PUCL Bulletin, January 1994

Right to Earth
-By Manoranjan Mohanty
(Professor Mohanty teaches Political Science at Delhi University)

On the occasion of the International year of the Indigenous Peoples it is important to recognise a growing demand to arrest the process of Disentitlement caused by the dominant development process. Disentitlement refers to the phenomenon relating to the loss of control by tribals and others over the forest, water and land which they once enjoyed. In the name of progress through industrialisation the post-colonial regimes developed mines, dams and factories in tribal areas. The forests were denuded and access to them was increasingly restricted. The state and the commercial interests together carried on this process. The beginnings were made by the colonial regimes in the nineteenth century which encroached upon the community rights of the tribals and others over the natural resources and that process was assimilated into the nationalist agenda of modernisation at the cost of the tribal people.

In recent years there was been a ferment in the tribal areas. The tribals have protested against the fact that while the rich forest and mineral resources of their regions were exploited for industrialisation they continued to live in abysmal poverty. The steel belt of India from Durgapur and Rourkela to Bokaro and Bhilai is also a belt of poverty and destitution. In many areas where dams were constructed for expanding irrigation and power the tribals were the ones who were displaced. The plight of the people of the Narmada Valley in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and those of Koraput affected by the Indravati Project and their movements against these projects have raised serious questions concerning the people's right to their habitat. Earlier the Baliapal Movement in a non-tribal region of Orissa had squarely and effectively focused on this issue. Together with destruction of environment, the economic and cultural disentitlement of the tribal people have come to the centre of the debate.

Earlier the tribal question was mainly considered at the cultural anthropological level as to how much cultural assimilation was desirable. Some had the 'civilising mission' to absorb them into 'the mainstream' so that the time lag in their development was bridged. Others had a romantic approach to preserve tribal culture. The first group almost coercively imposed a modernist frame on them while the latter denied the tribals' right to choose their path of development. Slowly the economic issues of exploitation and deprivation entered the debate and plans and subplans were conceived to cater to them. The movements of tribals and other deprived people have now demanded political power-the right to self determination-to decide the terms of their interaction with the rest of the society. The political movement has unified the cultural, economic and other issues. The right to self-determination as it has evolved in the twentieth century means exercise of power by the aggrieved people in a mutually agreed framework of politics. In the 1920s and 1930s it meant mainly secession. While Secession is one form of self-determination it is part of a wide range of possibilities from formation of a province to autonomous regions like Gorkhaland Council. The important thing is to persuade the rebellious group to accept. Thus self-determination which actually is Swaraj can have many forms. The important thing to realise today is that it is an inevitable process. Democratic consciousness is expanding very fast all over the world and struggles are bound to emerge against existing and future forms of domination and oppression.

The Right to Earth flows out of the right to self-determination. Like right to life and liberty it is emerging as a fundamental right. It means that people of an area have a right to protect the resources that Mother Earth possesses in that area for their use and have a right to negotiate the terms under which they can share those resources with others. This right has several complex implications involving philosophical and political questions. And like all rights, this too has to be reconciled with other important rights. But we must intellectually articulate what has been at the core of the people's movements in the tribal areas and acknowledge the right to earth in the battle over the terms of discourse in the contemporary world.

Colonial powers always had the opposite view claiming their right of access to raw materials wherever they existed in the world and forced their way there. Therefore, the right to earth as a fundamental human right challenges colonialism at every level and inspires human groups to respect one another.

Home | Index