Churches in India have been urged to stand up for indigenous peoples who have been affected by such development projects as dams and mines.

A conference organized by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) said in a statement that “(indigenous people) are rendered more helpless when the churches choose to remain silent spectators and sometimes themselves (become) the instruments of violence.”

The NCCI, which includes 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches, held the Feb. 13-16 conference to examine violence and violation of human rights affecting indigenous people.

“More than 55 percent of the people displaced by development projects are tribals (indigenous peoples),” said the Rev. P. B. M. Basaiawmoit, NCCI vice president, addressing the conference, which was attended by more than 60 delegates and social activists from across India.

Basaiawmoit said the Christian ideal of human endeavor and development has led to the exploitation of tribals’ areas, displacing them from their habitats in the name of development. “So, we have a greater duty to undo this damage and stand up for them,” added the Presbyterian church member from the tribal majority north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

Acknowledging that indigenous people in the mineral-rich mountain areas are displaced by development projects, the conference urged the churches “to establish structures” to take up the causes of the indigenous who have become “refugees in their own homelands.”

“They are subjected to new forms of violence like state repression. The state, instead of being the protector, monopolizes and perpetrates violence with scant regard for human lives, livelihood and dignity,” said the conference declaration.

Hundreds of people have died at the hands of security forces that have been trying to crush a rebel insurgency in the mineral-rich indigenous belt known as the “red corridor” that comprises 170 of the 626 districts of India.

The conference urged the churches “to use the pulpits” to speak up for the indigenous, who number about 100 million of India’s 1.2 billion people. The conference expressed alarm over the “displacement in the name of development, exploitation of natural resources, ruining biodiversity and the symbiotic relationship between land and (indigenous) people” and the consequent “disappearance of indigenous art forms and cultural practices.”

Agelios Michael, NCCI vice president (representing the youth) told ENInews that “the big brother attitude” is visible even in the development programs churches run for the tribal people. He has run a major development programme in Orissa for three decades, and said that “the control of the project is still with the non-tribals.”

He added that “they should have been trained in leadership and the project should have been entrusted to them,” added Michael, who is from the Lutheran church.

Hrangathan Chhungi, secretary of the NCCI Commission for Indigenous Peoples, told ENInews that the declaration from the conference will be placed before the NCCI executive to finalize a policy on indigenous peoples.