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Spotlight: Activists fighting to protect nature and livelihoods in India’s scheduled areas

Counterview reports: At a time when indigenous communities are losing access to land, and other natural resources, these activists have been relentlessly fighting for social justice, mostly in schedule five areas and other tribal belts. Here are profiles of some of these inspiring grassroots heroes, who were recently felicitated at an event held in Delhi.


Activists associated with Samata, in collaboration with mines, minerals and People (mm&P) have been relentlessly fighting for social justice, mostly in schedule five areas and other tribal belts at a time when the indigenous communities are  losing out on their access to land, and other natural resources. A few of them were felicitated by Dr Claude Alvares and Dr. Nandini Sundar at a function heald in Delhi. During the function, Dr Alvares said that “the media and other communication and information sources do not write about such great struggles and people who have been working inexorably for the country”. Dr. Sundar stated that “in the present scenario with no right to desent social movements of this sort are a blessing to save the people.” Ravi R., founder of Samata and Chairperson of mm&P stated  that “such a recognition of grassroots activists has been taking place for the first time since the inception of mm&P and is a matter of great pride”. And Ashok Shrimali, General Secretary mm&P, said that “various grassroots leaders are the real pillars for new ‘Make in India”. A profile of the activists who were felicitated:

Bansilal Bhinjana- Rajasthan

Bansilal Bhinjana grew up witnessing the atrocities on the mine labourers as he started working in marble mines in Makrana at the age of 16. He believes that the mine workers, marginalised farmers, daily wage labourers are the most essential building blocks of the economy, and yet they are the most oppressed because of a lack of recognition from the state resulting in lack of systemic mechanisms that ensure their upliftment. In 2005 owing to the degrading health conditions of the mine workers, Bansilal led an organised protest calling for the compliance of occupational health and safety standards in all mines in Jodhpur region.

The protest was also for compulsory allocation of helmets, boots, masks and gloves to the mine workers. He was inclined towards the desire to mobilize and unionise the workers. Rajasthan State Mine Labour Union was formed in 2009. The union at present comprises of fifteen thousand mine workers from Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bijoliya, Makrana, Nagaur, Ajmer, Barmer, Bikaner, Churu, Kota, Bundi, Udaipur, Tangorpur, Baswada, Pratapgarh, Jaipur and many migratory workers from the rural interiors of Rajasthan.

Importantly Bansilal has taken up the issue of silicosis which has taken several lives in the region and left several other suffering. Since 2010, the union has been demanding redress for silicosis patients, part of which was attained when the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission took a suo moto cognizance of the issue, recognizing silicosis as a notified disease under the Rajasthan Epidemic Diseases Act, 1957 on January 22, 2015, wet drilling was also made compulsory along with a promulgation that an ex-gratia payment of 1 lakh would be given to the recognized silicosis patients and 3 lakhs (if deceased) through the Rajasthan Environment and Health Administrative Board (REHAB). Bansilal has also been raising the call for greater social security for the mine workers with the need to establish a welfare fund that is put in use for socio-economic betterment of the mine workers and their children. He has been an active member of the mines, minerals and People alliance representing the state of Rajasthan.

Rajendra Kaparapu – Andhra Pradesh

Rajendra grew up in a family where going to school was a luxury. His mother was illiterate but always wanted her children to get educated since she believed that education is the only way to get out of poverty. Realising this Rajendra entered school defying not just the economic factors but also the social monsters. It was during 1983-84 that he was witness to the atrocities on dalits in the Karamchedu area of Prakasam district Andhra Pradesh. The inhuman incidents at Karmachedu deeply impacted Rajendra who then started thinking about oppression, apathy, discrimination that the lower caste faces. It was then that he decided to become a social activist and fight these social and political oppressions. After college he began his work in the NGO sector.

In 1994 he established ‘Sujana’ a community organisation. Sujana  has been involved in issues of illegal mining, environment degradation, food security, land grabbing, corporate crimes, school dropouts, SHG’s and government welfare programs in the East Godavari district. Sujana has played an important role in better rehabilitation and compensation for the 20,000 people displaced due to the construction of Yeleru Reservoir. Since 2005 he has been working with the Kadali network for ensuring rights of the farmers on the seabed in eighty villages of East Godavari district.

