By ANURADHA RAMAN
For the last one year, the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi district of southwestern Orissa have been reverberating with protests and demonstrations. The tribals of the area—the Khonds, Kutiyas and Jharaniyas, who worship the hills as living gods—are taking on Vedanta, a UK-based mining major that has acquired a licence from the government to exploit the abundant bauxite reserves in the pristine region.
But matters took a curious turn last month. After hearing a representation made by tribal leaders, the Church of England (CoE), an investor in Vedanta, decided to review the situation arising out of the conflict between the tribals and the company and did not rule out pulling out of Vedanta for ethical considerations. The church’s shareholdings in Vedanta are worth Rs 20 crore, a small stake in a Rs 3,000-crore company. But if the CoE pulls out, the action will carry tremendous symbolic power and will prove a shot in the arm for environmental activists, who have been alleging all along that Vedanta is violating laws and displacing tribals from their traditional habitat. The church will take a final decision after its ethical investment advisory group meets later this month; but by all accounts, a pullout seems likely.
Meanwhile, in Niyamgiri, tensions are running high. Early last month, protesters torched a jeep they believed was on a recce of bauxite reserves in the hills. Skirmishes between Vedanta staff and tribals take place off and on. The tribespeople’s anger is perceptible. “Why aren’t the tribals of Niyamgiri in Orissa being heard? Why is the abode of my gods being mined?” asks Kumti Manjhi, a tribal leader who’d travelled to England to get the church to turn its ears to his people’s complaints. “The hill is my god. Will the government agree to mine mountains in other parts of the country on which other gods are believed to reside? I worship Niyamgiri. It has helped generations of my people survive. Aren’t the religious sentiments of tribals respected in this country? I’ve been to jail thrice fighting for our rights. I fear no one.” Of his forceful presentation before the church, organised with the help of friends, Manjhi says, “I told them: ‘If you destroy my gods, I will destroy yours.’” Rather than the threat itself, what seems to have made the church reconsider the ethics of its investment in Vedanta is Manjhi’s ardour and his concomitant sense of utter helplessness in the face of a state-corporate behemoth.
Conflicts between tribals and the state are nothing new—especially when they are portrayed as a struggle between the modern (read progressive governments and corporates) and the primitive (read tribals). Vedanta, in partnership with the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation, promises to put India on the global map as undisputed leader in production of iron ore, aluminium and zinc. But the tribals are asking if this should be at the cost of destroying their habitat, with which, in their animist traditions, they engage in a sacred covenant.
And environment activists ask if there can ever be another Niyamgiri once the mining starts. A visit there is a trip to paradise—lush greenery, scores of streams crisscrossing the mountains, rich soil, an abundance of wildlife. In fact much of the region is protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act, and the Orissa government had declared it an elephant reserve as recently as 2004. But once the mining begins, the ecosystem will be lost.
The controversy broke out following an MoU signed in 2004 between the Orissa government and Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, for establishing a bauxite mine on Niyamgiri hills and an aluminium refinery on the foothills. The company hoped to mine over a million tonnes of bauxite, having obtained the rights to 721.3 hectares, including 672 hectares of forest land. A conveyor belt, not fully assembled yet, stretches downhill. The tribals complain about the detours they have to take around it. Environmentalists fear the approach roads will prove the end of the wealth of flora and fauna in the area.
But how did Vedanta manage to get its mining plans okayed? A careful examination of the various clearances required to start mining in an area that was declared to be rich in biodiversity by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, reveals the role of both the state government and the Union ministry of environment & forests. The ministry gave its clearance on April 26, 2009—just two days after a public hearing was conducted in the region. The earlier warnings were all ignored.
The first had come from the central empowered committee, constituted under the Environment Protection Act (1986), in accordance with a 2002 order of the Supreme Court. The committee observed: “Had a proper study been conducted before embarking on a project of this nature and magnitude involving massive investment, the objections to the project from the environmental/ecological/forest angle would have become known in the beginning itself and in all probability the project would have been abandoned.”
The second came from WII in 2006. Its status report said, “Mining could trigger irreversible changes in the ecological characteristics of the area. The cost-benefit value should not only take into account the material benefits of bauxite mining…(but also) the perpetuity of the resources and ecosystem services that would be provided by these forests in the future. Compromising long-term economic returns, therefore, cannot be an alternative for short-term gains.” The apex court, however, ruled in 2008 that the company was free to mine after it complies with the due process of law.
That, as environment activists will affirm, rarely happens. In March this year, the Orissa Pollution Control Board had asked Vedanta to comply with pollution norms after their readings showed a high alkalinity level in the Vasundhara river. Curiously, within a few days, the board declared that the company was following all norms. Responding to questions from Outlook, a spokesperson for Vedanta said, “There is no habitation or cultivation atop the Lanjigarh (mining site) deposit. Out of approximately 250 sq km of Niyamgiri hill ranges, approximately 4-5 sq km of area, where there is no habitation or cultivation, will be utilised for Vedanta’s mining operations.” The company also said a resettlement colony for about 100 people was taking full care of some displaced tribals. It says the protests are backed by foreign companies that don’t want India to progress.
Most of the tribals residing in the colony refused to speak, but Mali Manjhi, one of the few to have agreed to a rehabilitation package offered by the company, said, “I had 20 acres. Now I get Rs 1,300 per month, barely sufficient for my needs. I used to grow paddy, millet. Now I have to buy it from the market.”
Is there then no hope for the tribals? Activists are banking on the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which backs the community’s claim over forest land. Simply put, gram sabhas of tribal villages can “initiate the process of determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights or both”. So far, two villages have staked claim—a first step, but more are likely to follow.
Sceptics may say the process could allow Vedanta scope for intervention, but the tribal activists are steadfast in their resolve. “We’re not against development,” they say. “But the state must recognise the rights of tribal communities that have lived here for ages.”