• Contested territory


    New Internationalist, December 2014.

    India’s rightwing government attacks NGOs in an attempt to undermine people’s movements. Sections of the Left believe they sap people’s radicalism. But are they a real threat to India’s development? DIONNE BUNSHA picks her way through the barbs.

    Anti nuke demo Mumbai Vivek Prakash Reuters - NI NGO story

    An anti-nuclear demonstration under way in Mumbai. The government considers such movements ‘anti- development’. Vivek Prakash / Reuters


    It was time for payback. Less than a month after rightwing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi took over as prime minister of India in May, he started delivering on his promise to his corporate supporters that he would clear all hurdles in their path.

    The biggest hurdle they face is people. Across the country, several mining and nuclear projects have been delayed due to nonviolent protests by farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous communities.

    In June, a report by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) titled ‘Concerted efforts by select foreign funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take down Indian development projects’ was ‘leaked’. It accused several grassroots movements, national and international NGOs and prominent public intellectuals of ‘threatening the country’s economic security’.

    According to the report: ‘A significant number of Indian NGOs (funded by some donors based in US, UK, Germany and Netherlands) have been noticed to be using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.’ In the report’s gun sights are people’s movements against nuclear and coal-fired power plants, uranium mines, genetically modified organisms, mega-industrial projects (particularly by POSCO and Vedanta), big dam projects (on the Narmada River and in Arunachal Pradesh) and extractive industries (oil, limestone in the northeast). The negative impacts of such activity on GDP growth is two to three per cent, says the report, without mentioning how its writers arrived at this estimate.

    One of the first groups to be choked financially was Greenpeace India. The home ministry instructed the Reserve Bank to block its foreign funding, which Greenpeace India successfully fought through the Delhi High Court. ‘This case throws light on the arbitrary manner in which the government has attempted to muzzle voices of dissent in democracy in
the name of financial scrutiny,’ said Samit
Aich, Executive Director of Greenpeace
India, after the hearing.1 Responding to
the ‘anti-development’ accusation against Greenpeace, Aich pointed to a recent judgment on corruption in coal mining allocations. ‘Environmental watchdogs have been blamed for slowing down the economy, but now the highest judicial authority of the country – the Supreme Court – has deemed all coal blocks allocated since 1993 as illegal. The court has come down heavily on the government and
the companies for “arbitrary” and “mindless” decisions. It is increasingly becoming clear that rampant corruption and crony capitalism are stalling the economic progress of the country.’

    Fake debate

    The IB report has triggered a fake debate
about NGOs sabotaging development. ‘It all depends on how you see development,’ says SP Udayakumar, a university teacher and anti- nuclear activist, who was named in the report. ‘When the Prime Minister travels the world to invite foreign capital and sell the country to corporations, it is called diplomacy. But when we try to safeguard our environment and our grandchildren’s future, we are considered anti- national.’ As part of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, Udayakumar is one of thousands fighting against the installation of 10 nuclear power plants along India’s coastline. He was harassed and intimidated by the previous government, too. His passport has been impounded, phones tapped, and he has been followed by intelligence officers.

    There is also a case to be made for the generally more equitable employment provided by NGOs, which surely contributes to the economy. Activist Kavitha Kuruganti from
the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture asserts that this contribution exceeds that of India’s Information Technology sector.

    Some of the non-violent movements listed 
in the report are supported by international groups such as Greenpeace, Amnesty and ActionAid, but several take no funding from NGOs. ‘We receive no foreign funding. We don’t even have an NGO registered. We are a local Gandhian movement that runs on people’s contributions, labour and support. Greenpeace has attended our meetings but has not funded us,’ says Udayakumar.

    Going after NGOs, particularly with accusations of the ‘foreign hand’ working against India’s interests, is nothing new.
The previous government, led by former World Bank economist Manmohan Singh, also targeted NGOs that did not fit in with the neoliberal worldview. In April 2013,
his government suspended the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licences of 4,000-odd NGOs with an ‘anti-national agenda’. An FCRA licence allows NGOs to receive donations from outside India. The Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of more than 700 grassroots organizations and people’s movements, appealed against this arbitrary action in the Delhi High Court. In September 2013, the court cancelled the home ministry order that had suspended INSAF’s FCRA licence – a landmark victory for NGOs across India that routinely face official harassment.

    Handpicked enemies

    India has possibly the largest number of NGOs in the world – more than 3.3 million, according to a 2009 government study.2 There is one NGO for every 400 Indians. They differ widely, and include religious charities, corporate-funded groups, political trusts, Gandhian groups, UN organizations, private school trusts, research organizations and advocacy groups. Some are little more than fraudulent fundraising vehicles; others are small, unsung groupings working tirelessly at the local level.

    While warning against foreign funding, the IB report ignored the millions of dollars sent to affiliates of the rightwing organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from corporates and other donors
in the US – funds that have gone to extremist organizations that instigate religious violence and propagate the nationalist Hindutva ideology. The RSS heads the Sangh Parivar, a network of rightwing organizations that include the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and militant groups Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, which share an ideology that defines Indian 
culture solely in terms of ‘Hindu
 values’. Inspired by Hitler, Mussolini
 and European fascism, Sangh Parivar’s ideologues envisioned India as a Hindu nation, where others live as ‘second-
class citizens’.3 The Stop Funding Hate campaign in the US attempts to create awareness about the Sangh’s insidious and violent activities, and stem the flow of funds from unsuspecting donors. However, in India, these organizations continued unhindered, with the blessings of the ruling BJP.

    The Right picks on a particular kind of NGO to attack: those that support popular movements aiming to thwart the state’s attempt to sell off the public interest to the highest bidder. The movements themselves are branded as anything from ‘anti-national’ to ‘Maoist terrorists’.

