Naomi Canton meets a former rogue elephant hunter who is now battling for Adivasi (tribal) rights in India.
He has shot nineteen rogue elephants in his homeland India, over a dozen of them man-killers and others crop destroyers, so shooting pheasants in Wiltshire is probably rather inconsequential to the aristocratic professional hunter Bulu Imam.
The 70-year-old had more pressing things on his mind during his recent trip to England: the proposed destruction of 200 tribal villages, of more than 2,000 square kilometres of rich fertile agricultural land and of precious forest wildlife corridors in the North Karanpura Valley of Jharkhand in India where he lives, to make way for 31 open-cast mining projects. The north of the valley boasts 1,230 sq. km of coalfields, which make up nine per cent of India’s coal reserves.
Imam, an environmentalist and author, who has spent years researching and documenting tribal culture, is bitterly opposed to the project because the land the coalfields lie beneath happens to be the homeland of millions of India’s indigenous people who have lived there for centuries. Not only do they rely on the land and forest for their livelihood, but they worship sacred rocks there, the land underpins their cultural way of life and the bones of their ancestors, whom they worship, are buried under megaliths there, some even dating back to before 2000 B.C.
There are approximately 100 million tribal people in India, most of whom, live in the forests. Sixty million tribal people have so far been ruthlessly displaced to make way for moneymaking industrial projects to extract rich mineral resources which lie beneath their homes. Approximately 51 billion tones or 27 per cent of India’s coal reserves lie in Jharkhand alone.
Twenty-seven years ago, at the age of 43, Imam first heard about plans by an Australian company, Whyte Industries Limited of Sydney, coming to mine 600m tonnes of coal at Piparwar, just 80 kilometres from his country mansion. Two hundred villages, an environmentally sustainable way of life and fertile land were all earmarked for destruction. “I was appalled. I knew the jungle very well and the villagers would come to our house and we would go to their villages on horses,” he says, sipping tea at a relative’s home in Wiltshire, on his recent trip.
“I was a man who shot tigers and knew people were going to get displaced and I thought how can I protect them?” Dressed in a bright red checked shirt, Imam explains how he soon heard from Australian engineers that the discovery of aboriginal rock art had been used to establish territory in northern Australia to stop mining. The art had been taken as title to the land and it dawned on him that maybe he could do the same in India.
Six years later, Imam miraculously brought to light the first of more than a dozen Palaeolithic rock art sites more than 5,000 years old, in the Upper Damodar Valley, one of the areas threatened by the industrial projects. He also found palaeoarchaeologial sites connected with the Mesolithic rock art, ancient megaliths and Buddhist archaeological sites. He got them all “noted” by the Archaeological Survey of India, which is in charge of preserving the cultural heritage of India; that led to the Ministry of Environment and Forests making archaeological and environmental clearance for mining projects in the Upper Damodar Valley mandatory, leading to substantial delays on all of the 23 mining projects that were proposed in that region.
He then remarkably established a link between the prehistoric rock art and the living mural paintings by tribal women of wild animals and plants on the mud walls of their homes. They paint these murals to celebrate weddings and at harvest time. He hoped this would persuade the authorities to stop the mining, as the art categorically established the rights of the people to the valley and land.
It was this passion for tribal people in fact, and their rights to their land that had brought Imam, who is married to a tribal woman, to England. He had been chosen to receive the Gandhi International Peace Award 2011 from The Gandhi Foundation in London jointly with Dr Binayak Sen on behalf of "The Adivasis - The Tribal Peoples of India". In Imam's case, it was for the work he had done identifying and preserving tribal cultural heritage in the region.
The award was meant to have been handed to the duo on 9 November 2011 at Amnesty International's UK head office in London, but it was postponed because of complaints from some Adivasi activists to the Gandhi Foundation that neither of them was an Adivasi (meaning original inhabitant). However, the Gandhi Foundation remained committed to granting the award in recognition of their influential work. It has now confirmed that Imam and Dr Sen will jointly receive The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award for 2011 on 12 June 2012 at The House of Lords for their humanitarian work.
In 1995, Imam founded The Tribal Women Artists’ Cooperative (TWAC) which exhibits tribal women’s mural paintings made with mud pigments and binder on cloth and canvas across the world with seminars publicising the mining issues. TWAC has held 50 international exhibitions so far. The art has been instrumental in giving a human face to the destruction by mining, showing how it is not just tribal land, but ancient tribal cultural and artistic traditions which are being lost. About fifty Indian tribal women currently benefit from the project, many of which focus on specific mines. Several times artists from TWAC have attended the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva to present their case against the impact of new open-cast coal mining upon the tribal people in the Upper Damodar Valley.
During the last 50 years, the lower Damodar River has been completely ravaged by open-cast and underground mining and a relentless construction of big dams, thermal power stations and other industrialisation. Hellish underground mine fires are even causing subsidence, Imam says.
“Several thousand villages were destroyed and tribals displaced in the Lower Valley of Damodar first in 1949 in what was known as ‘Nehru’s Dream’,” Imam says. “A staggering area measuring 400 kilometres by 200 kilometres of old growth forest land was destroyed. Today the Lower Valley is one vast industrial landscape like the Rhine Valley in Germany. The mining companies are now turning their eye to the Upper Valley for coal and coal-based gas,” he adds.
