Prafulla Samantara, an activist who devoted his life for the tribals and environment

By Madhusudhan Kosinepalli*

Prafulla Samantara is an Indian Environmental activist and has been a spokesperson for the Dongria Kondh indigenous people of Niyamgiri Hills, Odisha. He was awarded with Goldman Environmental Prize for 2017 as he fought for the rights of Dongria kondh and for protecting their forest lands from Mining. He has been involved in student politics and joined the JP movement in 1970s against the imposition of emergency and from 1990s he is actively involved in people politics. At present he is the president of Lok Shakti Abhiyan.

Through this article I would like to introduce our readers to Prafulla Samantara and his work on tribal rights and environment protection.

Excerpts from the Interview:

Anti-tribal and anti-human policies of Governments

The changing nature of state and emergence of the capitalism, globalization and international market structure have wreaked a havoc in the life of the Adivasis. The continuous destruction of the constitutional institutions by the present government and its unwillingness to implement the schedule V and VI of the Indian Constitution in true spirit kept Adivasis at odds. Adivasis have been devoid of their fundamental rights imbibed in articles 19 and 21. The founder of the constitution have included some instructions or recommendations to the state called,” Directive Principles of State Policy “. Article 39 calls for the equitable distribution of material resources of the community for the common good. But the developmental policies are being dictated by the market hungry corporates which fill the pockets of people in power.

Climate Emergency and Environmental destruction

In 1990s, Mr. Prafulla actively opposed the steady destruction of the fragile ecosystem of the Gopalpur coast when the Tatas were planning their steel plant there.

The latest IPCC report has abridged the looming climate crisis and the consequences of global warming if not acted justly. The indigenous people are the protectors of the pristine nature of environment and forests. They are the ones who suffer most if action is not taken against the climate crisis. The governments in collaboration with the corporates have conveniently sidelined the Environmental protection Act, PESA Act to allocate forest lands to factories, mining, highways etc., In this regard, he recollects his movement against Vedanta over mining in Niyamgiri hills.

Niyamgiri issue

Niyamgiri is a perfect example of co-existence of humans, wild animals, trees, rivers. The destruction of its ecology seemed unjust for him and later he resolved to save it from the hands of mining corporate Vedanta. He says that the then government of Odisha was pro Vedanta and due to the fear of retaliation from government, the media has sidelined the issue. In 2013, the Supreme Court in its verdict orders Vedanta to stop its mining of Bauxite from the lands of Dongria Kondhs. He accepts that the active participation of environmentally conscious activists, lawyers and especially opposition from people had made the Niyamgiri movement a success.

Threats

On being asked about threat to his life during the years of activism, he says that the threat to environment, threat to forests and threat to tribal rights is far more severe than threat to an activist’s life. He was kidnapped, assaulted many times by the local goons, but these didn’t let him stop his fight against the injustice being committed by the democratic institutions in collusion with the corporates. He says he is not afraid and cannot betray the people and the cause for his life.

Technology

He says that “Nature is the mother of Science, Science is the mother of Technology and the technology should not be used for the destruction of its grandmother, the nature. It should be used for the betterment of marginalized sections of society”. The adoption of technology in the tribal areas is abysmally low. It is hard to communicate with them and know their problems these days. Samantara with a heavy heart feels sorry for the present generation as it has to bear the brunt of the sins committed by the previous generations and also pities them for the growing trends like unethical consumerism and hoarding of wealth. He pitches for intergenerational equity and justice.

At the time of Interview, he was protesting against the auctioning of new mines in seven virgin forests including Gandhalpada and Karlapat.

*PGP 2022 | IIM Bangalore

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