“If nature survives, adivasis will survive and if adivasis survives, nature will survive.” ─ Dayamani Barla


Introductory Note: 

The terms “tribal societies” are important terms in the writings of sociologists and anthropologists. There is no universally accepted definition of a tribe. In general, tribe is “a social group having many clans, nomadic bunds and other sub-groups living on a definite geographical area having separate language, separate and singular culture”. According to Imperial Gazetteer of India, a tribe is “a collection of families bearing a common name, speaking a common dialect, occupying or professing to occupy a common territory and is not usually endogamous through originally it might have been so”.  The Oxford English dictionary defines tribe a group of people in a primitive or barbarous state of development acknowledging the authority of a chief and usually regarding themselves as having a common ancestor. Among the several characteristics, tribal communities are considered groups that share territorial affiliations, endogamous with no specialisation of function, common language, or dialect, independent political division. They also share world views.  However, tribes in India are different from similar groups around the world:

They are not homogenous group and within themselves they are at various stages of integration with the larger society. According to Andre Beteille, in India the encounters between tribe and civilization have taken place under historical conditions of a radically different sort. The co-existence of tribe and civilization and their mutual interaction go back to the beginnings of recorded history and earlier. Tribes have existed at the margins of Hindu civilization from time immemorial and these margins have always been vogue, uncertain and fluctuating. Hindu civilization acknowledged the distinction between tribe and caste in the distinction between two kinds of communities, Jana and jati, the one confined to the isolation of hills and forests, the other settled in villages and towns with a more elaborate division of labor. The transformation of tribes into castes has been documented by a large number of anthropologists and historians. The tribe as a mode of organization has always differed from the caste based mode of organization. But considered, as individual units tribes are not always easy to distinguish from castes particularly at the margins where the two modes of organization meet [1].

The study states that “there are over 700 scheduled tribes notified under Article 342 of the Constitution of India. According to the 2015-16 Annual Report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs the population of the Scheduled Tribes in the country is 10.45 crore which as per 2011 census constitutes 8.6% of the total population” (Sociology Guide). Very few tribal activists have been able to make as much a mark in the collective imagination of the people in India as that of Dayamani Barla, who has been voicing for the social and environmental priorities of the tribals of Jharkhand in particular and India in general. Regarded as the ‘iron lady of Jharkhand’ Barla has been instrumental not only in historicising the culture of the tribals but also in bringing to the fore the irrelentless struggles for preserving the environment, society, culture and heritage. Hailing from a poor indigenous tribal family of Jharkhand, Barla became the de facto face of protest against displacement, dispossession and environmental struggles in India at national and international platforms. Although she has been protesting for long, she came to the limelight when she opposed the setting up of the Arcelor Mittal steel plant in Jharkhandin 2005 that would have led to massive human displacements besides depleting a large tract of the forest cover in Jharkhand. Barlawrites for the Hindi newspaper Pravat Khabarto draw attention to the myriad problems facing the tribals of Jharkhand. She has won numerous accolades at the national and international level for her activism, prominent among them being the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism in 2000 and the Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award in 2013.


Interviewee: Dayamani Barla

Interviewer: Animesh Roy & Zelia Bora

1 Question: First of all thank you so much for giving us the time for this interview amidst your busy schedule. Dayamaniji, you have been fighting for the right to forest and livelihood for millions of tribals (adivasis [2] ) for long. You have won the Ellen L Lutz Award [3]. It’s a very prestigious award which is given to those working relentlessly for the cause of the tribals amidst numerous odds. How do you see all this?