Sujana has also successfully conducted ‘Sustainable Tribal Empowerment’ for a period of five years from 2003-2008 in 150 villages. Sujana has also been vehemently opposing mining which is causing destruction to the environment. Vanthada in the Pratipada Mandal of East Godavari district has been badly affected by bauxite mining. Sujana with support from Samata has been successful in stopping the mining in the initial years in early 2000. Again some companies started illegal mining, this was tapped by Sujana and took necessary actions by writing to the district collector (DC), filing case in the high court and organising people in a protest. In 2012 the district collector ordered suspension of the mining activity. Despite actions from the state as well as people there still continues to be mining threat from the private companies. Presently Sujana is focussed on forming reports on degradation of water levels, impacts on livelihood, agriculture, the status of schools and hospitals etc in order to file a case in court with entire set of proofs. Rajendra has been actively involved in mm&P from Andhra Pradesh.

Rajesh Tripathi- Chhattisgarh

Rajesh Tripathi got involved in social work right from his college days. His work began as a volunteer with Harsh Mandar who was then serving as an Indian Administrative Service Officer in Chhattisgarh. Rajesh began his volunteer work with watershed management program in 30 villages of Tamnar Block, Raigarh. He has been actively taking on issues of illegal mining, displacement, corruption, degrading natural resources and ineffective governance. Through a series of legal interventions, Rajesh is providing support to ground level movements in areas where direct attack on the commons have been made by the forces of the state and capital. In Lat village of Dharamjaygarh Block of Raigarh district Rajesh has been successful in providing better compensation for the land acquired for coal mining by South Eastern Coalfields Ltd. He has helped several land losers file cases in the court and demand their right.

One such successful case has been of Ratho Bai who with the gracious support of Rajesh has filed a case for employment for women in mines and has successfully won the case. This landmark judgment has later provided employment to 143 women in the mines. Another major issue Rajesh is involved in is getting compensation for people suffering from silicosis in Saraipali Panchayat of Tamnar block, Raigarh. So far with his concerted efforts with Rajesh Gupta, the two illegal factories causing dust have been shut down and 9 people have been compensated for silicosis. Rajesh has also been at the forefront at organising the Gare Satyagraha. Gare Satyagraha is one of its kind where people have opposed land acquisition for mining using non-violent Satyagraha as a mode of protest. He is an active member of the mm&P alliance and has been involved in tribal rights and in general land rights advocacy on various platforms.

Indu Netam- Chhattisgarh

Indu Netam a Gond Adivasi born in the small village of Markatola in Bastar district became a social activist at a very young age. She led a revolutionary movement against the mining companies that had entered her village for mining silminite and kyanite. With her excellent oratory skills and true concern for her land and people Indu organised people against the injustice. In a three year long struggle the courage and determination of people won as the companies had to go back. She has led ground breaking struggles against land acquisition and forest degradation and has been working for the empowerment of the tribal communities. Indu works for the rights, self-esteem and survival of Adivasi life and culture, for building an Adivasi news agency, and to prevent mining companies from taking Adivasi lands from past 2 decades.

She has been involved with the tribal people in defying the stereotypes attached with adivasi culture and educating them about the importance of their culture. Indu has been working relentlessly to strengthen indigenous knowledge. In Kabirdham District of Chhattisgarh Indu is involved in the issues of displacement and dispossession due to mining and Tiger Corridor of Kanha National Park. Indu is involved in the struggle for better compensation and rehabilitation for the people displaced due to BALCO in the Daldali region of the Bodai block.

She is involved in filing RTI getting information about the rehabilitation and resettlement, filing cases in the courts against corrupt officials, training the local people about their rights etc. She has also been assisting the communities there in forming forest rights committees, holding gram sabhas and ensuring that all the due process under FRA gets fulfilled while filing their CFR claims to relevant government authorities. Relating to the proposed steel plant in the Raughat Range of Bastar district, Indu is fighting a writ petition before the High Court of Chhattisgarh highlighting these issues along with the various illegalities which took place in the process of land acquisition for this project. Indu has been an important member of the mm&P alliance representing Chhattisgarh.

