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Odisha, more tribal voices against mining

Around the country tribal communities are fighting against the mining companies, whose operations have threaten their livelihoods and ecosystem. The Kashipur movement to protect Baphlimali in Odisha is a classic example. Unfortunately, this too, like many other protests, saw merciless suppression and gross violation of human rights, reports Abhijit Mohanty.

Baphalai Budhi is our goddess. She protects us and gives us everything. Our life, our water, our trees, our millet, our rice, our fruit. We cannot allow any company to mine Baphlimali, but what can we do? We are helpless. Because, the government, police, political leaders, contractors, everyone supports mining in these areas. Now, the security guards of the company even threaten us against entering Baphlimali. They tease us, calling us illiterate and poor”. This is the voice of Jaimati Majhi, a woman farmer of Karanjkupakhal village, reflecting her deep anguish and helplessness against mining at Baphlimali.

Baphlimali hill, part of the Eastern Ghats mountain range is situated in Kashipur block under Rayagada district of Odisha. For generations, the lower areas of the Baphlimali valley have been inhabited by tribal communities like the Jhodia, Paraja, Penga, Kondha and Scheduled Caste communities. Their livelihood is primarily based on rain-fed farming along the slopes and the valley bottom. Besides, they also depend on Baphlimali for water, fuel, fodder and medicinal herbs.

The villagers from the Baphlimali region, Odisha. Pic: Abhijit Mohanty

However, overriding these, they consider Baphlimali as their most sacred place, because here, on the top of the hills, resides “Baphalai Budhi” – their supreme deity.

Genesis of the Kashipur movement

Baphlimali hill is rich in bauxite – the raw material for the aluminium industry. This has attracted many national and multinational companies such as Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), TATA, Alcan Aluminium and Norsk Hydro. Under the threat of losing their land, livelihood and their deity, the local communities have been vehemently opposing the proposed mining project in these areas.

To suppress their movement, the Government of Odisha (GoO) has taken a series of repressive measures, including lathi-charge, teargas, gunfire and random arrest of local people involved in the movement. One such instance is the “Kashipur massacre”, where three innocent and unarmed tribal persons were shot dead by the police.

The Kashipur massacre

Subhas Jhodia is one of the eye witnesses of the massacre by police at Maikanch in December 2000. He vividly recounts the whole incident as one of the most horrible moments of his life. For him and others who were part of the movement that day, it was like seeing death from a very close distance.

“It was 16 December 2006, and approximately 400 adivasi people had gathered and put up a barricade on the road at Maikanch in Kashipur as a mark of resistance against the proposed alumina project,” recalls Jhodia, a resident of Maikanch village himself. “Everything had been organised in a peaceful manner. But, suddenly a platoon of police came and ordered us to evict the place as soon as possible. They even threatened us that if we did not obey their orders, they would start a lathi charge. This further agitated the people. There were slogans like “we will die, but not leave Baphlimali.”

Jhodia goes on to report that soon after, in retaliation to the protests, the police opened fire and three of the protesters were shot dead right at the spot. Abhilas Jhodia, Subhas’s elder brother was one of the victims. “A bullet pierced his left eye and came out from the back of his head. I was dumbstruck to see this. Immediately afterward, I realised that a bullet had also grazed my left knee and it was bleeding profusely,” says Jhodia.

Subarna Jhodia was only 22 when her husband Abhilas Jhodia was killed by police firing at Maikanch. Pic : Abhijit Mohanty

Fortunately, the injury was not fatal, so Subhas Jhodia survived. This brutal attack also injured more than 30 people. Three days after the police firing at Maikanch, a massive road blockade was organised by 5000 people at Rupkana. This was evidence of the solidarity of the people and their statement that the movement cannot be suppressed by coercive measures.

As a result of firm and continuing people’s protests, two of the original stakeholders – TATA and Norsk Hydro — withdrew from the proposed mining venture in 1997. But, the state government remained silent on the matter. In the meantime, false and fabricated cases were filed by the local police against the leader and people associated with the movement. Many of these cases are still pending in court.

It is also somewhat surprising that the State Human Right Commission (SHRC) of Odisha has not taken any action on the issue; the tribals do not have any information on whether the SHRC has noted and given the case a valid number.

