Onslaught on Adivasis’ Land and Livelihood in Navin's Orissa

Recently, the Supreme Court gave a ‘green signal’ to the MNC Vedanta (a subsidiary of Sterlite industries (India) Ltd. owned by NRI Anil Agarwal) to launch bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills, where the adivasi population has been resisting eviction from their forest land and livelihood. It is another matter that the Supreme Court is not authorized to give such a green signal, since it would blatantly violate the Forest Rights Act – which protects the rights of Dongaria Kondh adivasi people of Niyamgiri – forest-dwelling tribal peoples – to the forest land and resources on which their lives depend.

After the massacre of adivasis at Kalinganager to oblige Tata; the bloody clash with “would-be” evicted farmers to make way for Korean major POSCO's steel plant-cum-port near Paradip in Jagatsinghpur, a potential confrontation is building up with the adivasis of Niyamgiri hills in the region bordering Kalahandi-Rayagada district, where the Navin Patnaik Government of Orissa has decided to allow bauxite mining to ensure supplies for a big alumina refinery of Vedanta in Lanjigada.

An agreement had been signed between the Orissa Mining Corporation Limited, a Government of Orissa undertaking and M/S Vedanta on 5 October 04. As per the agreement, a joint venture company (JVC) would be launched as a private limited company with 26% share holding with OMC and the rest 74% with M/S Vedanta. The shares would be allotted to OMC without any payment in consideration of the services rendered by it for operating the mines. The 6 directors of the JVC would comprise of two representatives from OMC and the rest four from Vedanta. The chairman and MD would be chosen from Vedanta nominees. OMC as part of JVM would mine three million tons of bauxite annually from the Niyamgiri hills for Vedanta for which Vedanta would pay OMC. In turn OMC would assist the JVC in obtaining required approvals from different government agencies.

723.343 and 721.323 hectares of land are required respectively for the alumina refinery in Lanjigada and bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills. Of these lands, 58.943 and 672.018 hectares respectively are forest lands; the remaining government revenue land and private land also contain thick forests and eligible for classification as ‘forest’ as per the Supreme Court order dated 12/12/96.

Manipulations of Vedanta

a) M/S Vedanta deliberately concealed the involvement of the forest land in the alumina refinery project despite the fact the acquisition notice dated 6-6-02 issued DC Kalahandi clearly mentioned the inclusion of 118 acres of forest land for the project.

b) To escape the Forest Conservation (FC) Act guidelines the project had been split into alumina refinery and bauxite mining even though bauxite mining is an integral part of the refinery project.

c) The construction work of the alumina refinery started on the project site much before the environmental clearance accorded on 22 September 04. This will be clear from annual report of the project which claimed that 45% of work had been completed by 31 March 05 and 29 million US $ had been spent (which would mean that within 6 months of getting clearance such work was done.)

d) The above mentioned forest area extends over a number of patches distributed in 7 villages. The villages that seem unaffected on paper are bound to face eviction in practice.

e) Despite the knowledge of State Government officials about the forest land involved in the project, the forest offence report, issue of notice to the company etc. for breaking/ encroachment of forest land was initiated by the Forest/Revenue department as late as 18 December 04.

f) In the guideline no. 2-1/2003- FC dated 20-10-2003 by the MOEF it has been specifically stated that the maintenance of good forest cover is essential for sustaining the livelihood of tribal population and that in tribal areas only infrastructure development project (other than commercial) should be encouraged.

The manufacture of alumina is a commercial project which will only benefit the promoter company and cannot be considered an infrastructure development project. So, MOEF in this case has not followed its own guidelines.

Further the project has clearly violated provisions of the Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (By ST Regulation) Act, 1956 and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. On the basis of a writ petition lodged by a group of social activists, Supreme Court installed a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into the matter.

After detailed study and investigations and after hearing the views of the different parties, CEC proposed the following recommendations:

Use of forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like Niyamgiri hills should not be permitted;

The casual and hasty manner with which the environmental clearance for the alumina project has been issued smacks of undue favour and does not inspire confidence that the state Government and MOEF will deal with the matter in keeping with national and public interest;
Had a proper study of the environmental and human costs been conducted before embarking on such a project, the site would probably have been rejected.

The CEC recommended that the Court may considered revoking the environmental clearance dated 22-09-04 granted by MOEF for setting of alumina refinery plant by Vedanta and directing them to stop further work of the project. This project may only be reconsidered after an alternative bauxite site is identified. The Supreme Court, however, ignored these strong recommendations and went ahead to give the project a go-ahead!

Environmental Dimensions

The Niyamgiri forests are historically recognised for their dense population of endangered wild life: elephant, sambhar deer, leopards, tigers, barking deer, and various species of birds and other endangered species of wild life. More than 75% of the hills are covered by thick forest with an average density of 0.6. Wild relatives of sugarcane plants are available here which are valuable genetic sources of future hybrids and therefore need preservation to maintain a pure gene bank. It has more than 300 species plants and trees, including 50 species of medical plants. 6 of the species are listed in IUCN Red Data Bank and yet to be surveyed properly for their floral and faunal wealth. Many perennial streams originate from the Niyamgiri hilltop. It is a permanent source of water to the entire area including the Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.

22 water-harvesting structures are located in the foot hills which provide year-long water supply. Vamshadhara and Nagvalli are two major rivers of south Orissa which emanate from the hill. Lakhs of people of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh depend for drinking water and irrigation on these rivers.

Bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills would destroy the dense forests and rare flora and fauna; evict indigenous tribes who are the traditional custodians and protectors of the forest; would destroy the water-recharging capacity of the perennial streams; by-products of bauxite mining would not only destroy the fertility of land on the hill slopes but also affect the land downhill during rain; and would also pollute natural water resources.

Most importantly, the project will rob the tribal forest-dwellers of their land, livelihood and traditional right on natural resources. These adivasis are completely dependent on the forests for their survival – and no means of ‘rehabilitation’ could give them livelihood, let alone ensuring any measure of dignity and self-confidence. All glib talk of ‘alternate employment’ apart, the fact is that they will be condemned to extreme exploitation as semi-bonded or contract rural labourers.

A meaningful campaign must take up the issue of the Dongaria Kondhs’ socio-cultural identity, and environmental devastation within the framework of the crucial battle of poor tribal people for land, traditional rights, dignity and democracy.

Towards a Powerful Resistance

In developing resistance against land grab, political mobilisation and motivation of the directly-affected people is most important, supported by an effective solidarity campaign. The Nandigram experience was a lesson that unleashing the creative initiatives of the affected people plays a decisive role in the agitation.

During the construction of the alumina refinery plant by Vedanta at Lanjigada, some protest and resistance were built up along with a crucial legal battle. Still, the aspect of the ‘solidarity’ by different social movements predominated in the campaign, which could not sustain for long.

Now at Niyamgiri, the challenge is to mobilize the Dongaria adivasi people. In this context the CPI(ML), which represents a powerful land struggle led by the rural poor and has a wide support base among poor adivasis along with a strong network of adivasi party leaders and activists, can intervene meaningfully. The CPI(ML)’s influence among the Dongaria hill people is growing and they have started to participate in the party’s political campaigns regularly. No doubt, Vedanta too realizes this; two years ago, the Vedanta management threw in their money power and control over administration in aid of feudal forces to crush the land struggle led by CPI(ML) in the adjacent area of Bissam Cuttack. In this crackdown fifty activists of the land struggle were booked in attempt to murder cases; and houses of poor tribal people were demolished and burnt.

CPI(ML) is planning more concerted efforts to intervene in the struggle against corporate grab of forest land by Vedanta and the Orissa Government.

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