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The battle for bauxite in Orissa

Published by MAC on 2005-04-20

The battle for bauxite in Orissa

20th April 2005

Meena Menon, Opinion - News Analysis, The Hindu

The people have warned of an environmental disaster with bauxite mining leading to drying of rivers, deforestation and ecological damage.

The battlelines are drawn, rather unequally, in Kashipur, southern Orissa, one of the poorest regions of the country. About 70 per cent of India's bauxite reserves are located here, some of it signed away by the Government to mining companies. The State is determined to intensify its industrial character and any hitches are dealt with summarily.

For over 10 years, the Paraja and Kondh Adivasis of Kashipur and the surrounding regions of Rayagada district have opposed the bauxite mining project by Utkal Alumina. Consequently, the region has witnessed state terror in all its forms. Non-governmental organisations supporting the Adivasis were blacklisted by the State Government in 1998 for waging a "proxy war" against the State and their funds cut off.

Since last year, the State has revived the use of force to curb the people's struggle and support groups are being formed in various parts of the country, including Mumbai. Meetings are being initiated by students and activist groups to highlight the agitation in Kashipur and more recently, in Lanjigarh. Support for the struggling Adivasis has come from as far away as Canada where Alcan Inc.'s major smelting operations are located. Alcan Inc. has a 45 per cent stake in Utkal Alumina's Rs. 4,000-crore, hundred per cent export-oriented alumina project.

Protest in Montreal

Last week, a press release by a Montreal-based group, "Alcan't in India," which has been organising protests against the Kashipur project, said that another demonstration was planned on April 28, when Alcan's annual meeting will be held. Employees of two of Alcan's smelters have passed resolutions supporting the opposition to the mining. It said that workers would refuse to smelt any alumina from Alcan's operations in Orissa.

Past protests against the project were met with lathicharges and even firing, in which three persons were killed on December 16, 2000. An inquiry commission, headed by Justice P.K. Mishra, which probed the firing at Maikanch, held the police and the district administration guilty but stressed the need for a bauxite project for the uplift of the region.

Adivasis form 61.5 per cent of the population of the Kashipur block. Literacy is an abysmal 6.5 per cent and barely one per cent of the women are literate. Poor facilities and lack of access to healthcare compound the situation. The locals want to know how the bauxite project will help them after they are displaced. The company has promised jobs to one member from each family that loses land, apart from resettlement colonies.

On March 29, the Deshapremi Jana Samukhya, which consists of people's movements and democratic groups, took out a rally in Rayagada to protest against Utkal Alumina and Vedanta Alumina, which has a project at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. Two days ago, Sukru Majhi, a ward member of Kinari in Lanjigarh and a leader of the people's struggle, died in a road accident. In a letter to the Orissa Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, the Samukhya has alleged that he was killed.

The Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee has questioned the environmental clearance to the Vedanta project and hearings are in progress. An expert team visited Lanjigarh last December and reported several violations of forest and environment laws.

The people have warned of an environmental disaster with bauxite mining leading to drying of rivers, deforestation and ecological damage. They are demanding the cancellation of all the agreements with the mining companies. Projects have been proposed in Laxmipur and Dasamantpur, both in Koraput district, and in Thuamul Rampur, Kalahandi district. Bauxite will be sourced from the hills around Sasubahumali, Sijimali, Kutrumali, and Kodinga Mali in Rayagada district and from Niyamgiri in Kalahandi district.

If the Government hopes to pull the Adivasis out of poverty by signing away bauxite leases, past experience in Orissa belies any such hope. In Rayagada itself, descendants of people displaced by a paper mill sit around in Chandili, an old Adivasi settlement. Some eke out a living by selling bundles of wood and others travel in search of daily wages. Much has already been written of Orissa's abysmal track record in resettling those it has displaced in "public purpose" projects.

Inspiration for the Kashipur struggle comes from a battle against another project in the Gandhamardhan hills in Bargarh district. A decade ago, the people there protested against a proposed alumina extraction project by BALCO and threw it out. But the Government is more determined in Kashipur and human rights have been the first casualty.

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