Swaraj Das- West Bengal

As a student during the revolutionary years in West Bengal, Swaraj Das was inclined towards the political empowerment of the depressed classes. The question that most troubled him during his college days was ‘why is it that some people always get less than the others- in other words why is there a class difference?’ With this communist bent in thinking, in 1990 he became the General Secretary of the Students Union of Kazi Nazrul Vidhyapeeth. He was involved in the student politics taking inspiration from the largest students movement in West Bengal- the Nandigram Agitation. As a student he got particularly disappointed by the irregular wage payment to the truck drivers and ill treatment by the truck owners towards the drivers working in the Asansol Durgapur region. After college he got into the trade union movement and in 1996 Asansol Durgapur Transport Workers Union was formed successfully.

Later with a strong leadership and commitment the union was successful in demanding regular payment of wages, health insurances to the workers, identity cards for the workers and importantly gave recognition to their work. In the 2000’s when there were proposals for starting coal mining in the Asansol region, Swaraj gathered people from all the affected villages and spoke about the mining, displacement and all the related issues. The compensation offered by Eastern Coalfields Ltd. which was the main mine operator was not composite and the land losers were at loss.

Following this Swaraj formed the ‘Sahasrat Ali Project Affected People’s Association’ (SPAPA). The association was empowered to demand their rights both social and monetary to the mining companies. The Association has been successful in demanding jobs for 300 land losers in the company, increasing the compensation, providing monthly solatium to landless people who are losing out on livelihood etc. As a adamant believer in the trade union ideology, Swaraj inspired the workers in the mining company to form a union. ‘Integrated Coal Mining Shramik Union’ was formed in order to generate pressure from inside as well for better treatment of the workers. The Union has been successful in demanding heath insurances, jobs to the kins of workers who have died in service etc. He is an active participant from West Bengal in the mm&P alliance.

Munni Hansda- Jharkhand

Munni Hansda, a phenomenal women from the Kathikund block of Dumka district has spearheaded a revolutionary movement against mining and other ‘development activities’ in the Kathikund region. Taking inspiration from her mother, Munni after completing her high school began her career as a voluntary worker giving training in tussar silk production. In her initial years she has extensively worked on women issues ranging from domestic violence, women’s health, child marriages and defying the ‘dian’ superstition in the Santhal region. Later she joined the Jharkhand Ulgulan Manch which is a network of people’s movement.

Munni has successfully led the Kathikund agitation against the thermal power plant proposed by Kolkata Based RPG owned CESC Ltd (Calcutta Energy Supply Company). The proposal was to set up 1000MW plant in Aamgachi, Pokhoria and Daldali Villages of Kathikund block and MoU was signed with the Government of Jharkhand on September 15th 2005. Munni and her team conducted regular meetings in the village, empowering the villagers about their rights as envisaged in the Constitution and PESA. They emphasised on the power of the gram sabha. She also explained to people the ill effects of mining and industrialization by sharing the experiences of the people in Hazaribagh and Lalmatia mines.

The training has successfully organised people to agitate against the setting up of the power plant. The villagers took out rallies, conducted public meetings and spent several days sitting outside the police stations to end this injustice. There were several cases filed on Munni and other villagers. Munni was put in jail for 7 months and all the accusations were based on falsity some include having links with the maoists, theft of a motorcycle from the police station, locking up a daroga, damaging the property at the SP office etc. But none of these accusations, torture, inhumanity and life threats stopped Munniji and the villagers fight for their land and livelihood. Thus successfully the people of Kathikund have stopped CESC from entering the region and acquiring their land. This has been a struggle against the violation of Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, PESA and other constitutional guarantees to the tribal people. She is an active member in mm&P representing Jharkhand.

