At Idinthakarai beach, 53-year-old Mildred put her phone down on the sand, adjusted her saree, and with a broad smile, walked to the water. She dove in and began to swim against the waves. After a few minutes, she walked out drenched, beaming with joy. “Did you collect enough shells?” she asked, before bending down and running after the lapping water to pick up some shells for herself.

As a child, Mildred recounted, she would collect these shells, make small decorative pieces and sell them on the beach.

But these idyllic memories and her love for the ocean stand in sharp contrast to the turbulence that she has been witness to in the decades since. Mildred, who goes by one name, has been at the forefront of protests in Idinthakarai against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, around 8 km away, and has led and participated in a range of agitations against the project, from marches to sit-ins and hunger strikes. She currently has 127 cases filed against her, for alleged offences ranging from sedition to waging war against the government.

Mildred is a figure that many activists and researchers characterise as an environmental defender.

A 2016 report by the United Nations notes that environmental defenders are “often ordinary people living in remote villages, forests or mountains.” In many instances, “they are indigenous leaders or community members who defend their traditional lands against the harms of large-scale projects such as mining and dams”. The report adds that these defenders “play a critical part in ensuring that development is sustainable, inclusive, non-discriminatory and beneficial for all, and does not cause harm to the environment.”

Mildred lives in the village of Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu, and has been at the forefront of protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Activists and researchers often term individuals like her “environmental defenders”. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Further, the report observed that these activists are at extreme risk of violence at the hands of the state, powerful corporations and others. The risks that these defenders face include of “assassinations, violent attacks and threats to their families, enforced disappearances, illegal surveillance, travel bans, blackmail, sexual harassment, judicial harassment and use of force to dispel peaceful protests”. According to the report, India is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders, alongside countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Cambodia.

Arpitha Kodiveri, an environmental lawyer and assistant professor at Vassar College, noted that India lacks protective legal shields for environmental defenders.

“There is a sense now that if you are an environmental defender, you can be seen as a defender and be protected under the law, or you can be criminalised for your activism,” Kodiveri told Scroll. “But because there isn’t a protective legal shield, it’s the criminalisation that the law is allowing for more and more.”

Women, Kodiveri noted, often face the worst of such violence. A 2023 blog post of the Conflict and Environment Observatory noted that women “shoulder more domestic responsibilities” that involve the use of natural resources – these activities include gathering water and harvesting produce. As a result, they are more likely to come into conflict with the state or with private players who are also seeking to extract the same resources.

Apart from direct physical attacks, the violence that results can be economic, Kodiveri added – for instance, an individual’s plantation may be destroyed overnight. It can also take the form of surveillance, which she described as a kind of “everyday violence”, involving practices such as repeated visits by police personnel to defenders’ houses.

Saadhna Meena has first-hand experience of such violence.

In 2020, Meena, who has been working on activism related to land, forests, and water in Rajasthan for most of her life, was hit by a car when she was riding her two-wheeler from Udaipur to her home in the village of Zawar, 40 km away. She was then left lying unconscious on the road. “I don’t know how long I might have been lying on the road unconscious,” the 61-year-old said. When she awoke, she was in a hospital in Udaipur, and three days had passed.

Over the following year, Meena learnt that her attacker had allegedly acted on behalf of the few supporters of zinc mining in the region. This was one of the key activities against which Meena had campaigned for decades, after residents began complaining of polluted water bodies, crashing groundwater levels and declining agricultural productivity, allegedly as a result of the mining.

Her work had left those employed in the mines feeling insecure about their jobs. “‘You are a woman, why do you need to do all this?’ they would tell me or tell my male relatives to tell me,” Meena added. “When these requests were not heard, then I was hit.”

Scroll travelled to Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu and Zawar in Rajasthan to meet Mildred and Meena, as well as to Gumla district in Jharkhand to meet another activist, Rose Xaxa. Their stories were revealing of how deeply intertwined the work of environmental defenders is with their lives and how great the risks they bear are, even as they fight for the health and safety of the wider society around them.

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For Meena, environmental activism came naturally. “I was married to a communist, and I was born into a family of freedom fighters,” Meena said.

