Srila Nayak is a reporter in New York City.
In 2005, steel giant ArcelorMittal contracted with the government of Jharkhand, an eastern state in India, to construct a steel plant at an estimated cost of $8.79 billion in the thickly forested and scenic districts of Khunti and Gumla.
Dayamani Barla, an indigenous human rights activist and journalist from Jharkhand’s Mundar tribe.
Last week, Barla received the first annual Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award at the American Indian Museum in New York City. She was honored for her decade-long campaigns against the exploitation of natural resources by corporations and the persecution of Jharkhand’s tribal communities.
“I visited nearly every home in the 40 villages to inform people about the losses and destruction they would face from the steel plant. I received death threats and was asked to stop meeting with villagers and village committees. I thought 'I I stopped mobilizing the survival of hundreds of thousands of people would be threatened,'” said Barla.
The award was presented by Cultural Survival, a Massachussetts-based non-profit that champions and advocates the rights and heritage of indigenous communities around the world. Named after the late Ellen Lutz, a global advocate of human rights, executive director of Cultural Survival and professor of law and human rights at Tufts University, the award honors deeply committed and courageous human rights work on behalf of indigenous people’s culture, communities, lands and languages.
Cultural Survival commended Barla for her pioneering leadership of “the people’s movements against corporate and government-led land grabs and other injustices that threaten the survival, dignity, and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples.”
Over 60 nominees were submitted for consideration, according to Mililani Trask, a human rights lawyer and member of the Ellen Lutz award committee. Barla, who worked as a domestic servant for many years, before she distinguished herself as a journalist, worked to protect the Adivasi people's rights.
“This woman came from poverty and humble beginnings,” said Trask in her speech. “Today she is recognized globally by the governments and the most powerful of the globalized industries as the voice of Jharkhand—that is where her advocacy has placed her.”
Barla was dismayed by the Indian mainstream media’s lack of interest in covering the humanitarian crisis faced by India’s tribal communities. She was one of the first female Adivasi journalists in India. Barla, along with a few colleagues, created Jan Haq (People’s Rights), a journalistic endeavor devoted to Jharkhand’s indigenous communities. Eventually, she started reporting on tribal issues for Jharkhand’s local Hindi language newspapers.
For Jan Haq, Barla and her small staff traveled across villages to find readers, increase circulation, and report and write news. She also regularly urges the editors of Hindi newspapers to increase coverage of Jharkhand’s indigenous peoples. “I continue to write for Hindi newspapers and also write in my native Mundari language for various Adivasi cultural organizations. I wrote my first article in Mundari,” Barla proudly pointed out.
Barla has also gained recognition in India for her journalistic work on the Adivasi people and their struggles with land acquisition and environmentally harmful modes of industrialization in the tribal-dominated and mineral-rich state of Jharkhand. She won the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism, instituted by P. Sainath, and the National Foundation for India Fellowship.
“I used to write about issues affecting Adivasi society, but then thought it is not enough. I also wanted to get involved in people’s struggles. My motto is to be both a journalist and an activist in Adivasi battles against injustice and corruption,” said Barla.