Answer: Primarily the way I see my society, our jal,jungle, zameen, our land, water, streams, our tribal history, amidst which my entire childhood was spent, where I played and bathed in the waters of the Karo river [4], I played on its strands, I believe that the language and culture of the adivasis, their social, cultural, economic and political identity remains alive only with their association with nature, land, water, mountains and fountains.  In the adivasis society, nature is not a property; agricultural and non-agricultural land is not a personal or private property. Nature is rather considered as a collective heritage. This collective heritage is connected to the laws of nature, the changing of seasons, weathers, years, weeks, days etc., and is interlinked with their existence. The history of the adivasis is linked with nature. Now it is spring, after this it would be summer, then monsoon, pre-winter, winter and finally autumn. The adivasis connect with nature, the coming of new leaves in trees and plants after the fall, with their desire for a new life, a new struggle and victory thereafter. We celebrate Sarhul, the festival of spring to celebrate the coming of new leaves in trees and thereby of the onset of a new life in nature. For the adivasis, the jungle is linked to their economic existence. Most of the trees and plants in the jungle flower and fruit during the summer season. After summer we indulge in agriculture and when the first seedling of rice is sown at the time of Ropniwe celebrate bandgari, kadleta and finally when agriculture is in full bloom we thank nature and we celebrate Karma thanking and praying for the good rain and harvest that nature gave us. We all the brothers and sisters dance and sing and celebrate it as a festival of brothers and sisters. When we reap our crop, we don’t eat a single grain until we celebrate Nawakhani. After the rainy season when agricultural life rests, then nature provides food and water to the adivasi society. This is how we are linked to the cycle of nature. So as you said that I struggled for long for the cause of the tribal sand I received Ellen L Lutz Award, the award is not for Dayamani, butfor the relentless struggles of Dayamani, and the struggle for the environment of all the people, the peasants associated with it, be it the adivasis orthe non-adivasis. When we speak of nature, we also mean the ant in the soil and the bird in the sky, so we are also fighting for the justice of these creatures. My struggle is not only for my community, but for the entire nature, for the right of everyone to live.



2. Question:You speak of “jal, jungle and zameen” (a slogan meaning the right to water, forest and land). Can you explain to us the relationship between forests or nature and tribals/ indigenous people?

Answer: For the tribals nature is their soul. If you go against nature then nature will revolt. The relationship between the adivasi and prakriti [5] is the same as that of the body and the soul. If nature survives, adivasi will survive and if adivasi survives, nature will survive. The history of this planet says, even the history of the Americas say that when the indigenous tribes were attacked there, the Red Indians were attacked and their lands taken away, their jungles taken away, their existence were threatened and now their population is restricted only in the reservations and museums. The forests have been destroyed, lost its life, the jungle there is taking its last breath, you will barely find the diversity of life forms there. But if you go to the jungles of Jharkhand, you will still find thatthe adivasis and the rest of the animals living together − the cats, the squirrels, the rabbits, the rats, the tigers, leopards, the elephants. But if you go for rampant industrialisation atthe cost of environment and create a jungle of industries and concrete, you may find there a rabbit but there you won’t find the culture, the identity and the history of the adivasis there. I have visited the jungles in America at the invitation of my tribal brothers there. There are jungles but it has lost the living relationship between man and nature, the flavour of the adivasis culture. Today politics is indirectly governed by the corporates. The men in political power understand this relationship between tribal society and nature but since they are governed directly and indirectly by the rich corporates at the national and international levels so they deliberately ignore and destroy it.  

And this is precisely the reason that on the one hand we speak of the relationship between tribals and environment, nature, land according to the unamended 5th schedule, andon the other handthe state government of Jharkhand on behalf of the central government of India is trying its level best to facilitate land transfer to the rich corporates, as per their own choice and at the earliest possibility. So the government does not wish to understand this relationship between nature, tribals and their culture. The recent amendment to the Forest Rights Act is even more dangerous than that of the act by the British in the colonial period. The tribals have always coexisted with other animals in jungles and they have friendly relations with all the life forms of the jungle, the tigers, bears, scorpions, ants etc. Wheneverthey go to the forest for grazing heircows and goats they carry with them kulhari [6], hasua [7], douli [8]. But according to the new amendment, the government has given orders to shoot anyone, even if they be the villagers, who carry with them even a small tangiya or a bow and arrows. Even the British didn’t pass such a draconian law of human right violation. The adivasi society believes in collective development and sharing. It is not guided by the consumerist capitalist market economy, it believes in giving back more than taking. They take from the jungle only that much is required – for food, for housing, not more than their need. If he cuts a tree, he plants ten. When he plucks fruits from trees, he doen’t take them all, he leaves some for the birds and animals to survive for others. And this is how the adivasi society is an example before the rest of the world, a society which is no guided by the consumerist or the capitalist economies. They have taught that we cannot survive in a consumerist capitalist economy. If we wish to preserve our environment, then we need to be away from capitalist economy. The nature is alive only where adivasis are there, the adivasis are there where there is nature. The adivasis cannot separate themselves from the forest, just as a fish cannot live out of water, and if you are trying to separate the adivasis from nature then it is anti-nature, and you are destroying the creation. And if you are destroying creation, destroying nature, you will also not survive. 



