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Indigenous Peoples Day: Riches Out From Under India's Orissa Tribals

Published by MAC on 2005-08-09
Source: IPS ()

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY: Riches Out from Under India's Orissa Tribals

Ranjit Devraj, IPS

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

NEW DELHI - While corporate India eagerly counts foreign direct investment in mining projects, tribal peoples sitting on some of the world's richest deposits of iron ore, bauxite and copper in eastern Orissa state are watching, with trepidation, the sudden burst of alien activity on their ancient lands.

''They have every reason to be fearful because their experience with mining companies has not been a happy one so far, and we are now seeing investments on an unprecedented scale by transnational corporations,'' said Walter Fernandes, India's foremost expert on India's neglected tribals and their troubles.

Fernandes, who is currently the director of the Northeastern Social Research Centre at Guwahati in eastern Assam state, said in an IPS interview that although indigenous populations or tribals comprise just over eight percent of India's population of a billion people, 40 percent of all ''project displaced persons'' are estimated to be tribals.

According to the 2001 census, there are now more than 90 million tribal people in India, with large concentrations in eastern and central Indian states, such as Orissa.

''So far they have suffered because of large dams that have come on their traditional lands, but lately, as a result of economic liberalisation, the mineral-rich lands they have lived peacefully on for centuries are being eyed by transnationals as well as Indian mining companies,'' Fernandes said.

Lately, the transnational corporations have stopped eyeing and started buying -- especially in Orissa, which is ruled by the right-wing, business-friendly, Janata Dal (P) party of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

On Jun. 22, South Korean steel giant Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) signed a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government in Orissa to build a massive 12 million tonne steel plant at an unprecedented investment of 13 billion US dollars.

Said POSCO's chairman Ku Taek Lee at the signing ceremony in Orissa's capital, Bhubaneshwar: "Through this project, we hope to contribute significantly to India's rapid economic development and further accelerate the progress being made by India toward achieving the status of economic superpower.''

No one can quarrel with such statements especially when backed by outsized investment in Orissa, India's most backward state, where hunger deaths and bonded labour are common and the human development index abysmal.

But political parties of every hue from the communist parties of the Left Front that support the ruling, United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which supports Patnaik's government and leads the national opposition, has problems with iron ore export concessions awarded to POSCO as part of the deal.

Marxist leader and parliamentarian Sitaram Yechuri said: ''We know that the Brazilian government insisted that POSCO purchase iron ore at international market prices and did not approve handing over captive mines to POSCO. It has also rejected other terms and hence the company preferred Orissa.''

POSCO is, however, only the latest conglomerate to enter Orissa.

Over the past year or so, Patnaik's government has processed something like 35 major proposals to build steel plants or set up mines in the state worth over 25 billion dollars, and includes players such as the Australian BHP-Billiton, the world's largest mining company, and India's Vedanta Group, owned by ''metal maharaja'' Anil Agarwal.

The Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, which already owns mining concessions in Orissa through an Indian subsidiary, has plans for further investments worth three billion dollars in the state.

But Fernandes is convinced that mining for iron ore and making steel are just a smokescreen, and what the transnationals are really after are Orissa's vast copper deposits.

''They are only cracking open the market now and testing legal implications of constitutionally-guaranteed protection for tribal lands, which cannot be easily alienated to non-state players -- there is after all new legislation for tribals on the anvil and the draft is now under discussion,'' he said. .

Fernandes said existing legal protections cannot stand up in court because Indian laws recognise individual ownership but not community ownership. Most of the mining land in Orissa is, in fact, the common land of tribals, and therefore, has little protective value.

An immediate worry for activists like Fernandes is that at a time when millions of tribals were awaiting rehabilitation after being displaced by earlier development projects, vast numbers of new displaced persons were being created in Orissa.

According to a paper on tribals drawn up this year the National Advisory Council (NAC), a group of academics and voluntary workers that reports to government, the number of tribals displaced by development projects over the last 50 years exceeds nine million, with only 60 percent of that figure having benefited from any sort of rehabilitation.

''It is a known fact that displacement has led to far-reaching negative social and economic consequences, not to mention the simmering disturbance and extremism in most of the tribal pockets. Economic planning cannot ignore these consequences in the light of displacement, '' the NAC paper said.

''The tribals lose their land not only to the project authorities but even to non-tribal outsiders who converge into these areas and corner both land and the new economic opportunities. Inadequate rehabilitation will further compound their woes as they will become assetless, unemployed and be trapped in debt bondage and may even become destitute,'' the NAC paper warned.

Such warnings from so influential a body as the NAC have not been entirely lost on the investors and transnational corporations that are keen to lay their hands on Orissa's wealth.

Fearing the powerful political forces that have been set in motion by the ''mineral rush'' to Orissa, the U.S.-based non-profit group International Watch announced on Aug. 2 a five-million-dollar Tribal Rehabilitation Fund to ensure ''proper and human rehabilitation and resettlement of tribals who would be displaced as a result of the POSCO project.''

International Watch clarified that the five million dollars would be the first instalment for the fund and that more money would be added as rehabilitation and resettlement efforts -- for the 4,000 tribal families estimated to be affected -- move forward.

International Watch, which plans to open up an office in Bhubaneshwar by Aug. 25, warned that the political opposition now building up might ''derail the project'' that promises to ''lift thousands of poor citizens off a life of abject poverty''.

Curiously, International Watch describes itself as ''a watchdog to detect and monitor groups that finance, aid, and abet terrorists around the world,'' and also one that ''works with international conglomerates committed to improving quality of human life and eliminating poverty.''

''That is exactly the language we have heard so often before,'' said Fernandes, ''but the fact is that millions of tribals are destitute after having been driven away from their lands and cannot even ask for menial jobs at the projects because of increasing levels of mechanisation and capital-intensive technology.''

''Many of those who put up resistance have been locked away on charges that have to do with law and order and in many instances they have been held under anti-terrorism provisions,'' he said.

The United Nations celebrates International Day of the World's Indigenous People on Aug. 9, calling the world community's attention to issues specific to indigenous communities, including disputes over sovereignty and rights in regards to ancestral lands.

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