MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto in Orissa: the background

Published by MAC on 2001-04-15

Rio Tinto in Orissa: the background

[The points below were collected in 2001 from information I gathered after visiting the site of the proposed Rio Tinto Orissa Mining Limited RTOML, project in the District of Koenjhar, Orissa State, India, by interacting with the village elders, activists of the area, Government officials, Lawyers and Civil Society groups, and looking into old state records.

Besides the information that OMC (Orissa Mining Corporation) and RTZ (Rio Tinto Zinc) is conducting exploration, the civil society groups or the Project Affected People, nor the Government officials I met, had been given no further information.

[Xavier Dias, mines, minerals and People, Jamshedpur, India, April 2001]

On March 17th 2001 the National Convenor of our National Alliance of Mining Affected Communities 'mines minerals & People' mm&P), Ravi Rebapragadda sent an email to Rio Tinto (formerly RTZ) requesting detailed information on the Orissa iron ore project, its mining operations, number of people/villages to be displaced, and information on any other social mitigation.

To the above letter Rio Tinto sent a courteous reply, sharing the following information:

The Joint Venture exists.

1. It has had FIPB (foreign Investment) approval since 1997.

2. A pre-feasibility study of the project is being done.

3. A preliminary environmental assessment was completed by NEERI (?) in 1999

4. Resource assessment to date has been conducted by drilling, surface mining and some bulk sampling.

5. The company has been working closely with the local communities to keep them aware of the work and use their services where possible. The letter went on to state that:

6. The decision to build a mine will not be taken until a full feasibility has been completed including a definitive environmental report and public hearing.

7. The company did not know as yet whether any displacement of people would be proposed. If so, agreement would be sought with the affected communities after a full consultation process.

Along with this letter Rio Tinto sent a copy of extracts of the Rio Tinto Orissa Mining's Board approach to community and land matters as adopted in 1998.

It also offered further information on request and gave the address of its contact in Delhi.

Points from the Information Gathered

1) I could not get any information to affirm or deny the FIPB approval.

2) I suppose that this is being done, and from conclusions I could reach, by 'feasibility' Rio Tinto means NOT only the quality of the mines but extracting the most out of OMC, as OMC is a Company desperate to see this JV (Joint Venture) through.

3) I was not able to gather any information about this study. Villagers I met from three villages and the activists of the area were ignorant of it. The Forest Ranger of the area, who I met personally, was also ignorant of such a study.

4) Nonetheless the pre-feasibility study has been completed and results are awaited. For this the Forest department gave Rio hectare of forestland for exploration and constructing an approach road. A mini crushing plant at Danala Village exists and sample ore in 100-liter drums were sealed and sent to Australia for testing. About a hundred filled drums are standing awaiting dispatch. The site has a nursery where some ornamental plants are being grown. The Company's security men guard it. RTZ is looking for 65%+ grade of iron ore. At Jaggar on top of the mountain a channel (canal) of about 100 meters long and 10-12 ft deep was dug for prospecting purposes. Besides this about 200 drillings of 4' diameter have been completed. It is interesting to note here the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 specifically states that 'no mining can be done in Forest Area' in order to protect our fast depleting forest area, is being interpreted for the benefit of the Mining Industry to mean that 'exploration' can be done.

5) I could not find any person or community of villagers to substantiate this claim. Everyone knows about OMC as OMC has another iron ore mine in the adjacent area that has been in operation for the past ten years. Some have heard about Rio Tinto as a 'white man's Company' and in their imagination it is just one more in the pantheon of their good and evil spirits, awaiting classification. Regarding Rio Tinto Orissa Mining Limited, they only knew of it from the document I showed them sent to mmp by Rio Tinto. However RTOML does maintain an office at Mining Road in the Keonjhar Town. Two functionaries work from there, Sri Lokhon Sarangi an Administrative Officer and Sri Subasish Patnaik a Geologist. They maintain a very low profile, and volunteered no information. Therefore this claim of 'working closely with the local communities to 'keep them aware of the work' is a myth. Regarding 'use of their service where possible' - unless the company mean the contract workers employed by labour supply contractor paying wages far below the minimum wages - I could not find a single person in the villages I visited nor in the Town among the civil society groups including the lawyers who were ever contacted by the Company or had any firm information about the company. A Mining Company in normal circumstances places heavy emphasis upon - and budgets for - Public Relations. I found no trace of this. The only conclusion I could reach was that it is the company's policy to maintain a low profile, while issuing statements from their London office about 'good, long-term and transparent community relationships'.