Meena was born in 1962 in Udaipur’s Kherwara tehsil, her parents’ youngest child and only daughter. Growing up, she watched her father work in Sewa Sangh, an organisation formed by educational and social reformers of the time, including Padma Shri awardee Bhogilal Pandya and Mohan Lal Sukhadia, who later became the chief minister of Rajasthan. Her father supported her education, enrolling her in Rajasthan’s first boarding school for women when she was five. He also encouraged her when at the age of 14, she joined the Student Federation of India, the left-wing student union. Two years later, she joined the National Federation of Indian Women.

Saadhna Meena has first-hand experience of the violence that environmental defenders can face. In 2018, she was attacked with an iron rod while riding from Udaipur to her home in the village of Zawar, 40 km away. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In 1976, when Meena was in the first year of college, her father passed away. “After that, I completed my education in pieces,” she said. “I got alphabetical knowledge from formal learning, but that of social movements from my family.”

Unlike Meena, Rose Xaxa did not come from a family that was involved in social and political activism, but early in her life, she chose to do social work. This gradually led her towards joining the fight for the forest rights of her community.

Xaxa was born to an Oraon or Kurukh Adivasi family in Sipringa village in Jharkhand’s Gumla district. She studied up to Class 12, after which her father’s early death compelled her to take up tailoring work to support herself.

In 2001, Xaxa joined Gram Uthaan, a church-run NGO in Gumla as a social worker. The work took her to villages across the district. Her responsibilities ranged from setting up self-help groups to facilitating tailoring classes. “We do whatever it is the people need,” she said. In 2008, when the Forest Rights Act, or FRA, was enacted, she began work as a forest rights activist in Gumla and its neighbouring districts. Her responsibilities included educating and training Adivasi people about their rights under the law, and the procedures to secure them. “The law was made, but the people weren’t taught how to use it,” said Xaxa.

Such work is particularly crucial given how vulnerable Adivasi communities are: according to EJ Atlas, an international data-collection platform that documents environmental justice movements, 57% of environmental conflicts in India involve Adivasi communities.

Rose Xaxa, who works in Jharkhand began her career as a social worker, and later became an activist. Her work with Adivasi communities is particularly crucial given that 57% of India’s environmental conflicts involve Adivasis. Photo: Nolina Minj

Mildred, who goes by one name, was born in Kanniyakumari district, to a family that belonged to the fisherfolk community. “The sea is my mother,” she said.

Because her family was not financially well off, Mildred only studied until Class 5, after which she started working. She took up a variety of daily-wage work, including selling sea shells and construction labour – most of these jobs kept her close to the sea. She also helped her parents with fishing and selling their catch.

When Mildred was still a young child, her parents moved for work to Idinthakarai, in the neighbouring Tirunelveli district, leaving her and her siblings behind. “When I visited them here once, I remember thinking how beautiful the place was,” she said. “I hoped that someday it would become my home.”

Mildred had her first experience of activism when she was around 18 years old and visited her parents in Idinthakarai. She recounted that her mother had mentioned a protest in the village against some “big corporation” that was going to take away land from the fishing communities. “I didn’t know the details but I went along with her for the protest,” she said. “After a while, the police came and started beating up the protestors. So, we ran away from there.”

When she turned 20, Mildred returned to Idinthakarai – this time, to make it her home, after she married a resident of the village. In the years that followed, Idinthakarai became a centre of protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Apart from leading and participating in these protests, Mildred also began to travel to different parts of the state to spread awareness on the harms of the plant.

Rajasthan’s Zawar falls within a fifth schedule area, which refers to tribal areas recognised by the constitution, in which gram sabhas have decision-making authority in dealing with forest produce, water bodies and other traditionally used community resources. The region is home to over 3,500 hectares of zinc deposits, which Hindustan Zinc, a public sector company, began mining in 1950. In 2002, the company was partially acquired by Vedanta, which took over the operation of the mines. Scroll emailed questions to Vedanta about the problems allegedly caused by their mining operations in the region – as of publication, the company had not responded.

Meena moved to Zawar in 1980, after she married Meghraj Tawar, who later became a member of the state’s legislative assembly, from the Communist Party of India. She had worked with him closely when he stood for elections that same year.

Moving to and living in Zawar gave Meena a close perspective of how polluted the region’s waters and unproductive its agricultural lands had become over 30 years of zinc mining.

“I used to think that jal, jungal, jameen and mining are separate issues,” she said, on a drive into mining-impacted villages near Zawar, surrounded with lush forests. “But I slowly started understanding that it’s all connected.”