    RSS pic - Raj Patidar Reuters - NI NGO story

    Volunteers of the
 Hindu nationalist RSS go through a drill at a training camp in Bhopal. Foreign funding for these rightwingers 
goes unquestioned. (Raj Patidar / Reuters)

    The left critique

    The IB report rightly created a furore, with 
the left media and intellectuals mounting a strong defence of NGO activity and pointing out the report’s bias towards the government’s corporate agenda. But traditionally, the Left has offered a wider critique of NGOs, saying they offer sops to the poor, defusing their discontent and deflecting revolution. According to Arundhati Roy: ‘[NGOs] turn people into dependent victims and blunt political resistance. NGOs form a buffer between the sarkar [government] and public. Between empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.’4 Roy also faults them for being ultimately accountable to their funders, not the people they work with. This is likely true of several corporate- or institutionally funded NGOs that use Corporate Social Responsibility to obscure dissent against large industrial projects. But whether it holds for all other NGOs – even international NGOs like Greenpeace India, which raises more than 60 per cent of its funds from individual donors living in India – is debatable.

    One reason for the rise 
in the number of NGOs in 
India is that no political force is responding to people’s issues. The left parties, once the locus of anti-establishment dissent, have become part of the establishment. The Left’s peasant or urban labour movements are much weaker, so independent social movements have filled the vacuum. Anil Chaudhary of Popular Education and Action Center (PEACE), a group that trains rights activists, puts it succinctly when he compares NGOs 
to ‘scavengers who clean up what no-one wants to touch’. Several grassroots movements prefer to retain their independence from NGOs, while appreciating their support. ‘NGOs come and attend meetings and write reports, and that’s how they provide support to the movement,’ says

    Lingaraj Azad from the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Association), which is fighting against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa. ‘But if NGOs were to run the movement, it wouldn’t last too long. Their work ends when project funding ends. We have to stick it out even after projects end. That’s why we are a self-reliant movement, and that’s why it is so strong.’

    Azad is skeptical about the net impact of NGOs. ‘There are so many NGOs in India, with millions in funding. After so much funding, what have they done? What has changed in health or education or any of our other problems?’

    Other local activists are sometimes betrayed by NGOs that buckle to government pressure. There have been cases where they have changed their stand abruptly and misrepresented local activists in order to save their own skin, says academic and activist Dip Kapoor.5

    Whereas NGOs may at times fall short in their support of people’s movements against the state, it would be remiss to ignore the sterling work being done by hundreds of dedicated NGOs throughout India. Several work with the poorest in the country on a wide range of issues (that governments often ignore) and have had a positive influence on government policy.

    The great grab

    Their capacity to effect change does not always displease the government. For example, the former chief minister of Bihar praised Greenpeace India’s renewable energy projects in rural Bihar. It was an alliance of NGOs that led a successful campaign to get the government to pass the landmark Right to Information Act 2005, which has been used to tackle corruption and bring greater transparency in governance. In a region of Andhra Pradesh where farmers’ suicides are widespread, several NGOs and scientists are working to help farmers get out of the cycle of debt and grow crops without pesticides.

    The crux of the issue is a countrywide land grab, often facilitated by the government, which has the power to acquire land forcibly from local people for development projects. This is part of a global trend in which transnational corporations are taking over millions of hectares of land.

    Is the IB report just a warning before
a crackdown on movements against
corporate land acquisition? ‘We now have a democratically elected totalitarian government,’ said Arundhati Roy in an interview to Dawn newspaper shortly after Modi was elected. ‘What Modi will be called upon to do is to sort out what is going on in the forests, to sweep out the resistance and hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations.’ Will her words prove prophetic? n

    Dionne Bunsha is an award-winning journalist who divides her time between Mumbai and Vancouver. She was a senior editor at Frontline magazine and is the author of Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat, published by Penguin India.

    1 Greenpeace India, 2 September 2014; nin.tl/delhihc 2 ‘First official estimate: An NGO for every 400 people in India’, The Indian Express, 7 July 2010; nin.tl/indianex 3 Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A report on Nonprofit Groups, July 2014; nin.tl/hindunat 4 Arundhati Roy, ‘Help that hinders’, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2004. 5 ‘Social action and NGOization in contexts of development dispossession in rural India: explorations into the un-civility of civil society’ in NGOization: Complicity, contradictions and prospects, edited by Aziz Choudhry and Dip Kapoor, Zed books, 2013.

    PDF of article: NI478_NGOs_cov,ed-let,big-story

  • Author’s Note for the book ‘Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat’

    By Dionne Bunsha

    Penguin Books India 2006

    Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat
    27th February 2002:
    A compartment of the Sabarmati Express from Varanasi to Ahmedabad is set on fire at 8.05 a.m. after a fight at the Godhra station platform between Hindu activists on the train and a Muslim tea vendor. Fifty nine people were killed. Several activists of the fundamentalist groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad  (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, were in the train on their way back from a ceremony at the disputed site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

    28th February 2002:
    During the VHP bandh the next day, mobs target Muslims in Ahmedabad, Baroda and villages in 20 of Gujarat’s 26 districts, but mainly in north and central Gujarat. More than 1,000 people were killed.
    The violence continued in some places for three months. Refugees were stuck in relief camps for many months after.

    Three years later:
    Some refugees cannot return home.
    The culprits remain unpunished.
    Muslims and Christians in Gujarat still live in fear.

    “The golden rule of conduct is mutual tolerance, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragment and from different angles of vision.”
        – Mahatma Gandhi


    ‘Jai Shree Ram!’.
    –  ‘Hello, can I please speak to Mr Jaideep Patel’
    ‘Jai Shree Ram!
    –  ‘Hello?’
    ‘Say Jai Shree Ram!’
    –  ‘Namaste, I am a journalist and I would like to speak to Mr Patel’
    ‘Jai Shree Ram! You have to say Jai Shree Ram or I will not talk to you any further. Which country are you from? Aren’t you living in Bharat?’
    –  ‘But I did say Namaste to you, sir…’
    ‘Jai Shree Ram!’ (hangs up the phone)

    This telephone conversation was my first taste of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). On my first visit to Gujarat to cover the communal violence, I had called up their office hoping to speak to their leaders.

    I didn’t want to go back. One trip to Gujarat to report on the communal violence in March 2002 was enough.