6&7) Regarding these two statements of Rio Tinto, it is very important to note that, since they have no information about displacement or the number of people and villages to be affected, it would mean that since 1995, and now after six years of their involvement in the area, the issue of the effect of the mines on the people is not a conscious concern. It would also reflect the fact that RTOML's feasibility study does not have the 'social impact' of their mines as a component of the terms of reference. In the extracts from the Board policies, they have been careful to mention that the following policies are 'fundamental' to long term success: 1) Mutual Respect. 2) Active Partnership 3) Long term commitment But if the social impact assessment is not fundamental to their 'feasibility study', how can it be fundamental in their Board's policy statement?

We can only logically and rationally conclude that the 'profitably' of the mines is fundamental. Once this is established the Mines will be operational come what may.

Besides the information above the points below will be of interest.

Keonjhar & Metals:

Today Keonjhar has one of the highest concentrations of mining operations in the country. The Gandarmardhan mountain range (3,479-ft), a miscellaneous forest area with a rich bio-diversity, is the southern part of the Bonai range of mountains having reserves of 8000 million tons of untapped iron ore reserves spreading from the District of Singhbhum in Jharkhand to the District of Sunderghar in Orissa. Chromium and Manganese are the other minerals being mined here. This whole region was, and is still today, the homelands of the Bhuiyan pir (homeland) and Juang pir. The later migrants in the 18th Century were the Ho, Santal, Munda, Kharia, Ghonds, and other tribal communities. Together with Mayurbhanj in north Keonjhar, this area was part of a State called Hariharpur. Koenjhar became a separate State about 1128 AD. In 1803 the British conquered it. Before and during colonial rule, Keonjhar came under the Raja or King of Keonjhar. The tribals here did iron ore smelting for many centuries. There exist a fast dwindling tribe called Jhara who pan gold in the rivers and streams during monsoon. Keoenjhar was and to some extent even today is a metal market where tribals from a radius of about 200 km go to purchase copper, brass, bell-metal, aluminum utensils of different shapes and sizes whose art work has a distinct Keonjhar style. It continues to be the Centre for gold & silversmiths.

A history of peoples metals

Aluminum at one time was a metal costlier than gold, which only Kings could afford to eat fromn. Today the traditional art of smelting aluminum and utensil making is reduced to a few families on the outskirts of Koenjhar in dingy huts. The beating of the metal can be heard as one passes along the road, their ramshackle doors open to a world of conditions prior to the Industrial Revolution: hunchbacked, skeletal men, women and children, with visible rib cases that tell the tale of what industrial mining operations have subjected them to. While classical political economic theory teaches us that the development in the 'modes of production' automatically leads to the development of the 'forces of production' (people), the metal artisans of Keonjhar, whose lineage and heritage comes from the different so called 'metal ages', stand as mute archeological witnesses, awaiting the miracle of reversing this theory.

The Environment, People & Metals:

The Gandarmardhan Mountains are the source of a hundred streams that feed the Baitarni River (Baitarni literally means that which is crossed by means of a boat and is not fordable). This river has a very important place in the mythology of the tribals and the people of this region. It is said that the river has its source in a Mango tree and winds its way north to what is presentday Bengal, before returning to meet the Bay of Bengal at Paradip. At one time the river was navigable at certain distances and was used by traders for transportation. Today mining operations have reduced it to a rain-fed river, causing floods in the monsoons and rendering it dry for the rest of the year. The death of the river could spell disaster to a number of villages and towns that are dependent on it..