Pakri Barwadhi, 40 kilometres from his house, is one example. It has just been given environmental clearance and the Australian company Thiess is expected to commence open-cast coal mining there this year. Thousands of villagers and wildlife corridors are to be displaced soon for that mine, from which seven hundred million tonnes of coal are expected to be extracted. It is also an area rich in palaeoarchaeological sites, megaliths, and Buddhist stupa remains. More than one dozen villages will be destroyed in the first phase of mining.
“There has been massive road building through a plateau of green forests and a railway line from the north cuts through 60kms of forest 200 yards wide. How many million trees have been cut, I can’t calculate!” Imam laments.
Imam is very concerned about the impact of the felling of hundreds of thousands of ancient trees on the ecosystem of his beloved subcontinent, since these fruiting, medicinal, indigenous trees are not being replaced.
“This has destroyed the tiger as it needs hundreds of square kilometers of interconnected forest and they are now all dying of thirst during the hot summer months. The migration of elephants has also been affected by the vast new mines - some over 400 feet deep - and they have no water and now they are going into villages and killing people as the forest fodder plants have been destroyed,” he explains.
The elephants are being forced to migrate in a different direction to the one they want to take, he says and since the deer are dead, there is nothing even for tigers to eat so they are living on village cattle now, according to him.
Imam comes from one of India’s oldest most distinguished Muslim families. The great grandson of Nawab Imdad Imam, a famous Urdu poet, he has published hundreds of papers and monographs documenting rock art, archaeological sites, megaliths and tribal art in Jharkhand, hoping to halt mining by proving how tribal heritage is at risk. “Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R & R) by the mining companies is a complete failure,” Imam declares.
He says many tribal people do not get compensation, as they do not have papers to prove they own their land. Some have documents that have not been honoured and some officers are not re-registering their land after the new state of Jharkhand was formed 12 years ago. Those that are compensated are unable to find a job so the windfall is soon spent. They are skilled at hunting and farming and cannot get work in the mines. The displacement also creates a huge cultural and spiritual vacuum for them.
“The concrete resettlement camps are just houses in a row and they will put a Hindu temple there, yet the people are not Hindu," Imam explains. "They worship stones, rivers and trees and sacrifice animals instead. These resettlement homes are depressing: they don’t have any light inside, the roofs leak; they have low ceilings and are too hot. These people are used to living in mud huts with art painted on them, tiled roofs and to having at least 20 acres of agricultural land each with thousands of square kilometers of forest nearby to depend on for forest produce which, they have now lost.” According to him only one in 1,000 are provided squalid concrete resettlement camps.
Some migrate to cities where they become environmental refugees working on construction sites and sleeping on the streets. Others are taken under the wing of Hindu or Christian fundamentalists who offer them housing and education if they convert. But in doing so, they lose their ancient values and way of life, access to forest resources and cultural traditions. Some end up living in ghetto conditions in industrial villages that have been set up for the mine workers, where they suffer racist abuse and do not have the skills to find work.
Much of the work in the mines is mechanised and for any jobs that there are, foreign engineers from outside India or from neighbouring states are brought in, Imam says. The tribals end up cutting wood and selling it, or stealing coal and selling it. Prostitution has also become rife in these areas and an illegal drink trade has started. Some may have even joined the Maoist movement, he says. Surprisingly, no foreign NGOs are working in the area.
Imam says he does not think this industrialisation and economic development can benefit India. “By chopping down all these trees and destroying the landscape, only two per cent of the people benefit and 98 per cent are adversely affected,” he says. “We already know that carbon dioxide pollution is going to end the planet," he continues.
According to Imam, Indian coal is very low quality and inefficient. He says the largest Indian companies are already using coal from Africa and China instead. "The kind of development we are talking about is going to displace people and destroy non-renewable resources and the cost is much more than the gains through mining. Think of the impact of displacing millions of people?" he asks.
Imam sees part of the solution as investment in solar energy, green technologies and moving to low energy bulbs. "If India moved to low energy bulbs, 200 mines could close down. What I want to see is for the Indian Government to give subsidies to solar power. The transport of electricity is very expensive, so it needs to be replaced. In India, sixty per cent of electricity is stolen or lost in unaccounted consumption," he points out.
Despite the mindless decimation of forest and an ancient indigenous way of life, he remains optimistic. "The parents of today will be old men and women tomorrow and the children of today will be parents tomorrow," he says. He is confident the younger generation will want to change things. “We have to influence the consciousness of the planet, because if we can get a change of consciousness, we will win the battle and people will save money and conserve energy and find an alternative way of living. We can’t go on living the way we are. But I think there is a change of consciousness already taking place," he says hopefully.
Bulu Imam will be awarded The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award on 12 June 2012 at The House of Lords.
Naomi Canton is a freelance journalist based in Britain. Until recently she was living in India working as a special correspondent for The Hindustan Times in Mumbai.