How 'Development' Snatched Identities Of South Asia's Indigenous People

How 'Development' Snatched Identities Of South Asia's Indigenous People
There are still people who think of their land like a mother; they prefer culture and traditions to economic and social development. For them, losing their land is synonymous with losing their culture and identity.  Today, indigenous people around the world  are taking to streets to fight for their rights, land and ways of life. They are telling the world that they are resisting the aims of corporations and governments. These indigenous people are exposing old colonial tactics to enslave local people in the name of development, and deprive them of their freedom.

Many countries have neglected the rights of indigenous people. Governments and corporations have been building dams, highways, power plants and other mega projects without the consent of local people. Thus, marginalized groups are forced to migrate away from their land. Groups that do protest are silenced through offerings of lucrative benefits in the name of development and welfare.

From Europe to the Americas and Asia, native peoples have been struggling to maintain their land and culture. Even in the US, the self-described beacon of democratic values, the rights of Native Americans have been neglected. In Australia, the aboriginals are resisting the government’s attempts at ‘so-called’ development. Likewise, the governments of India and Pakistan, with help of large corporations, international financial institutions, and military influence, have been trying to take the land of indigenous peoples of Thar in Sindh, Kailash in the north, and the Baloch in Balochistan, assuring that with the advent of coal power plants, hydroelectric projects and ports, the fate of local peoples will only improve.

Who are indigenous people?

According to the United Nations, indigenous communities, groups or societies have the following in common:

  • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their

  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies

  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources

  • Distinct social, economic or political systems

  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs

  • Form non-dominant groups of society

  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities

The Adivasi people of India

The Adivasi people lived in India for thousands of years, predating the Dravidians, but are now facing eviction. An estimated 104 million indigenous people, divided into different community’s ethnic groups and clans, live in India, an estimated 9 per cent of the country’s total population. Many of them live in Assam.

About 8 million Adivasi people faced eviction from their land, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2019.  Wildlife conservation groups had alleged in their petition to the Indian apex court that the Adivasi were polluting the environment and encroaching on protected land, ruining conservation efforts.  This was not the first time the Adivasi were forcibly evicted. In 1979, the Adivasi people protested against the government’s plans to build dams along the Narmada River. However, the local people were overruled in the name of development and around 200,000 people were displaced.

Development does not only include infrastructure and construction, but also culture and faith. When people force their culture and religion onto others, they also snatch away their identity.


The People of Thar

People of Thar are known for their culture, language and rituals. Living in the desert of Sindh, Tharri live in hut-shaped house called ‘Chaunra.’ Most of the people rear cattle, and many still ride on camel back. For the last five years, the governments of both India and Pakistan have boasted of various development mega projects for the Tharri people, many condoned by Sindhi intellectuals, journalists and non-profits. These stakeholders have been extolling the virtues of development projects, including coal, as a way to bring power to the region and transform their lives, despite the disastrous environmental impacts.

Although most of the world is now looking for alternatives to coal, the government of Pakistan is now boasting about having the world’s largest coal reservoir. While across the world, civil society is protesting against coal, in Pakistan multiple non-government organizations (NGOs) organize seminars and workshops about how to eliminate poverty through coal.  Sadly, the company working on the coal power project in Thar is Chinese, even though the Chinese government has put ban on coal mining projects in its own country.

The Kohistani people against a mighty tycoon

In 2018, a housing scheme was announced by a business tycoon to build houses in a hilly area of Thano Boola Khan, fifty kilometres from Karachi. The only hurdle in his way was the local community, who the businessman tried to placate by shoe-string compensation for their land.

Many residents refused, but still faced eviction.  As many as 10,000 acres of land was illegally taken for this scheme. Thousands of people were displaced until the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) intervened, and reclaimed the land, estimated to be worth around Rs.75 billion.

CPEC in Balochistan

 The people of Balochistan were led to believe that the only way to escape poverty was by launching Gwadar port and other CPEC projects. Although gas and oil fields were discovered in the province in 1952, today many local people resort to conventional fuel. The only people who turned from rags to riches were the same people who advocated for the development.

The People of Kalash

People have not only been deceived by politicians and business tycoons but also by religious extremists. Development does not only include infrastructure and construction, but also culture and faith. When people force their culture and religion onto others, they also snatch away their identity. The people of Kalash are known as the oldest and most peaceful community living in the northern areas of Pakistan, but for the last couple of years their culture has been threatened by religious fanatics, who pressure the community’s young girls to convert.

In a world so badly affected by climate change and environmental pollution, capitalist entities are adopting innovative ways to capture natural resources by bribing native communities when government fail to succeed.  Indigenous groups, whose greatest asset for centuries has been their land and culture, are today losing both.

The author is an advocate working at Kilam Law Firm.