Dayamani Barla, a journalist and activist from India, became the first recipient of Cultural Survival’s Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award.

Dayamani Barla's Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award Speech

Dayamani Barla
June 21, 2013


On May 23 Dayamani Barla, an Indian journalist/activist, became the first recipient of the Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award from the Cultural Survival group. The following is a translated version of her acceptance speech. (Related story: Dayamani Barla: A Small Woman, but a Big Voice for Indigenous Rights)


First of all I want to thank you – especially Cultural Survival – for honoring me with Ellen L Lutz Indigenous Rights Award. In every nook and corner of this world – not just in India – global capitalism today is engaged in every possible effort to grab water, forests, land and rivers, which are actually a collective legacy of mankind. On the other hand, in order to protect our precious heritage of water, forests and land – we are involved in a struggle with a pledge from every single village of our land that we will not let go of even an inch of our ancestors' land.

Globalization has, in fact, given rise to a kind of fascism. The entire world is passing through a social, economic and cultural crisis. Consequently, why just in poor and developing world – even in the developed world – social, economic and cultural inequalities are rising. And we are witnessing expression of people's resistance and anger all over the world. On the other hand, the have-nots are demanding their rights – for preservation of nature and environment, for their decisive rights over natural resources and for their say in the power equation in the democratic process.

The world seems afflicted with violence and terror, religious and racial discrimination. At the same time, the crescendo of democratic resistance by people all over the world, especially the indigenous and tribal communities, for changing these conditions in various ways and to usher in an egalitarian society, is ever rising. This crisis cannot be understood in isolation. Neither does the current model of development have the power to fulfill the aspirations of the have-nots. In many countries of Asia, Africa and the Arab world, democracy is emerging as an effective expression of people's struggle.

Workers, peasants and the youth in Europe are conducting movements against the current distorted development paradigm. In my view, our era is armed with the medium of change, hope and forceful unity of have-nots. Now we have to decide how to guarantee the future of highest human values such as peace, goodwill, equality, cooperation and unity – which are also a legacy of the tribal societies. This is an issue of concern. It is often asked these days that in this technology driven age, is anything left of the future of indigenous societies, their values, their culture and special gifts? It is also suggested that the indigenous and tribal communities should get assimilated in the global mainstream and its technology – while their culture should be left to history. But I want to say it emphatically on the basis of my own learning and people's life experiences that the future lies with the united ongoing struggles being conducted by all the have-nots along with the indigenous and tribal communities. In the near future, this struggle will transform the current structure of natural resource ownership and economic inequality into a real democratic society which will guarantee diversity, multiplicity and cultural existence of every community. In my view, Adivasi indigenous communities have a future also because their basic social and cultural philosophy, nature and consciousness has always been linked with the quest for scientific and new ideas. It is for this very reason that despite thousands of years of cultural invasion and attacks, Adivasi communities have been defending and developing these values with their struggles.

In my mother tongue Mundari, it is said: iSengi Susun, kafigi darting' which means, 'speaking is song and music itself and walking is a dance.' This is the strength of Adivasis. This incorporates our social inner beliefs. This is the source of inspirations of our struggles. I want to give you an example from a song from the time of revolt of our great hero Birsa Munda to explain as to how we consider dance music and our lifestyle to be synonymous with our struggles:

Dunibari buru chetan remokoy dumung rustana ko susunetna

Okoy dumung ristana ko susunetna

Dumbri buru chetan re Birsa dumung rutana ko susunatna Birsa dumung rutana ko susunatna (Who is playing Mandar (instrument) on the hill? People are dancing. Birsa is playing Mandar on Dumbri Hill – People are dancing)

Following the path shown by our great hero Birsa Munda; another revolt is shaping today to defend Adivasi values, against displacement and to protect our water, forest, land, socio-linguistic and historical identity. I want to place Adivasi consciousness and culture within the periphery of these points:

1. Collective lifestyle

2. Communal ownership of natural resources

3. Cooperative spirit

4. Gender equality

5. Collective decision and implementation in democracy

This is our core thinking. The place where I come from, Adivasis have struggled there for nearly 300 years and sacrificed their lives in thousands. Even today they are struggling and sacrificing their lives. I am also a humble part of this struggle and I am immensely happy for that.

Great revolutionaries such as Baba Tilka Manjhi, Binray-Sindray, Sidhu-Kanhu, Chand-Bhairav, Phula-piano, Birsa Munda, Gaya Munda became martyrs for these very values I described above. And in our times, inspired by these great revolutionaries, we are struggling again not only to save nature and its resources, our society, language and culture but also to create a new society.

