Indian bishops prefer tribal people over elephants

They are protesting a government plan to displace indigenous communities for the sake of a wild life corridor
Indian bishops prefer tribal people over elephants

Tribal people in Ranchi protest in September 2016 against the proposed government land bill. Church leaders say Jharkhand state government favors the rich corporations and ignores the basic rights of tribal people. (Photo supplied)


Catholic bishops have joined indigenous people in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand to oppose a planned corridor for wild life as it threatens to displace thousands of people in 214 villages.

The government has identified 296 hectares of land plans to build a "wild life corridor" for elephants over four districts in the state. The government needs to acquire land to create the corridor.

Media reported how elephants who strayed into villages alongside the forest killed an average of 59 people every year in the past decade. 

Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega, who is based in Jharkhand, said the plan is difficult for people to understand "because on one hand the government claims to be acting to protect the forest and tribal people, but on the other it moves to displace them."

Bishop Barwa, who heads the Indian bishops' office for indigenous people, said the bishops view the plan for the corridor as the latest in a series of moves the pro-Hindu government has made to marginalize tribal people and take over their lands on behalf of industrial companies.

The government plans to evict people from areas marked as a three-kilometer wide elephant corridor. The work has started and officials are now issuing notices to people to move away, the bishop said.

"But we don't know where they should go. The government has not given them an alternative. We cannot understand how an elected government can act in such a manner," Bishop Barwa said.

Gladson Dungdung, a tribal activist in Jharkhand told that the government has promised a house and 1 million rupees (some US$ 1,600) as compensation to each affected family. "But when and where they will get it is not clear," he said.

He said tribal people for generations have lived depending on the forest and are not skilled to live outside it. Besides, people earlier displaced for several development projects have not yet been compensated as promised, he said.

Dungdung said more than 25,000 people will be displaced if the plan is implemented.

Bishop Barwa and Dungdung allege that the government is committed to evicting people from the scenic areas of the forest because it has singed a memorandum of understanding with some corporate firms in September 2016 to develop a tourism project.

The state tourism department expects US$350 million investments through eight projects, which can generate employment for 13,000 people, Times of India reported. 

Part of the investments will go to projects in the forest area. The state tourism department has already drawn up plans to set up cable cars, adventure tourism programs, wellness resorts, activity camps and malls at various scenic spots across Jharkhand. 

Father Vincent Toppo, former professor of St. Albert's college in Ranchi, the Jharkhand state capital, said tribal leaders need to understand if the government's plan is good or bad for the tribal people "because tribal people are always fooled in the name of development."

The Jesuit priest said that whenever there is a new plan in the name of development, tribal people are always adversely affected. "They are promised big returns, socio-economic development but in the end, tribals are left with nothing," he said.

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Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar state in 2000 by taking tribal dominated areas so as to attend to their socio-economic advancement. But the pro-Hindu government has recently been acting against tribal interests, Bishop Barwa said.

Since last year it has been adamant to amend land laws. Protests led by church people foiled the move aimed at removing the legal protection of tribal people's rights to their land and empowering the state take over of their farmland for developmental purposes. 

The state also passed an anti-conversion law in August which bishops allege was aimed at targeting Christians in the state, mostly tribal people. 

Last month the state banned people who have more than two children from contesting local body elections. This, church leaders said, was a way to politically side-line indigenous people who traditionally have large families. 

Jharkhand has some nine million tribal people, who form 26 percent of the state's 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.

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