Talajagar, one of the villages that are in the core area of the project depends on the streams of the Gandarmardhan Mountains for the people's irrigation, Ms. Basano Dehury , an illiterate Bhuivan woman, who is also an elected representative in the panchayat (village) told me:

"If the Company comes they will dump all the waste and it will block the source of our rivers...Therefore we do not want the mine". Talajar produces abundant rice ( two crops a year), some wheat, pulses, vegetables and villagers live on forest produce like oil seeds, forest fruits roots and seeds. Ms. Basano Dehury's conclusions and apprehensions are very correct, but I did not have the courage to tell her that if the Company comes there will be no Gandarmardhan.

Tikayat Dehury an elder of the same village asked "Why should we work in the mines? We already have what we want. If we work there, it will be we that will have to work and work and work and they will take out the cream from here and go" I left thinking that the last thing they needed was a lecture on surplus economy: they had understood its fundamentals.

Talajagar depends very little on the outside world for their health care needs. The forest and the mountains supply them with herbs that can take care of all the common illnesses. Our next stop was Upporjagar, another village coming within the core area and placed at the lower brim of the Gandarmardhan Mountains. The villagers here are the victims of State Bureaucratic bungling. For some very vested reasons only 40% of the land in Keonjhar has been surveyed by the Government. This means that 60% do not have any land papers or, in the words of a very concerned senior, lawyer, Bhagirathi Mohanto, "they have no rights, they just exist, they will not even be compensated as they have no legal papers, just forget about them getting jobs in the mines". All villages around Gandarmardhan come under this category. Ten years ago Upporjagar village, that had existed for many decades on the higher slopes of the Mountain, was displaced. OMC officials came and told the 60 Bhuiyan families that they have no rights to live here as they have no land papers. They were evicted and left to fend for themselves.

Luckily they found land to resettle where they are now established of their own accord. Not receiving a single paise (cent) in compensation for their houses, homesteads and lands they were not even given jobs in OMC. They work in the private mines as contract labour at rates far below the minimum wage. On what were once their lands OMC has built its colony and offices for its mines. A stream that supplied the villagers water was diverted to the storage tanks that supply water to the staff of OMC. Purunachandra Dehury, a young Bhuiyan farmer who tills his fields and works seasonally in a private mine there, said " We heard that Rio Tinto will bring huge machines to do the work here which means that unskilled people like me have no chances of even a job with the company". Purunachandra has passed his +2 course and is apprehensive of ever getting a job: what will be the plight of those who are illiterate?

Gura Senapati, a tribal elder, stated: "What is left of our forest will all go when the Company comes". I told him, teasingly, that Rio TInto has a policy to plant trees and regenerate the forest, and that it would be willing to give this to you in a signed agreement on paper. He was quick to respond "Man does not have the power to make forests, but man can destroy them. These forests have protected us and our ancestors for generations, we will all die when the forest die. "We do not believe in paper and agreements, we have been fooled enough. Let the Company come and regenerate the forest, if they can succeed in this task of the gods, then we will believe them and welcome them. We want to see this work with our eyes and not agreements on paper".

A British Company with the backing of a 200 year history of successful colonial rule and an Indian Government of upper caste bureaucrats may not understand nor have answers to these voices, but they surely have the power and capacity to bulldoze their way through.

It was here that I learned that the following villages, coming within the core area of the project, will be axed: Danla, Suakuti, Knsari, Ichinda, Nawoda, Upporjaggar, Ralajagar, Uramunda, Kumudi, Rangudhi, Tentuli, Nitigotta. According to the villagers 19 villages are marked; they do not know the name of the other seven. When I asked who had given them this information, they replied that they had heard that the Company will displace all people within a 10 km radius called the core-area. Besides this there is a 25 km radius called the buffer zone, where the villages will be affected. Villages outside this area, but nearby are called the periphery area. I asked how could they be so sure of this. They replied: Go to Jodda iron ore mines and see how much of the tribal lands are taken, it is a 5 km area. We heard that this Rio Tinto Company is going to be ten times bigger than Jodda, so our calculations cannot be wrong.