    Hearing stories of inhumanity repeated in relief camp after relief camp. Making people relive their torture while telling me their stories. Sure, they were eager that I hear them and record their testimony. It had to be done. But it made me feel sick in the stomach. And it still hurts. I hoped it would disappear the first time I left Gujarat.

    But Gujarat would not let me be. What I saw and heard was too shocking to forget. The story didn’t seem to end. It just kept unfolding with more grisly twists and turns. For the refugees, the nightmare was just beginning. There was no way out of the camps. New victims poured in as more violence followed. Then, the police actually attacked two relief camps, claiming they sheltered ‘terrorists’. Here were people with little to eat. Still trying to find work, rebuild their homes. The attitude of the police alone could have easily driven them to violence. But it didn’t. They just wanted to get on with their lives.

    The government’s disregard made the refugee’s dilemma more tragic. And, at times, bizarre. Speaking to people from the administration or the middle classes made me wonder – were we talking about the same place?

    Any mention of the massacres was brushed aside if they had never happened, conveniently oblivious to the plight of refugees. Gujarat had to get on with business. Nothing should be said to damage Gujarat’s name. The thousands who suffered didn’t matter. ‘They (Muslims) deserved it.’

    Could people really think that?  Did children deserve to be thrown into fires? Did women deserve to be gang raped and later burned to death? Did innocent men, indeed anyone, have to be cut in pieces?  Even after hearing these stories often, I couldn’t fully come to grips with them. I wanted to understand the minds of people who could inflict such barbarism on others.

    I sought out both the big and the small fish. Funnily enough, some of them are now familiar faces to me, friendly when we meet.  And they are important characters in this book. (To be honest, it’s hard to always see them as murderers although I know they are.) In some strange way, these are people who have been programmed. They are whole-heartedly proud of what they did and can’t see it any other way. And the violence was all something that they had been trained and conditioned for. Prepped and psyched for it all these years at countless meetings, fed by local street gossip. The same doesn’t hold true for bigger leaders. Their motives were cynical in the extreme, and they made no bones about it.

    I still remember a senior leader BJP telling me, with a glint in his eye, that yes, he had also gone out on the streets to lead the trouble in his constituency. But then, ‘bus, ek do din ke baad bahut ho gaya. Itna nahin karna chahiye. (Enough, after one or two days. It shouldn’t go too far)’ But it did. Chief minister Narendra Modi allowed it to move to a dangerous extreme. (Over a span of more than two years, I tried to get an interview with him, but he kept refusing to grant me one.)

    My conversations with people like Babubhai Bajrangi, the main accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre, made me aware how confident the perpetrators were of getting away with murder, rape, kidnapping. Babubhai recounted with relish how he and his volunteers thrashed Muslim boys who married Hindu girls. Or happily described how he told the media waiting outside the riot commission: ‘Muslims are like diabetes and the Bajrang Dal is the medicine’. He proudly displayed press clippings as proof. Babubhai could get away with it because he knew he was pleasing the most powerful and had their support.

    Curious about what makes people like Babubhai, I visited a VHP camp, where they train their fighters in rifle shooting, karate, lathi practice. The recruits also attend a daily lecture where ‘knowledge’ is imparted, ‘knowledge’ which mainly spews hate against the minorities and glorifies Hindutva. I have tried to place the violence in the larger context of social and political processes that have contributed to the closed climate that exists today. Communal education, ghettoisation, the saffron takeover of the administration and the absence of any other organised political force have all led to the dominance of saffron groups that keep the fear of ‘the other’ brewing on both sides. And provides a climate that is ripe for any small incident to spark an outbreak of violence. Long after the killings were over, not only the victims, but Gujarat’s people and its social fabric remains scarred – by intolerance.

    There are less obvious victims of the riots too. Top police officers who happened to be Muslim. They were forced to watch helplessly while the city burned. Their high-ranking positions meant little in that period. They were not even posted on official duty. As thousands called begging to be saved, they couldn’t do much to help. Their own safety was fragile, the buildings they lived in were attacked. It drove them crazy. To de-stress, one officer practised golf at the Police Stadium. (It also disturbed him that he was playing golf while the city was burning) Months after the violence abated, a senior police officer was still scared to venture out for his morning walk. Two years later, they are more reluctant to discuss their marginalisation now than they were when it was happening.

    As time passed, I saw outspoken people lose their nerve. With the BJP re-capturing the state assembly less than a year after the violence, the dissenters ran out of steam. Too many people were lapping up the BJP’s version of events, however twisted. That’s when I realised the need to document what I had seen. To share with others the encounters I had with different kinds of people – on either side of the fence, some even sitting on the fence.

    Prominent businessmen publicly lionised him. One of them, a Parsi (who are normally quite clannish), told me that top industrialists like Jamshed Godrej and Anu Aga (also Parsis) were a bunch of idiots – because they publicly criticised Modi. ‘Nothing happened. Leave Gujarat alone,’ was the refrain. As one newspaper editor joked, ‘In a year, the BJP may succeed in convincing people that the riots didn’t happen. It was a mere fabrication of the ‘pseudo-secular’ English press.’ He was not far off the mark. That was indeed the BJP’s line.

    After the election, Gujarat virtually disappeared from the news pages. There was no violence. But that didn’t mean things were normal. Some refugees hadn’t left relief camps, especially those in rural areas. Even Salim Sindhi, the sarpanch of Kidiad village, was living in a tent at the Modasa relief camp in Sabarkantha until April 2004. None of the Muslims in his village could return home. They sold all their agricultural land there. Here was an entire community camping miles away from home, with no idea of how to find work and survive. Landowners reduced to casual labourers, roaming the streets everyday in search of work. In cities and towns too, an economic boycott was enforced. Shops were warned not to hire Muslims. Many employers were scared to take back their Muslim staff.

    Witnesses weren’t only fighting battles against the accused, but also against the police and prosecutors who did their best to botch up cases or close them down. They were also wrestling against their own fears. Around half the cases were closed as ‘true but undetected’. Literally, there were thousands of people waiting outside police stations everyday just to say – ‘Listen! This is what happened to us! This is how my mother was killed! My wife gang raped! My son burned!’ But the police were deaf, and also heartless.

