Sign of rising state repression: Murder of land rights defenders shoots up dramatically in India

Under Indian law, indigenous communities must be consulted before any development project takes place. In practice, these rights are often cast aside.
Photo courtesy: Ravi Mishra/Global Witness

Excerpt from the India portion of the report “Defenders of the Earth: Global Killings of Land and Environmental Defenders 2016”, prepared by Global Witness, which has offices in Britain and USA:

  • 16 land and environmental defenders killed in 2016 – the worst year on record
  • Police were the suspected perpetrators in 10 cases, while logging and mining were the main industries linked to murders
  • State repression is on the rise with civil society and human rights defenders subjected to increased criminalization

In February 2016, Manda Katraka, a 21-year-old Dongria Kondh tribesman, was ambushed by local police and shot dead.40 Manda was attacked when collecting natural liquor from the forest with his friend Dambaru Sikaka for a local celebration.41 Dambaru heard gunfire and saw security forces carrying Manda’s body away. Local leaders of the Dongria Kondh claim the state has declared war against them to safeguard mining interests.

Murders of environmental and land defenders have shot up dramatically in India. Global Witness recorded six murders in 2015. A year later, in 2016, India had become the fourth deadliest country in the world, with 16 killings. It is a sign of rising state repression and the criminalisation of civil society.

When the Dongria Kondh filed complaints with the police and staged protests demanding that Manda’s killers be charged, the security forces dismissed them and labelled Manda a Maoist insurgent. Prafulla Samantara, a social activist and winner of this year’s Goldman Prize for environmental defenders, told us:

“In India, they say we are Maoists and extreme leftists. But we are democratic, we are non-violent. […] I am branded as anti-development by the corporates, by the ruling class and by the police who say we are a threat to law and order.”

Prafulla Samantara was physically assaulted and intimidated during his campaign to ensure the respect of tribal people’s rights in north-eastern India

For over a decade, the Dongria Kondh have protested against mining in their sacred Niyamgiri Hills. In 2004, UK-based mining company Vedanta Resources launched a US$2 billion project in partnership with Odisha State to build a massive open-pit mine to extract bauxite, an ore used to make aluminium. It was feared the mine would destroy large areas of forest, pollute vital water sources and force members of the Dongria Kondh tribe to leave their lands.

Prafulla knew that the Dongria Kondh were in the dark regarding the proposed mine; the only public hearing was held far from the planned site and in a language the Dongria Kondh do not speak. He travelled from village to village to warn the tribe of the coming threat, and helped it organise peaceful protests.

“They say I am against the nation’s development, but I am doing my duty as a citizen of India. Our constitution says that we have a responsibility to preserve and to protect our resources and also the rights of the people.” Prafulla Samantara

Prafulla filed a petition with India’s Supreme Court, which made an historic ruling in favour of the Dongria Kongh’s right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against it. In August 2015, in a major victory for the Dongria Kondh, Vedanta announced the closure of an aluminium refinery it had built in anticipation of the mine’s opening.

However, Prafulla says that police violence against the indigenous people who opposed the mine has only increased since the court ruling.46 He too has been physically attacked and intimidated by “hired goons” he believes are connected to the company. Meanwhile Vedanta are eyeing up new mining investments in Odisha and the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh.

The names of 16 persons killed in 2016

In response to the abuse suffered by the Dongria Kondh, the Church of England did the right thing and divested its shares in Vedanta, which totalled £3.8 million,48 as did the Norweigian pension fund. It told the company, “There continues to be an unacceptable risk that your company will cause or contribute to severe environmental damage and serious or systematic human rights violations.”


The World Bank Group’s private arm, the International Finance Corporation, supported Vedanta indirectly via its financial intermediary investments in Axis Bank50 and YES Bank.51 Whilst Vedanta accepts it did not engage effectively with local people prior to the unanimous vote against the mine, it points out that it relinquished rights in the Niyamgiri Hills in 2015 without mining commencing and says that there were never any displacements, relocations or human rights abuses resulting from its activities there.

