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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The Niyamgiri Hills have been untouched for centuries. Yet the Dongria Kondhs remain primitive. Why? Not on account of development but for lack of it. Yes, development oftentimes causes disturbance and even trauma. But this is soon offset by good R&R, appropriate compensation, new stakeholder partnership models, attractive income and employment opportunities, and a whole multiplier effect.

Stop Vedanta! Stop India?

Tribal India must get historic justice. The right balance must be found. But, stop Vendanta in the wrong manner and for the wrong reasons, and we may stop India.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 30 August, 2010

The Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh’s order stopping Vedanta Aluminium Ltd and the Orissa Mining Corporation from mining bauxite in the Nyamgiri Hills to feed the company’s adjacent Lanjigarh aluminum refinery plant (located in one of the country poorest districts) in the name of tribal interest tends to miss the wood for the trees. It is based on the report of a four member expert group under NC Saxena, set up following adverse Forest Advisory Committee findings on Forest Rights Act violations.

Truth often has many dimensions and in some cases the lesser truth may mask the greater. Balance and perspective are therefore important. The two reports the Minister relied upon contain some sweeping generalizations based on exaggerated inferences that appear to suffer from tunnel vision.

The Niyamgiri Hills extends over 250sq km of which only seven square km of one hill top falls within the proposed mining lease area. Of this, only 3.5sq km (350ha) will be mined and backfilled in phases leaving no more than 20ha of exposed mine face at any one time. The Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh who respectively inhabit the upper slopes and valleys of these hills, number less than 8,000 souls and are classified as primitive tribes. They are immiserised, practice jhum (which means that these are not primeval forests), collect fruit and herbs and live on the margins of subsistence, malnourished, illiterate, isolated. None will be displaced by mining.

The laterite hill tops underlain by a hard bauxite pan do not hold the rain, sustain little forest and are totally uninhabited. Contrary to the assertions made by the latest official committees, the removal of the bauxite layer and replacement of the laterite overburden with plantations thereon will, according to the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, actually encourage infiltration, recharge the underlying aquifer and improve the water regime to everybody’s benefit. Nalco’s reclaimed Damanjodi mine in Koraput is a classic example of transformation.

The Saxena report however states that the entire Niyamgiri range may suffer a “major ecological and hydrological disaster”. The very survival of “20 per cent of the Dongria tribals” will be threatened as their habitat will be “severely disturbed” and road construction will bring in wild life and timber poachers. Mining will destroy a significant tract of forest land leading to economic adversity for the tribals. The charge that the proposed mining area amounts to a cultural invasion of the sacred abode of the celestial Niyam Raja is contested. Earlier accounts would locate this site several kms away atop Hundijali Hill.

The expert groups worry about biodiversity loss and the impact of the Niyamgiri mine on a proposed South Orissa elephant corridor. They are sharply critical of violations of the Forest Rights Act, the alleged procurement of bauxite from 11 illegal Jharkhand mines and commencement of refinery expansion from one to six million tonnes before requisite settlement of individual and community tribal rights. The allegations misinterpret the law. Enclosure of 28ha adjacent to the refinery for an approved village plantation is also seen as an illegality. If this is the ultimate horror story, then why were prior approvals and clearances repeatedly granted? And was the Supreme Court in error? Stop-go procedures are thoroughly unsatisfactory and merit review as project after project of every description gets held up after initial clearance.

The Orissa Government’s counter argument is that the Forest Rights Act only came into force with the promulgation of its Rules in January 2008, and cannot be applied retrospectively to prior project clearances, action on which has sometimes been delayed by dilatory bureaucratic procedures in MoEF itself. The Saxena Committee retorts that the FRA was enacted to set right “historical injustices” suffered by the tribal people. This is entirely valid. But when does history begin? Hirakud, Rourkela, the HAL MiG plant in Koraput and hundreds of other projects, completed and ongoing, are located on tribal lands. Are all these development omelettes to be unscrambled? Historical injustices are often best made good by future action. Orissa too wants to industrialise, capitalizing on rich mineral resources which the Supreme Court has said are national assets in regard to which tribals have entitlements but not ownership. The Fifth Schedule, PESA, now FRA and the Supreme Court’s seminal Samatha judgment of 1997 show the way towards harnessing tribal justice to national interest.

The Saxena Committee’s conclusion follows that deprivation of primitive tribal groups “to benefit a private company” could “shake the faith of tribal people in the laws of the land which may have serious consequences for the security and well being of the entire country”. Quite clearly, the reference is to provoking the growth of Naxalism. The commonly cited causative factors underlying left wing extremism are oppression and neglect. Does the Vedanta project fit this diagnosis? Has not this project, though yet in its initial phase, started an indubitable process of transformation and kindled hope? Vedanta will make profits. Why not, if honestly earned and suitably taxed, as a good employer, and as a dynamic corporate citizen acting as a development trigger with a commendable record of CSR. A tall order? Maybe. But should this not be the goal rather than adherence to a barren philosophy of touch-me-not-ism?

The Niyamgiri Hills have been untouched for centuries. Yet the Dongria Kondhs remain primitive. Why? Not on account of development but for lack of it. Yes, development oftentimes causes disturbance and even trauma. But this is soon offset by good R&R, appropriate compensation, new stakeholder partnership models, attractive income and employment opportunities, and a whole multiplier effect. Vedanta is already active in areas of skill development, education, health, nutrition, provision of safe drinking water, solar lighting and formation of self-help groups on all of which it has spent over Rs100 crore. The company is further committed by a Supreme Court order to earmarking five percent of its annual net profit or Rs10 crore, whichever is higher, for economic and social development of an area within a 50km radius of the project site and to greening the area through a special purpose vehicle.

Poverty is the enemy of the environment with mounting population pressure. Tens of millions of distress migrants move across India every year for lack of development. The country needs to add 12m new jobs annually just to keep abreast of a burgeoning labour force. We need faster, more inclusive, participative growth and the necessary infrastructure to support and sustain this. To this end, bauxite must be mined and aluminum produced. The combination of bauxite and coal in close proximity enables India to produce cheap aluminum and assume a commanding position in the global non-ferrous market. Those who have ruled the roost so far fear this prospect and have made the Dongria Kondh their mascot.

Tribal India must get a good deal and historic justice. It must be enabled to progress. The environment must be enhanced. A right balance must be found. The current impasse affects not just Vedanta or Orissa. Rahul Gandhi’s rhetoric was misplaced. Stop Vendanta in the wrong manner and for the wrong reasons and we may stop India.

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