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Business News/ Specials / Mining row overshadows polls in Niyamgiri

Mining row overshadows polls in Niyamgiri

No signs of elections underway; questions about polls evoke nonchalance, those about Vedanta, rage

Parvati Gouda (left) tends her sunflower farm in Niyamgiri. Last July, Gouda voted against a plan to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite, saying the mountain held environmental and religious significance. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury AgaPremium
Parvati Gouda (left) tends her sunflower farm in Niyamgiri. Last July, Gouda voted against a plan to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite, saying the mountain held environmental and religious significance. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury Aga

Kalahandi & Angul: In the thick forests of western Odisha’s Niyamgiri, the question of whether the mountain should be mined is a more straightforward—and relevant—one for locals than who should rule India come May.

Last year, over the monsoon days of July and August, hardscrabble forest dwellers of the Gouda and Kondh communities in 12 Supreme Court-mandated gram sabhas, or village councils, unanimously rejected a plan to dig up the flat-topped mountain range for a bauxite mine.

The 7sq. km-mine was to feed 72 million tonnes (mt) of ore to an aluminium refinery in the town of Lanjigarh. The refinery was commissioned in 2007 by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, which had plans to expand production from 1 mt to 6 mt aluminium per year by mining Niyamgiri and then moving on to other bauxite-rich mountain tops within a 60km radius.

On a recent morning in Ijurupa, one of the 12 hamlets where the gram sabhas were held, there was no sign that a national election was just days away. No candidate’s posters were slapped on the walls of the clutch of reddish-brown mud homes. No prime time television shouting matches ran each night in this habitation, without electricity or drinking water provisions. Ijurupa resident Parvati Gouda took a break from harvesting the sickly-sweet smelling, pale yellow mahua fruit carpeting the ground, to say she was unaware of the 15 candidates contesting for her parliamentary constituency—a vast rural terrain of mountains, forests and over 4,000 villages and hamlets spread across the districts of Kalahandi and adjoining Nuaparha, on the border with Chhattisgarh.

“What I will say is that we do not want Vedanta to take our mountain from us," she said.

Gouda’s family cultivated cotton, sunflower, rice and vegetables on their mountainside farm, perennial streams irrigating their crop in the absence of any other water source. Forest produce augmented food and income, while closely held religious beliefs and practices revolved around nature. The dependence on nature ran deep.

Higher up the mountains in Phuldumer, entirely inhabited by the reticent Dongariya Kondh tribes, questions about the election evoked nonchalance, and those about Vedanta, rage. “Who should one vote for—hatha na shankha na hathi (the hand or the conch shell or elephant—election symbols of the Congress, Biju Janata Dal and Bahujan Samaj Party, respectively)," asked a young man in Kui, an axe resting on his right shoulder, while the beats of village drums for a prayer wafted through the air. “Who is against Vedanta?"

No candidate had walked up here yet to canvass for votes. Along the kutcha roads leading to this hamlet, the structures built by Vedanta as corporate social responsibility outreach stood broken and abandoned, apparently attacked with axes by angry villagers.

A Vedanta spokesperson did not respond to Mint’s questionnaire and calls.

Down below, in Lanjigarh, an occasional campaign jeep rode the streets, fitted with loudspeakers playing songs that emphasized symbols rather than candidates, signalling the absence of formal literacy among rural voters. At the police station, opposite the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) barracks and a short distance from the refinery, languid policemen took a break from watching news to show charts listing the polling areas in the mountains as HS, shorthand for “highly sensitive", or Naxal-affected. Of the 24 completely inaccessible booths in Kalahandi district, 22 are in the Lanjigarh segment.

Environmental referendum

The gram sabhas of Niyamgiri in some ways marked India’s first environmental referendum, and pointed to the chipping away of prior hierarchies and emergence of new sites of formal power. Views expressed by the villagers in the gram sabhas eventually led the ministry of environment and forests this January to disallow the bauxite mine. The rejection threw into sharp relief a broader conflict afflicting several resource-endowed areas of the country, including Odisha.

New laws passed during the decade-long regime of the Congress party-led alliance, such as the Forest Rights Act (under which the Supreme Court ordered the gram sabhas) and the Right to Information Act, are legally empowering local communities to raise questions and voice opinions, making decision-making more democratic and participatory, but also messier and unpredictable.

A greater scrutiny of corporate actions by non-state actors is also making it less easy to run roughshod over local communities and unilaterally annex the resources they depend on. Simultaneously, governments and companies are increasingly seeking to bring mineral-rich areas under their control as part of larger economic plans. Some resources, such as coal, are essential to meet India’s expanding industrial and consumer demand for power. Others, like iron ore, have presented a quick and often illegal route to wealth and power through profitable raw exports, as pointed out by the justice M.B. Shah Commission’s findings on illegal mining in Odisha, Karnataka and Goa.

Conflicts had become inevitable, Kalahandhi’s sitting member of Parliament (MP) and Congress candidate Bhaktacharan Das said. “But gram sabhas are going to arrest the attention of government and industry," he added. In a speech in Lok Sabha in 1996, Das, a former Railways minister in the Chandrashekhar government, had strongly supported an aluminium plant in Kalahandi. He now says he opposes mining in Niyamgiri, and backs agro-based industries instead, “which can add value to the district’s 6,000 crore worth of annual agricultural produce."