Vedanta also told Global Witness it played no part in any intimidation suffered by Prafulla, whilst expressing sympathy, emphasising that rigorous adherence to ethical business practice is expected of its employees and suppliers who work under codes which address such issues. The company is committed to sustainability and local development initiatives, it says.

Rising tide of police brutality

The murder of Manda and the repression of the Dongria Kondh is part of a disturbing trend of increasing police brutality in India, with the Modi administration determined to stifle opposition to ‘development’ policies by any means necessary. Nearly half of the defenders Global Witness recorded were killed when engaging in public protests and demonstrations.

Elsewhere, the Adivasi tribespeople too have been brutally repressed for opposing large-scale mining in Chhattisgarh. They’ve been subjected to a crushing combination of alleged land grabs, intimidation and criminalisation by government and legislative representatives. They’ve been threatened and attacked for resisting eviction, and protestors have been detained.

 “There is a complete breakdown of the law. Large numbers of the Adivasi population are illegally losing their land to corporations, through land grabs… None of the demands have been met by the government or the company.” Rinchin

Writer and social activist Rinchin has been working alongside the Dalit Adivasi Mazdoor Sangathan, who are part of the wider ‘save Chhattisgarh’ movement, known as Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan for the last six years. Tamnar Block in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh is the site of one of the struggles. The previous owner, Jindal Power Ltd, is accused of duping villagers out of their land, and the current operator South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL), has refused to take responsibility for displacing people and causing pollution. Out of desperation, the Adivasi began to blockade the coal mines.

Social activist Rinchin has been supporting local communities in their struggle against coal companies grabbing their land and causing pollution

Rinchin says:

“In July there were women standing in pouring rain for seven days, eating and sitting in coal dust in front of the mine. The sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) came and there was an agreement that [positive action would be taken by the companies and the government] these things would be done. But when this never happened, in November around 500 people executed the blockade, listing the demands again, including a demand for jobs. This time government was harsher. When people stood their ground and would not leave, the SDM came and started shouting that he would penalise anyone he found on that spot and every outsider who was there… would be dug into the ground. Under massive pressure we had to take back our coal blockade with the promise that next day most of the demands would be met.”

Mine operator Jindal denies that any land it mines in Chhattisgarh was acquired other than by due process of the law and that any displaced persons had the opportunity to make representations and received the compensation prescribed by Indian law. Additionally Jindal makes significant investments in local communities and infrastructure, it says. SECL has said that it took on operations from Jindal in 2015, being satisfied that Jindal had acquired lawful rights for the mining and had paid appropriate compensation. SECL has continued to employ many displaced by the mining and undertaken a variety of initiatives to improve the local environment, education and facilities, it says.

Clampdown on civil society

National legislation giving communities the right to be consulted is often ignored.55 The government is even manipulating the law to clamp down on NGOs that support indigenous tribes in defending their rights in the context of large-scale mining and dams. In April 2015, the government revoked Greenpeace India’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, preventing it from receiving overseas financial backing in an effort to halt its operations.

In November 2016, a further 25 NGOs, most of them human rights organisations, also had their licenses revoked under the Act. Media reports quoted unnamed officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs as saying that the NGOs were denied licenses because their activities were “not conducive to the national interest”. UN experts say these revocations are illegal under international law.


The number of killings in India tripled to 16 in 2016, fourth highest in the world

The Modi administration’s shrinking of civil society space is particularly disturbing when viewed in parallel to the government’s aggressive pursuing of foreign investment for large-scale infrastructure, power and mining projects, and apparent disregard of local, particularly indigenous, voices. Under Indian law, these communities must be consulted before any development project takes place. In practice, these rights are often cast aside.


The Indian government should embrace the mobilisation of local communities, harnessing their knowledge to bring about sustainable and mutually beneficial development, rather than continuing the collision course which has seen a surge in the murder of activists, often at the hands of state forces.

Click HERE to download complete report

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