A pond in Zawar that villagers have stopped using as a drinking water source for their cattle because its water grew too polluted. Vedanta’s zinc mining unit is situated less than 100 metres from the pond. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In 1993, Meena joined the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, as part of which she grew involved in activism on matters such as mining and Adivasi identity. By the end of that decade, she also became associated with Mines, Minerals and People, an alliance of mining-affected people across 16 states in India. In the years that followed, she began mobilising women in and around Zawar who were fighting against mining in the region.

Meena recounted that among the victories she most cherished over the course of her work was one from 2021, in the village of Bara in Udaipur district.

The village inaugurated its gram sabha committee in 2020 – these committees are constituted under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA. The act mandates that these gram sabhas have to be consulted before land is acquired in these areas, as well as before mining grants are issued.

In 2021, residents of the village began to notice drilling activity in their common pasture land, and observed large vehicles driving to and from the site – no one had sought permission from the village for this activity.

“We understood what the Act is and its rules through Saadhna ji,” Suraj Mal, the president of the committee in Bara said. “We had already seen people in Zawar suffer due to the mining, who were promised jobs years ago but never got them. They are still wandering.”

Residents decided that they did not want to face a similar future – they declared that the work was in contravention of their rights under PESA and undertook a sit-in protest for a week; at the end of that week Vedanta ceased the mining activity.

One of the zinc mining units in Zawar. Hindustan Zinc, a public sector company, began mining in the region in 1950. In 2002, the company was partially acquired by Vedanta, which took over the operation of the mines. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In another instance, about a month later, the state’s forest department began constructing a boundary wall in the northern part of the village to demarcate areas that the department alleged was forest land – once more, the village gathered to protest, arguing that these were lands legally owned by residents of the village. “This time, the forest officials tried to put a case on me for disrupting public work,” Mal said. “That’s when we called Saadhna ji and she came to help us negotiate with the officials.”

Meena engaged officials in a discussion of PESA’s provisions. Her ability to negotiate such disputes is the skill she is proudest of developing over her decades of work.

“When I am able to confidently tell authorities about the provisions of law and that our protests are not anything wrong, they listen to us and soften,” Meena said. “I feel I have the knowledge. That gives me confidence that we can go ahead and work on this issue.”

Scroll emailed queries about the contested land to the state’s forest department – as of the time of publication, it had not responded.

Remnants of a boundary wall that the forest department began building in Bara in 2021. Villagers protested this work, arguing that these were legally owned private lands belonging to residents. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

As residents grew increasingly aware of their rights, more of them began joining Meena in her work in and around Zawar. “In 2019, about 1,500 women joined us to do dharnas in front of the company office on this issue,” she said, referring to Vedanta, “while the employees stood in large numbers there to intimidate us.”

Meena recounted that the company had made certain promises when leasing lands from locals, including that they would provide health and education to residents. The protestors, most of whom were from the worst-affected village of Kanpur, demanded that the company fulfil these promises.“Only after the protest did the company start providing water through pipes and water tanks in Kanpur village,” Meena said.

Like Meena, Xaxa too has routinely been in conflict with forest and administrative officials as she has undertaken a range of work, from dispelling blatant misinformation about the FRA to combating discrimination of Adivasis by the local administration of Gumla and other districts. If nobody speaks up against them, officials “make people run around in circles,” said Xaxa, who has been associated for many years with Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch, a coalition platform of different groups working on forest rights, and the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, another coalition of various activist groups in the state.

She recounted an instance in which residents of villages near Kamdara block told her that the circle office was not giving them claimant forms under the FRA despite their repeated requests. Xaxa accompanied the villagers to the office, where an official insisted that they submit documents to him, after which he would file claims for them. This was inconsistent with the provisions of the FRA, under which the gram sabha initiates the processing of these claims – but, Xaxa said, the official insisted that the villagers were “fools” who were not competent to manage the work and that they should listen to him because he was a government employee. Xaxa fought back, arguing that it was the people who funded the government.

“This office exists for the development of this block,” she recounted saying. “Your job exists because of us, and the salary that you receive is from the taxes that we pay.” The officer let her speak to a senior, who quickly issued the necessary forms.

Xaxa recounted that early in her career, she underwent several training sessions in Delhi under the government and various NGOs, on the FRA, as well as on the interpretation and implementation of various other laws such as POCSO and the Domestic Violence Act. This training, she explained, allowed her to overcome a range of obstacles and arguments presented by officials.

