A closer look shows how the lives of poor tribal people get affected when they lose access to land and forests.
On January 9, I kept a second promise made to Muthamma and visited her small Adivasi hamlet near the Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation in Coimbatore. I last met her about six months ago in Dharmapuri during the state conference of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and had spoken to her at length about the struggle she and a small band of Adivasis have been waging against the foundation.
I had kept my first promise to tell her story then, which was carried by The Wire in September 2017 and had been widely read. At a time when Vasudev was making waves across the country in the company of the rich and powerful, the article raised questions and doubts about his campaign to revive rivers through river-linking and tree plantation.
Vasudev’s reputation and his promotion of river-linking received an even more severe jolt when the famous ‘Waterman’, Rajendra Singh, was quoted in an article in The Wire by Nityanand Jayaraman as saying that “…In my interview (during the Prime Ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee) I said that interlinking of rivers is highly dangerous. It will not join India. It will not make India. It will break India. I had said that it will not protect us either from drought or floods, and that the project will only escalate conflict within the country. It will complicate the disputes between upper riparian users and lower riparians. River waters are like the blood flowing through the bodies of different people. Each river comes from its own genepool. Just as you cannot just mix bloods, you cannot just divert one river’s water to another. The ecosystems will retaliate. We are not able to handle the disputes in Sutlej, Indus and Kaveri. Our judicial system will never be able to resolve the disputes that arise out of linking rivers.”
Interestingly enough, Vasudev had himself, in a March 2017 post, written: “The river interlinking project that some people advocate may work in a temperate climate, but not in a tropical region with high temperatures and seasonal rain. It would be super-expensive and detrimental for the rivers and the organic activity around them.”
By July, however, he completely changed his stand. Perhaps in consonance with the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s commitment to this hare-brained scheme, Vasudev now started a campaign ‘to create awareness on protecting rivers and inter-linking them.’ With this turnaround began his jet-hopping to various state capitals. By September, however, his tall claims were punctured and not much is now being heard about his magical mantras to revive rivers.
Singh has continued to rail against Vasudev’s plan. In December, he gave an interview saying: “I can say this now after three months – this ‘Rally for Rivers’, is not for rivers. It is for the land, for money, for power, for fame and for name.” He described the dangerous nexus between godmen and politicians: “When politicians want to get votes by showcasing the issue of rivers, they push the babas in front. And when the baba feels threatened of being sent to jail for taking over 45 acres of tribal land – then he chases the politicians, asking them for protection. …. When godmen are afraid of going to prison and politicians are greedy for votes, such a nexus is born, and it is dangerous. Don’t let this nexus be formed in the name of rivers.”
The charges levelled at Vasudev’s door by Singh are significant because they reiterate not only what Muthamma and members of her tribal community have been alleging, but also echo the litany of charges that environmentalists, wildlife conservationists, human rights activists, members of the judiciary and lawyers and government agencies have leveled at the Isha Foundation.
Fulfilling the second of our promises made to Muthamma, the visit to her hamlet of Muthatvayil and seeing what we had only heard or read about, opened our eyes to the vulnerability of the lives of poor, tribal people whose livelihood suffers when they lose access to forests and land, and when large projects, even spiritual ones, impact the local ecology.
The multi-structured, concrete Isha Foundation complex (in Coimbatore) is clearly visible from this little hamlet. There used to be forests nourished by the wide and fast-flowing Noyyal river all around but not anymore. The foundation occupies acres of land from which thousands of trees must have been cleared. A wide, tarred road leading to the huge car park full of SUVs, buses and cars in front of the foundation has also been constructed.
Beside the car park is the new tourist attraction – the huge, black head of Adiyogi Shankara, several hundreds of feet high. In the open spaces next to it are the ‘temporary structures’ that the foundation claimed had been erected only for the Mahashivaratri celebrations. They had assured the state authorities that these would be removed immediately after the monsoons. Of course, nothing of the sort has been done and the ‘temporary’ structures look very permanent, even from a distance.
Muthamma’s small hut, made entirely of mud and leaves, is on one side of the hamlet. It does not have a door, only a piece of cloth hangs like a curtain in the doorway. One of the mud walls leans to one side. A wild elephant barged into it a few months ago. In front of Muthamma’s hut is what remains of the once-fast flowing, wide Noyyal river, now reduced to a few puddles. Environmentalists allege that the Isha Foundation has not only been accessing water directly from the river but has also been polluting it with the minerals that it uses in the production of ‘Mantra plates’ that it sells to devotees at very high prices. The Isha Foundation, of course, denies this.
Muthamma was in a state of excitement. We were welcomed and then we participated in the ceremony before their traditional deity, ate biscuits and snacks that they had taken so much trouble to buy for us and talked to them about Isha. We knew much of what they told us but learnt one new fact – the Isha bus charges Rs 7 to take them to town (Coimbatore) while the state bus charges Rs 5.
