Iron Lady of Jharkhand: The Story of Dayamani Barla's Activism and Advocacy for Adivasi Rights

The tireless activist has been chosen for a scholarship by the Massachusetts University, USA
Dayamani Barla
Dayamani BarlaPic curtsey: Dayamani Barla (Facebook)

Dayamani Barla is a versatile personality who serves in different roles - a journalist, a conservationist, a climate change activist, an author and even a tea seller. The tireless agitator was recently named the 2023 Lowell Greeley Peace Scholar by the University of Massachusetts, USA. Speaking to The Mooknayak, she humbly reacted to the award by saying, "Congratulations to all of us, all the people who belong to the background I come from." She mentioned that the opportunity was given to marginalized sections and not to herself alone.

Dayamani was born into a Munda tribal family in Arhara of Jharkhand, an Indian state. Her childhood was replete with many privations since her father was deprived of his property and she had to work as a servant, while her mother worked as a maid. Dayamani had to work as a daily laborer in farms from the fifth to the seventh grade to eke out a living. After school, she went to Ranchi and, determined to pursue further studies, worked as a maid to support herself and complete her graduation.

Suave Orator

Dayamani has garnered several admirers including activist Vikram Singh Chauhan, who recounts his experience saying, "Somewhere around 2007-2009, I was a fledgling journalist attending a public meeting in Raipur to demand the release of Binayak Sen. I hadn't heard of Dayamani Barla before, but when she began speaking, I was mesmerized by her hair-raising speech, and my fists got clenched. I had never heard such an electrifying speech before. The speech would have exhorted one to do anything. She was tortured during the BJP government in Jharkhand. She is one of the handful people fighting for the tribals and their Jal Jungle and Zameen. Thousands of Adivasis are mobilized on her call."

First tribal woman scribe in Jharkhand

Barla completed her Masters in Journalism from Ranchi University and became the first tribal woman journalist in the state. Besides contributing articles and write-ups to various magazines and newspapers, she founded the Jan Haq Patrika. Despite dedicating 15-16 years to journalism without taking any remuneration, she continues to do it to raise the voice of the underprivileged. She supports herself, along with a staff of eight people, through a small tea shop. She views the tea shop as more than just a space that provides for her family but also as a gathering place for activists. She mentioned that distinguished people like P. Sainath and Prabhat Joshi have visited her "Hotel.

Dayamani (extreme right) at her tea shop
Dayamani (extreme right) at her tea shopPic curtsey: Dayamani Barla (Facebook)

Dayamani Barla started her activism 26 years ago in 1995, beginning with the Koel Karo movement, which was against the Koel Karo Dam project. She played an instrumental role in mobilizing the Munda tribe against the project, and the project was ultimately scrapped in August 2003.

Barla was also arrested for participating in the Pathalgadi movement, which demanded the implementation of the provisions of Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996. The protests followed the government's attempts to dilute the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, of 1908 and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, of 1876, which enabled easier land acquisition norms.

Opposing a Steel Giant

Furthermore, Barla is leading the campaign against Arcelor Mittal's proposed steel plant in the resource-rich Jharkhand state. There has been a long history of big corporations appropriating land to build industries and thereafter plundering the resources of the region. Arcelor Mittal intends to invest US$8.79 billion to set up one of the world's biggest steel plants in Gumla and Khuntia districts of Jharkhand. Notably, Gumla is also the birthplace of Barla.

According to Barla, around 25,000 hectares of land would have been acquired by Arcelor Mittal. When she procured a copy of the MoU between Arcelor Mittal and the government, she discovered that separate MoUs existed for land, water, electricity, and ten other things. She mobilized the Adivasis who would have lost their Jal Jangal, Zameen, which is imperative for their survival. Although intimidated and threatened, she remained undaunted, and ultimately, they won.

Dayamani Barla
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Despite the concerns regarding displacement, Barla campaigns against the steel plant, which she believes could displace forty tribal villages. She is not convinced by the state government and Laxmi-Narayan Mittal-owned multi-national corporation's rehabilitation policies. To spearhead the agitation against the corporation, she founded the Adivasi Mulnivasi Astitva Raksha Manch.

Barla's inspiration to fight for rights stems from her experience as the child of illiterate parents who were deprived of land. She highlights the avarice of corporates, stating that the global market is dominated by corporates who want land. The corporates have already privatized education, and healthcare, and now, even water has been privatized. The only thing left is Jal, Jangal, and Zameen, which is being targeted.

Barla believes that the scrapped farm laws were brought in at the behest of the world market, primarily to benefit corporates. She questions why the government is depending on corporates to build cold storage facilities when the government can build them itself. According to her, the government's reliance on corporates indicates a shift towards privatization, where essential services like agriculture are controlled by big companies.

Sedition charges to accolades

Despite facing sedition charges and numerous other cases against her, Barla has received recognition for her work. Her grassroots journalism earned her the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism in 2000. The award is funded by royalties from Everyone Loves a Good Drought, a book by journalist P. Sainath.

In 2004, she won the National Foundation for India Fellowship. In 2013, Barla was conferred with the Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award by Cultural Survival, a non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Dayamani Barla (5th from the left) at the University of Massachusetts's
Dayamani Barla (5th from the left) at the University of Massachusetts'sPic curtsey: Dayamani Barla (Facebook)

Barla was selected as the Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies program, which is funded by the Greeley Endowment for Peace Studies. The program awards a distinguished advocate for peace and noted humanitarian. The scholar is asked to serve in limited residency at the University of Massachusetts Lowell during one semester each year.

According to a statement released by the university, "Barla's activism is rooted in the Adivasi peoples' right to self-determination. Over several decades, she has led political movements against multinational corporations proposing hydroelectric power and steel plant projects, which would displace the Adivasi people and destroy the forests and waterways integral to their way of life."

Barla views the award as an opportunity for the world to understand marginalized communities better. Among the program lined up for her, she will discuss "Jal, Jungle, Zameen, Sangharsh (Water, Forest, Land, Struggle): Stories of Adivasi Resistance and Survival" at UMass Lowell's annual Day on April 6th.

Dayamani Barla
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