    Refugees were fighting not only to rebuild their lives, but to get justice. It would have been easier to give up and move on. What a brave front they put up! It isn’t easy, fighting with everything possible ranged against you. Being the butt of lewd remarks in court while you narrate how your daughter was raped. Few would have the stamina or the courage to go through even one of those court hearings. But many did. Their stories had to be told. I wanted to take the story of Gujarat beyond the violence. To give the numbers faces and names. I also wanted people to see ‘the other side’. To understand Babubhai and his fellow activists in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Who were the ‘mobs’ in saffron bands and khaki pants? Why were they there?

    Children are always the most eloquent. I remember Noorunissa Ghachi, a small girl at the Godhra civil hospital, standing beside her father, Razak, who was slashed with sword wounds. As her father narrated the story of the attack in Pandharvada, the seven-year-old daughter girl kept looking up at me with big eyes. She waited for her father to pause for a second so that she could pipe in, ‘You know, they grabbed small children from their homes and threw them into the fire.’ She was anxious to tell me this. To let me know that she could have been one of those in the fire. Many months later, I met a young 13-year-old Bajrang Dal recruit at a procession in Rajkot. I asked him why he joined the Bajrang Dal. His answer was straight: ‘Miyaon ko marna (to kill Muslims)’. I couldn’t ask another question. This book is for both those children, and countless others like them.

    Hindus, too, suffered. The 59 who were burned to death in the Sabarmati Express. In the riots that followed, some of those who lived within Muslim colonies had to flee when their homes were burned. A few Hindu bastis were attacked in Muslim-dominated areas of Ahmedabad and Baroda. Their trauma, too, matters. However, those killed were overwhelmingly Muslims (713 of 975 according to government statistics). They were the targets of the pogrom. It was common in Gujarat to accuse the English-language press of being ‘pro-Muslim’. The truth is, you didn’t have to go looking for Muslim victims, the relief camps overflowed with them.

    Gujarat’s violence wasn’t a spontaneous Hindu Vs. Muslim conflict. It was politically engineered violence with a communal excuse. A planned, deliberate attempt to wipe out many Muslims. The targeting of Muslims had shades of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany. The marginalisation of this minority in Gujarat continues till today. I have tried to describe the daily forms of bias that Muslims encounter – ghettoisation, school segregation, job discrimination. Going beyond the stories of the victims, I have tried to understand how saffron politics affects people’s lives. Looking back in time, I’ve tried to analyse what makes Gujarat the BJP’s ‘Hindutva Laboratory’, a prototype for the Hindu right-wing party. What happened to Gandhi’s Gujarat where intolerance has reached such an extreme that VHP activists even attacked his Sabarmati Ashram?

    After the pogrom, Muslim refugees faced a hostile administration and social boycotts. Many are still barred from their own villages. Beyond the violence, I have tried to highlight the systematic discrimination against a community on a daily basis. With every riot, they are pushed further into ghettos. Despite having their families hacked, their homes burned, their wives gang-raped, they are the ones branded as ‘terrorists’. Such labels are used to justify the killings.

    ‘What about Godhra? Didn’t the Muslims burn the train?’ First, there is no clear evidence to show that the burning of the Sabarmati Express was a pre-meditated terrorist act. In fact, it might have been the result of a fight on the railway platform that escalated into gruesome violence. There is no clear-cut conclusion either way. It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth about Godhra, because of the political implications. But even if it was a terrorist attack, does it justify the killing of 1,000 other people, who had nothing to do with the crime? Because of the actions of a handful of criminals, can we punish all who follow the same religion? By that logic, do the actions of the Gujarat rioters damn all those of the Hindu faith? Hardly. In fact, the most Hindus had nothing to do with it and many rescued their neighbours and friends.

    People always expect that as a reporter covering such violence, I would have some interesting story to tell about how I saw someone killed, was attacked by a mob, had my camera snatched from me. ‘So tell us what happened in Gujarat.’ I just dodge the question. For one, I don’t think violence makes great conversation. Besides, I have no such ‘I was in deadly danger’ stories. The only time I was anywhere close to being mobbed is – believe it or not – at a relief camp in Godhra.

    As soon as we entered, hundreds descended on us. Everyone wanted their story recorded. I was whisked away into a room. People were brought in individually to speak to us. Those outside banged on the windows, desperate for their turn. When there’s no hope, you cling on to anything. I tried to temper their expectations. People have more faith in journalists than we deserve. These are times when you feel like a skunk journalist. Nothing you can do for so many, except interview a handful. And then what?

    Yet, people always go out of their way to help. I remember driving down a dark road towards Halol, calling the relief camp organiser Mehboob bhai to ask him how to get to his house. There were trees on both sides. But nothing else for miles around. Mehboob bhai tells me, ‘Bump pe milenge. (We’ll meet at the bump).’ What? ‘At the speed bump (meaning Speed Breaker) on the Halol Road. It’s a famous landmark.’ He didn’t want me to get lost trying to find his house. But how did he ever expect me to find him in the darkness at the appropriate ‘speed bump?’  Finally, I found my way through the lanes of the town and reached his home.

    Writing this book has been somewhat like finding that elusive speed bump. I never really planned it. My editor, N.Ram (always incredibly encouraging and supportive) suggested the idea. I’ve been going down a road that has pulled me along. I only hope it gets somewhere. You be the judge. And watch out for those bumps. Beware: it may churn your stomach too.


  • Teesta’s Tears

    in Gangtok, Sikkim

    Students and young people are at the forefront of a protest against hydel projects that are being planned in Sikkim.

    20080406- Sikkim dams - 2538The relay fast that has continued in Gangtok since June 2007. The Affected Citizens of Teesta comprises students, professionals and former politicians.

    DAWA LEPCHA has a tube stuck up his nose. It goes right down to his stomach. Sometimes, while he is asleep, it moves and chokes him. But the tube is his only sustenance. The juices poured through it are the only nourishment that keeps him alive.
    Dawa Lepcha has been on a fast since March 10. Last year he fasted for 63 days. He and his friends are protesting against the dams on the river Teesta in Dzongu in north Sikkim, the home of the Lepchas, Sikkim’s earliest inhabitants. These young men are in hospital, starving to make sure their tribe survives.