Gamella Devakumar- Andhra Pradesh

Gamella Devakumar has played an instrumental role in bringing about the landmark Samata Judgment. Devakumar belongs to Dekapuram village of Borra Panchayat Visakhapatnam district. His father served as sarpanch of the Borra Panchayat when Devakumar was in school. He was in 10th grade when his father used to ask him to write letters on behalf of the panchayat and inividual members to the various government departments. The issues were relating to getting ration card, funds to the panchayat, construction of school, provision for medicines in the local PHC’s etc. Through this he got to know the problems people in his area face due to negligence and oppression by the state authorities. After completing school he was full-fledgy involved in writing about people’s problems. He did this service voluntarily and aspired of helping the community in whatever possible way he can. During the early 1990’s there were a number of NGO’s working in the region but Devakumar was sceptical about these. Devakumar met Ravi R founder of Samata and discussed the issues facing his village.

Following this, Devakumar attended a meeting of laison workers in Pedda Mallapuram. In the meeting he raised the issues of pattas and some mining companies entering the region. Then with the help of Samata the pattas for the land in Dekapuram were filed and they have been successfully granted to the people. The influx of private companies in the region for mining calcite caught the attention of Samata following which the people’s movement began. Devakumar has also been at the forefront of organising people, against the Birla Pericles in Nimmalapadu region and with immense legal and political support from Samata materialised as the Samata Judgment. Devakumar continues his job as a social activist and is planning to contest panchayat elections in the Borra Panchayat. He has also been an active participant in the mm&P alliance representing Andhra Pradesh.

Albert Minj- Jharkhand

Albert Minj a teacher by profession had been instrumental in leading various rights movements in the Mahuadhar block of Lathehar District, Jharkhand. Driven by the desire to serve his community with an aim to mitigate the atrocities on his people by various forces, Albert has been at the forefront of many people’s movements. He has been an important steer in the two decades and more of the struggle of the people of Mahuadhar and Gumla regions to stop the setting up of the Netrahat Field Firing Range of the Indian Army. He is also part of the Orsa Path Agragami Sangh which is all empowered to fight any bauxite mining prospects in the Orsa Path region.

He has been strengthening people’s capacities by generating awareness about their rights. More recently he has been at the vanguard organising people in the Mahuadhar region against the proposed amendments to Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908. He believes that such amendments are a show of state power in oppressing the rights of the marginalised section of people. At a more basic level he is available for all the problems of the villagers ranging from getting caste certificate to writing to the collector to stop illegal land pooling in the state’s land bank. He has been associated with mines minerals and People from a decade now and has been an active participant from Jharkhand in the various programs.

Basanth Pradhan- Odisha

As a student of Anugul college, Odisha during the emergency period,  Basanth Pradhan got involved in the revolutionary politics. In 1975 taking inspiration from fellow students, he joined Jayprakash Narayan’s All India Students Movement. He was part of ‘Democratic Students Organization’ which was a student’s wing of ‘Socialist Unity Centre of India’ which was a political party at that time. In 1977 he was elected the Student’s Union President of Anugul College, again consequently in 1978 he was elected the Student’s Union President. In 1986 he left Democratic Students Organisation and went back to the village to pursue co-operative farming. In 1992 he joined a political party and began his career as a political change maker. But due to high levels of Bureaucracy and hierarchy in the party, he left the party in 1995. He then started working for the rights of the labourers. He helped them organise demonstrations and acts of civil-disobedience and campaign for saving their land. He has also been actively working for the rights of the beedi workers in Chhendipada tehsil.

Basanth has been fighting for guaranteeing regular wages, safety equipments, and better working conditions for the beedi workers. In the recent times he has played an important role in spearheading the Machhkata people’s struggle against prospective coal mining by the Adani group in the Machhkata panchayat in 2014. Thousands of villagers from Machhkata and neighbouring villagers took out a rally from their villages to Chhendipada to oppose the public hearing that was organised by Adani group. They occupied the entire ground where the hearing was supposed to happen and did not allow any official to enter the ground. Amidst all the lathi charge and tear gas by the police, the courage and determination and love for their land the villagers sustained the protest. The people’s movement was successful in sending the powerful Adani group out of their village. Basanth is also an active mm&P participant from Odisha.

