Modernity and tradition

Twelve palli sabhas (tribal gram sabhas) in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa covering  the entire 250 sq km area is the sacred abode of Niyamraja, the supreme deity of the 8,000-strong Dongaria Kondh, a primitive tribe, straddling the Kalahandi-Rayagada district divide. The Supreme Court on April 12, 2013, directed that tribal opinion be specifically sought on whether the proposed lease of a 660 hectare area for a bauxite mine to feed Vendanta Aluminium Ltd’s currently one million tpa alumina refinery (sought to be expanded to 6 mtpa), vitiated their religious and cultural rights.

The State government decided that a sample poll of 12 palli sabhas located on the slopes of the proposed mining site would suffice though others, including the Union ministry for tribal affairs hold that all the 112 or so Dongaria Kondh villages in the Niyamgiri Hills should be consulted. The exercise of ascertaining the views of the 12 selected palli sabhas individually was completed between July 18 and August 19. The near-unanimous view was that the entire Niyamgiri range was sacred and not just the area around the temple near Hundaljali dedicated to Niyamraja sited atop the highest peak and some 10 km from the proposed mine. This sacred land was the source of their religious and spiritual wellbeing, livelihood and water, plant, wild root and herbal resources as (hunter-) gatherers and jhum farmers. Should mining be permitted, streams would dry up and people would despair and die.

Are these viable arguments or partly the product of understandable anxieties based on exaggerated notions of the consequences of mining expressed by project and ecological naysayers? Some fears are clearly wrong. Bauxite hill tops are here characteristically overlain with impervious strata that do not permit percolation. Thus rain drains down the hill slopes where some percolation takes place. The hill tops therefore only have sparse forest cover. Removal of the overburden to extract bauxite would thereby facilitate percolation and improve the water regime.

Secondly, in the 660 ha area leased to VAL, the mining area would be smaller. Within that, the actual area mined at any one time through the mine-fill-reclaim technique would may not be more than 10 per cent of the leased area which would in fact see continuous ecological improvement in all respects. The current slash and burn method of cultivation, on the other hand, is more damaging ecologically.

Further, the current levels of education, malnutrition and health are utterly pitiable, with rampant cerebral malaria and other killer diseases, lack of easy access to potable water from distant streams, and the absence of roads and market access. Thus any external intervention, properly regulated, could be a blessing. Instead, we have relatively well-heeled outsiders and activists coming from afar, like Rahul Gandhi and Bianca Jagger and other do-gooders, striving to preserve the notion of the’noble savage,’ whose life at the end of the day is “nasty, brutish and short”.

Sustainable development

On the orders of the Supreme Court, VAL is committed to spending 10 per cent of it profits before tax or Rs 10 crore, whichever is higher, for “sustainable development” of the area. Thus it has over the past decade spent some Rs 170 crore on developing social and economic facilities for the benefit of those living around the Lanjigarh refinery and Niyamgiri mining site. This includes the building and running of schools, a hospital, operating mobile health vans, provision of water supply and power, setting up a self-help group for the local women and so forth. Has any critic compared this with the work done by the state-sponsored Dongaria Kondh Development Agency? And what of other tribal areas in Odisha or elsewhere? Which loud-mouthed activist has lifted a finger to assist the most wretched of our people who languish in splendid isolation? What even has the state been able to accomplish?

The palli sabha consultation cannot lead to sweeping diktats. Parts of Sikkim have been declared sacred. Some today want all of Uttarakhand above Rishikesh to be treated as sacred territory. Many rivers, mountains and lakes in India are sacred to one community or the other. Are all these to be declared out of bounds?

The Supreme Court has declared that the mineral and other natural resources  are national assets held in trust by the government. The tribal people have an entitlement to surface minerals but cannot claim exclusive overall rights. Nevertheless, the Dongaria Kondhs can demand that they be treated as stakeholders in the land acquired and in the stream of future benefits – the regulations regarding which are being improved under the new Land  Acquisition and Resettlement Act.

Hopefully, the ministries of environment and forest and of Tribal Affairs will jointly advise the Supreme Court accordingly. The sacred site atop the Niyamgiri range and its immediate surroundings should be protected and honoured. But the rest of the Dongaria Kondh abode should be opened for development of tribal welfare alongside national development, through VAL in this particular case, or any other corporate, PSU or the state elsewhere. The nation needs bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper and other minerals, well-conceived water storages and diversions, power plants, rail and road connectivity, ports and social development in these back-of-beyond regions that the Maoists are taking over on account of callous neglect and lack of development.

The government also needs to move forward briskly with project clearances on the basis of due diligence, so that procedural delays do not stall progress. Laws and rules, too, must not apply retrospectively if India is to be a credible investment destination for anybody. Nostalgia, fanned by latter-day Luddites, is not the way forward. What is sacred – sentiment or a richer life for the most wretched? 

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