Even in the face of repression by corporate goons and the Odisha government, the adivasi communities of Kashipur have stood strong. Take for instance, the Prakrutiko Sampado Surakshya Parishad (PSSP), a people’s movement that emerged in resistance to the UAIL project in particular as far back as 1996.

The impact of mining

It took nearly 14 years for UAIL to acquire the 195 million tonnes of bauxite reserves in Baphlimali. The Odisha Mining Corporation Limited (OMCL), which has been laying the red carpet for industrial investment by offering concessions to corporations, gave extensive support to the UAIL. Finally, in 1995, UAIL acquired 2,865 acres of land.

This includes 1,000 hectares of land presently under cultivation, apart from forests and the hills. Today, UAIL is a Rs 45-billion joint venture between the Aditya Birla Group-owned Hindalco (55 percent share) and Alcan Aluminium (45 percent share) – a Canadian MNC. The project is 100 percent export oriented with an objective to export both bauxite and alumina.

Displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement

According to estimates by UAIL, their projects would displace only 147 families from the three villages of Talakarol, Ramibeda and Kendukhunti as per the 1991 Census. Norsk Hdyro’s estimate on the other hand identifies 750 families among Project Affected Persons (PAPs) while the human rights group NorWatch of Norway estimated that nearly 60,000 families would be affected.

According to PSSP estimation, nearly 2500 families would be affected by the alumina project plan and another 2000 families would be affected by mining in the three panchayats of Kashipur namely Maikanch, Kodipari and Chandragiri.

The variation in numbers may be attributed to different interpretations of “project-affected” people – whether, for instance, the figure should only count those who are physically displaced or if it should also take into consideration those who are adversely affected in an indirect manner, due to reduced access to public land.

The UAIL has announced a compensation package but many have not accepted it as they feel that they should be compensated with land for land, whereas UAIL is offering cash alone. Some of them have accepted the terms, allegedly under duress from the local police and company goons.

According to Debaranjan Sarangi, an activist of PSSP, “The Rehabilitation and Resettlement package offered by the UAIL is silent about the villages those are cultivating around Baphlimali region where mining will take place. There is no money for the trees. There is no provision for landless people. There is no assurance of a job for home losers or for land losers. There are verbal promises from the UAIL that home losers shall get a job but the type of job is also not specified.”

Impacts of mining

Anyone visiting the peripheral villages of the mining area in this region can grasp for himself the deplorable condition of the communities today. Open cast mining at the Baphlimali is releasing highly harmful solid effluents such as red mud. This has raised the pH levels of the soil in the region beyond permissible limits, irreversibly damaging large tracts of fertile top soil.

In addition, the toxic waste material from the refinery has polluted water, far beyond safe levels. It has also been noticed that the yield of water from the wells of adjoining villages has drastically gone down. In fact, polluted water carried down the streams and rivers spreads health hazards to distant areas also.

Nua Majhi, a farmer of Lundrukana village in Maikanch Panchayat shares that, “Each year, more and more among our village youth are migrating to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala in search of employment. Agriculture is no more viable here and the companies are not interested in providing employment to local youth. They cite the low standard of education among the local population.”

Agricultural land has been polluted by toxic waste and dust due to mining. Pic : Abhijit Mohanty

Meanwhile, the dust of mining is everywhere; it severely affects the yield. Tribal communities in this region used to cultivate a wide range of minor millets like fox tail, finger millet, proso, barnyard on the sloping land of the Baphlimali. The reduced yield of these millets due to increasing dust and polluted water has serious implications for the food security of the communities here.

“We are losing many of our traditional millets. The situation becomes worse during the rainy days as the valley bottom lands get silted by the top surface soil run-off from the Baphlimali. Earlier we used to produce 30-40 bags of paddy from a single acre of land, but now it has gone down to 10-15. It is all because of mining. Nothing else!” rues Nua Majhi.

It is reported that around 20 acres of land from Lundrukana have been occupied by the multinational companies for construction of the conveyor beltline. But, the villagers have been deprived of compensation as had been initially declared. Despite several requests, both written and verbal, no response has been received from the concerned officials. “We have filed many petitions to the company officials and even to the Block Development Officer in this regard, but to no avail,” complains Majhi.

