‘Lights, camera, action’ are three words I have become used to in my professional career. If my stint at Charminar is anything to go by, then ‘Arrested ‘is going to be a new phrase I will become accustomed to as an activist with Greenpeace India.
My first Greenpeace police detention or arrest came on Monday afternoon when I joined a team of activists who had organised a banner-drop to mark the opening of a major United Nations conference on biodiversity, on one of Hyderabad’s most iconic land marks, the Charminar. The demand: Indian government, hosts of the UN conference, needs to stop their wanton destruction of the forests with their environmentally flawed mad dash for coal.
The reason I decided I had to be part of this direct communication to Dr Manmohan Singh and his government is because I rejoice at my country’s rich biodiversity. According to the UN, India is the 7th most environmentally diverse place on the planet. Yet my country’s government has placed itself on the fast track to environmental vandalism. It has agreed, some say in suspicious circumstances, to wave after wave of licenses to big mining companies who are being allowed to rip up the pristine forests to make way for their mines and power stations.
So if I am proud of my country’s environmental diversity then I will be a patriot by protecting it.
One of the greatest assets India has is not the commodities we manufacture or the minerals we have deep in our soil, but our respect for the diversity of our people and our culture – it is a respect deeply embedded in our collective DNA.
Yet that profoundly important characteristic of respect is being felled alongside destruction of the forests by Dr Singh. As a direct result of his government’s coal mining expansion programme, tens of thousands of forest dependent communities are being forced to leave their homes.
These are villages and villagers who have been part of the forests for thousands of years. These are communities that have been the guardians of the forests – never over exploiting the resources, only taking what they needed. These communities are the true protectors of India’s biodiversity.
Today these same people of the forests, whom we can learn so much from, are being shifted from their traditional homes and forced to live in so called ‘rehabilitation centres’ which is corporate spin for concrete blocks. This is a total anathema to the traditions and lives of these communities.There is a de-facto human cleansing of the forests and that is something every Indian should oppose.
We are already seeing the impact on these traditional communities. Migration from traditional areas into the cities is on the increase. Some of those who remain in their traditional homelands are being coerced to work in the very coal mines for the very companies who have destroyed their way of life. This stain on our collective character must be addressed now before it becomes indelible. We have to find a way to get these communities back to where they want to live.
The coal crimes of this government go beyond the tragic human price our oldest indigenous people are paying for this government’s programme of forest destruction. Another innocent victim of mass deforestation is one of India’s most iconic animals – the Tiger.
According to scientists there are just over 1,500 tiger left in the wild and by wild I mean forests. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or an environmental scientist to know that if you wilfully destroy the natural habitat of the tiger then you will increase the likelihood of the tiger becoming a species of the past. It would be a crime for future generations here and around the world if the only sighting of the Indian tiger were the Indian Tourist Board posters.
India has brought me great successes and for that I am grateful. That is why as an Indian I must speak out against the coal crimes that my government is presently engaged in. It may well be that I will have to experience the inside of another police station before we win this campaign – but win we will if we can harness the passion the Indian people have for their environment and the sense of fairness and justice we hold so dear.
So I’m asking you, if you can’t spend time in a police station, then join the quarter of a million people who have already signed up to our fight against the destruction of the forests, the homes of people and the habitat of our endangered tiger.
Amala Akkineni is a renowned film actor and an environmental activist.