3. Question: You are working for the social justice of the tribals of India especially Jharkahnd. Do you feel there are any clear relationship between social justice and environmental justice? How important is the concept of sustainable development to Adivasi peoples in India and out of it to save the planet?

Answer: There is obviously a direct relationship between environmental justice and social justice. What is environment? You cannot see it differently; environment is that where humans live, the ants, the birds, and all the animals live, environment is where you can enjoy the moonlight. If you go to Manhattan you will not be able to enjoy the moonlight perhaps even once in a year. So nature is not that, environment is not that. Nature is where the humans and the non-humans, the biotic and the abiotic factors intermingle. So how can you separate it from society? Environmental justice, social justice, human justice, all are the same, interlinked, not different, they are just the two sides of the same coin. Just as, when you speak of development like Manhattan, there peasants won’t live, and where you speak of small roads,rivers and streams you will find everything, you will find nature, the fields, jungle, the humans and the non-human lives. But when you speak of only development, you won’t find environment which is injustice.

The history, language, existence, as well as the social, political and cultural identity of the adivasis is intricately linked withjal, jungle and zameen. The existence of the Adivasi society will remain safe as long as they are attached to their jal, jungle, and zameen, their rivers and hills. Just as a fish cannot survive when taken out of water, similarly the adivasis loses their identity when they are separated from nature. The idea of sustainable development is important not only for the adivasis but for the entire creation, the ecosystem and the life forms on earth ─ the adivasis being a very integral and organic part of this nature. Everybody needs food, water and a clean and pure environment for its survival. The problem of global warming can only be solved through sustainable development. For this the parameters of development should be based on scientific studies of the laws of nature. There should be a proper study about land use − about how much land should be used for agriculture, for water bodies, and forests so that the environment remains unpolluted, and how much land for industries and other business. This can only pave the way for a proper and sustainable development.



4.Question: You are opposed to land acquisition by the government to set up mines or for other public or private cause. You opposed the ArcelorMittal [9] steel plant in Eastern Jharkhand. Many believe that land acquisitions are necessary in today’s time. If you don’t acquire land then how will the industry work? How will the economy run? Don’t you feel that there is something wrong in the whole argument?

Answer: What is economy and what are the parameters of development? You have to be clear about that. After the formation of Jharkhand Arcelor Mittal came in 2005, when an agreement was signed for setting up of a steel plant producing 12 million tons of steel withan investment of 50,000crore rupees and for which it needed 25,000 hectares of land. There were agreements with almost 104 companies including Arcelor Mittal out of which 98 percent were steel plants. If I take the example of only Arcelor Mittal then they needed to make power plants, needed coal blocks, they wanted to construct hydle power projects if required, captive power plants, and for running all these you needed coal and water. So, how much water you need per hour? If one takes so much of natural resources for one plant then how much resources would be needed for the total 104 plants? Does the government know how much food, milk, fish, egg, green vegetables are needed to ensure food security of 3.25 crore population of the state? If 25,000 hectares of land are required for one company, so how much land, water, coal mines, iron ores, mica, are needed for 104 companies? If you take so much of land then how can you ensure food security to the people of the state? Speaking of the environment, where from you will ensure pure air, pure food, and pure water for the people of the state? You say you are in favour of development. If your development model requires unlimited extraction and mining of natural resources then your roadmap for development, your model of development is not proper, it is not sustainable development. The whole landscape of Jharkhand will be destroyed. Do you require 98% steel plants for the need of the people of Jharkhand? Coming to economy, if the capitalist economies of the world powers of USA, Japan, Australia etc. wer eany better then why were they suffering from the global recession around 2008-2009, why were people losing jobs? So, when you speak of economy, you only mean capitalist economy dependant on global neoliberal market which is bad. Why China despite being a manufacturing hub, the Chinese people are migrating to other countries for employment? Actually the jobs that are created along with environment are being destroyed to create jobs dependant on machineries. There needs to be factories, but what kind of factories? Why cannot you make an agricultural hub here, jobs that are dependent on the jungle, small and micro industries that employ thousands of people, jobs that do not destroy the environment, that do not pollute the environment, that do not displace people and are dependent on sustainability? Why don’t you look for such alternative development? You are only interested in smoke belching factories. The economic development model along with environmental development that we speak ofis the richest. There is no protest with public projects like roads, no one is protesting that. But if you are acquiring land for four lane, six lane roads then we don’t agree on that. That is exploitation. Look at the sea ports, more and more sea ports are being constructed just to ship the resources of the country to other countries according to the capitalist model and jeopardising not only the environment but also the lives and economies of the local people who depend on it. We support taking only that much that is required with a socialist approach. But they are only interested in the development of the rich corporates. What will the peasants do, the locals do, and the common people do? So, development for whom? Only for the capitalists? Why man is going to the moon and other planets in search of land, first of all let them take care of the earth.



