I can’t take my eyes off of her. A grey braid curls down the left side of Usha Ramanathan’s face and down her back, which is covered in an orange, vertically striped sari. She wears no jewelry, nothing to distract from the importance of her words. Her dark eyes are framed by just enough makeup to make them severe, yet still subtle enough to remain soft. In between her eyes at the confusion crease of her eyebrows there is a large red Bindi. Her mouth is slanted to the right, and the edges turn upward as she tells us a story from her childhood. She speaks of standing with her father and looking up in amazement at a newly constructed dam, or as she puts it, one of the “temples of India,” a reference to Jawaharlal Nehru’s championing phrase of development after Independence. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes remind us of the laughter that sporadically erupted from her lovely open-mouthed smile as she explains, “then I grew up” and realized the true implications of projects such as these. After childhood, Usha has dedicated her life as a law expert to fighting for the disenfranchised poor, who are harmed by the environmental or cultural destruction of projects such as this dam. “Someone has to make sacrifices,” she explains, “but you think the government will take care of you in some way,” and that is what she analyses, how well the government is protecting its citizens through the law, writing and debating about the issues. The motion that accompanies her laugh is the fastest she allows herself. Normally, she sits straight and motionless in her chair, making subdued hand gestures to emphasize her words, her arms still rested on the table. Eyes locked on yours as she listens, bobbling her head and writing down notes, ending with a final nod that validates what has been said; her stare makes you sit more erect in your chair.
From the YWCA conference room where we sit squished around the long pieced-together table you can sometimes hear protests taking place in front of the police barracks on Parliament Street. Just the day before while walking back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a protest against the martial law imposed on the people of Manipur, a minority group in Northern India. It seems to be the perfect setting for her to tell us about her time working as a consultant advocating for tribal rights with the Center for Study of Developing Societies. The three-person team was investigating the violations of the Supreme Court Ruling on the Forest Rights Act by the Orissa Mining Company. The problem was that the Orissa state government, located in eastern India, had granted the Orissa Mining Company a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), a reprieve from regulation, without properly consulting the Dongria Kond people that lived on the mountainside. Unfortunately, she says matter of factly, “if you don’t have the money, you can’t be legal.” I can only imagine her power when she is actually trying to be assertive, because I already find myself willing to bend over backwards to do what she tells me. During her research every person she spoke with said that they had either not been consulted or were denied a claim under the Forest Rights Act for small technicalities. For the Dongria Kond peoples, Niyamaraja, a God, lives on top of the mountain, where the mine was. Also, though the mine itself was not literally displacing them, they were being displaced indirectly by the environmental affects. Ramanathan wrote a scathing report about the failures of the government towards the Dongria Kond people.
One of her most well known conflicts has been the work she has and continues to do for Bhopal gas leak victims. The Bhopal gas tragedy took place in 1984 in Bohpal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, India. Malfunctions at Union Carbide India Limited pesticide company allowed methyl isocyanate gas to pass into the city through the shanty town, immediately killing up to 8,000 people in the first twenty four hours, and over 20,000 since: the environmental contamination is still present today. “The workers will live in the shanty town around it and the managers will commute,” she says with a devious smile as she explains why the legal outcome of this leak was what it was. Ramanathan has a way of telling us about seemingly despairing situations while grinning because they are so messed up there is nothing to do but laugh. I realize that I do the same thing. Union Carbide denied that there was any problem with the valves, even though safety deficiencies had been documented by past inspection and the February inspection slip was signed in January. Usha states the facts with brutal honesty, that often “the human body [the poor body] becomes the commons of the global economy.” After Union Carbide paid a settlement in 1989 of 470 million U.S. dollars to the Indian Supreme Court they sold the company to Dow Chemicals, a company in the United States. But, the judge in the United States, John F. Keenan, dismissed 145 cases and transferred litigation back to Indian Courts, where convictions for the responsible parties were not made until twenty five years later: they were released on bale almost immediately afterwards. Ramanathan has pointed out the breakdown of the law at all points of the tragedy.
But, Ramanathan ends with the truth that she is not often in a position of systemic power, and neither will we if we fight for similar issues. She laughs while telling us a story of speaking with a man against whom she would never win, “When the other person has the power, you have to have something else.” She spoke about how she just stood up straight and pretended she was powerful: now I understand her comportment. But, by the end of her lecture her body softens, humbles, as she chuckles, “I don’t know if I’ve helped the poor” but “I work on those issues and I care enough.” She ends with a word of encouragement, which feels like a gift from a woman who so thoroughly intimidated me earlier. She says, “if we have not reached doom yet it’s because we were the friction.”
Anna Juniper Kowanko is a junior at St. Lawrence University and a combined environmental studies and sociology major. She enjoy long walks along the Ganga and eating pakoras. When she is not researching farmers’ rights and policy, she is bargaining with rickshaw drivers and finding new and exciting ways to wear a dupatta. But, at the end of the day, she is still serious about learning (and not getting Giardia).