Inspired by JP, Prafulla Samantara fought for tribal rights in Niyamgiri

By Gajendra Majhi*

A well-known tribal rights leader, Prafulla Samantara who on April 24, 2017 won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work as an Indian environmental activist, was a student activist During his college days at the Berhampur University, with active involvement in student politics to fight against corruption. He was influenced by the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement, which picked up amidst unemployment and corruption in early 1970s among youths in Bihar, and later spread to throughout India.

Also inspired Samantara included socialist leaders Rama Manohar Lohiaand Rabi Ray, Samantara was influenced by then CM of Odisha Nabakrushna Choudhuri, whose simple life style mesmerized him. After Independence, when Nabakrushna became CM, he used to commute by bicycle and bus and never used a car. This showed how modest he was in his living.

In 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared national emergency, students’ movement rose to oppose the emergency vehemently. He was a member of the movement and had to serve jail imprisonment for one year. He was studying law then. They were fighting against the system under the leadership of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan, they wanted a system – equality, progressive education policy, and equality-based employment.

When Prafulla quit party politics, he saw civil society forum as suitable to set the tone on. After the 90s, India saw globalization and privatization inching in, Prafulla was against capitalism rather he wanted people to seek other alternatives. He saw, globalization brought in investment mainly in extraction industries like mining which adversely affected the habitat.

Forest right act, 2006 was implemented and policies were changed but he felt it was encroaching the rights of people especially the tribals community. The state itself violated the constitutional provision. In the Niyamgiri Hills case, people were unaware of what’s happening. There was a need to tell the communities about this and its consequences. The climate crisis had already begun and there was the Kyoto protocol & Paris agreement which caught people’s attention on the environment. Because of the development paradigm and investment without local people’s concern, they were deprived of their right to livelihood.

Communities’ natural habitats were destroyed leading to the displacement of the Indigenous people. Most of them were tribals without proper rehabilitation. This was recorded by the Xaxa committee, by Prof. Virginius Xaxa, Professor at TISS. There is no proper data as to how many were displaced.

Reason for the fight of Niyamgiri Hills and its approaches

He believes one should consume less, live simple life, and give up luxurious life. He says, “Luxury life is for greedy profit makers.” He was involved in the anti-steel plant movement near the Gopalpur sea, Berhampur. In the name of development and investment, although a certain section was enthusiastic about it but for it to be established a main river was to be used for its purpose. In order to protect people’s rights, livelihood, biodiversity, and the resources used by common people which were interrelated, they had to oppose this. For this, they got solidarity support from intellects, experts, and social scientists.

In 2003, Prafulla came across a public hearing of setting up a bauxite mine in Niyamgiri Hill region jointly by state govt and British mine company Vedanta resources which the Dongriya Kondhs tribe were unaware of as the decision was taken far away from their place. Bauxite mining is mainly needed to produce Aluminium. The pollution due to this will last more than 1000 years, this will affect the local rivers that flow through this region. The tribals here won’t be able to survive and would get wiped out leading to ethnic extinction.

Prafulla filed a petition in the Supreme court challenging environmental, human, and tribal rights violations. Indian constitution gives rights to the indigenous people the right to control the bellmen on their land. Niyamgiri is a rich ecological spot for eastern ghats running in the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The momentum of the movement picked up and it was taken up to the Supreme court and was in favor of the people. This led Prafulla Samantara to win the prestigious Green Nobel prize ( Goldman Environmental Prize ).

He credits it to the people – “Without peoples movement, it could not have been done”. He is an admirer of technology but believes technology should not be used for destruction purposes. He feels that technology is being wrongly used in capturing and invading the environment. There should be a policy that outlines the extent to which the resources can be used so that there is a balance. Suppose you start mining, one should consider the water nearby, its effect, cultivation nearby, economic, ecology, and environmental benefit and loss.

Other Interests

He also raises concerns about the resources being extracted in Odisha and exported to other states and countries. The displaced communities never get sufficiently compensated. The resources can be used to set up small industries in compliance with the environment which could generate jobs in the state and employment to local people, improve skill development, and boost entrepreneurs. He pointed that development is not enough, we also need to think about our planet and climate emergency.

The 6th assessment report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out what all happened post-Paris climate agreement, the situation has worsened now. The warming that was supposed to happen in 2050 had reduced to 2030. Scientist believes that one way to tackle this is to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, preserve land & water and go for green energy alternatives like extensive development and use of Solar energy and other non-exhaustible resources. He emphasizes that the young generation should be inclusive in their thinking.

The NGO works in solidarity and supports us but they don’t let them interfere in people’s movement. The prize money that activists win, they never use it for self-purpose but rather save it in trust and utilize it in people’s movement. But he believes what is more important in people’s movement is cooperation and solidarity.

Corporate, Government, and Society

According to him, a policy is drafted mainly keeping in mind the development process but in the process, they miss out on losses suffered by community people. For climate emergencies, the youth need to learn and voice for climate justice with a social attitude in mind. Negotiations need to be there between the government and the society in the promise to provide a better life, guaranteed, and sustainable living system. This would increase people’s participation and responsibility. Thus, changing the system, planning process, and politics that is people-oriented, resources-oriented, and nature-oriented. If these factors are not considered, there will be further people’s movement.

*Student of the PGP 2020-2022 at IIM Bangalore

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