12/13/2010, 00.00

Gujarat: Jesuits helping indigenous people victims of economic development

Santosh Digal
Corporate groups threaten the lives of thousands of Adivasis, forcing them off their land and into a life of poverty. Jesuit missionaries set up an organisation that provides free education and legal assistance to the Adivasis to help them fight for their rights.

Ahamadabad (AsiaNews) – Jesuit missionaries have set up the Rajpila Social Service Society (RSSS) in the Indian state of Gujarat to help indigenous people (Adivasi) who are threatened by the state’s economic development. The society provides free legal advice to the many Adivasi who are victims of discrimination and abuses. Overall, indigenous communities represent 15 per cent of the Gujarati population.

The rapid pace of economic and industrial development in the state is undermining teh Adivasi way of life, forcing them off their land to give way to factories and power plants. “Many missionaries saw the link between the neglect and exploitation of the Adivasis by the ‘mainstream’ forces, and the abject poverty which was the lot of the Adivasis,” Fr Rappai Poothokaren said.

“They also knew that emergency relief work was not enough to ensure the Adivasis their fair share,” realising that the Adivasis “had to be empowered through education, mobilisation and organisation. Ever since, Jesuits have enabled the Adivasis to organise and to mobilise for their rights”.

The Jesuits have been working among Gujarat’s indigenous peoples since 1960. At present, 26,000 Adivasis are involved in Catholic and non-Catholic organisations run by the Adivasis themselves, whose action ranges from leadership training and establishing farm cooperatives to preserving medicinal plant crops and saving ancient traditions.

In recent years, the Jesuits have also pushed young Adivasis to study law in order to fight the abuses their communities suffer. They have also helped the elderly and the illiterate go through the maze of the state bureaucracy.

In 2000, Fr Poothokaren and members of the RSSS have helped Adivasis organise protests against the construction of the Narmada dam, which threatens to submerge thousands of villages and cause huge environmental damage.

The case has gone to the Indian Supreme Court, which has ordered the construction company to change its plans and pay compensation to the people displaced by its project.

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