The fight to save the earth

Published August 2, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IN her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein flags the most challenging threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth. Sudha Bharadwaj began translating the book in Pune’s Yerawada Jail. President Droupadi Murmu could gain useful insights from it. As a representative of India’s most exploited and threatened community of Adivasis, oldest inhabitants of the land, she could exchange notes with Bharadwaj in Mumbai. Why Mumbai? The strict rules for her bail after a three-year stint in prison as an alleged Maoist without trial will not allow Bharadwaj to leave Mumbai.

One of her fellow inmates — the octogenarian Father Stan Swamy perished to Covid while waiting for medical bail and another octogenarian Varavara Rao, the people’s poet, is fighting to stall a threatened curtailment of his medical bail. Everyone else from the group of India’s finest intellectual-activists is languishing in jail over bizarre charges that range from fomenting caste violence and, believe it or not, to plotting to assassinate the prime minister. American tech experts have shown graphically though that the computers of the activists were almost certainly hacked to plant incriminating material to slap them with terror charges. In the era of Pegasus and other insidious intrusions, anything resembling the outrage is a possibility.

So, what kind of a ‘terrorist’ is Bharadwaj? President Murmu has found her way to the exalted position in Delhi from what she says was a difficult life that tribal communities, particularly their womenfolk, lead in India. She will find that Sudha Bharadwaj came from an opposite direction. She gave up a career as a law professor and surrendered her American citizenship to work among President Murmu’s tribal people as a common Indian citizen. She traded her comfortable life to join the fight with the most vulnerable of Adivasis for justice and education as a prelude to their liberation.

While still on bail, Bharadwaj gave an absorbing interview to environmentalist Nagraj Adve for The Wire’s science pages. How did she think of translating Naomi Klein? The answer from the alleged Maoist:

Despite all the differences, the common spirit and struggle of indigenous people all over the world was familiar and inspiring.

“I had always been concerned about ecological devastation in Chhattisgarh due to the limestone quarries and cement plants, vast coal mines, power plants and their ash dykes, sponge iron plants spewing black dust, and the rivers running red with iron ore — things that, as a trade unionist and later as a lawyer representing landowners fighting land acquisition, I had observed at close quarters. But I was always caught up with the battles of the present moment — the notices, the court cases, the jobs, the environmental hearings.”

Sitting in her cell in Yerawada Jail’s Phansi yard (death-row cell), where she was locked in for 16 out of 24 hours in a day, there was time to read and think. “A friend brought me Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, and it did! I could barely put it down.”

There are important scientific facts packed in the well-researched book. For Sudha Bharadwaj, it was equally important that it described global political cover-ups and denials, or even the frightening power that the coal, oil and gas corporations wielded to kill the planet slowly. “What I was really impressed with was Klein’s passionate and empathetic account of people’s movements against these corporations and governments, the new alliances they were forging, the alternatives they were building, everywhere, many of them quite invisibly.”

She felt the surge of excitement at reading about the power of people’s movements in This Changes Everything. It was matched only by accounts Bharadwaj read later in Byculla jail of the Indian farmers’ valiant movement.

“I felt that the people I had been engaging with for the past decade and more — farmers and Adivasis in Korba, Surguja, Raipur, Rajnandgaon and Kanker, fighting their big and small battles under a loose anti-displacement umbrella front Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan — needed to make ‘friends’ with those I had made while reading Klein’s book — ‘friends’ from Greece, Canada, Ogoniland, Ecuador, China, Turkey, Texas.”

It was important too, says Bharadwaj, to learn from the tactics of other ‘friends’, their resilience and their alliances. Despite all the differences, therefore, the common spirit and struggle of indigenous people all over the world was familiar and inspiring.

“That’s how I started translating the book into Hindi. I wanted it to be for local activists and farmers who were literate but not necessarily highly educated.” Bharadwaj realised that there was a lot of explaining to do. Places that people had never heard of and scientific processes they had never studied had to be introduced. It needed maps, photographs of specific struggles to convey their flavour, appendices explaining scientific and technical facts, and footnotes narrating political developments in particular countries.

Splitting the book into three booklets would work, she decided and got Klein’s approval for it. “While I always knew that Naomi Klein would not refuse permission, her warm response was overwhelming, characteristic of a movement that has no time to bother with formalities anymore.”

Just then, Bharadwaj was shifted to Byculla jail, where she found herself hemmed into “coffin-sized spaces” in crowded barracks. It meant less space to have books. There was a steady stream of prisoners too requesting help with their legal matters. Once again, says she, the present took over. The translation work stopped but would now resume.

President Murmu surely knows how completely and cynically the Adivasis are exploited. In one callous instance, as Bharadwaj recalls, some industrial units in Chhattisgarh removed sheds that had protected the workers in the growing, but already extreme, heat stress.

It surpasses cruelty, says Bharadwaj, that a company purporting to help the tribal state, which manufactures parts for the bigger factories, could force its contract workers to work under the blazing sun. “It does not think it necessary, or even its responsibility, to offer protection to the workers. Only the machines are given protective cover.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2022

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