OMC's Bad Human Rights Record:

OMC is a Government of Orissa undertaking. The present mine in Upporjaggor is an excellent case of how the OMC is hoodwinking the very laws the Government creates. Opening of new mines in forest areas is banned. But OMC has opened and is running this mine. How? Thirty years ago, before the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was promulgated, a private mining company had received a lease grant for mining. This company discontinued mining operations and OMC used its lease permit. Legally this is not permissible as a transfer or sale agreement has to be signed. The Private Company took OMC to court but the High Court ruled in favour of the Government. So on the very hills of Gandarmardhan OMC through treachery is running a mine that has displaced the village Upporjaggor with no rehabilitation, compensation or jobs.

Orissa Government callous to Tribals:

The Government of Orissa has been one of the harshest to the Tribal cause. During the Jharkhand (tribal autonomy) Movement, tribals in Orissa experienced brutal repression. No meetings or organisations using the Jharkhand name are allowed even today in Orissa. Dissent by Tribals is crushed with a heavy stick. The recent killings in Khasipur in December 2000 is just one of the cases to point. The tribals of Orissa are treated as second class citizens. Any Company coming to do business with this Government should check its Human Rights record especially in regard to such treatment of tribals peoples.

For RTOML or any other mining company Gandarmardhan is an irresistible temptation. Its blue forest covered mountains are saturated with iron ore in solid rock form and have just to be dug out and transported. I would put it as 67% grade. The Railways have built a railway line to take the ore from Keonjhar to Paradip that is under completion. Electricity is promised. The hills around Gandarmardhan are a good catchment area for dams to feed the washeries. The iron ore of Gandarmardhan is so good that many companies are illegally mining there. They have their leases in areas of lesser grade and mix the rich ore from Gandarmardhan to obtain a saleable product. This is the world of Gandarmardhan according to the Mining Industry.

Secrets of the Mountain

Gandarmardhan for the tribals is a living legend that not only gives them their daily bread but keeps the oxygen flowing in their blood stream, and fills their hearts and souls with a passion they understand as life & happiness. I met a member of the Vaidayan Samaj; the association of herbal medicine men or gurus. Their tradition and understanding of health issues goes back thousands of years and have been handed down to them by their ancestors in their songs, oral history and some of it is written on leaves of palm trees. Harihar Patro nervously clung to his sheaves of palm leaves which he brought out from his mud hut on the outskirts of Keonjhar. I was struck at the beauty of the script, handwritten with LaserJet accuracy; each leaf dealing with an illness and its treatment. Harihar says he treats patients for: tumors, stone in the bladder and kidney, colic and gastritis,, paralysis, joint pains including arthritis and rheumathism, spondalitis, filaria, malaria and liver disorders. "All this knowledge that we have comes from the Mountains. You cannot get this information in just one day. Our association is struggling to keep this alive...Mining will destroy all this"

Their Association has written to the District Administration not to allow mining in Gandarmardhan, but the Government has not replied. It received the same fate as the lawyers Association of the Keonjhar Bar Association that wrote the District Collector cautioning about the Gandarmardhan/Rio Tinto Project.

I asked Harihar, "But there is already mining going on for the past 100 years, so why not let Rio Tinto mine?" Like a well disciplined medicine-man he paused and gave the question thought. "Companies have mined these mountains for 100 years, and much is destroyed, but still Gandarmardhan can be saved, if all mining is stopped and the forest left to grow. If Rio Tinto comes the whole mountain will vanish and we will all go before that".

He then reminded me of the legendary story of the battle in Ramayana, in Lanka. When Laxman, the brother of God Ram was killed. Hannuman the legendary monkey god was sent to bring a particular herb 'mritsanjivani' from a Mountain called Gandarmardhan, that was a botanical wonder of herbs, with properties that could revive a dead person. When Hannuman arrived there in search of the herbal plant he was so confused by the diversity of the plants that he could not recognise which plant was the true or precise mritsanjivani. He did what at that time was the obvious. He lifted the whole mountain flew with it to the battlefield, and Laxman was brought back to life.

I put to him another question: what if Rio Tinto makes a written agreement that they will open herbal nurseries from where you can obtain your herbs? This time he was angry, I almost saw his damaged left eye jumping back to life "The secrets of the Mountains have been made known to us as slowly as the drops that make up the ocean, they surely cannot fit in a nursery",

Xavier Dias
April 9, 2001

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