    “The entire Teesta river is being tunnelled. The main river of Sikkim is disappearing underground. Is this development?” asks Dawa Lepcha. “Sikkim is a very small State, but very rich in biodiversity. If they are allowed to go ahead with the hydel projects, they will ravage, plunder and destroy everything.”

    The Sikkim government has discovered that there is money to be made from hydel power. It has proposed around 26 dams across the State. Of these, seven projects are in Dzongu. It is part of the Central government’s master vision of the north-eastern region as “India’s Future Power House”, with around 168 dams planned. The projects are being cleared at any cost. Recently, Union Minister of State for Power Jairam Ramesh said at a press conference in Guwahati: “I want to check this MoU [memorandum of understanding] virus in the north-east.” Laws have been flouted to grant clearances. Environmental protection has taken a backseat.

    Sikkim dams - 2834 - dam siteThe power house of the Teesta Phase 5 project.

    “They plan to build four dams inside the Kanchenjunga National Park, two inside the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve and two on the border of the reserve. Most of Dzongu falls in the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve. The biodiversity of the entire region is at stake,” says Dawa Lepcha. “We Lepchas are nature worshippers. Many of our holy lakes and springs are in Dzongu. We cannot let our sacred land be destroyed.”

    Lepchas are the indigenous people of Sikkim, but they constitute less than 7 per cent of its population. They call themselves rong-kup (people of the ravine). Over the past two centuries, Nepali migrants have outnumbered the Lepchas in their homeland. The Lepchas are now a minority, a dying race. The Lepcha population is now 40,000, of which around 7,000 live in Dzongu, near the magnificent Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world.

    Dzongu, the holy land of the Lepchas, was a protected area even when Sikkim was an independent kingdom (Sikkim merged with the Union of India in 1975). Any outsider, even a Lepcha living outside Dzongu, has to apply for a permit to enter it. Only Lepchas from Dzongu can own land here. This was done to protect the sacred land, the dying community and its culture. “By building seven dams in the Lepcha-protected area, and allowing such a large influx of migrant labour, the government is violating its own laws. There are only 7,000 Lepchas in Dzongu. With just one project, we will be outnumbered. Our culture is under threat,” says Dawa Lepcha.

    Sitting on the hospital bed across Dawa Lepcha is Onchuk Lepcha. He has left his village Tingvong and come to Gangtok to join the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) hunger strike. “If the land is taken by industrialists, we will be refugees in our own land. It hurts us to see Dzongu being destroyed,” says Onchuk Lepcha. The ACT comprises students, professionals and former politicians who have come together to save the Teesta basin. It has not only Lepchas, but also members from the Bhutia community (Tibetans who migrated here several centuries ago) and environmental groups.

    To counter the ACT, politicians who want to see the project go through have started a pro-dam movement. They are organising rallies and have submitted a petition to the government asking for the dam projects to be implemented immediately.
    “Sikkim has the potential to generate 8,000 MW of power. We will get 12 per cent of the revenue from these projects. In every development project, there will be some minor destruction, but it’s not much,” says Sonam Gecho Lepcha, a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Dzongu, who is leading the pro-dam lobby. He was earlier part of the anti-dam movement and promised to stop the dams during his election campaign. “No doubt there is some apprehension in my constituency, but the majority of people are in favour of the project. Why else would our party win in the local elections?”

    Politicians are using their clout to beat the locals into submission, allege ACT activists. “The MLAs are pressuring people to give their consent to the dams. Even my father was with them earlier. But now I have convinced him about how much damage the dams will do. Most of the politicians and big land owners want the dam so that they can make money,” says Onchuk Lepcha. “People in our villages are innocent. They don’t understand the value of our land. Others can take advantage of them. That’s why the educated Lepcha youth are fighting. We know the dangers,” Onchuk Lepcha explains.

    The dams will channel water through tunnels into an underground powerhouse. Sikkim’s Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling claims to be a “green C.M.”. He claims that run-of-the river projects such as the Teesta dams involve smaller submergence of land as compared to storage dams, and hence cause less damage. However, construction of the Teesta Phase 5 project, the only dam which is almost complete, has proved otherwise. “The blasting of rocks to build the tunnels has resulted in the drying up of water sources and landslides in villages near the 23-km-long stretch. A lot of mud and debris has been dumped along the river banks,” says Dawa Lepcha.

    Close to the power house of Teesta Phase 5, we met Jung Bahadur Chetri, 70, from Singbel village. Though the State did not acquire his land for the dam, it has made him homeless. “Owing to the blasting, there are so many cracks in my house that it is not in a condition to live in. There are 20 of us in my family. We had to move to another person’s house during the monsoon,” says Chetri. “What’s even worse is that our farms are destroyed because the streams have dried up. We used to sell fruits and vegetables in the market. Now, there’s none for us to eat. The four District Collectors and the MLA have come and gone but no one has listened to us.”

    Ever since the dam was constructed, Bhim Prasad Nepal had to give up farming and work as a labourer at a quarry. “This dam has destroyed Sikkim. Water used to spring out of the earth here. Now, it’s all gone – the trees, the farms, the grass. All the villages are hungry,” says Bhim Prasad. “This is the mango season. But there is no fruit. The flowers dry up because there is no water below.”

    In Ralap 5 Mile, on the banks of the river, women complained that their homes were sinking. They have to walk several kilometres uphill in search of water after the streams have dried up. “If you ask for even a glass of water now, its difficult for people to get. People say that this dam is for our development. But we haven’t got anything from it, not even a single job. Just misery,” says Leila Chetri, a housewife.