The community told us all about their movement and struggle for land. They all work as agricultural labour on the nearby farms and yearn for land of their own. Muthamma is the only one who can find no work at all since she is considered a dangerous agitator. She is able to collect some flowers once in a while and sell them on the roadside. Her real work now is her activism. Not only is she active in the Tribal Association, she is also a committed AIDWA activist. Despite her slight frame and the many privations she has suffered, she is indefatigable. She is here, there, everywhere…rapidly gaining the reputation of a leader. Muthamma’s fellow tribals already think of her as one.
Preparations for music and dancing started as soon as the snacks were consumed. The drums were brought out and heated on coals. A wizened old man brought out a brass horn. The men hung the drums around their necks and started beating on them. Muthamma and some others started swaying and then dancing rhythmically. A few young women and boys who were standing apart, a little critical and a little amused, could not resist the drumbeat for long, and soon began dancing too. As did we, although we felt clumsy. Vasudev said once, rather superciliously, that he was equally at home speaking to rulers and ‘dancing with beggars’. Perhaps he should have danced with his Adivasi neighbours.
The visit to Muthamma’s village was during a gathering in Coimbatore of activists and organisations with varied interests and vocations who had been brought together by the actions of the Isha Foundation and others like it. There was Venmani, a lawyer who belonged to a Dalit organisation, Adhi Thailar Katchi, who was active in the movement to get land pattas for tribals and Dalits. Panneerselvan belonged to a human rights organisation, Sameeha Needhi Katchi. Kalidoss was a member of OOSAI, a project to save rivers while Sadhasivam worked on a project for the protection of wildlife. Piyush Manush is an environmentalist working in Salem in the Salem Makkal Kulu, who was beaten and sent to jail because of his interventions. Siva, journalist and activist who has filed hundreds of RTI applications and gained access to much information about illegal land-grabbing and construction in the Western Ghats forest reserves. R. Kamaraj and his wife run NGOs. There were also people who had worked for Isha as volunteers and had children studying in their school. They were disillusioned for various reasons and also had serious complaints about the way in which their children had been treated.
Siva came to work in a newspaper in Coimbatore in 2011. He was assigned a story on elephants in the area. His research continued for months and he learnt not only about elephants and their habits but also about the destruction of their habitat that was forcing them to become dangerous. He learnt from responses to his RTI applications that while there were very comprehensive goverment regulations in force in this area that controlled and forbade different kinds of construction in different parts of the forest are, these were being flouted with impunity. He alleges that it is not just Isha but a wide range of organisations and institutions like Karunya University (a Christian institution), Amruthamayi University, Chinmayananda Business University, some state government organisations, various resorts etc. that need to be looked into.
According to the information gleaned by Shiva, in 2009, Isha sought permission for construction of four lakh square metres but is believed to have constructed more than that. Much of this lies in the buffer zone. The Karunya University, he alleges, has encroached on the ancient Adivasi Sadiana temple and also on 97 acres of traditional common grazing land. Both the university and the foundation started with 14.5 acres each in their possession. They now apparently possess 856 acres and 936 acres, respectively.
Many of the other institutions and organisations and resorts and companies named by Shiva have also encroached on hundreds of acres of land. Along with the damage this unending rapaciousness is doing to the fragile eco-systems, flora and fauna of the Western Ghats, it is also depriving traditional forest dwellers of their land, homes and livelihood. Their culture and their way of life are also being destroyed. This dual tragedy is what drives Shiva, Muthamma and hundreds of others to continue in their relentless pursuit of justice.
Siva knows that he is taking on very powerful, dangerous forces. The example of Rajesh Kumar is proof of this. Kumar was a national functionary of the Bhoodan Movement. In 2008, he took a delegation of Adivasis, including Muthamma, to meet J. Jayalalithaa in Chennai, who was the then leader of the opposition. They gave her a memorandum requesting the state government to help the Adivasis obtain possession of the 44 acres of land that they had received pattas for under the Bhoodan voluntary land distribution scheme. She intervened on their behalf and the Tamil Nadu commissioner of land rights ordered an enquiry into the matter. Armed with this signed order, Kumar returned to Coimbatore.
Four days later, he was brutally murdered, beheaded. It was alleged that he was having an illicit affair with a married Adivasi lady and that her husband had murdered him. The accused was eventually acquitted because he suffered from severe disability and could not have committed the murder. His Adivasi wife remains very much part of the struggle.
Fighting powerful vested interests who are protected not only by the administration and the state can only be done by forging the widest possible unity.
A joint platform of all the organisations and individuals that met in Coimbatore along with AIDWA and the Tamil Nadu Anti-Untouchability Forum has been formed to take forward the struggle for Adivasi and Dalit land rights, for access to forest produce and for environmental protect. Revival of the Noyyal river may no longer remain a dream. Perhaps, even the elephants will have their traditional paths restored to them.
Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).