Siya Dulari- Madhya Pradesh

Siya Dulari has been a key figure in the Dabhoura region of Rewa District, Madhya Pradesh working amongst dalits and adivasis on issues of natural resource rights, livelihood, nutrition and child rights. She began her journey as a social activist by teaching kids in the dalit and adivasi communities and empowering the women to form SHG’s. It was in 2007 that she along with her colleague Ram Naresh formed the ‘Rewanchal Dalit Adivasi Seva Samiti’. The Samiti aimed at mitigating the high levels of poverty and illiteracy in the region. It has also been working on the implementation of FRA. So far it has been successful in granting 1767 people individual land pattas.

One of the landmark initiatives that the Samiti has taken is the building of ‘Siya Colony’ which is three kms from the Dabhaura town. The idea behind such a settlement is that hundreds of families living in interiors of forest with no access to basic facilities such as health and education get a place to stay. The unoccupied government land can be used for the purpose of providing housing for such families. This has been taken up by Siya and she has been successful in granting such housing for the marginalised communities. The struggle is still on to provide electricity in the newly formed settlement. Siya has also been actively representing Madhya Pradesh in the mm&P programs.

Pasala Chittibabu- Andhra Pradesh

Pasala Chittibabu belongs to Doddikonda village in Chintapalli mandal, Andhra Pradesh. Soon after finishing college Chittibabu began working with Navnirman Samiti as a teacher. He did not restrict his job only to teaching. He got involved in all social issues involving health, housing, jobs etc. In 2002 it came to his notice that a road is being laid from Jarilla Panchayat to Chintapalli. On further enquiry it was revealed that the road was being laid for transporting bauxite from Jarilla. This came as a shock to Chittibabu as well as to the villagers from 18 villages of Jarilla panchayat. Jarilla panchayat has a population of about 20,000 people most of them tribals.

During his village tours he found that a village named Chillakalgadda was to be entirely destroyed if the construction of road takes place. Chittibabu took this as an important dependent variable to stop mining from entering the region. With the help of Samata, Chittibabu filed a case on behalf of the villagers of Chillakalgadda and illegal acquisition of land. The villagers won the case and the mining companies had to make a U-turn. In 2014 The government of Andhra Pradesh passed a GO ordering opening of mines in Jarrila. Chittibabu and other leaders from the region successfully organised the 2000 people to come out and protest. People carried their traditional weapons and began protest to stop such injustice to the tribal people. Finally the government had to withdraw the GO. Chittibabu has also represented Andhra Pradesh in  mm&P programs.

Ravindra Velip- Goa

Ravindra Velip is a social rights activist and ward member From Caurem Village, in Quepem Taluk, Goa. As a young graduate he found himself a job in Mumbai. As he was juggling between his current job and future plans, it was suggested to him by fellow friends and relatives that he buys a truck and gets into the iron ore transportation business in South Goa. Following this he left his job, came back to Caurem and bought a truck. The mineral was being transported everyday and it was financially beneficial for him. It took him time to realise that mining is actually taking away all the resources in the village and he has become a means of this ‘loot’. When he realised this he never looked back. He took upon himself to stop the loss of resources, identity, culture and tradition of his village. Ravindra has been fighting resolutely against the avaricious mining that has been a major cause for destruction of the serenity of South Goa and also adversely impacting tribal lives.

As a Panch he has been successful in organising the panchayat and the gram sabha against the illegal mining in Maina and Caurem villages. The people of Caurem then decided to regulate the mining activities. Under the leadership of Ravindra Velip the villagers planned to register a society named-‘Sadhana Multi Co-operative Society’. The forces of the state and the private corporations have used various tactics to let down the courage and determination of the villagers. Ravindra was brutally attacked in the jail. This was followed by not registering an FIR. Ravindra has tenaciously fought the oppression of the mining corporations, the state and the judiciary and has been successful in putting a stay on iron ore transportation.


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