On July 8th, in Salem, Tamil Nadu, environmental activist Mr. Piyush Manush (founder of ‘Coop Forest’, “Salem Citizen’s Forum”), and two of his associates and others protested against the construct of an over-bridge, a project sanctioned by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. The people living in the area weren’t given any prior notice or intimated about the project. The land necessary for the project weren’t even acquired. The protestors demand was compensation as well as rehabilitation, if the construction is going to affect the people’s habitat. However, the system showed its usual ugly face. The police disrupted the peaceful protest, arrested Mr. Piyush and his three associates. They booked the three people under various sections of Indian Penal Code (including criminal intimidation). While two of the associates were granted bail on July 14th, Mr. Piyush was kept in solitary confinement and alleged to be brutally beaten by the police. In the court, the state government called the environmentalists as ‘terrorists against national growth’. They are tagged as persons dejecting nation’s progress.
Piyush got the bail eventually on Thursday, July 21st, and upon his release he had publicly talked about the horrific treatment of prison officials. From 2008 on wards, Mr. Piyush has been staging protests against mining companies like Jindal and Malco, and other corporates. He has previously faced jail terms, but this time the use of physical force is to simply convey a message to all other environmentalists. To send out a strong message that ‘this is what happens when public questions the government or its activities’. Nevertheless, neither the government nor its pawns, didn’t thought that there would be reasonable uproar from general public. Chennai Solidarity Group, National Alliance of People’s Movement, Safe Food Alliance, and many other people’s organizations took up Piyush’s case. Over the past two weeks, the name Piyush have been taken to all corners of India (many of us in Tamil Nadu who weren’t aware, who Piyush is, are now very eager to support his cause). The act of excessive terrorism from the system’s pawns may unite more people to take forward the environmentalists’ ideals.
Born as Piyush Sethia, this 39 year old environmentalist cut down the caste name ‘Sethia’ to simply add the word ‘Manush’ (man). Now, the word ‘Sethia’ only appears in police and court records. In 2006, he brought 1.5 acres land in Tamil Nadu’s Dharamapuri district and started planting trees. He called these lands ‘Co-op’ or ‘Coop forest’. Over the years, cooperative members of the organization brought patches of land and the forest expanded to nearly 150 acres. Piyush Manush also constantly experimented with water harvesting techniques in dry lands. Salem district is one of Tamil Nadu’s mineral storehouses (surrounded by beautiful hills). As in many places with rich natural resources, the regular folks are deprived of basic needs to force them to change their habitats. The bigger corporates merged together in the area to zero-in on the resources. In 2008, mining companies in Salem’s Kanjamalai hills were eyeing its rich deposits of iron ore. Piyush mobilized the locals and created awareness against the gradual intrusion of the corporate. It resulted in a temporary stay for the iron ore project.
In 2010, he was the representative of ‘Campaign of Justice and Peace’, a movement initiated by people concerned by worst human right violations in the state of Chattisgarh. Piyush was arrested for his involvement in the campaign and immediately charged with sedition. In the same year, he founded Salem’s Citizen Forum to restore and cleanse lakes like Mookaneri, Kumaragiri, Ammapettai, etc in Salem. He was instrumental in not only standing against the government’s bigger plans for environmental degradation, but also created the much-needed awareness among people. As the state government allegedly boasts bigger industrial plan to tap into the district’s rich minerals, Mr. Piyush is thought of as a greater threat by corporate lobbies. In the recent devastating floods in Chennai, Piyush and his organization worked tirelessly with government officials in aid-work. It is ironic enough to note how people-centric works and creating awareness among people is considered as an act of dissent or even ‘anti-national’.
It is also important to understand how the brutality meted out against environmentalist like Piyush Manush is not an isolated case from a corner of Tamil Nadu. The system we democratically elected to preserve water-bodies, resources and fellow humans have forever found gains in working for the corporate. The scare tactics employed by honorable state Chief Ministers Jayalalitha or Naveen Patnaik or Raman Singh or by our central government officials remains the same: use excessive physical force to make them wonder about their peaceful protest strategies. The scare tactics are even universal. It’s an old tactic followed by USA in Latin America, to sustain the great ‘American Dream’. ‘Global Witness’ (international NGO that exposes networks behind natural resources exploitation) report released, earlier this year, states that the killings of environmentalists and violence used against them, around the world have increased by 59 percent in 2015, when compared to the stats of 2014. The reported killings of environmentalists and conservationists around the world in 2015 are 185. The other forms of violence used against general public in the natural-resource related conflict mostly passes over without any forms of record (the media reports are muted). Brazil and Philippines are considered as two dangerous nations for environmentalists (most of the world’s mining projects are going over in these two countries). Paramilitaries are used by many local governments to protect the corporates and to drive out thousands of indigenous people. In countries like China and small nations in South America, even the international monitoring activities about environmental degradation are bloated out.
It is high time we start questioning the notion of development and growth, these governments are forcing upon us. These so-called development measures aren’t just affecting our environment; it will lead to the strangling of our nation’s idea of democracy. The governments are not going to change its mind and suddenly transform to be people-centric. It all relies on our awareness and little activities that might force government to shed (or at least postpone) its corporate-led notion of ‘growth’.