Dayamani Barla was presented with the first ever Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award by Cultural Survival, an indigenous peoples’ rights organisation

The Big Apple is renowned as the home of investment banks, glitzy fashion shows and other 21st-century tributes to prodigious wealth accumulation. But on Thursday it played host to a powerful symbol of Indian adivasis’ struggle against oppression, Jharkhand activist and journalist Dayamani Barla.

On a rainy and blustering evening in Manhattan, Ms. Barla, who has been described as the “Iron Lady of Jharkhand” for her fearless opposition to the infringement of adivasi rights was presented with the first ever Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award by Cultural Survival, an indigenous peoples’ rights organisation.

After an eloquent address at the reception in her honour at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian, Ms. Barla told The Hindu that she doubted whether this international recognition would make a difference to the situation in Jharkhand, but added that those who opposed the adivasis’ struggle to preserve “jal, jungle, jameen” may now have pause to consider why the U.S. had thus honoured their cause.

The self-made scribe, who rose from humble beginnings to become the voice of the Munda tribe and other deprived communities, has reason to worry about the situation back home. In all Ms. Barla is said to have nine cases foisted on her by the government and people associated with the award indicated that she had faced obstacles in leaving Jharkhand for this event in the U.S.

On October 18 last year, she was jailed for two months for demanding job cards for the rural poor in Angada block under the NREGA scheme, a charge that stemmed from a 2006 case against her.

Although she got bail two days later, she was immediately re-arrested in relation to two other cases, where she was accused of disrupting law and order during a protest. Keeping up her journalistic mission, she wrote from her jail cell that the “looters of the state have become well-wishers in the eyes of the government.”

On that occasion Nagri residents and activists stepped up the demand for her release and prominent intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, signed a petition “strongly condemning [her] unjust incarceration... and demand that the false cases against her be dropped and that she be released immediately.”

Terry Odendahl of Global Greengrants Fund, who nominated Ms. Barla for the award, reflected on the Jharkhand police’s attempts to silence her protests when she said, “Dayamani’s jailing was a reminder to civil rights activists across the nation of the unfriendly role the Jharkhand state is taking towards drivers of democratic change.”

Ms. Barla’s determination to keep the forces of India’s modern capitalist machine from eating into adivasi land clearly caught the eye of the award selection committee, which picked her out of a group of nearly 60 nominees.

Alongside her colleagues from the Adivasi Moolvasi Astitva Raksha Manch, Ms. Barla in 2008, succeeded in preventing global steel and mining industry behemoth ArcelorMittal, from proceeding with the establishment of a $8.79 billion steel plant based on the proposed seizure of 12,000 acres of land and the displacement of 40 villages, not to mention the likely ecosystem and indigenous livelihoods damage.

In an article written at the time she was quoted saying, “We will not allow the ArcelorMittal Company to enter into the villages because one cannot be rehabilitated once displaced. The lands which we cultivate belong to our ancestors; therefore we will not leave it.”

Since 2010, she has also led numerous protests in Nagri village, nearly 16 km from Ranchi, against the Jharkhand government’s efforts to acquire over 200 acres of farmland to set up IIM, IIT and National Law School campuses.

On Thursday, a captivated audience of human rights lawyers, academics, and members of indigenous communities from across the world listened as Ms. Barla said that in the span of 12 years, the Jharkhand government had signed 104 MoUs with corporate, 98 per cent of which were mining interests with a strong demand for natural resources in the region.

“If the government gives land for mining to all companies, Jharkhand will lose its environment and the land will become infertile,” Ms. Barla explained, adding that in 10 years, the population of displaced people would increase four-fold, permanently destroying indigenous habitats and livelihoods.