5. Question : Particularly to the audience in the Americas, how the struggles of the indigenous peoples for a sustainable environment in India can contribute to the struggle of indigenous peoples in the Americas, in spite of the cultural differences?  In what ways your role as a woman has been positive as a leader in the struggle? Can you consider yourself a role model to younger generations of indigenous women? Do you have a special message to indigenous peoples in Brazil? According to Brazilian perspective India is a country caught between modernity and tradition. How do you see this paradigm when applied to environmental issues? Is it possible to have modernisation respecting tradition? Do you have any special message to indigenous peoples in Brazil?

Answer: I would like to convey to the indigenous people in the Americas that we may be different regionally and culturally but we are connected by a common cause, we all are fighting for the same environment, for our environmental rights and social rights. I can feel the pains of the Red Indians in the Americas living in reservations, and their struggle inspires me always in my life; we may be separated geographically, but we, our souls are connected because of our common identity and struggle.  

Wherever I have fought against displacement I have not allowed a single tree to be felled or any house to be destroyed. Though it depends from person to person I may be able to do this because I have played amidst this nature and have been fighting against the big people ever since my youth, I remember how I fought against all odds during my childhood when my family was cheated of our land. I had to fight for my survival without any guardian. That episode of my life perhaps made me much more protective toward the environment, the land and the home. I feel proud how each elements of nature helped me survive, protected me and that spirit may have helped me to become the person I am now as nature has taught me the realities of the world and fight for their cause, not that men have been unsuccessful, but wherever there has been a majority of women in the fight, they have always been successful.

Girls who come after me will carry on our struggle forward for the social and environmental rights of the tribal people. Anyone who understands the past will try to understand the present and will be able to plan for the future. This is my belief.



Yes, you can modernise keeping in mind the tradition, and people are doing that. You have to strike a balance between development and tradition,  keeping in mind your history, tradition, heritage, society and people. In jungle, people used to light fire by rubbing one wood against another. When there was no oil seeds, people used to hunt to use the oil from there and bake on fire. You speak of roasted chicken, barbeque, organic vegetables, and mineral water. What are these? These are our old culture. So you came back to where you started. On the one hand you say tribals are backward on the other hand you adapt our culture just to earn money. 

My message to the indigenous peoples of Brazil is that they are not alone in their struggle, the whole world is fighting and we all are together, our ancestors have created history and we will help forward it. India has always been with Brazil, we will fight for our identity, our culture. Our history has always been ever flowing and will ever be.


[1] See:  Sociology Guide: 

[2]Adivasi is the term used for the indigenous peoples of India.

[3]Ellen L. Lutz (1955-2010), a renowned human rights layer ad former executive director of Cultural Survivor.

[4]South Karo River –flows through the states of Odisha and Jharkhand into the Bay of Bengal.

[5]Prakrti is the prime material energy of which all mater is composed. 

[6]. Axe.

[7]. Sickle.

[8]. A sharp iron or steel tool used by the tribals to cut shrubs and also as self-defense.

[9]. ArcelorMittal is the world’s leading steel and mining company.


Tradução para Língua Portuguesa/Translation to Portugese Language: 

Revisão do texto em português/ Review of the text in Portuguese: 

Evely Libanori   (Universidade Estadual do Paraná)

Zélia Monteiro Bora( Universidade Federal da Paraíba)

Equipe ASLE-Brasil para essa entrevista/ ASLE-Brasil team to this interview: 

Antonio Felipe B. Neto – Suporte Técnico/Technical support (Universidade Federal da Paraíba) 




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