Grassroots Heroine With A Will Of Steel
By Suroopa Mukherjee, Womens Feature Service
The 2008 'Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime' has been announced, and this year the laurels go to Dayamani Barla, the Jharkand activist and torchbearer of the struggle for land rights of the displaced Munda tribe, to which she belongs. As leader of the Adivasi-Moolavasi Astitva Raksha Manch (Front for the Protection of Identities of Tribal people and Original dwellers), she has spearheaded a sustained campaign against Arcelor Mittal's $8.79 billion steel project in Jharkhand, which threatens to acquire 12,000 acres of forestland, and evict entire villages.
Interacting with Dayamani one realises the significance of an award that is more inspirational than competitive. The award was instituted in 2007 by two women, Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla, survivors of the industrial disaster in Bhopal, and members of International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), which has fought a sustained battle against chemical giants Union Carbide/Dow. It is, therefore, befitting that they chose to set up a Trust with the money they received from the Goldman Environment Award (2004), to recognise women like them who have led people's movement against corporate crime. "We want to felicitate the struggle of unknown women of extraordinary courage from remote, neglected parts of India," Rashida Bi says with pride.
What inspired Dayamani's struggle to fight for the rights of her community? As a journalist Dayamani has used her pen like a crusader. When I requested her to write down her thoughts on issues that concerned her she was more than willing. And true to her words she sent me an impassioned account of her struggles. What is most striking about her story is her firm conviction that empowerment comes through literacy and engagement with people's causes. In her case, both factors involved great deal of hardship and determination. Her story is both uncommon and insightful.
Born in a poor tribal family in a remote village in the Gumla district of Jharkand, she was educated mostly in Ranchi, where her mother worked as a domestic help. Her father and brothers eked out a living as daily wagers to pay off the debt on their mortgaged land. Dayamani's experience of displacement came early, with the loss of their ancestral land. "It was poverty that dispersed my family. I kept up my studies by doing all kinds of odd jobs to pay my school fees. I washed dishes in a police chowki and got free food in return. My teachers were very encouraging. My principal filled up my examination form and paid my fees. Once I passed my matric examination I took up tuition with young girls, which saw me through my college education." Right from the start Dayamani understood the importance of being independent and taking the best out of the system.
Her earliest assignment was with an NGO on an education programme for spreading pedagogical skills and tools for learning. At the same time, she got involved with the 'panchayat' (village council) elections in her district in 1996. It introduced her to fieldwork at the district level, and strengthened her understanding of the democratic process. That led to the crossroads. She had to take an important decision about her future. Recalls Dayamani, "Either I worked on a regular salary within the constraints of an organisation or joined the movement. I chose to fight for the rights of land/forest/livelihood of indigenous people."
Her career entered an important phase. In 1995, the Bihar government had announced the building of dams on the Koel and Karo rivers to produce 710 megawatts of electricity. "I plunged into the movement. I travelled from village-to-village to strengthen the protest against the dams. It was then that I understood the nature of development and how it impinged on the rights of tribal people. In the villages, I got to see how people had been displaced without proper rehabilitation. The unproductive scraps of land people got in exchange, without any legal rights, did nothing to remove acute poverty. Most men pulled rickshaws, women cut grass, while children went without education."
Dayamani, at this point, decided to become a journalist. "Many tribal youths were associated with the Netarhat and Koel-Karo struggle. We joined hands to start a broadsheet in 1996. I was assistant editor of the paper. I wrote extensively on the struggle, which was brought out in installments. I was determined to highlight the truth. I wanted to create a forum where issues could be fearlessly discussed and public opinion built. The published news made the authorities sleepless and shook up the administration."
Journalism taught her one thing: "Wielding the pen and entering the battlefield were twin efforts." She realised that to get justice one needed to work together by sharing knowledge on all kinds of struggle against oppression. She has written two booklets titled "Pains of Development" and it has shaped her own fight against Arcelor Mittal. She also maintains a blog that gives her instant connectivity. It has become a forum where people can interact and thrash out matters with her. As an AID Sathi she gets a fellowship that helps her continue with her writing. (AID, or Association for India's Development, produces a monthly online and a quarterly newsletter on developmental activities.)
She is most eloquent when she describes the small eating joint she runs to earn her living. "It's no bigger than a tea stall. It's my office-address. This is where all the meetings are held, action plans are sketched out, and this is where I have met thinkers, intellectuals, writers, academics and social activists from all walks of life. The henchmen from the company have sent their 'dalals' (goons) to threaten me here or to work out a compromise. In one corner I keep my typewriter. For the first three years I used to wake up at four in the morning to do the cooking. Today, I have employed tribal youth and I have taught them to be self-sufficient. My tea stall is well-known, for it offers the social space to think of ways to change society."
Clearly, the Chingari Award will go a long way in celebrating the confluence of women and people's power, help bring struggles for change into national focus and expose the exploitation being done in the name of development.
Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.
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