Death of Activist Nun Highlights Reach of India's 'Resource Mafia'

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Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty Images

Indian Catholic nuns attend a prayer meeting in Kolkata on Nov. 21, 2011, to condemn the murder of Sister Valsa John

The town of Jharia never sleeps. When the sun sets over its coalfields, illegal miners take over, toiling through the night. Jharia's second shift is controlled by men like Israel Bhai, who started mining at age 7. "I had to survive somehow, and this was the easiest way," he recalls. By 2007, Bhai headed a small-scale syndicate of 12 men and women; today, he employs 50 people. Under cover of darkness, he leads them 15 stories underground, seeking out unscoured nooks. If the police come, Bhai bribes them or sends his team scrambling through a secret tunnel. But, he says, local officials "generally don't bother us."

In India, illegal mining is a big, booming business. In Jharkhand state, where Bhai lives, and neighboring Bihar, the so-called coal mafia rules over an empire worth an estimated $400 million, estimates India's Central Bureau of Investigation. Bribes are bountiful and the consequences of speaking out can be dire: on the night of Nov. 16, a 52-year-old nun and anti-illegal-coal-mining activist, Sister Valsa John, was hacked to death in Jharkhand. Her family members say she had been getting death threats from the syndicates she opposed.

Though it is still uncertain who exactly is behind the killing, John's gruesome death has called national and international attention to the strength and ruthlessness of India's resource mafias. John was the fourth Indian rights campaigner to be killed this year: Swami Nigamananda, an ascetic who protested against illegal mining on the Ganges riverbed, was admitted to the hospital in the north Indian pilgrimage town of Haridwar, where he was allegedly killed by hospital authorities, in collusion with the mining mafia; Shehla Masood, who tried to expose environmental violations, was shot dead in broad daylight; 28-year-old Arup Kalita of Assam protested against the timber mafia and went missing after a confrontation with forest officials. His skeletal remains were discovered almost a year later.

Illegal mining — and indeed, illegal timber and oil — is fueled by poverty and compounded by corruption. But some believe the recent uptick in violence, though, may also be linked to a measure designed to help ordinary Indians. The 2005 Right to Information Act is credited with paving the way for a flurry of citizen activism. A 2011 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights says from January 2010 to August 2011, at least 12 right-to-information (RTI) activists were killed. "Unlike other human-rights defenders, RTI activists are inexperienced and do not belong to any organization or group," explains Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. "They often act alone, and hence are more vulnerable as they live in the same areas as the corrupt public authorities, political leaders and mafia who do not want information about their illegal activities to be disclosed."

Countering the growing clout of the resource mafia will mean tackling what experts called the "resource curse," whereby poor but resource-rich states are unable to benefit from the assets at their disposal. "Forests on which local tribal communities depend for their daily needs have been destroyed for mining iron ore, bauxite and other minerals," says Bina Agarwal, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth. "The resources have proved to be a curse for local tribal communities, but not for those who have exploited them for profit." She suggests returning the land to the local communities, which would ensure "conservation and protection." While the Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognizes the rights of forest dwellers, most Indian states are yet to implement it.

Meanwhile, the government must end the culture of impunity, campaigners say. "It has been proven to [the resource mafia] time and again [that] when they attack activists, no action is taken; in fact, in many cases, action is taken to defend them," says Sumaira Abdulali, a Mumbai-based environmental activist who says she's been assaulted by Maharashtra's sand mafia several times since 2004. The first attack left her arm paralyzed for months. "The strength of the whole system to keep illegal activities alive has become that much stronger."

India's federal government is mulling a whistle-blower protection act, which could be passed by the end of the year. However, many believe that the act's mandate to protect those who "make public-interest disclosures" is narrow in scope and will not be effective for non-RTI activists like John. Experts have also recommended an amendment to the Right to Information Act to include a protection clause for activists. The murder of John must be a wake-up call, they say. A single, comprehensive law would help — if it could be implemented. "Law is one part of it," Abdulali says. "More important is breaking up the nexus between local politicians and the mafia. While that continues, it will be difficult for any law to be implemented."

The local police are still investigating the murder of John. While there have been a few arrests, her killers have not been found.