On 12 January, about one lakh Adivasis from western and central India came together at a field on the outskirts of Palghar, a town in a district by the same name, in Maharashtra. They had come to attend the Sanskritik Ekta Mahasammelan—a cultural unity convention—an annual gathering organised by a grassroots Adivasi organisation called the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, which primarily works in western India. This year marked the twenty-seventh edition of the annual event, which is held at a different Adivasi-dominated region each year.
The AEP did not choose Palghar by accident. For the past four years, the Adivasis of the district have been at the forefront of a struggle against the Indian government’s plan for two large infrastructure projects—the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail project, which will pass through five districts in Gujarat and Maharashtra when completed, and the Vadhvan port, slated to come up in Palghar’s Dahanu taluka.
The rail project is a proposed high-speed train line connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad—colloquially called the bullet-train project—first greenlit by the central government in 2017, and currently in the phase of land acquisition. It will displace Adivasis from 73 villages in Palghar, including two villages which had already been resettled for the construction of a dam. The displaced families from the two villages still await to see the fulfilment of promises made by the government, such as schools and hospitals, and fair monetary compensation. Meanwhile, the Vadhvan port will submerge parts of Dahanu taluka, and will eventually displace Adivasis of the region. The port, which the union government first proposed in 1997 and is currently under construction, will also pollute waters traditionally used by Adivasi communities.
The Indian government has planned both projects without taking the consent of Adivasi gram sabhas—village assemblies—as mandated by law. The mahasammelan united Adivasi groups from across the subcontinent to oppose what the community sees as a consistent attempt to undermine Adivasi autonomy and evict them from their ancestral land. At the event, it was evident that the assertion of Adivasi culture also implies an assertion of their political autonomy and resistance. This includes the Adivasi resistance against their ancestral lands being routinely used for development projects.
The mahasammelan occurred over three days that included sessions on women, the youth and children. “The idea was to work throughout the year and meet once to discuss the issues and find solutions to them,” Satvi, a member of the Warli tribe and the founder of another Palghar-based grassroots organisation, called Adivasi Yuwa Shakti, told me. On 14 January, the day began with a march of about five thousand Adivasis opposing the land acquisition for both projects. “For us, Jal-Jangal-Jameen are not our property or ‘resource,’” Mukesh Birua, an Adivasi social activist from Odisha told the gathering. “It is our ancestral heritage.”