For instance, government employees sometimes told villagers trying to file claims that the FRA was a scheme and that the deadline to apply for land titles had expired – Xaxa intervened in these cases to point out that it was not a scheme but a law, which laid out no deadlines for filing claims. In other instances, forest department workers refused to share maps of a village – Xaxa recounted that she argued, “The forest belongs to everyone, it is not your property. We are not stealing from you.”

In over 15 years, Xaxa said, she has helped around 600 people file individual claims and 80 villages file community claims for forest rights.

In Idinthakarai, as Mildred clashed frequently with authorities, the state’s response was a particularly systematic repression, as evinced by the 127 cases filed against her.

Her early years in the village were much calmer – she worked with her husband, cleaning and selling the fish he caught. They had three children. “I was very happy to make Idinthakari my home,” she said.

But she and other residents of the village remained anxious about the looming threat of the power plant.

The plant had seen no activity for many years. The project began with an agreement signed in 1988 between the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the agreement remained dormant until 2000, when it was revived by the government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The government constructed a port in Kudankulam in 2004 so that raw materials could be transported to the plant, and in 2008, the power plant administration began discussions on setting up four reactors. Mildred recalled that authorities repeatedly assured villagers that they would find jobs once the plant was fully built. Yet, the villagers remained suspicious of their intentions and organised small protests through those years. “There would be protests now and then and I would attend them,” she said. “We were anxious about our land. But we weren’t educated on how much the plant would affect our lives. That only happened in the late 2000s.”

It was around this time that SP Udayakumar, an anti-nuclear activist, began to visit coastal villages in the district to spread awareness about the nuclear plant. “Initially there wasn’t too much interest,” he recounted. “I wasn’t able to mobilise a big protest, and I was beginning to give up.”

The first nuclear power unit of Kudankulam was scheduled to begin operations in 2009 – but the project saw delays, and trials at the plant commenced only in 2011.

In March of that year, the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred in Japan, the largest such disaster after the 1986 accident in Chernobyl. News and images of the disaster appeared in newspapers and television channels across the world, and reached the small town of Idinthakarai too.

“I suddenly got a call asking me to rush to Idinthakarai because the people had begun mobilising,” Udayakumar said. When he arrived, he saw the fishing community, predominantly women, gathered in protest. Among those in the forefront was Mildred. “She was on a hunger strike and she suddenly collapsed,” he recalled. “That is when I noticed Mildred for the first time.”

Idinthakarai became a hotspot for activists across the state as more and more fisherfolk began to join the protests against the plant. The protests in Idinthakarai soon made national headlines and several major political figures of the state visited the site. Hundreds of fisherfolk continued their protest for months. “I had no idea it would become so big,” Udayakumar said.

A 2012 protest near the Kudankulam nuclear power project. Protests in the region gathered steam in the early 2010s, after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan stoked fears of similar mishaps elsewhere. Photo: Reuters

Mildred regularly participated in hunger strikes during this time. A particularly fond memory she recounted was of one protest in which she climbed onto the bow of a boat and played the parai, a traditional Tamil drum.

She would sometimes spend days together at the protest site, while her children remained on their own at their home. “I would make some porridge in the morning and our neighbour would give them some pickle or a piece of fish to eat with it,” she said. “People would ask me how I had the heart to leave my children at home for days together and sit at the protest site.” But, she added, “What is the point of me cooking and cleaning and staying at home when there is going to be no home for them at all in a few years? How in the world would they have a home if the plant took away all our land, or worse, if it exploded someday? I had to think of their future more than their present.”

In fact, she said, her children understood her compulsions and whenever they could, even joined her in the protests, just as she had once joined her mother. “Despite the beating and the use of teargas, we remained at the protest site,” she said. “I still suffer from the impacts of the teargas.”

For times when police tried to arrest protestors, Mildred had devised a unique technique of escaping. “I would just jump into the sea and swim away,” she said with a chuckle. “They would not follow me.”

Meena, Mildred and Xaxa have faced a range of challenges in their work. This includes opposition, both from the government and corporations they oppose, as well as society around them.

In Zawar, 41-year-old Amrit Lal Meena’s home is less than a kilometre from one of the zinc smelting units. He has been working in the mines for more than 20 years. As a result of underground blasting, his house has developed cracks, and the groundwater level in the area has fallen. In the absence of water from their tubewell, this year, his family’s wheat produce fell from the normal 40 quintals, to just about two quintals, he said. Despite this, he does not wish to speak up against the mining company.