Nua Majhi pointing to the conveyor beltline near Lundrukana village. Pic Abhijit Mohanty

Nestled in the foothills of Baphlimali, Karanjkupakhal is yet another village of Maikanch panchayat inhabited by 130 tribal households. Surrounded by hills, the village had no road until recently, when an earthen road was constructed. Here, as part of corporate social responsibility, the UAIL has installed four tube wells but residents allege that the water smells foul.

Sambaru Majhi a resident of the village also complains, “People are not going to the nearby forest to collect firewood and other forest produce, because the dust is everywhere there and once it touches our skin, there is unbearable itching”.

In the shadow of explosives

One of the greatest potential threats to the village in the near future is the displacement likely once the Explosive Magazines (EM) godown at the hilltop of Baphlimali is operational. The UAIL has already constructed two such EM godowns to store explosive materials like nitrate mixture, cast booster, safety fuse, detonating fuse, electric and ordinary detonators.

Explosive Magazine godown at the hilltop of the Baphlimali, near Karanjikupakhal village. Pic : Abhijit Mohanty

According to safety norms, villages within a range of 5 km from these EM godowns have to be displaced for safety issue. Since Karanjkupakhal is located within a radius of 1 km from one such EM godown, it has to be relocated. Villagers have therefore been opposing the construction of this godown from the very outset. A petition was filed by the villagers with the Collector, Rayagada on 16 July 2015, requesting cancellation of the godown proposal.

Larger concerns over water

The impact of bauxite mining in these hills will not only be felt locally, but also at a wider regional level. Mining will reduce the water flowing into the Indiravati River Basin from various streams.

Baphlimali being situated in a fragile eco-system and in a region naturally prone to high sedimentation combined with high rainfall and hilly terrain, there will be an increase in the sedimentation load in the run-off. The consequent disappearance of several perennial streams originating from Baphlimali will also affect Khandabinda Nala on the north and San Nala on the south, both of which are major tributaries to the Indiravati river.

Considered to be the lifeline of Bastar and Dantewar district, Indiravati forms an important link within the conservation areas in the vast forest belt extending to Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. For instance, the Indiravati Tiger Reserve is highly dependent on this River.

The Upar Indiravati Reservoir project too will also be affected due to the increase in siltation. This reservoir not only supplies water to the Kalahandi district in Odisha, but also houses a hydro-power plant.

Violation of constitutional laws and acts

The Kashipur region comes under areas in the fifth schedule of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribal entities by any means, including a lease. Therefore, the grant of a mining lease to UAIL, a non-tribal entity, by the state government is a blatant violation of the constitutional mandates.

Similarly, the Samata judgment states that no land in the scheduled area shall be transferred to the private mining industries. Other constitutional provisions such as the Panchayati Raj Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) 1996 as well as the Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property Act, 1956, which protect the tribal community’s right to land and other natural resources have also been overridden illegally.

What compounds the matters is the fact that UAIL’s mining lease has expired. UAIL had obtained environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) for   alumina production and captive power generation in 1995 through letters dated 19 June 1995 and 27 September 1995 respectively. [Similarly, environmental clearance was obtained for Utkal Bauxite mines in a later dated 27 September 1995.]

According to rules under EIA Notification no. 60(e), dated 27 April 1994, it is clearly stipulated that the clearance granted to any project is valid only for a period of five years within which the construction or operation of the project must be commenced.

Till 2000, however, UAIL had not started any construction work at the site. This is well substantiated by the show cause notice issued to UAIL by the Odisha Pollution Control Board (OPCB) in its letter no. 22305/Ind-II-NOC 1123 on 23 July 2005.

The case of UAIL or mining in Baphlimali is not unique in that a series of movements have taken place in Odisha against mining giants such as NALCO, BALCO, Tata Steel Plant, Vedanta and POSCO. The 2013 Supreme Court judgment, wherein the ownership and rights of the Dongria Kondh – a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) of the state has been recognised and protected against the mighty Vedanta in the NIYAMGIRI hills – has brought a ray of hope to other local and indigenous communities fighting for their rights to land and livelihood.

One hopes that media, political leaders, civil society organisations and members will extend their solidarity to the tribal people of Kashipur and prevent their reckless exploitation in the name of development.

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