The Iron Lady of Jharkhand
Dayamani Barla is an Adivasi (Indigenous) activist, journalist, writer, and storyteller from Jharkhand, Central India. Known as The Iron Lady of Jharkand, she has been at the forefront of resistance against displacement and dispossession of Indigenous people from state violence, neoliberal development projects, and industrial expansion. Jharkhand is endowed with rich biodiversity and mineral wealth. Adivasi people have been the traditional custodians and protectors of these rich resources commonly referred to as jal (water), jungle (forest), and zameen (land). Since India’s independence, uneven processes of industrialization (e.g., dams, mining, steel plants) sanctioned by the state and led by global conglomerates have displaced Adivasi people from their ancestral lands and systematically eroded their rights. Against this colossal scale of structural violence, Dayamani Barla has led mass movements to protect land, water, forests, and to uphold Adivasi people’s rights and voices.
Barla’s activism is located at the intersections of environmental justice, gender justice, and Adivasi’s people’s right to self-determination. Over several decades, she has led Adivasi resistance against dams/hydroelectric power projects and steel plants that displace Adivasi people and destroy forests and water that are integral to Adivasi people’s survival and sustenance. She has also been incarcerated for leading a successful movement against setting up of a steel project by global conglomerate Arcelor-Mittal. This struggle is considered one of the longest and most successful anti-dam movements in India and is rooted in the highly mobilized Munda Indigenous community. Barla received the 2013 Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award in recognition of her leadership in the fight against corporate and government-led land grabs and other injustices that threaten the survival, dignity, and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Some other noteworthy awards include Aparajita Samman (2016), Women Empowerment Award (2010), and Chingari Award (2006).
Dayamani Barla has edited and authored many publications in defense of Indigenous people’s rights that are threatened by the state-military-corporate nexus in India. Her articles in Hindi and Mundari languages have appeared in magazines/newspapers such as Prabhat Khabar, Jan Haq, Abhiyan, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagran, and others. As an independent journalist, Barla has been one of the most powerful Adivasi voices speaking truth to power. Her reporting has focused on naming the violence, atrocities and exploitation of Adivasi women, which are systematically excluded from mainstream news outlets. Through her writing, Barla has uplifted oral histories of Adivasi people in Jharkhand and shed light on various threats to the social, economic, cultural, and historical identity of Adivasi people in neoliberal market economies. Some of her noteworthy works include: Women of Ulugan; We Won’t Give an Inch of Land; Displacement Pain; Two Worlds – America Travel Memoir; Truth of Jharkhand Conversion: Struggles of Tribal Society; For Whom is the Plunder on Peasants’ Lands (English translations of Hindi/Mundari titles). As one of the first female Adivasi journalists in India, she has won many awards, including the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism and the National Foundation for India Fellowship.
Dayamani Barla is actively involved with several major people’s movements and coalitions associated with climate justice, gender justice, land rights, and the rights of historically marginalized and oppressed groups. She is the founder of Adivasi-Moolvasi Astitva Raksha Manch, a people’s movement that unites thousands of Adivasis, Dalits, and farmers across Jharkhand. She has also served as the National President of INSAF – Indian Social Action Forum, a national coalition of 700 people’s movements, social action groups, and progressive intellectuals with an active presence in 15 states of India. She is also associated with the National Alliance of Women – Navo, National Coordination of People’s Movements (NAPM), and Antidisplacement Nav Nirman Morcha-Jharkhand among others.
More recently, Dayamani Barla has expanded her activism to the electoral arena. Through electoral participation, she seeks to transform Adivasi representation and center the struggles of Adivasi people. Barla is currently based out of Ranchi, Jharkhand in Central India. Along with her husband, she runs a tea shop, which helps sustain her community work.