Das, who brought Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to visit areas in Niyamgiri like Ijurupa in 2008, defended his altered stance: “I never said industrialization should be blind and brutal. When I made the speech, I was concerned about poverty reduction. When I saw the spontaneous protests of the tribes and visited those forests, I realized mining cannot take place at their cost."

It is not just remote subsistence forest economies that are mounting a challenge to government and industry in India’s most mined state, which holds close to 60% of the country’s bauxite, one-third of its iron ore and one-fourth of its coal. Prosperous settled agrarian villages are not keen to alter their lives for mining either—in the state’s coastal edge protests have been taking place for eight years in villages to be acquired for a steel plant by Posco of South Korea. The proposal represents the country’s biggest foreign direct investment deal, and has been strongly backed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“Stand-offs, as are taking place in Odisha, are inevitable because mistrust in institutions is high, and it is not misplaced," said Planning Commission member Arun Maira.

In a reflection of this stand-off, last week, in coal-rich Angul district’s Chhendipada block, nine villages collectively decided they would boycott the 10 April election. The tactic, residents said, was meant to draw attention to their demand that gram sabhas under the new land acquisition law be held in their area so that they could formally register their opposition to being displaced for a coal mine.

The new law, which took effect on 1 January, introduces a consent provision for landowners.

In ministry of coal documents, the nine villages with over 2,500 residents are depicted as the rectangular-shaped Machhakata coal block. The block, for which close to 7,500 acres of land must be acquired, is to be mined by the Gujarat-based Adani Group, eventually generating power for residents of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

In an online presentation from 2012, the Adani Group’s plans show production in Machhakata to begin in 2013, part of the company’s larger plan to increase its coal mining and trading from 36 mt per annum (mtpa) in 2012, to 300 mtpa in 2020.

Chhendipada’s farmers have other ideas. Over the last three years, roadblocks and protests by residents, often turning violent, have ensured that the administration is unable to hold the public hearing as part of the environmental clearance procedure for the mine.

In sharp contrast with the Kondh residents of Niyamgiri, where few had school education or interest in the nuances of law and the contending arms of government, Bagdia’s college-educated residents closely followed shifts in policy. They surfed the Internet, filed Right to Information requests, moved courts and tracked which party was saying what. “The new land acquisition law has been passed, but why is our local Congress MP not supporting it?" asked Bagdia resident and engineering lecturer Satyabrata Pradhan in an interview on a recent afternoon, explaining the boycott decision. “Let the gram sabha consent provision of the new law be applied to us—if 70% of residents say yes to the mine, we are ready to be displaced."

The new law, Maira argued, could end up amounting to more legally imposed procedures, while not necessarily addressing the fundamental issue of mistrust. “Institutions—governments and corporations—have to alter how they operate to engage with people in a more modern and democratic way. They must listen, and people must see some change in their attitudes. That is the way to resolve these conflicts more efficiently and equitably," he said.

The mistrust Maira referred to was evident in Bagdia. The village consisted of paddy and vegetable farms, and large mango and cashew orchards, where elephant herds frequently visited from the adjoining Kosala Reserve Forest. With their pucca houses and two- and four-wheelers, the protesting farmers were akin to a rural middle class, expressing as much contempt for subsidies to the poor, as for industrialists and politicians across parties, who they saw as striking private deals and helping each other grow rich (“Why does Modi use Adani’s jet?", asked one local, referring to a media report about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi).

“We are far from the era of Hirakud (the large dam in western Odisha built in the wake of independence), when farmers would be told to make a sacrifice for the nation and be evicted," said Jagadish Pradhan, a former member of the National Commission for Farmers, referring to the altering grounds of aspirations and rights in rural Odisha, including in his native Kalahandi. “There is a realization now that mining does not even create the kind of jobs and prosperity it promises to locals."

Figures from the state’s Economic Survey of 2012-13 support Pradhan’s argument: the value of minerals produced in the state increased over ten-fold from 2,776 crore in 2001-02 to 30,204 crore in 2011-12. The sector’s employment in the corresponding period fell marginally from 52,937 to 48,239 jobs, reflecting increased mechanization, according to the report.

“Give us alternative land if you want to take our land, and we will leave," said Bagdia resident Sujit Garnayak, a 34-year-old farmer. “Why should we give up what will always sustain us for a temporary job in a coal mine?"

Banikanta Mishra, a Xavier Institute of Management professor and a former state planning board member in Odisha, argued that over the past decade, the state government had overly relied on mining for quick royalty revenue to the exchequer, while side-stepping “the more difficult and intensive task of creating growth with a broader and more sustainable base."

If Naveen Patnaik returns to power in May for a fourth term as the chief minister of Odisha, Mishra said, “I would hope he focuses much more on jobs and incomes, particularly related to agriculture and rural skills, rather than that one big mining project which makes headlines."

“A well in our village—that way we could harvest a larger produce," said Ijurupa’s Parvati Gouda, when asked what she desired from her elected representative. “Two tins of sunflower oil would become four tins then."

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Updated: 08 Apr 2014, 11:35 PM IST
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