A war to save our forests
Priya Pillai of Greenpeace India tries to ensure development for one citizen does not come at the cost of another, or the environment
“Singrauli ke dharti pe log 24 ghante mein nipat jaate hain (In Singrauli, people can be dealt with in 24 hours).” This is not dialogue from a Bollywood film. Threats such as these are all in a day’s work for Greenpeace India’s Priya Pillai. They are a result of her engagement with governments and multinational corporations over the future of large tracts of forested land in Madhya Pradesh, and its inhabitants.
On 11 January, Pillai was supposed to travel to London to meet a group of British parliamentarians. Her objective was to make them aware of the activities of an Indian multinational which is registered in the English capital. Drama unfolded late at night at Delhi airport, where Pillai was waiting to board her flight. Immigration officials prevented her from leaving the country. The Union ministry of home affairs dubbed her “anti-national” and argued that she would send out a “negative image” of India when she met the British members of parliament. The 37-year-old activist was vindicated when a Delhi high court ruled that the government had acted wrongly.
“Many colleagues of mine have been framed on false charges over the years, and when I was stopped at the airport, I immediately thought they are going to frame me. My baggage had already been checked in and I was sure they would put something inside and accuse me of some wrongdoing,” says Pillai.
In April-May, Greenpeace was almost forced to shut down operations in India after the Centre froze its bank account on grounds of alleged irregularities related to the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, 2010. The Delhi high court offered respite, allowing Greenpeace to access its domestic funds.
But trouble seems to attract Greenpeace like a magnet. Not long after the court order, the organization was slapped with more charges of infringement by the government. And it was rocked by scandal when a former employee accused a co-worker of sexual harassment.
When we met Pillai at Greenpeace’s modest New Delhi office, it came as a bit of a shock. Greeting us was a soft-spoken woman, tastefully attired in a pink sari, and sporting a tiny bindi on the forehead. She could have passed off as a face in the crowd, shopping at the nearby market. It is only when you start talking to her about issues that are close to her heart that you notice a fiery intensity in her eyes; she speaks slowly and confidently, and you can almost see her choosing the exact words she wants to use. Speaking about her decision to join Greenpeace in 2010 (she spent a number of years working with Oxfam and ActionAid), Pillai pinpoints a couple of reasons.
“Having worked with many organizations, I found that Greenpeace didn’t shy away from taking a stand on issues; it wasn’t scared of anybody,” she says. “It also didn’t take money from governments or corporates, so its credibility to raise its voice was very high. Money always comes with conditions and Greenpeace is not bound by any conditions.”
One of Greenpeace’s major campaigns in India is its opposition to new coal mines, and Pillai has been an integral part of the campaign. “We choose our causes, aligning it with our vision and mission. Greenpeace works on protecting the environment and ensuring social justice and peace, and our campaigns aim to ensure and achieve our mission and vision. We bear witness to environmental destruction and believe in peacefully raising these issues,” she says.
Greenpeace sees climate change as a major threat to the planet and its environment and considers coal to be a major source of global emissions. “We feel that coal should remain beneath the earth,” Pillai says. “When we mine coal in India, we also cut down huge tracts of forests; so you are also reducing what would essentially be the lungs of the earth. We are thus involved in bringing out the true cost of coal, which is not just economic but also environmental, social and spiritual.”
If the open-cast coal mine had been allowed in Madhya Pradesh’s Mahan forest, 54 villages would have been directly affected, says Pillai. She is referring to Greenpeace’s protests against the allocation of mining rights to a multinational company. Greenpeace achieved a victory of sorts when the government decided to remove Mahan from the coal auction. She has spent enormous amounts of time in the Mahan forest, and seen its inhabitants at close quarters, to understand the ground reality.
Pillai draws our attention to a hard fact: The region, which is like the country’s energy capital, producing 10% of its total coal-based energy, hardly has access to electricity. “Villagers who use electricity for irrigation there have to get up at 3am because that’s when it is available,” Pillai says. “This is exactly the reason why we say that access to electricity in India is an inequitable distribution. The electricity is uploaded to the centralized grid and gets siphoned off to cities.”
Pillai believes that anyone who has had a chance to see how people in the forest live would think twice about their habitat being wiped out for the good of the rest of the country. “People don’t know the reality on the ground. What they read about is the trickle-down theory of how, if there is industry, people in the region will benefit from it. This is the mainstream narrative that is fed to the people in the city,” she says. “Now, does that trickle-down really happen? Are people who are promised jobs ever given those jobs? At the end of the day, people in the city don’t live those lives.”
Pillai often speaks of the different set of values that people in the forest adhere to, and how she had to undergo a process of “de-learning” to truly understand their viewpoint. She recalls a meeting with Jeet Lal, an elderly tribal from the Baiga community in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, who was living with his wife in a house in the forest. “He mistook me for a forest official and showed me his voter’s ID card and bank passbook,” Pillai remembers. “He had only one request: If he had to move, he wanted to be moved to another forest.” When a mine came up and the forest was cut down, Lal was moved to small living quarters in the nearby town of Waidhan.
“‘I don’t know how to live in a city; Collecting leaves and medicinal plants is all that I know, where will I find these things in a city,’ he told me,” Pillai says. “When we talk about development, we have this one-sided view, and we take decisions for another group of people. Is it making people like Jeet Lal so disempowered that he has no clue how to live in a small, matchbox-like house? It is disempowerment development. I have a particular skill set and if you ask me to live in a forest, I wouldn’t be able to survive. It is the other way round for some people, why can’t we just accept it?”
Pillai’s need to understand the forest-dwellers’ way of living has drawn praise from other activists who have been working in the region. Anurag Modi, 53, an activist with over two decades’ experience who is part of the socialist political party, Samajwadi Jan Parishad, is ideologically opposed to non-governmental organizations, especially those that receive foreign funding. But after visiting Mahan, he had a change of heart about Pillai’s work.
“I saw that Greenpeace’s work in Mahan was different from their other work,” Modi says on phone from Mumbai. “They had been mostly working on issue-based campaigns such as, say, air pollution. But their work in Mahan has given them a lift. That is where they have achieved their greatest success and it is because they were able to organize the people who were directly affected.”
The plight of people living in the forest can easily draw an emotional response, but Greenpeace’s stand against nuclear energy and its insistence on phasing out coal and using renewable forms of energy, such as solar power, has drawn criticism from certain scientific circles. Bikash Sinha, a physicist and former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, believes that renewable sources of power, such as solar and wind energy, are in their infancy, so nuclear energy is a more viable option. “India cannot afford to miss out on any safe source of energy, nuclear included,” Sinha says. “Renewable energy should be given a big push but it is yet to take off in a big way, and I know from personal experience that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the watchdog of nuclear safety, is very active. Nuclear power is not only safe, but, operated properly, it is one of the most environment-friendly.”
So Pillai’s insistence on renewable energy may not go down well with some. But she isn’t fazed by this. “You know that what you are standing up for is right and not illegal,” Pillai says. “You gain courage from the moral high ground that you stand upon.”
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Greenpeace India has received an order cancelling its registration under the Tamil Nadu Registrar of Societies. The order was issued on 4 November. In a press release, Greenpeace has alleged that this cancellation was done without any prior hearing and will take this matter up in the Madras High Court. (To read the full story click here )