Lok Sabha Khunti: Dayamani’s long fight for the forests, for equality

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Dayamani Barla had made up her mind to fight elections soon after being released from jail. In the winter of 2012, the activist spent 69 days locked in a small cell in Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi. She was accused in a case relating to leading 400 Oraon tribal farmers in Nagri as they questioned why the campuses of elite institutes such as the IIM Ranchi, and a national law university be built on their fertile multi-crop farmland when there was ample barren land nearby.

Nagri’s tribal women farmers carried fruits for Dayamani at every appearance she made at Ranchi courts as the arguments for bail went on. She recounts being able to see only a patch of the sky from her tiny cell’s window. Her sister-in-law passed away while she was in jail. “When I came out I felt vulnerable. I needed a formal alliance to back me in this work. Market forces put a price on every human being and institution, and many are drawn to individualism. But there is still a collective spirit in villages here, even if there is a vacuum in leadership,” she says. It is this void the 48-year old believes she can fill if elected on an Aam Admi Party ticket from Khunti, from where BJP’s sitting MP Kariya Munda has been elected seven times.

Before Nagri, she had led a movement against Koel Karo dam in Torpa in Khunti where she was born in a Munda tribal household. From 1995 onwards, Dayamani, then 29 and working as an independent journalist with Jan Haq Patrika, organized tribal villagers in their struggle against the dam that would displace over 53,000. The resistance continued despite eight villagers dying in police firing in 2000. She received death threats when she travelled across four districts in Jharkhand between 2006-2010, organizing villagers opposed to giving up their farmland for Arcelor Mittal’s steel plant over 11,000 acres. She led them citing the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, enacted in 1908 after the Birsa movement, which prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in this area. “Why should we settle for “compensation” when we should be co-owners?” she raised the question at the core of crushing disparities in mineral-rich Jharkhand, while addressing farmers in Bokaro who enforced an “economic blockade” against Electrosteel Casting Limited’s steel plant last September. The speech she gave at Bokaro resulted in a FIR against her.

When not traveling in villages, Dayamani can be found in the tea-shop she runs with her husband Nelson near Ranchi’s Sujata Chowk to support her public work. Photographs of Jharkhandi intellectuals such as academic Dr Ram Dayal Munda, and photos she has taken of paddy fields, festivals in villages adorn the walls. Sometimes she uses this space for her work appointments, discussions too. Her full-throated laughter rings in the middle of conversations.

“Dayamani does things at her own pace,” smiles her close friend film-maker Shri Prakash. “She is alert, sincere, and strong; she has achieved which few people could,” says Dr BP Keshri who retired as the Head of Ranchi University’s Tribal and Regional Languages Department. On an impulse Dayamani trails off to pick a jharoo – AAP’s election symbol – from the floor of a hut nearby before beginning her election speech in Ghorpenda village, or makes a piercing comment about how urban Ranchi perceives here, where the bureaucracy is dominated by the lighter-skinned. “When I go to government offices, sometimes peons ask rudely, what do you want, why are you here. There have been instances when I have waited outside offices for long and watched their reactions change when I say my name is Dayamani Barla and this is why I am here,” she says.

There is a lot Dayamani’s childhood taught her to steel up against. She watched her parents lose their land when she was nine to a businessman, after signing on documents they could not read. While they began working as domestic servants in Ranchi, she and her brother studied in their village in Arhara feeding themselves. At 13, she too moved to Ranchi, living in a shed with cattle, cleaning utensils and eating leftovers working at the Ranchi police barracks. She cleaned utensils in a household till her employer tried to sexually assault her one day. “I was 15. I do not know from where I found the strength from to throw that man off and escape. I left the work at the family’s house, and supported myself learning typing in Hindi, English till I enrolled in M.Com. at Ranchi University,” recounts Dayamani. She briefly worked at a NGO but left it when she found the organization made little attempt to account for funds got for public purpose. She soon started contributing articles to the newspaper Prabhat Khabhar. In 1995 she had set up the tea-shop. Her livelihood assured, she immersed herself in the Koel Karo movement. “She know what it is to be poor, and the poor’s problems. She believes if you have been given buddhi, social consciousness, it is meant to be passed on,” says her childhood friend and husband Nelson.
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At Jabra village, Dayamani takes time to slowly build the conversation about her election campaign with the tribal villagers who have brought their own mats to sit on to listen to her speak. “What is it that we are fighting for? How should do we take this campaign forward” she asks the villagers and listens as the group slowly comes to consensus. By the end, more than 60 villagers gathered here have decide to contribute 2 kg rice and Rs 50 each to her campaign. At Ludru, where villagers have erected a megalith to inscribe Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996 rules governing use of community resources in the village, she asks whether these norms are really effective, if the village has reached what its idea of poorna swaraj. “Sometimes I act radical with a reason, at other times I wonder if I am being firm or stubborn,” she muses on her way back to Ranchi, 40 km away.

On the evening before her nomination, Dayamani visits a Birsait village, where Birsa Munda followers, who avoid meat, alcohol and food from outside and wear only white, live. After listening to her, Jagai Aba, an old man in white dhoti and gamcha listens to her speak about her campaign. Then softly, he warns her: “The party (Maoists and Poeple’s Liberation Front of India, a Maoist splinter group) will try to decide whom the village votes for. There is danger and you should stay away from the forest.” In turn, Dayamani invokes an annual rite the Birsait perform in Singhbhum’s forests where they declare the forest to be sacred. “Mango, mahua, sal trees; bears, tigers, scorpions – everything is in its place, is it not,” she says. “Now is the time to save them.”

An edited version appeared in The Hindu.

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