“The house has to run,” Amrit Lal said. “And the mines won’t stop just because I stop working in them.”

Meena empathised with Lal. After all, she noted, her own family refused to join the fight when Vedanta wanted to acquire her husband’s family’s land.

“They all think that at some point in their life, if not today, then ten years from now, or later, they will get the job in the mine,” she said. “These mines have created greed, even though not all of the people promised jobs get the jobs.”

Amrit Lal Meena, a resident of Zawar, has worked in the region’s zinc mines for more than 20 years. “The house has to run,” he said. “And the mines won’t stop just because I stop working in them.” Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Apart from the lack of support, Meena also struggled with financial instabilities. “See, even if we work with NGOs, they also at most engage with us in a project for two years or so, where they pay us not more than Rs 10,000 a month,” she said.

She explained that at one point, she and her husband decided that she should seek out a stable job – she found one in a government-run village unit that produced khadi. But she missed the kind of politically engaged work that she had done earlier, and that she had seen her father do. “My mind would keep wandering back to that kind of work,” Meena said. She soon left her job and returned to activism.

The financial instability in the household has caused some friction between Meena and her daughter. “Due to the lack of economic resources, she has always felt that a lot has been missing in her life,” Meena said. “She tells other people, if you want to do social service, make sure to take care of your family, don’t be like my mother!” Meena laughed as our car slowed down in front of a gate, behind which were colonies and offices of mining units.

Meena and some others had gathered at the same gate on August 9 this year, on the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, to protest damage that mining was causing to the region’s land, forests, and water. Company officials stopped them. Police arrived and detained Meena and two young men for a few hours. “During times like this, it’s the people who we have worked with who have supported us, who are the first responders to help us out,” she said.

Saadhna Meena addresses a gathering. Though Meena has also held steady jobs, she would miss doing more politically engaged work, and would inevitably return to her activism. Photo: Vaishnavi Vardrajan

Meena recounted that her husband had been a crucial source of support for her work – for cases that needed legal help, for instance, he introduced her to lawyers who worked pro-bone on matters of forests and land. “Perhaps without the support of my husband, I might not have continued the work,” she said, smiling.

In 2017, Meena’s husband suffered a heart attack and died. “I feel his absence,” she said. “Despite all the challenges I feel that his incomplete work needs to be finished and I cannot run from this responsibility.”

Meena noted that her work halted for some time after her attack. “For about two years, I was mostly on bed rest and couldn’t engage in any of my social work,” she said. Since last year, she has resumed some of her activities, but is slowed down by age. “I get tired easily,” she said. “But I will continue as much as I can. I believe it’s better to die of a bullet than to die lying on the bed!”

Mildred, too, relied on her family’s support. “Some families have prevented the women from engaging with this issue,” she said. “But my family has been extremely supportive.”

But the 127 cases that have been filed against her have had a considerable impact on her life. “I still cannot hold a passport,” she said. Thus, she cannot see her grandchildren who live in the Middle East. But, she said, she had no regrets and, if given a choice, would pursue the same path again. “Even if they come and arrest me, I don’t care,” she said.

She recounted that government representatives who tried to argue in favour of the plant would tell locals, “In order for the country to prosper, some villages have to die.” She would respond, “Are we not part of this country?”

Protests at Kudankulam died down in 2016 – since then the plant has carried on its operations without any hindrances. Mildred has continued to campaign against the project. She travels to different states, spreading awareness about the plant, and also receives invites from indigenous populations from other states to participate in their struggles. From Odisha to Assam to Kerala, Mildred has travelled far and wide.

Mildred had always thought she would remain a fisherwoman like other members of her family. “It was only natural for me to protest against something that threatened the land and sea that gives us all life,” she said. “I didn’t expect my life to change so much and take me to so many places.”

Mildred has 127 cases filed against her, as a result of which she cannot hold a passport, and cannot visit her grandchildren abroad. But she said given a choice, she would choose the same life and work again. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

She continues to encourage people to learn more about the plant and how it affects her community. When students or researchers interested in the subject visit Idinthakarai, they often stay at Mildred’s house. “I provide them shelter and cook for them,” she said. “That brings me great joy.”

Mildred is certain she won’t rest until the plant is shut down. “Almost every family has a cancer patient, thyroid patients or some other health problems. Even the water is warmer,” she said. “We have to keep fighting.”