The indigenous people of Jharkhand, Dalits and working masses have a father-son relationship with nature. Their social, linguistic, cultural, religious, economic and historical existence continues to live in water, forest and land. These communities will exist so long as they are linked with water, forest and land. When Adivasis and indigenous society get displaced from their land, forests and water, they not only get displaced from their dwellings and livelihood but also from their social values, language & culture, economy and history. If we look at the global history of indigenous people, it becomes clear that indigenous communities remain alive only in those places where there is water, forest and land, mountains and waterfalls. Indigenous society is a part and parcel of nature. By separating them, we can neither conceive of Adivasi -indigenous society nor of forests, rivers, waterfalls and mountains. just as a fish cannot remain without water, likewise, indigenous society cannot live without its natural heritage.

Taking cognizance of this truth, after India's independence, when the authors of the Constitution were giving legal framework to the rights of its peoples, Adivasi dominated areas were given a special status in the 5th and 6th Schedule of the Constitution. In the 5th Schedule, a legal right has been granted that every Village Council (Gram Sabha) in a village will control and utilize natural resources, forests, water and land falling within their jurisdiction according to their traditional communal rights. Whenever the government or any agency wants to acquire any land for developmental purposes, it cannot be acquired without the assent of the local Gram Sabha or Village Council.

Jharkhand is a tribal dominated state. History is a witness that this area was replete with pristine forests. Indigenous communities fought with tigers and bears, snakes and scorpions to make it habitable. It is for this reason that the indigenous tribal communities were given a special right related to land-forest protection for inhabiting this land under Chhota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act 1908 and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. Under CNT Act, no outside agency can acquire indigenous communities' land. But today, the government, corporate entities, land-mafias in collusion with government's anti-Adivasi and anti-farmer policies and police-bureaucratic nexus are violating this law and indigenous Adivasi farmers are being evicted and rendered landless.

The government has been acquiring land arbitrarily wherever it fancies under the Land Acquisition Act 1894. It does not respect even those provisions of the law which are in public interest. The provisions which were in the interest of indigenous tribal communities are being amended to benefit private companies. For this very reason, in post-independence period, more than 20 million indigenous tribes have been displaced from Jharkhand state. Where are these displaced persons? In what condition are they? The government or the political parties do not care two hoots. The displaced Adivasi communities have today lost their identity. Their social values and collective existence stands shattered. Today, neither do they have a language nor a culture.

Despite legal protection such as CNT Act 1908 and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 5th Schedule and 6th Schedule provisions in the Constitution, the state government is violating them with impunity and illegally acquiring the lands, forests, rivers, mountains of indigenous tribal communities. At the same time, it is handing them over to corporate entities. The government is illegally snatching the forests, fertile agricultural lands and water sources of indigenous farmers after signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with mining companies. Wherever the government is acquiring land in the name of development or for companies or factories or for mining, it is not seeking permission of either the owner or the villagers or the Village Councils. Neither is it seeking assent of the villagers. Wherever it feels like acquiring land, it is doing so using violence and terror using the police.

After the formation of the Jharkhand state, within 12 years, the state government has signed MOU's with 104 Corporates. Out of these, 98 percent are mining companies. Each and every company wants dam for water, land for plant, land for transportation, urbanization and market for their coal, iron ore, bauxite and mica mines.

If the government gives land for mining to all companies, Jharkhand will lose its environment and the land will become infertile. In 10 years, four times more population will get displaced from its habitat and livelihood than the entire displaced populations since independence.

Human rights are being attacked left, right and center. In the entire Jharkhand state, mass movements are going on for protection of water, forests, land and environment. All through the country, farmers are today living under the shadow of terror of displacement. The welfare state is dubbing them as anti-social elements, extremists and Maoists and implicating them in dozens of false cases and packing them off to jails.

Our ancestors had always challenged the culture of domination since the indigenous people believe in cultural diversity and pluralism. We want a new society which respects all cultures. These days, in our country, a political campaign is going on for cultural supremacy at full speed. It has threatened religious and cultural minorities in the name of holistic unitary cultural nationalism. In past 20 years, Indian democracy has witnessed participation of have-nots as much as attacks by cultural nationalists. In such an atmosphere, so as to save secular India, the importance of pluralistic Adivasi cultural viewpoint increases significantly. Our entire Indian sub-continent is waging a decisive battle between liberalism and fanaticism. Since this is the same era in which old feudal values are being made the basis for promoting neo-liberalism. This is a strange irony. In the past two decades, we have witnessed big corporate control over our forests, land, water, rivers and seas. We are also witnessing how religious-communal passions are being abused to strengthen the new economic paradigm. But I am grateful to all those who are struggling incessantly against this phenomenon and giving a voice to the dreams sowed by indigenous ancestors and the freedom fighters. It is possible to create a society in harmony with these dreams – a society which has no place for anyone's domination.