    The environmental clearance for Teesta 5 was given in May 1999 on the condition that “no other project in Sikkim will be considered for environmental clearance till the carrying capacity study of the Teesta basin is completed”. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) violated its own condition, and cleared six projects even before the final carrying capacity study was submitted in August 2007.
    Floods and landslides

    It is a wonder how the MoEF cleared the dam projects after reading the carrying capacity report. The report recommends that there should be no large-scale development in the geologically sensitive and biodiversity-rich regions of north Sikkim because there is the danger of glacial lake outburst floods, massive landslides and flash floods. The report says that dam-building activities should not be carried out upstream of Chungthang, a town situated at the confluence of the Lachen and the Lachung Chu, tributaries of the Teesta, which is the starting point of the river. It is also a town imbued with Buddhist legend. Guru Padmasambhava, the revered founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, is said to have rested here and left his footprint on a rock. There are seven projects planned north of Chungthang.

    Considering that the Teesta basin is in an earthquake-prone area, the report also recommends more surveillance of seismic activity. It recommends small-scale projects south of Chungthang rather than large projects. The report also warns that the views of local communities should not be undermined or neglected. Besides warning about the dangers of dams, the carrying capacity report also focuses on local development measures such as reviving agriculture, organic farming and minor irrigation projects, infrastructure for floriculture, improving schools and health care facilities, protecting biodiversity and endemic species, and restricting commercial taxis.

    Although scientists have warned about the dangers of the dams, the Sikkim government insists that they are harmless. “It is the most eco-friendly project. There is no pollution, only a little during the construction,” says an official from the Sikkim Energy and Power Ministry. “We have got all the environmental clearances from the Central government. These are not big dams, just small diversion dams. They are not within the Kanchenjunga National Park.” When asked if dams are dangerous in a seismically sensitive zone, the official said, “The entire Himalaya is a sensitive zone but the Central government has planned hundreds of dams across the mountain ranges, not only in Sikkim. No one can prove that people’s homes were damaged owing to the blasting. It could be for other reasons such as earthquakes or landslides.”

    Though the Sikkim government’s newly formed Glacier & Climate Change Commission has initiated scientific studies on its melting glaciers, it has not factored in the effects that receding glaciers would have on the dams. “There’s no way the melting glaciers will affect the dam. Even if glacier water is not there, rainwater will feed the rivers,” says the official. His opinion contradicts international scientific opinion, which has warned of short-term flooding and the eventual drying of rivers owing to melting glaciers.

    Local people have consented to the project, the official claimed. “All landholders have given up their land for the Teesta projects without any objection. We have acquired 40 hectares of land. There was no force. They willingly took the money,” he said. “We are willing to address the concerns raised by the ACT by ensuring that workers who work on the project live in colonies outside the Lepcha area so that they are not affected.”

    20080410- Sikkim dams - 2849 - man and dogJung Bahadur Chetri from Singbel village. Chetri’s farm and house were affected by the blasting of rocks to build tunnels. His house has developed cracks and the streams that fed his farm are now dry.

    When asked if the damage outweighs the benefits, he said, “We will get 12 per cent of the power, which we can use or sell for revenue. We need electricity. If people don’t want it, why are they sending their children to schools and colleges in the cities?”
    But it is the students who are at the forefront of the ACT protest. The tunnels being built under the Teesta could kill the river basin. That is why these youth are risking their lives. They say they would rather choke on the tubes than let the tunnels destroy their sacred land.

    Frontline, Jun. 07-20, 2008.

  • What Clayoquot Sound Faces Now

    A historic opportunity to protect BC old growth forest, through new partnerships.

    By Dionne Bunsha, 19 Aug 2013, TheTyee.ca

    It has been 20 years since Clayoquot witnessed one of the biggest civil rights protests in Canada’s history against the logging of old growth forests. Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is one of British Columbia’s most popular tourist destinations, with white surf, long stretches of beaches and towering rainforests. In the summer of 1993, over 12,000 participated in the historic protests and more than 800 people were arrested. The protests were accompanied by an international campaign to boycott timber from B.C. Today, efforts to protect Clayoquot’s intact watersheds continue. The old growth forests haven’t yet been logged, but they are still not legally protected. Clayoquot Sound is considered important for conservation because it has some of the last remaining rare intact watersheds and old growth temperate rainforests in Vancouver Island.

    The ‘Summer of 1993’ protests in Clayoquot prompted landmark changes in forestry, not only in Clayoquot Sound, but also influenced land use planning in other regions like the Great Bear Rainforest. In response to the protests, the government of B.C. appointed a scientific panel comprising scientists and First Nations elders to devise sustainable forestry practices. The panel introduced a new approach to land use planning called ecosystem-based management that recognizes the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, and allocates areas for protection as well as sustainable human use. It led to community-based watershed planning, which incorporated precautionary measures to protect the ecological and First Nations cultural values of Clayoquot’s forests. The watershed plans added a network of reserves, resulting in a total of about 61 per cent of Clayoquot’s forested land base in parks or reserves. As an alternative to clear cutting forests, the panel suggested variable retention, a system in which only a portion of the cut block is logged and the rest is retained in order to preserve environmental values.


    Will First Nations and the B.C. government find a way to protect their intact forests? Photo by SparkyLeigh, Creative Commons licensed.

    The major forestry company operating in Clayoquot sold its Tree Farm Licenses (forestry licenses) to the five First Nations in the area — the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Yuutuʔitʔath and Toquaht — who formed Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd., a pioneering First Nations-owned forestry company. “Iisaak” means respect in the Nuu-chah-nulth language, and the company has avoided logging in the intact forests so far despite severe monetary pressures. In 1999, Iisaak signed a Memorandum of Understanding with environmental organizations in which it agreed not to log in Clayoquot’s ecologically intact watersheds, and to adopt the international Forest Stewardship Council certification. In exchange, the environmental groups agreed to endorse Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd. as a model of ecologically sustainable forestry, assist in its development and help market its products.

    Big debt to chop down

    However, it has been difficult for Iisaak to balance sustainable forestry and economic viability, a challenge that some of the world’s biggest forestry companies shied away from in this controversial region. The company has to service a debt that it incurred to buy the Tree Farm Licenses from the large forestry companies. Under pressure to show financial returns, Iisaak toyed with the idea of logging Flores Island in 2011, one of the intact watersheds. The plan prompted opposition from environmentalists and some First Nations members, and was not executed. “It would be tragic if the intact forests were cut just to pay off the banks, with no benefit to the communities,” said an environmental activist.

