– The fight against the world’s biggest steel maker, ArcelorMittal, is being waged from a tiny tea stall in Ranchi, eastern India.
It is run by Dayamani Barla, a journalist and activist, and is the office of the Adivasi Moolvaasi Ashthitva Raksha Manch (AMARM), which loosely translates as a platform for the protection of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples.
As AMARM’S convenor, Barla, in her forties, is at the forefront of a campaign to stop an 8.2 billion dollar steel plant project by transnational ArcelorMittal that will uproot 40 villages and 70,000 indigenous people in mineral-rich Jharkhand state.
The global steel giant has been allocated vast coal blocks and iron ore sites. Dense forests and rivers will be obliterated by the mining. Ancient ways of life practiced by tribals will be lost forever.
“The project will displace not just 70,000 aboriginals but 70,000 generations of people,” says Barla. “Our culture, social values are linked to our jungles and cannot be replaced.”
The project to build one of the world’s biggest steel mills was launched by stealth in 2005. Unknown to villagers, ArcelorMittal, which wants 12,000 acres of land, conducted a land survey.
Barla, who has written on tribal and Dalit rights issues for 10 years in Prabhat Khabar, an influential Hindi-language daily, stumbled on a map of Jharkhand in a block officer’s cabin, where 40 villages, including her own, were marked. Further investigations revealed the markings constituted the project area of a proposed steel plant.
For four years, Barla has travelled from village to village alerting villagers of their impending displacement. “We want development but not at our cost,” she is emphatic. “I have worked against displacement for a long time now and my research shows displaced people don’t have proper lives. They loose their sense of belonging.”
In the nineties, Barla was involved with the massive protests against the ambitious Koel-Karo hydropower project in Jharkhand. Faced with unrelenting opposition, the government was forced to shelve the plan in 2000.
Jharkhand’s tribals are well acquainted with the irreversibility of displacement. A power project in the early sixties – the state-run Heavy Engineering Corporation in the Hatiya region, set up in collaboration with Soviet and German help – had uprooted 36 villages belonging to the Uraanv, Munda and Khadia ‘adivasis’ (indigenous people). The villagers are still rootless. Only 5 percent of people uprooted by so-called development projects in Jharkhand have ever been resettled, says Barla.
The pressure on tribal and forest lands has multiplied since the nineties, when India opened its economy and international and Indian industries flocked to Jharkhand to exploit its mineral wealth,
AMARM has taken an oath that no village will be uprooted by ArcelorMittal. The next move will be litigation against the transnational giant, she says, but doesn’t divulge details.
Barla, and her husband Nelson who previously owned a paan (betel leaves) stall, plot strategy with activist comrades in their tea stall-cum-office, Jharkhand Hotel on Ranchi’s Club Road. Tea stalls are gathering places in India.
“Every villager contributes one muthi (fist) of rice and one rupee, each time a mass agitation is planned,” says Barla. When 15,000 people camped in Ranchi, among Jharkhand’s big cities, in March 2008 for weeks, AMARM was able to feed them day after day.
“The day we take outside funds, the movement will break,” she says.
Barla who has a masters in commerce from Ranchi University, is a self-made woman. Born in Arahara village, Gumla district, she went to Ranchi at the age of 13. Her father’s fields were taken away by moneylenders, and the family “disintegrated”, she recounts.
“My family disintegrated because we couldn’t fight the moneylenders. My father had to work as a daily wager; my brother went to Ranchi to work as a coolie (labourer). Even I worked for other farmers before I left for Ranchi,” she says.
For the first two years in the unfamiliar city, she lived with her brother in a cattle shed – the only thing they could afford – and scraped together a living as a domestic worker. She washed dishes and mopped floors before and after school in several houses, she says. When she completed grade 10 (in 1984) she began tutoring children at home – stopping only when she graduated from college.
The rigours of her early life have given her confidence to pursue her dream, she says.
Barla became a journalist because “Dalit, tribal and women’s issues were not really addressed in the media,” she says. She dedicated her life in the cause of her people who, she says, have suffered because of lack of education.
“I was clear from the very beginning that I want to fight for my people. My parents were exploited because they were not educated and were uninformed. I didn’t want anybody in my community to suffer for not being educated.”
Barla’s entry in her blog on Mar. 19, 2009 says: “We need food grains, not steel. Jharkhand is ours not a jagir (fiefdom) of any company. We want development, not industry.”
Inevitably AMARM’s fight is compared with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the long-running movement to save the Narmada river in central India led by Medha Patkar, the 1992 winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize.
“Our movement is different from NBA’s in the sense that there was no protest in the beginning but it happened later over the height of the dam,” she says. “Here we are protesting from the very beginning that we will not give our land on any condition.”
“Ek inch bhi zameen nahi denge (We won’t give even an inch of our land),” she concludes.