Wednesday, 28 Feb 2001

RANCHI, India

I am sharing a room with Cecilia, an activist from Ecuador who works with Accion Ecologica. Over morning tea, we brief each other about our work and find we have many common factors, even though we work at two different ends of the world. It’s 8:30 a.m., time to get ready for the conference.

The conference starts with a brief introduction of the participants, who represent 15 different countries. Most of the day consists of presentations on issues concerning coal mining and climate change. It’s 4:00 p.m., and after a refreshing tea break, we are all engaged in a discussion on “factors responsible for a successful campaign.” The topic was prompted by an inspiring presentation by Ramon Sales of the Philippines about a successful campaign against a coal-fired power plant in Negros. Suddenly, this discussion is interrupted by Xavier Dias, who has just heard from a local activist that eight villagers from the Koel-Karo movement have been killed in a police shooting in Tapkara (a village 25 miles from Ranchi). This is one of the villages where a strong people’s movement has been fighting against the construction of dams since 1975.

The Koel-Karo movement is named after two rivers on which dams were supposed to be built. The local community has resisted efforts to build dams on these two rivers that flow through a thickly forested area inhabited by indigenous people. The government has tried to persuade these people with attractive rehabilitation packages, jobs, and infrastructure development, but nothing has deterred them from their path; they value their land, rivers, forest and culture above all else. The strength and longevity of this movement is evidenced by the fact that the third generation has now joined the ongoing struggle.

Today’s incident was triggered as police tried to break the “People’s Curfew” (the local community has barricaded the project area since 1985, and no one is allowed to enter without their permission). One of the youth from Tapkara village died while in police custody. When villagers protested his death in front of the police station, the police opened fire, killing eight people and injuring many others.

Tapkara is located in Jharkhand, an area dominated by tribals that was declared a separate state just three months ago. The new government, in the name of development, is trying to invite various industries into this area. This state is very rich in mineral wealth, which makes it especially vulnerable to development. The government desperately wants the Koel-Karo project to start, as it has strong potential for hydroelectric power generation. Many local people feel this violent incident was meant to scare them, simply so the government can resume the dam construction that has been halted since 1975.

Everyone in the conference is quite dismayed by this news, and the rest of the evening sessions are postponed until the next day. Even the situation in Ramchi is tense, as dead bodies and injured villagers are brought to the civil hospital. By evening, everyone is discussing the issue, and we all agree to release a solidarity statement condemning the killing of innocent tribals in the police shooting. This is the topic of conversation throughout dinner, and the atmosphere remains heavy as news comes in about more casualties.

Back in our room, Cecilia and I end up discussing the repression of indigenous communities for such development projects and go off to sleep with heavy hearts.