NEW DELHI: Social activist PRAFULLA SAMANTRA was in San Francisco to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize when The Citizen caught up with. Humble as always he shared his views about the struggle that he has waged for rights and justice, despite being arrested and vilified. He would not have anything different, he is happy that he and the “determined” Dongarias have been able to sustain the struggle to preserve the environment. Samantra sees no difference between the government and the corporates, the one being the extension of the other as he says, and is determined to continue to fight for what he believes in.

Excerpts from the interview with The Citizen where Samantra speaks his mind:

Q.How important is this award for you? In that does this recognition help your struggle?

Not only me, people across the world who are deeply hurt and affected by the ecological devastations happening in the name of the development, do attach great value to this award as it is considered a recognition of the struggle we are engaged in and again it works as a medium to communicate to the rest of the world that there is a hope and we need to harvest on it. Though I am happy but at a personal level it won’t make any difference to me as I am guided by my own conviction to work with people on environmental issues.

But I hope, this award would shake the conscience of the people who are looking at every devastation like mute spectators. I hear the news that the award has inspired all ongoing struggles in Odisha. The Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti is a formidable front of peace loving but well determined Dongarias who live with this conviction that Niyamgiri is the heaven for them and there is no replacement for it on Earth. Though awards don’t make any difference to them either but any recognition of their struggle makes them happy and they work with more resolve.

Q.It's been long years. Tell us a little bit about the harassment. Was there any one point where you might have thought of giving up ?

Harassment has become common place wherever people are resisting a project for a just cause. We have faced it several times. Innocent people have been arrested, beaten up, killed in fake encounter branding them as Maoists. There are hundreds of false cases against them. I have been fighting false cases registered against my name. Private militia engaged by the company is also there. Facing physical assaults and threats to life has been accepted by us as part of the struggle. This conviction only helps us face the enemy; otherwise I would have left the scene in Kashipur where I faced physical assaults twice. I was guided by local people to change my routes frequently whenever they apprehended threat to my life by the mining company in Niyamgiri.

Q. Who was the worst .. the government or the corporates ?

You can’t distinguish between the two. The administration, police, revenue and forest officials work as extension units of the company. Even they shamelessly get accommodation in the official quarters of the company or in their guest house. But since we have rights over our own state we would say the state is the worst. Even if Vedanta goes tomorrow, they will extend the same scope and privilege to other companies which they are doing elsewhere in the state.

Q. Maoist! Isn't that a charge they hurl with impunity? Like terrorist. And then it's for you to prove you are innocent. Your response

You are absolutely right. When the Niyamgir Surakhya Samiti was born there was no news of Maoists presence in region, what to talk of Niyamgiri. The tribals down the hills were opposing since 2003 and Dongarias up in the Hills started opposing the company only when the Apex Court verdict in 2008 gave them a message that Niyamgiri will go to Vedanta. Till that time even you won’t find any official records indicating about Maoists presence. Even when there was a banner allegedly made by Maoists warning Dongarias not to take part in village council meetings following Apex Court verdict of April 18, 2013, people did not bother and there was an unprecedented mobilization in all the Gram Sabhas.

I would request you to see the documentary The Referendum which captures all Grama Sabha proceedings so well. They know it quite well that the movement is autonomous but this is a strategy to alienate it from rest of the country, the middle class and the civil society and then to crush it in the name of combing operations.

Q..What kept you going? Isn't it sometimes easier to just give up?

As I told you I am driven by my inner conviction and conscience that are yet to become tired. We all have to work with determination to ensure that the world becomes a better place to live in not just for a few but for most the people who have been condemned to live a life which can hardly be called human. No question of giving up as long as I live. My real inspiration comes from Dongarias and fighters like them.

Q. Today when you look back what about the struggle makes you happy?

Yes, I feel really happy when I look at Niyamgari and its pristine beauty, its rich biodiversity, its wildlife, its streams which have become great rivers down the stream and above all its ever smiling, peace loving, ecological defenders-The Dongarias. This Niyamgiri could be saved and the most beautiful people on Earth the Dongarias could get a breathing space now to live, though the struggle will not end so easily.

I feel extremely happy that such a struggle could sustain itself so long in spite of a company-state-center-media nexus and in spite of an apathetic middle class. Many people at various levels starting from local to that of global have played their part which clearly suggests that if a just struggle is taken beyond its territory it will be difficult to crush it.

I am happier today with this Goldman award I would get a chance to communicate with the rest of the world on behalf of the Dongarias and other people’s movements in Odisha, seeking their support to save this rare ecological heritage of human civilization, if and when it comes under a threat.