    An alliance of environmental organizations including the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, ForestEthics Solutions and Greenpeace have been working with Iisaak and the region’s First Nations leadership towards solutions to protect intact watersheds. Along with philanthropic organizations, they are trying to negotiate a “conservation finance” agreement with the First Nations that own Iisaak. The alliance is trying to raise money to pay off Iisaak’s debt and to fund sustainable economic projects in return for an agreement that the B.C. government and the region’s First Nations through Iisaak will protect Clayoquot’s remaining intact watersheds. To accompany this agreement, Saya Masso, a resource worker for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, feels that the B.C. government needs to reform forestry tenure law to give Tree Farm License owners the option of having a “conservation tenure.” This would ease the pressure on tenure owners to log and pay high rents to the government and allow sustainable options like carbon credits.

    Several First Nations members have fought to preserve Clayoquot’s old growth forests. Some leaders were part of the summer of 1993 protests. Prior to the protests, First Nations led historic demonstrations against plans to log intact Meares Island and won a landmark Supreme Court case in 1985 that declared an injunction against logging there. Now, the fate of Clayoquot’s forests is in their hands. Will the First Nations and the B.C. government find a way to protect their intact forests?

    The Tyee, 19 August 2013.


  • Gone with the Waves


    Rapid sea invasion along the Gujarat coast is forcing families of fishermen to abandon the sea and their homes.



    danti1Villagers with bricks retrieved from their old homes in Danti.

    DANTI in Valsad district of Gujarat is being invaded. More than half the residents of this sleepy fishing village have fled already. It is not guns and troops that they are running away from. The sea they revere has swallowed up the village and is making them beat a retreat every year. Only the poorest remain on the edge of the village, with just a sea wall for protection. On one side of the wall are lashing waves. On the other are ramshackle, makeshift huts. No one here has permanent brick homes. They have to rebuild every year after the waters rush in over the wall. The sea knows no boundaries.

    Govindbhai Tandel is the first to face its fury. His hut lies at the tip of the village, very close to the seafront, unprotected even by a stone wall. Govindbhai is back home after spending eight months away at sea on his fishing boat. He returns to Danti during the monsoon, when it is too rough to be out fishing. But there is no rest at home. His family is hard at work filling their porch with sand, trying to elevate the entrance to prevent the tide from coming in. There is not much they can do. Water will flood their home anyway. It is only an effort at damage control.

    “We have moved back three kilometres in the last 20 years. Our original village was out there. You can’t even see it now,” says Govindbhai. “Three village wells have been submerged. We’ve relocated the school thrice. I’ve shifted home thrice so far. Can you see out there? That’s where my last house was,” he says pointing to a distant spot in the sea.

    The village is long gone, but lives in memory. As we walked around the village, most people pointed to various landmarks – all in the water. Nostalgia is the only thing that remains. During low tide, the beach is a hive of activity. Families are hard at work, trying to salvage bricks from the ruins of their old homes.

    On the seashore is a brick wall with an arch – the remnants of Damentiben Tandel’s house. “It broke three years ago. Since then, we have kept moving and rebuilding every year,” she says. “When the water comes in every monsoon, it’s knee-high. We have to put our kids on the roof in the pouring rain. We don’t have the money to buy land and move out, so we remain here.”

    danti2A road built two years ago near Kaladra village has been eroded. A sea wall (in the foreground) offered little protection.

    There is often a lot of water in their homes, but not a drop to drink. “Our wells are in the sea. We get drinking water from the tap once every week or in 15 days. Otherwise, we have to buy water. Tempos come and supply water. It is Rs.30 a barrel, which lasts a day,” says Damentiben.

    Danti is on the coast of south Gujarat, one of the most industrialised areas in the country. It is called the `Golden Corridor’, but has some of the country’s worst polluted spots such as Ankleshwar and Vapi. Dandi, the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s historic Salt March, is 12 km from Danti.

    “The fish have gone further into the sea because of [industrial] pollution. And the water has come further in; so we have suffered. We can’t go very far in our tiny boats. We used to get 400 to 600 fish in one night. Now we barely get a hundred,” says Shantibhai Tandel, a small fisherman. He has shifted back six times and is now in his seventh house. “I want my kids to study. The only thing is we can’t afford donations for their education or bribes to get them a job. If they are lucky, they will find a job, otherwise they will have to stay here, continue fishing and face the hardships.” Sandwiched as they are between the sea and the saltpans, there is not much further they can retreat.

    Many from the village have moved to other towns or to Dandi in the past eight years. But like Mahesh Hari Tandel, those who moved out for safety reasons still yearn for the sea. “My boat is still in Danti and I feel I have to go there every day,” he says. “When my father was alive, we shifted our house four times. After he died, our house broke twice and then we moved here. After we lost the mangroves in the last 15 to 20 years, many people had to migrate to big port towns like Mumbai, Porbandar or Veraval in search of work. Earlier, we could survive by fishing close to the shore and in the mangroves.”

    The villagers along the coast are not sure why the sea is advancing at such a voracious pace. Some fishermen guessed it might be “because there are more storms in the sea”. One of the reasons could be a rise in sea level owing to global warming. They don’t know what global warming means, but have become “environmental refugees”.

    Although they are barely surviving, the fisherfolk are facing the brunt of reckless consumption in more affluent places. Ironically, most of these villages have not been provided electric metres. People tap electricity from the power cables that run above their homes.

    danti3A house ravaged by the sea at New Kaladra in Bharuch district.

    Geologists from M.S. University, Vadodara, are studying the Gujarat coastline as part of an all-India study by the Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “Our preliminary observations reveal that the seawater has shifted in by 10-15 metres in 10 years, and at places it has moved around 80 metres horizontally,” says Dr. Nikhil Desai, who is heading the survey of the Gujarat coast. They are comparing recent satellite images with Survey of India maps prepared in the 1960s, and have observed that the contours of Gujarat’s coast are changing.

