It all started when T., a senior lawyer at HRLN, stopped by my desk to see if I could go to Allahabad and help research for a PIL (pubic interest litigation). I accepted and quickly looked up Allahabad on Wikipedia.
The trip itself was fairly uneventful. There were three of us, T., myself and M. (my South African housemate) who descended on the HRLN office in Allahabad to get things done. We worked during the day–T. drafting the PIL and M. and myself researching what we could–and in the evenings, walked the city and toured different sites.
The highlight for me, I think, were the goats outside the office which I fed fallen fruit to much to the amusement of the locals. Also, talking to the Petitioners of the PIL, who gave us facts about the case but would consistently give contradictory answers depending on the questions put to them.
Traveling can get frustrating, the Hindi is rapid and loud but almost nothing is translated. Nothing about where we are going, for how long, for what purpose. Nothing about when we will eat, when we will meet, when we will leave. It all rings of paternalism and I often have to smile and remind myself to let go of the unimportant and be in the moment.
The moments, strung together, really do add up to something powerful.
The petition drafted has to do with indigenous communities and land rights. India is home to more indigenous communities than anywhere else in the world, over 60 million people. These communities are referred to as “tribals” and are, not surprisingly, are some of the most marginalized and poor.
Briefly, the British government co-opted India’s forests for their purposes irrespective of who was living in them. Things did not get much better after independence and the Tribal communities have continued to suffer evictions, harassment, extortion and more at the hands of the “Forest Department.” The Government of India passed “The Forest Rights Act, 2006″ to create a method through which “forest dwellers” land rights may be recognized (and limited)–and the PIL was all about how this process has not been implemented and land rights are continued to be denied.
It was a lot to learn in a little amount of time and what I was able to absorb was fascinating. Particularly, I was amazed to see the similarities in the tensions between the Native communities and the Central government here in India and at Home. In Alaska, Natives have rights to subsistent fishing but not commercial rights. Similarly, the forest dwellers may farm but not commercially (to the extent that the Act specifies that motorized transport of forest product is not allowed). Hence, just as human rights are universal so are the appetites of power.