For a few years, Xaxa’s work on the Forest Rights Act received steady funding, which allowed her to travel by car to the interiors of Gumla. “I travel to the interiors to meet people whom I’ve only spoken to on the phone,” she said.

The pandemic brought an end to this funding. Since then, Xaxa has travelled by bus, and relied on villagers to pick her up from their bus stops. “Now I have to work according to the bus timetable,” she said. “At times, even if the work is not over, I have to run to catch the last bus for the day.”

Xaxa, who never married, shares a rented house with a married colleague – Xaxa’s nieces and nephews visit her often. After a broken engagement in her youth, she decided to dedicate her life to her work. “I’m able to do so much for people today,” she said. “This wouldn’t be possible if I had my own family, as I would give my time to them. I can go wherever I’m required, be it day or night. No man would give me so much freedom.”

Her work continues to carry substantial risks – in September 2023, news outlets in Jharkhand reported a leaked list of 64 organisations identified by the Jharkhand Police Special Branch to be investigated for alleged Maoist links. Xaxa is associated with three organisations mentioned in the list.

“The authorities don’t like us going to villages, because we make the people aware,” she said. “This is why they’ve blacklisted us.”

Rose Xaxa addresses a gathering. Xaxa’s work still carries substantial risks– in September 2023, three organisations she works with were named in a leaked police list of groups being investigated for alleged Maoist links. Photo: Special arrangement

But she continues her work, striving to ensure that locals become self-reliant, and do not remain dependent on activists and NGOs.

“Many people ask me to fill the forms for them for a fee,” she said. “But I never take money and instead I tell them – I’m here to make you independent.” So, Xaxa guides them in filling up forms on their own. In most cases, she bears half the expenses of filing applications, such as of stationery and postage, but insists that villagers bear the remainder, taking contributions from the community if they need to.

Xaxa’s efforts to educate villagers frequently annoys officials. She recounted an instance from last year, when she received information that in the village of Bagesara in Palkot block, agricultural land belonging to villagers was being siphoned off for compensatory afforestation work by a a corporation, allegedly with support from the block’s administration. (Scroll emailed questions to the local administration about this contested land – as of publication, it had not responded.)

Xaxa noted that residents were largely from Scheduled Tribe communities, and that they had begun filing claims for titles to the land under the FRA. “This was the land which their ancestors had cleared and cultivated generations ago,” Xaxa said. “They subsist on that land. Receiving threats about losing it was giving them sleepless nights.” When she met the villagers, Xaxa explained their rights to them and gave them examples of other villages where people had fought for their land rights.

When Xaxa met the area’s circle officers, they told her off. “These people were ready to give us the land until yesterday, you must have told them something,” she recounted they had said. “I said I’ve only told them about PESA and FRA. The law says that until the FRA process is complete, you can’t remove these people from their land.”

The very next day, the circle office sent a letter to the village, asking Xaxa and others to present themselves at the office. Xaxa decided to ignore the call. A few months later, after many villagers had filed their FRA claims, government officials, including those from the revenue and forest departments, visited the village for a physical verification of the claims.

When Xaxa began addressing a group of gathered villagers, talking about their rights under the FRA, a government worker began recording her on his phone camera. She felt this was an intimidation tactic but continued nonetheless. “I don’t say anything outside the law,” she said. “I only intend to save the jungle. So what can they do?”

A few weeks later, Xaxa visited the district forest office. There, she recounted, officials, as well as representatives of the corporation asked her to convince the villagers to give the company their land. Xaxa refused, saying that the matter was not in her hands.

Soon after, the administration installed boundary marker stones in the fields, and informed villagers that this was a step taken as part of the process of land acquisition. When Scroll visited the village on November 21, the stones were visible every few metres, an ominous reminder of what could happen. “We are grateful to Rose for her support in this fight, but we are still worried about what will become of us and our land,” said villager Manohar Kullu. Residents of Bagesara are yet to be granted their rights under the Forest Rights Act. Xaxa said she still gets regular calls from agents of the corporation, asking her to ensure that they be allowed to use the land for afforestation.

In the course of her work, people have cautioned Xaxa to be careful, particularly when she travels. She noted that some had overheard her detractors discussing “getting rid” of her. But Xaxa remains undeterred. “People are obviously annoyed that we’ve made the villagers so empowered,” she said. “Let’s see who comes after me. I’ll catch them first.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.