts in­clud­ing tim­ber, min­er­als and palm oil. In 2015, more than three peo­ple a week were killed de­fend­ing land, forests and rivers against in­dus­tries in the dead­li­est year on record, ac­cord­ing to Global Wit­ness.

Of the 185 mur­ders doc­u­mented in 16 coun­tries, In­dia was among the top 10, with six deaths last year. The cases in­volv­ing Vira and Sun­dar are just the bet­ter known ones, say cam­paign­ers. “Crimes against city-based ac­tivists re­ceive more at­ten­tion, so we have heard more of the pro­fes­sor and the Mum­bai ac­tivist,” said Colin Gon­salves, founder of the Hu­man Rights Law Net­work. “But ev­ery day, many more are risk­ing their lives in vil­lages, in forests. They are fight­ing against the state and pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions, and it is only go­ing to get worse as our de­mand for land grows,” he said. In­dia is home to more than 104 mil­lion in­dige­nous peo­ple, the largest such pop­u­la­tion in the world. Its fast-grow­ing econ­omy has led to in­creased de­mand for land for in­fra­struc­ture and de­vel­op­ment, as well as for re­sources to feed its in­dus­try.

Con­flicts re­lated to land and re­sources are the main rea­son be­hind stalled in­dus­trial and de­vel­op­ment pro­jects in In­dia, af­fect­ing mil­lions of peo­ple and putting bil­lions of dol­lars of in­vest­ment at risk, a re­port by the Tata In­sti­tute of So­cial Sciences said last month. “Un­for­tu­nately, the govern­ment be­lieves that ac­tivists who speak for land rights or de­fend tribal com­mu­ni­ties are ob­struct­ing de­vel­op­ment,” said Meenakshi Gan­guly, South Asia di­rec­tor at Hu­man Rights Watch. “In­stead of ad­dress­ing con­cerns and pro­vid­ing proper re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and sus­tain­able livelihoods to af­fected peo­ple, the state treats hu­man rights de­fend­ers as ir­ri­tants ... (and) deems any crit­i­cism as anti-na­tional,” she said.

At­mos­phere of fear

Sun­dar’s book, ‘The Burn­ing For­est: In­dia’s War in Bas­tar’, pub­lished ear­lier this year, de­tails the decade-long con­flict be­tween the state and Maoist rebels who claim to fight for the rights of poor farm­ers and land­less in­dige­nous peo­ple. Sun­dar was also a pe­ti­tioner in an ear­lier suit that led the Supreme Court in 2011 to or­der the dis­band­ing of state-backed vig­i­lante group Salwa Judum, which had been ac­cused of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions against in­dige­nous peo­ple in Chhattisgarh. This year, lawyers with a lo­cal legal aid group and jour­nal­ists were ha­rassed into leav­ing Chhattisgarh, while chem­i­cals were flung at ac­tivist Soni Sori’s face, cam­paign­ers said. “An at­mos­phere of fear has pre­vailed for many years ... now, there’s an im­punity that has em­bold­ened po­lice and politi­cians,” said Supriya Sharma, who has re­ported on the region for more than a decade. — Reuters

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.