This week, the Tamil Nadu police fired on a demonstration against a heavily polluting copper smelter run by Vedanta’s Sterlite in Thoothukudi, killing 13 people and injuring over a hundred.

The massacre was of a piece with how the Indian state has long dealt with its citizens who challenge industrial projects that pollute their air, water and other resources. In Tamil Nadu itself, around 7,000 villagers were charged with sedition in 2011 for opposing a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam. Hundreds were arrested as well.

Challenging the capitalist forces that destroy environment, livelihoods and resources, often with the state’s complicity, is dangerous business. For evidence, consider the continued repression that has been the fate of the Narmada Bachao Andolan; movements against the Tehri dam, the Kodaikanal Hindustan Unilever plant, Puthuvype gas terminal; or even the struggle for justice to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

These are merely some of the examples that have caught public attention. It is not uncommon that ordinary people and activists protesting against environmental destruction are deprived of their life and liberty, and it barely registers in the national discourse. On July 7, 2012, Ramesh Agarwal was working at a cyber café near his home in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh when two motorcycle-borne men arrived and shot at him. Agarwal has been fighting the coal mining and power generation lobby in Chhattisgarh.

On October 1, 2016, the Jharkhand police fired on a group of people holding a “kafan satyagraha” in Hazaribagh’s Badkagaon, killing four of them, including three teenagers. They were protesting against the allegedly forcible acquisition of their agricultural land by the NTPC.

In May last year, the Odisha police barged into Kuni Sikaka’s home at Garota village in Rayagada and dragged her away. When the villagers tried to rescue the 20-year-old, the police personnel pointed guns at them. Sikaka was a community activist involved in the Dongria Kondh’s struggle against Vedanta’s plan to mine Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills, which the Adivasi community considers sacred.

The Niyamgiri movement has been one of the rare successful struggles against corporate land grab and environmental destruction in India. Its success is particularly remarkable given the repression it has faced from the Indian state. The Dongria Kondhs waged a long democratic struggle, under the supervision of the Supreme Court, and eventually managed to thwart Vedanta’s designs on their sacred hills. The mining giant, however, continues to operate its aluminum smelter in the region, sourcing bauxite from outside Odisha. And it continues to allegedly use the police and the Central Reserve Police Force to suppress the Adivasi villagers, falsely branding them Maoists and jailing them, as Sikaka was.

According to a study conducted by Global Witness, an international non-profit that documents environmental and human rights abuses driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption, India has seen a significant increase in killings from heavy-handed policing and repression of protests and civic activism over the past few years. Six such killings were recorded in 2015 and 16 in 2016, making India the fourth deadliest country for environmental and land defenders. Nearly half of the killings in 2016 happened during protests and police were the perpetrators in at least 10 cases. This spilling of blood has been accompanied by increasing criminalisation of and crackdown on the civil society.

Kuni Sikaka, a young Dongria Kondh activist fighting against Vedanta’s plan to mine Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills, was labelled a Maoist and jailed. Photo via Twitter/Kavita Krishnan
Kuni Sikaka, a young Dongria Kondh activist fighting against Vedanta’s plan to mine Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills, was labelled a Maoist and jailed. Photo via Twitter/Kavita Krishnan

Acting with impunity

It’s no secret that capitalist forces in India co-opt the state machinery to crack down on communities fighting to save their land and resources from wanton exploitation. How they do so is not unknown either. In 2016, the central government controversially amended the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 to enable political parties to take corporate money, even from foreign firms, with little accountability, thereby exposing the Indian democracy to corporate lobbying. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party received the largest pie of corporate donations from 2012-’13 to 2015-’16, amounting to Rs 705.81 crore while the opposition Congress took in Rs 198.16 crore. This money comes with riders, of course. The donors expect the state to protect, even further, their business interests, by employing the might of the state against citizens if needed. Consider how the BJP government has been bending over backwards to dilute the environmental regulatory framework.

In regions dominated by the extraction industry, the state-corporate nexus operates in the open. In the Mahan forests of Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli, where Essar and Hindalco proposed to mine coal across 54 villages, potentially destroying their environment and livelihoods, the police station was housed in the Essar compound. If that was not egregious enough, citizens were required to sign an Essar register before they could be allowed inside the police station. Not surprisingly, when a local activist forum called the Mahan Sangarsh Samiti launched peaceful protests against the proposed mine, the police fell upon them with vengeance. Similarly, there are reports that CCTV cameras for Thoothukudi police station were paid for by Vedanta. Corporate Social Responsibility, it turns out, has become an effective tool to hide state-corporate nexus and corruption.

Question of accountability

According to a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, murder is only the most extreme of a range of tactics used to silence land and environmental defenders. Death threats, arbitrary arrests, legal attacks, enforced disappearances, illegal surveillance, sexual assault and harassment, travel bans, foisting false cases, destroying crops and property are commonly used to break the will of protesting communities. Of late, women environmentalists have been particularly targeted, perhaps because they are challenging the patriarchal core of our social, political and economic systems. The intimidation of women activists comes with the additional element of sexual harassment, assault and character assassination. Their bodies are being increasingly used to repress them. Soni Sori and Kuni Sikaka are among the few names that we hear of but there are many women who have been repressed by the state, sexually assaulted and thrown in jail.

The perpetrators are rarely held accountable because they operate with the connivance, if not active involvement, of the state apparatus. In most cases, the story ends with the suspension or transfer of a few functionaries. Investigations ordered under public pressure hardly ever lead to justice, when, that is, they are not mere eyewash. In the Hazaribagh killings case, for instance, the National Human Rights Commission entrusted the investigation to the police superintendent who had ordered the firing.

In any case, even if the state functionaries on the ground who repress and harm land and environmental defenders are prosecuted, it would not make much of a difference unless we break the state-corporate nexus that has this country in its grip – and bring the big players to account.

Priya Pillai is a social and environmental activist.