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Vedanta – Undermining Adivasi Interests in Odisha

Date: 4 January 2015

vedantasadan
Published on Economic and Political Weekly (http://www.epw.in)
Vol – L No. 1, January 03, 2015 | Amiya Kumar DasNigam, and Ranjana Padhi

The promise of acche din indeed seems to be coming true for corporate houses, never mind about the others. In less than two months of the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government coming to power, the alacrity with which a public hearing was pushed through for Sesa Sterlite’s – formerly known as Vedanta Aluminum – expansion of its Lanjigarh facility in Kalahandi district in Odisha is exemplary.
When on 30 July 2014 the Odisha State Pollution Control Board held the public hearing for the proposed expansion from one million to six million tonnes per annum, neither the board nor the district administration felt the need to inform all the local people about it. Instead, the administration and those aiding the company merely put in notices about the hearing in some selective newspapers and published it on a website. When we visited the five villages on the Niyamgiri Mountain that had voted against mining last year on 6 and 7 July, we discovered that none of the village people in the area were aware of this public hearing.
Vedanta is currently depending on states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh for the supply of bauxite that is ferried by train to its Lanjigarh plant. One can see goods trains all day long carrying tonnes of these minerals to Kalahandi district. Even then, the plant utility is being optimised at 60% only. Anti-mining activists of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) therefore were put on the alert when they got to know that a public hearing was being planned to expand the production facility. For them it was proof enough that the company still has its sight fixed on the bauxite reserves of the Niyamgiri Mountain.
The NSS has pointed out that no proper information was given to the people about the subject of the public hearing nor about when and where it was to be held; the local concerned and affected people were also not informed well in advance through proper public notices or announcements. On the contrary, pro-company Biju Janata Dal (BJD) elements were mobilised with the connivance of the district administration from all parts of the district to speak in favour of the expansion plan. There were reports that the company and the district administration had mobilised self-help group (SHG) members and provided training on how to speak at the public hearing.
When activists of the NSS got to know about the designs of the company and the district administration, they alerted the local people. On the day of the hearing, around 1,500 Dongria Kondhs and anti-mining activists gathered at the venue of the public hearing but were not allowed to speak for a long time. In protest, an elderly person snatched the microphone from one of the representatives of the company and started speaking. To this, a company agent who is regarded as a tout of the company by the local tribal people made an extremely derogatory and racial remark. This led to an altercation and vociferous sloganeering. Finally, when they were allowed to speak, they affirmed their resolve not to give up even an inch of Niyamgiri for mining and expressed their opposition to the plant.
Lingaraj Azad, one of the leaders of the NSS, alleges that the proceedings of the public hearing were neither read out to them nor was voting held to assess the exact nature of the people’s opinion. There is no way to figure out whether the depositions made by the Dongria Kondhs were recorded as part of the proceedings. However, the district collector reportedly said that people had given their consent to the expansion plan and the proceedings would be sent to the centre.
“The public hearing was, for all practical purposes, a BJD show with its local leaders, MLAs and workers from the entire Kalahandi district gathering at the Lanjigarh Nodal UP School ground, the venue of the public hearing”, commented Kailash Sahu in an article “Angry Odisha Tribals Disrupt Public Hearing on Vedanta Refinery Expansion” in the Odisha Suntimes on 30 July 2014.
Double Speak Continues
The Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change,Prakash Javadekar, made a statement soon after taking charge thatthe protection of the environment and development were not contradictory to each other and that the Narendra Modi-led government would ensure that development was not halted because of environment clearance and environment was not damaged because of development projects. Interestingly, hehad also said that before the starting of any kind of developmental project, the local people would be consulted and their opinion would be taken seriously. On the other hand, the Union Ministerof Tribal Affairs Jual Oram has expressed his opposition to big projects likePOSCO and Polavaram where the indigenous and tribal people are bound to suffer the ill-effects.
The statements made by these ministers appear to appreciate the balance of approach in pursuing the development agenda. On the other hand the same Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change also initiated an online environment or green clearance project toexpedite the process and to end the “new licence raj” as it has been dubbed in some quarters. Encouraged by the minister’s initiative, many big industrialists, chief ministers and other ministers have also requested the new government to find a way out for their clearance.The 30 July public hearing, that has been pushed through in such a surreptitious manner and in such blatant disregard of the procedures where local people affected by it were left with no option but to barge in to state their views, needs to be seen in the light of this double speak.