    Several places along India’s 7,500 km-long coastline are experiencing similar erosion. In the Sunderbans, two islands have already vanished from the map, displacing 7,000 people. Twelve more islands are likely to go under owing to an annual 3.14 mm sea level rise, which will make 70,000 people refugees. Five villages in Orissa’s Bhitarkanika National Park, famous for the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles, have been submerged, and 18 others are likely to go under. India is one of 27 countries identified by the United Nations as the most vulnerable to the impact of global warming-related sea level rise.

    Rising sea level

    “Observations suggest that the sea level has risen at a rate of 2.5 mm a year along the Indian coastline since the 1950s. A mean sea level rise of between 15 cm and 38 cm is projected by the middle of the century along India’s coast. Added to this, a 15 per cent projected increase in intensity of tropical cyclones would significantly enhance the vulnerability of populations in cyclone-prone coastal regions,” according to Dr. Murari Lal, a renowned climatologist engaged in research related to climate change vulnerability analysis in India. Lal has been one of the lead authors of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for over 15 years, which collates research about climate change from scientific work across the world.

    danti4Jayantibhai Rathod repairs his fishing net at New Kaladra, where he resettled after the fishing colony at Kaladra was submerged 15 years ago.

    “No local studies have been done in India to measure the precise impact of global warming. But, in the last decade, several factors contributed to the loss of coastal land due to sea level rise,” says Murari Lal. “Arctic ice has melted three times faster than predicted by the IPCC in 2001. The sea level has risen twice more than projected by the climate models. Stronger surface winds and storms have resulted in higher waves, which reach further inland. Human interventions, such as the removal of mangroves, reclamation and construction along the coast, have also led to faster erosion of the coast.”

    “Sea rise due to global warming could be just one of the reasons for the erosion along the Gujarat coast,” says Desai. “Local factors could also be responsible. Neo-tectonic activity – shifts in the level of the seabed – could also cause the sea level to rise. If there are disturbances in sediment budgeting along the coast, the amount of deposits from rivers, it could also affect the water level.” Their study will determine which of these reasons is driving the changes along the coast.

    Further north, at the estuary of the river Narmada, Kaladra village in Bharuch district is also being nibbled away by the sea. Several houses are broken and hanging on the edge of a cliff of sand that threatens to cave in at any point. A sea wall built 20 years ago is now a relic of the past. A road constructed two years ago (at a cost of Rs.30 lakh) has been cut like a cake by the lashing waves. “The poorest are the most directly affected by this. Most families here are in a dilemma. They can’t afford to shift but they cannot stay here either,” said Desai.

    danti5Children help in raising the level of Govindbhai Tandel’s house in Danti as the family braces itself for the onslaught of the monsoon.

    Kaladra too has been almost abandoned. The Rathod fishing colony here was washed away some 20 years ago. The fisherfolk resettled in “New Kaladra”, a little higher up the estuary, but their houses are still temporary. Here too, there is no escape from the advancing water. “For around six days every monsoon, the water is waist deep. Then, we bring our boats to the doorstep and fill all our stuff in it,” says Jayantibhai Rathod, a fisherman.

    When fishermen are forced to run away from the sea and they do not want their sons to continue their trade, it is time to start worrying. “This is a land of sand so you can never tell when it will shift,” says Shantibhai Tandel.

    danti7A view of an eroded road in Kaladra.

    “We will keep moving back as far as we can. Then, it’s in the hands of destiny.” It is total surrender to the forces of nature. But how much of Nature’s fury has been because of the recklessness of other people? The residents of Danti and Kaladra are too busy surviving the onslaught of the sea to dwell on the actions of others. It is the last thing on their minds as they sit on their rooftops in the pouring rain.

    Frontline, Jul. 14-27, 2007




  • Dam lies

    As Narmada River dams continue to rise, so too do the protests about the homes and livelihoods disappearing under dam waters… and the government lies about those who are displaced.


    It started as just another VIP visit. With platoons of security guards, fleets of flashing cars and bowing bureaucrats in tow, three Ministers of the Indian Government were sent by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to assess whether villagers submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) – a huge dam on the Narmada river – had been resettled properly.

    So the Ministers made their way from New Delhi, the capital, to Madhya Pradesh in central India, one of the three states affected by the project. The first stop: the red-carpet welcome by Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He assured them that all project-affected families (PAFs) would be rehabilitated by 30 June 2006. On that optimistic note, Saifuddin Soz (Minister of Water Resources), Meira Kumar (Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment) and Prithviraj Chavan (from the Prime Minister’s office) set out to visit the submerging villages.
    Read more

  • Red carpet for lions, red card for people

    Some of the Gir lions needed another home. The adivasis in Kuno forest gave up theirs on promises of a better life. But were given little more than stony land

    in Kuno forest, Madhya Pradesh
    Akke and Kheru share a beedi with their friends and stare at the stone in front of them. Blazing heat and rugged terrain is all they have. No trees, no crop, no cattle, no food, just stony land. Nothing can be grown here. All they can do with it is hammer away, breaking rocks for construction. They get just Rs 70 for a 100 huge boulders.
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  • The lost generation

    Nine out of 100 tribal children die of hunger in Maharashtra. Though Adivasis live in the most resource-rich areas, they are India’s most deprived people.

    in Nandurbar district, Maharashtra

    Eight-month-old Gomi was at the age when she could crawl. But when we met Gomi and her mother Jatribai Bila Padvi in Kua village, Nandurbar district, she could barely raise her hand. Extremely weak and undernourished, she had been falling ill constantly. “She always has fever or diarrhoea. It’s difficult to keep taking her to the hospital. It’s too far (11 km) and the doctor’s medicines don’t seem to work,” said Jatribai. Besides, Jatribai also had two other children to look after and had to work everyday unloading sand from trucks while her husband had gone in search of work to Gujarat. The local anganwadi (child care centre), which is supposed to provide food to infants everyday, has also failed to deliver the goods. “They don’t give the children anything. What’s the point of taking them there?” she asked. Five days after we met Jatribai, her daughter passed away.
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