By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Dec 5 – Bhupendra Vira, an activist who tried to expose political links to illegal land dealings in Mumbai, was watching television at his suburban home one evening in October when he was shot dead.
Vira, 61, had sought information under India’s Right to Information Act on encroachments of public land and illegal land dealings in a city that has among the world’s priciest real estate. The arrest of a former civic official and his son in connection with the killing shocked the city.
A couple of weeks later in another case, Nandini Sundar, a Delhi University professor, was charged in the killing of an indigenous villager in the restive Bastar region.
Sundar had just written a book on indigenous people losing land to mining firms in eastern Chhattisgarh state.
The ensuing outcry led the state to assure the Supreme Court that those charged would not be arrested before an investigation, and that it would give advance notice to them before proceeding.
The two cases highlight harassment and deadly violence against land rights activists in India, campaigners say. Land is increasingly sought in India for industrial use and development projects, as one of the world’s fastest growing major economies expands.
“More land is being acquired for industry by the government, sometimes forcefully, while per capita land available is declining,” said E.A.S. Sarma, an activist and former bureaucrat who has campaigned against several land-acquisition projects.
“Meanwhile, people are also more aware of their rights and civil society is more active, even as states introduce new laws to speed up acquisitions. So the conflict level has risen in recent years,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Home ministry spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia said the ministry is aware of the incidents, including those involving Vira and Sundar, and “is taking all necessary actions as per procedure”.
In the fight for land and the environment, which UK-based watchdog Global Witness calls “a new battleground for human rights”, communities worldwide are locked in deadly struggles against governments, companies and criminal gangs exploiting land for products including timber, minerals and palm oil.
In 2015, more than three people a week were killed defending land, forests and rivers against industries in the deadliest year on record, according to Global Witness.
Of the 185 murders documented in 16 countries, India was among the top 10, with six deaths last year.
The cases involving Vira and Sundar are just the better known ones, say campaigners.
“Crimes against city-based activists receive more attention, so we have heard more of the professor and the Mumbai activist,” said Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network.
“But every day, many more are risking their lives in villages, in forests. They are fighting against the state and powerful corporations, and it is only going to get worse as our demand for land grows,” he said.
India is home to more than 104 million indigenous people, the largest such population in the world. Its fast-growing economy has led to increased demand for land for infrastructure and development, as well as for resources to feed its industry.
Conflicts related to land and resources are the main reason behind stalled industrial and development projects in India, affecting millions of people and putting billions of dollars of investment at risk, a report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences said last month.
“Unfortunately, the government believes that activists who speak for land rights or defend tribal communities are obstructing development,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Instead of addressing concerns and providing proper rehabilitation and sustainable livelihoods to affected people, the state treats human rights defenders as irritants … (and) deems any criticism as anti-national,” she said.
ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR
Sundar’s book, ‘The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar’, published earlier this year, details the decade-long conflict between the state and Maoist rebels who claim to fight for the rights of poor farmers and landless indigenous people.
Sundar was also a petitioner in an earlier suit that led the Supreme Court in 2011 to order the disbanding of state-backed vigilante group Salwa Judum, which had been accused of human rights violations against indigenous people in Chhattisgarh.
This year, lawyers with a local legal aid group and journalists were harassed into leaving Chhattisgarh, while chemicals were flung at activist Soni Sori’s face, campaigners said.
“An atmosphere of fear has prevailed for many years … now, there’s an impunity that has emboldened police and politicians,” said Supriya Sharma, who has reported on the region for more than a decade.
Last month, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) criticised Chhattisgarh officials, including the inspector general of police of Bastar, for the “unprecedented acts of hostility and indiscipline” against lawyers, journalists and rights activists.
A spokesman for the state chief minister said officials have addressed the Supreme Court’s concerns on the Sundar case, and that they will move forward with their investigation. The state has not yet responded to NHRC’s order, he said.
Despite greater impunity, there is also greater scrutiny of the government’s actions, said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who has campaigned against projects in forest lands.
“It’s always been difficult to challenge the state, but because there is greater scrutiny, there is some element of fear of a backlash against investors and the state,” he said.
“The scrutiny has emboldened activists to stay the course.”