Perhaps, these statements are part of the corporate narrative of acche din where the state is delivering its promises to corporates that had been held in abeyance by people’s democratic struggles in Odisha and other states. These developments are indicative ofthe new government’s covert and overt resolve of becoming a facilitator for the big corporate houses to take over the development projects at the cost of local communities and natural resources.
Price of Resistance
The Dongria Kondhs, peacefully forgotten after the gram sabhas held during July-August 2013, where they unequivocally rejected the mining of Niyamgiri by Vedanta Aluminum, thus came into the media glare protesting against the proposed capacity expansion of the refinery at Lanjigarh. After the gram sabha verdict last year, there was an apparent ease among the people living outside the forested region of Niyamgiri about the lives of the Dongria Kondhs. But our visit to the area revealed the opposite. The price of resistance is being paid by the local people in myriad ways on a daily basis. The routine patrolling of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Cobra battalions (locally pronounced as “Cabra”) in the forested villages of Niyamgiri in the name of hunting Maoists continues. They reach the villages at any unearthly hour. It does not matter to them whether people are resting after a day of hard work or working in the field. Even children are not spared. The women of Tadiguda, largely belonging to the Gowda community, complain,
They offer sweets or biscuits and ask children on the way to school whether any outsider has come to the village, meaning Maoists. When we shudder at the sight of fearsome looking, gun-wielding forces, what to talk of the children! Now they are so scared that they have stopped going to school.
In the combat against the “biggest internal security threat”, children’s education has been the biggest casualty. Almost all girls we met who once used to walk down to the government school at Trilochanpur village have stopped doing so due to the intimidating presence of the CRPF personnel. The fear of sexual violence was also expressed by some.
Ever since the news of the Vedanta mining Niyamgiri reached the Dongria Kondh, they have become suspicious of the government’s health and educational programmes in which Vedanta is also associated in the name of corporate social responsibility. It is ironic that everybody starts talking of development of health and education in tribal areas only when a big project arrives in the region as if it is not the primary responsibility of the government. But local people see it differently. As Lado Sikoka, one of the leaders of the NSS says:
If the government wants to give education and health facilities why tag it to mining Niyamagiri? Can’t it be without that? We are not sending our children to schools as Vedanta is involved in the distribution of mid-day meal in schools. We feel that by giving food they will teach our children to sell Niyamagiri to Vedanta. When they come to us and promise health and education, we tell them that we do not need all that. We want the mountain to be ours only. Our children and future generations will survive only if we keep the mountain forever.
Paying the price for resistance does not stop here. People are being regularly picked up without being told on what charges it is being done. Dillu Majhi, a committed activist of the NSS was picked by the police when he had gone to the weekly haat (market) of Lanjigarh to sell vegetables and fruits. After spending two months in jail, he was released on bail. “The police confronted me and insisted I get into their vehicle. I protested and told them I am here to simply sell whatever I have. We work hard for our living. Why do you want to take me?” His eyes became moist as the pain and bewilderment came back to him while reliving those moments of being arrested in the marketplace. He was arrested on the basis of some cases foisted on the activists during the 2008 sit-in at the plant.
Similar is the case of Bhima Majhi. He was active in the anti-plant struggle during 2002-04. After 10 years he was picked up by the local police in May immediately after the Lok Sabha general elections, and is still in jail. He has been charged in a case of burning a company storehouse in 2004. After these arrests, the male members especially are afraid of going to the market or outside the village. The weekly haat is the place where the police take advantage of their presence and arrest them. Not letting people even take their produce to the market is a serious violation of the right to livelihood. They are unable to figure out the reasons for the arrests when the plant is in operation and the mining of Niyamgiri has stopped after the decisions of the gram sabha. Why are the police invoking old charges even now? What is this intimidation being done for? Acche din for corporates seems to be thus pegged on this institutionalised terrorisation of people who dare to resist the juggernaut of capital today.

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