The struggles for preservation of water-forests-land and collective ownership of communities over natural resources are inspired by these very dreams. In the last 20 years, mass movements have not been weakened by the corporate loot and acts in their defense. On the contrary, the have-nots are coming together in strength on a common platform. When our state of Jharkhand came into existence after a hundred year struggle, the forests danced in joy and the sound of Mander musical instrument reverberated the air. But our happiness proved to be a momentary one. Barely within a few months of our state's formation, the peaceful movement which was struggling to keep the flow of Koel and Kara rivers for 30 years, was now riddled with bullets ordered by the official bureaucracy. Koel and Karo are not just rivers – they are a cultural identity. They are also a fundamental basis of our livelihoods. When eight Adivasis and one indigenous person were martyred on February 2, 2001, we realized that the state whose foundation stone was laid on November 15, 2000 is not for us. And we saw how we were challenged while playing with our existence and for exploitation and loot of our natural resources. Let me say that the tribes and indigenous people of Jharkhand fully accepted the challenge put forth by the government and the corporates; and the slogan of 'We will not give an inch of our land' started reverberating through the 33,000 villages of Jharkhand. This voice was eloquently raised by various mass organizations and Adivasi indigenous organizations.

With the commissioning of Koel-Karo project, nearly 2,500,000 indigenous people and tribes would have got displaced. Some 55,000 acres of agricultural land would have got submerged. Another 27,000 acres of forests too would have submerged. A sacred religious site Sarna Sasan Dini worshipped by some 80 tribal communities would have gone under water.

In Kathikud block of Dumka district of Jharkhand, RPG Group started seizing land for coal mines. The villagers did not want to give land for coal mining. For years, the villagers have been on the path of struggle to save their lands and forests. Apart from coal mining, the company wanted to set up a plant for producing electricity. The villagers organized rallies against forcible acquiring of their lands. The police fired on the rally one comrade died on the spot and dozens were injured. Later another injured comrade died. Yet another became disabled and one comrade lost both of his eyes permanently.

The government implicated the leader of this movement Muni Hansda and his comrades for being extremists. Muni Hansda and his comrades were thrown in jail for seven months.

In 2003-04, in Pachuwad block of Sahebganj district, Penam Coal Mines started clearing villages and forcibly acquiring farmer's lands. The villagers kept resisting. Later on, with the help of touts, land Mafiosi and police-administration, the company forcibly evicted the villagers. Not just this, the leader of the movement, Sister Balas was killed.

In the Potka Block of eastern Singhbhum district, forcible eviction started for setting up Bhushan Steel Plant. The villagers have been resisting this from the beginning. Here also, false cases were lodged against dozens of men and women leading the movement. Several comrades remained in jail for three months.

All those areas where the government is preparing to give land to companies for iron ore mines, are being declared as Maoist affected areas and innocent villagers are being thrown in jails calling them extremists. In these areas, the government is launching Operation Greenhunt and flooding them up with the Central Reserve Police Force. Women and young girls are becoming victims of rape. They are getting battered, sandwiched between the establishment and the extremist organizations.

Of the 20 million displaced in the name of development, nearly half are women. These displaced women have migrated to other states to earn their living. Or else they have become maid servants in metropolis. Some sell grass to fend one meal in a day. Young girls and kids have absolutely no access to education. Ninety-eight percent displaced young girls and kids are illiterate; 95 percent are anaemic; 95 percent of women have no house. They are forced to spend their lives like animals living near dirty drains in slums in cities.

The government has abdicated all constitutional responsibilities it had towards its citizens. Now, in order to arrange land for corporates, constitutionally stipulated Land Acquisition Act too has been thrown out of the window and attempts are being made to pave the way for direct sale of land to the companies. All the companies are being allowed to acquire land from the villagers by hook or by crook. The companies are sending their touts and looting the land wherever they like. If any villager or land-owner tries to resist, s/he is implicated in false cases and packed off to prison.

In Chandan Kyari Block of Bokaro district, Electro Steel Company bought land by terrorizing the villagers for setting up a steel plant. Some landowners got some compensation, some got nothing. The company grabbed thousands of acres of land for its coal mines. The company owners promised the touts that they will give the price of land as well as compensation money. In compensation, they will give jobs also. Land was acquired in 2005 for coal mines but to this date neither have the villagers been paid the full price nor been given any jobs.

