FPIC is now endorsed not only by human rights bodies it also has the vote of pro-business institution

This attitude to adivasis can be crudely summarized thus: they don’t know what’s good for them, and so they shall have modernity thrust down their gullets through the process of ‘integration’ with the mainstream. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint<br /><br />
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint


This attitude to adivasis can be crudely summarized thus: they don’t know what’s good for them, and so they shall have modernity thrust down their gullets through the process of ‘integration’ with the mainstream.


The adivasi people, or scheduled tribes, comprise 8.6% of India’s population. Having mostly been at the margins of the national polity, they’ve never had much success in making their voices heard, even (and especially) on issues that were a matter of life and death for them. Neither their religious and cultural traditions nor their epistemology commands much respect among the vast majority of the Indian elite, who tend to refer to them, even in sympathetic discourse, as “primitive” tribes, as if culture was a matter of progressive evolution.

Less sympathetic commentators dismiss them disparagingly as “half-literate villagers”, betraying the same arrogance and condescension with which policy makers as well as their intended beneficiaries have looked at adivasis. This attitude to adivasis can be crudely summarized thus: they don’t know what’s good for them, and so they shall have modernity thrust down their gullets through the process of ‘integration’ with the mainstream.
But then, one of the biggest selling points of modernity is democracy. It is supposed to be superior to the presumably backward modes of governance that prevailed in pre-modern societies, and no doubt, plague the adivasi communities as well. It is therefore a sad commentary on Indian democracy that the only side of it the vast majority of our adivasis have seen thus far is its coercive side, as time and again they were called upon to sacrifice their lands and livelihoods for the greater common good, viz., large dams, mining projects, power plants, and half-baked forest conservation initiatives.
Given this background of economic and cultural evisceration at the altar of development, the latest development in Orissa’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts assumes tremendous significance. This is the first time in India’s independent history, perhaps the first time anywhere in the world, that an indigenous people have battled peacefully, through democratic channels, against a far more powerful opponent—the multinational mining company Vedanta Resources Plc, backed by the state government’s entire gamut of coercive machinery—and achieved a victory of sorts.
It’s more than a decade since the 8,000-odd Dongria Kondh and other adivasi groups began their struggle to save the Niyamgiri hills—the abode of their deity, Niyam Raja—from Vedanta’s mining project. In April this year, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that Vedanta Resources can mine bauxite from Orissa’s Niyamgiri hills provided it has the consent of the gram sabhas (or palli sabhas) of the project-affected villages. The SC order was welcomed by both industry and activists as a fair decision that affirmed democratic values, while also providing relief to the natural resources sector.
The Orissa government, instead of involving all the 160 adivasi villages that claimed to be affected by the project, handpicked just 12 for gram sabha consultations. It was probably felt in some quarters that 12 villages can be ‘managed’ such that they vote in favour of the project. The consultations duly began on 18 July. At the time of writing, nine of the 12 villages had voted against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills, effectively vetoing the multi-billion-dollar project.
It would be a mistake to interpret this as a setback to either growth or development. In this day and age, even the most hardboiled advocate of business interests will find it tough to make the case that communities affected by a development project should not be consulted about it. This has not always been the case.
In a 2004 paper on community participation in development, Robert Goodland, a former World Bank (WB) official instrumental in prodding the influential finance body towards mandating “meaningful participation” of local communities in WB-assisted projects, summed up the evolution of this people versus industry conflict thus: “Forty years ago, a village may have been warned to move out of the way in a few days. Later, the villagers were informed they would have to move in a few months. A decade or so later, they may have been consulted to see if they would prefer to move to site A or site B. Consultation then progressed to the affected people being asked how and to where they would be moved. A decade later, participation supplanted consultation. Potentially affected people started to participate in resettlement planning. The next improvement was ‘meaningful participation’, interpreted … to mean the village could reject being evicted.”
It has taken a long time, indeed, for this basic principle to find acknowledgement in the world’s largest democracy: meaningful democratic consultation includes the possibility of saying no. And a ‘no’ is a ‘no’ is a ‘no’—it is not a ‘no’ that can be bribed into a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ that can be coerced into a ‘maybe’, or a ‘no’ that can be converted into a ‘yes’ through expert pettifogging.
It is when a project displaces or disrupts the livelihoods of the rural poor that “economic development relies on coercion, and does not try to seek consensus,” notes Goodland. This is what needs to change if development projects are to inspire trust rather than suspicion and resistance among local communities. Such a change in orientation has already been codified into a globally accepted standard for all indigenous peoples impacted by developmental activity: free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).
FPIC is now endorsed not only by international human rights bodies such as the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, it also has the vote of pro-business institutions such as the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. and the Equator banks. Furthermore, there is a concerted effort at the international level to extend the FPIC principle beyond indigenous peoples to include all local communities.
India, like other post-colonial nations anxious to catch up with the developed economies, has a long history of pushing through development projects without regard for the rights or interests of the people impacted by it. But in recent times, the peremptory brushing aside of local communities’ interests has been tempered by a show of consultations and ‘stakeholder engagement’. This was partly forced by the emergence of protest movements across the country against mega-projects that threatened local communities with displacement, disruption of their livelihoods, and/or despoliation of their environment. The mass protests against multi-million dollar projects such as the Narmada dam, the Koodankulam, Jaitapur and Chutka nuclear power plants, and against Posco and Vedanta in Orissa are only the most well-known of such movements.
In this scenario, the application of the FPIC principle in the case of the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project sets a bold precedent that could well herald a new chapter in Indian democracy—one where even its most marginalized subjects can realistically hope to have their voices heard, and rights respected. As for Vedanta and the Orissa government, they’ve been taught a hard lesson in democracy by a so-called primitive tribe.
And the lesson is this: as we go forward, democracy in action will cease to be restricted to the ballot box; rather, it will play itself out in policy-making, out on the streets, in the courtroom, and in the contestations of day-to-day decisions that have a direct bearing on the people. Free, prior and informed consent of the people is not an obstacle to economic growth—it is the means to make economic growth inclusive and meaningful. It is messy, sure; but it is also what sets India apart from China—and in a good way.