In Torpa Kamdora, Karra, and Rania blocks of Khoonti and Gumla districts, global steel giant Arcelor Mittal wanted to set up a 12 million ton steel plant by razing to ground 40 villages. The company wanted to acquire the village lands by hook or crook. In 2006 we started mobilizing the public against the forcible land acquisition under the banner of Adivasi Moolwasi Astitva Raksha Manch (Adivasi Indigenous People Existence Defence Forum). After a protracted struggle lasting days and nights since 2006, our organization was able to save the future of hundreds of thousands from displacement as well as the environment. Along with Mittal, Ispat Industry too was looking to acquire 8,000 acres of land for a steel plant. Apart from these, dozens of small industrial families too would have landed up to grab our land and forests.

There was a proposal to construct a dam near Rehadgada village on Kara river to make water available to companies and industrial magnates. Another dam was to be constructed at Marra block on Chhata river. Several dozen villages would have got displaced due to these dams. Similarly, half the population of indigenous Adivasi community would have got displaced in Khoonti district. At Nagdi, Kanke in Ranchi, the government prepared papers for fraudulently acquiring 227 acres of land. On the basis of such papers it claimed to acquire the land. However, I asked for information under the Right to Information Act from the Land Acquisition Department. Their reply clearly stated that in 1957-58, there were 153 owners of land in Nagdi. Of these 128 refused to take any money in exchange for land. The government says that the said land has been acquired for Ranch. Birsa Agricultural University. When I asked the Birsa Agricultural University for information in this connection, they said that they had no information regarding land acquisition. On the other hand, indigenous landowners have been cultivating the said land for ages – and are doing so even today. They have also been paying taxes to the government till 2012. Peasants have been resisting selling land since 1957-58. I want to tell you that we are not against educational institutions. We want institutions to come up – not on our fertile lands but on infertile wastelands.

These days, the government is snatching these lands forcibly. Villagers are resisting all this. Then dozens of false cases were foisted on us. Four comrades were imprisoned in July 2012. This includes two female comrades. Thereafter, I was imprisoned for two and a half months under a false case. Dozens of village women have false police cases against them.

The government says that those getting displaced will be compensated. At the same time they will also be rehabilitated and given alternative housing. But the question is – what will the government and the companies compensate for? Can they re-establish and rehabilitate our pure air, pure food, rivers, waterfalls, our language and culture, our sacred religious site Saran-Sasan Diri, our identity and our history? No, that is absolutely impossible. We indigenous communities believe that our history, language, culture, sacred religious sites like Saran-Sasan Din, our identity and history cannot ever be rehabilitated. Nor can it ever be compensated for.

We are not anti-development. We want development but not at our cost. We want development of our rivers and waterfalls. We want development of our forests, mountains, ecology and agriculture. We want development of social values, language and culture. We want development of our identity and our history. We want that every person should get equal education and healthy life. We want polluted rivers to be pollution free. We want wastelands to be turned green. We want that everyone should get pure air, water and food. This is our model of development.

The concept of Jharkhand that was being talked about in the past, was simply forgotten by our politicians in power. But the people's struggles have given it a new dimension. In 13 years, the way all the steps were taken to attract the companies, in the same way, strong and expanding people's struggles have given a new perspective to the concept of Jharkhand.

This perspective is to make livelihood as the basis of Indigenous Peoples’ culture. This is to sculpt a new model of development which has a scientific thinking like the indigenous lifestyle and the technology should work in harmony and cooperation with nature. The thinking should not be just to take away from nature. The greatest emphasis should be on selection and implementation of plans in tune with people's thinking. There should be such technological development which makes the eternal value of coexistence dynamic. Our tribal dance forms, notes, tunes and harmony of our songs and all the sounds are evidence enough that we have a strong relationship with the idea of coexistence. Even now whenever there is any celebration of a hunt from the forest, the material is shared not just between humans but also between humans and animals. We want to see the fundamental spirit of this celebration in our economic system alive. In other words, we want to change the ways and means of the current economic model with a model of humane development.

We know that this challenge is not a small one. Just by our wishful thinking, this desire will not get fulfilled. That's why we see the cultural movement as a socio-economic wave, as a global movement event. We strongly believe that the world of our dreams is not far off.

You have honored me with this prize which I dedicate to the struggling Adivasi tribal and indigenous farming communities I am proud to be a part of. Their affection and conviction has showed me the right path at every difficult turning. I want to reiterate that I will try to get their affection and faith more and more and join hands with the poor, exploited , the marginalized working masses of cities and villages in their democratic struggles and keep marching forward in unison with them.

My Johar (traditional greeting) to all the struggling comrades all over the world.