Vedanta In Chhattisgarh (india)Published by MAC on 2007-08-04
VEDANTA IN CHHATTISGARH (INDIA)
How Green Was My Mountain
BY NEERAJ AGRAWAL
F orty-five-year-old Jagardev Yadav, a resident of Mainpat, has some heartfelt if pithy advice for anyone planning to construct a house in Chhattisgarh. "First find out if the land is situated in an area rich in minerals such as bauxite or iron ore," he suggests.
Yadav, who was born in Mainpat, was recently jailed and beaten up by the Surguja police. His offence? He opposed Sterlite's bauxite extraction in Mainpat - though not for the first time and perhaps not the last. He refused
to vacate his land, which Sterlite had acquired for its mines, unless he was "rehabilitated". The administration typically reacted by picking up eight of his family members, including women and children. After a few residents intervened, the women and children were released from the police station, but not Yadav. He was illegally held in custody and his arm was fractured by the police. When he was finally released, he complained about the matter to the district administrative officers and the home minister, with the help of a non-government agency called Mainpat Bachalo Sangharsh Samiti. Everyone promised an enquiry but even a month after the ghastly incident, no action has been taken against the erring police officers. Yadav, who used to work as a casual labourer, now has to sit at home because of his broken arm. There is no money, or food, for his wife and children.
Yadav's is not a unique story in Mainpat, once known as the only hill station in Chhattisgarh because of its location 990 metres above sea level in Surguja district. At one time, there was a winter nip even in summer in this lush green area. Today, however, it would be hard to catch a wisp of those days in this region, which has been denuded of all its greenery. Noisy trucks forever ply on the town's wide, dusty roads, which were once narrow paths lined by 100-year-old trees. Black dust from the excavations, now being carried out all over Mainpat - spread across 28 square kilometres - fills the air. The trucks add to the dust and the pollution. Clearly, the sought-after bauxite under their homes has become a bane for Mainpat's residents.
The Bauxite Story
It's estimated that 57.54 million tonnes of bauxite can be mined from Surguja; this number amounts to 57 percent of all the reserves in the state. Out of these 57.74 million tonnes, 42.21 million tonnes fall under the "proved" category of reserves, 13.56 million tonnes under the "probable" category and the remaining 1.76 million tonnes under the "possible" category. The title of the categorisation reflects the likelihood of finding, and extracting, the bauxite reserves. About 51 million tonnes of the total reserves are of metallurgical grade, while the grade particular of the rest six million tonnes are not known. The deposits that can be most economically mined are located in the pat (the local name given to plateau or plateaux) region of eastern and southeastern Surguja, including areas such as Mainpat, Samari and Jamirapat.
On July 2, 1992, around 639.169 hectares of land in Mainpat was leased to the public undertaking Bharat Aluminium Company Limited (BALCO) for 20 years, for bauxite excavation. At that time, Mainpat was a part of Madhya Pradesh. Three hundred and twenty-five acres of the land that was leased to BALCO belonged to the Manjhi-Manjhwar tribes of Mainpat. The tribals and Dalits living in Mainpat were led to believe that BALCO would compensate them for their land with money; they were also promised employment, alternative land, and overall development in the form of schools and hospitals.
As has become the norm in most projects that involve displacement and rehabilitation in India, the promises were either half-met or entirely forgotten. Some people were given less than half the amount due to them for the land; for instance, BALCO gave some of the displaced a compensation calculated at the rate of Rs 12,000 per acre of land though the government-set rate of land in the area was Rs 50,000 per acre. Many people were not lucky enough to receive even this meagre amount. In 1992, around 112 people lost their land but only 50 received compensation. The rest were forced to run from pillar to post in search of an elusive justice. When nothing worked out, a few people even started working on daily wages for the same company that had occupied their land.
Many families that had been living in Mainpat for decades had to leave their homes and migrate in search of food and shelter. Those who continued to live here were forced to work for private contractors who did excavation work for BALCO. None of the displaced got a job in the real sense of the word. These workers did protest against the company's atrocities but BALCO and its patrons muffled their voices.
When Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh on November 1, 2000, the tribals and Dalits hoped that their grievances would now reach the new state government. But a few days later, BALCO was sold to a private company - the Sterlite group (also see page 83). Sterlite bought a 51 percent stake in BALCO for about Rs 551 crores and took over the company's management. It was the first public sector undertaking to be disinvested under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.
After Sterlite took over, workers at BALCO's Korba Aluminium Complex were retrenched. Sterlite management also shrugged off its responsibilities towards the workers in Mainpat. But as the workers started to put pressure on the company, the Sterlite management made a few promises. These were clearly not meant to be kept; the management wanted the workers to excavate certain new parts of Mainpat so that it could expand its aluminium company at Korba.
Homeless in their Homeland
The farmers whose land was taken over by Sterlite were promised huge compensation. Instead, they found themselves at the mercy of private contractors. All this happened in the blink of an eye - the farmers didn't even realise when or why they had turned from being cultivators to workers. Not only did they lose their land and their houses, but they were also forced to live in small camps or rented houses.
Along with the agricultural areas, the crops also disappeared. The quantum of paddy produce reaching local co-operative societies for sale reduced rapidly. The situation was terrible this year; while the government could purchase thousands of tonnes of paddy from co-operative societies in every development block in Surguja district, not even a single kilo of paddy reached the
Even the few farms that weren't acquired by the Sterlite group weren't able to harvest a crop. Somnath Manjhi, a 70-year-old resident of Kudaridih, a village in Mainpat, says, "Deep-hole blasting is done for excavating bauxite, and this has a violent impact on the whole area. It creates cracks in the farm land, and farming cannot be done on cracked surfaces." The blasting has also caused an increase in health problems among the residents, with people suffering mainly from ophthalmic and otologic infections. Despite all this, the farmer-turned-workers do much of the work in Sterlite's mines. They earn meagre wages though they work in some of the most dangerous conditions in the mines.
The contractors, meanwhile, exploit the workers to the utmost. There have even been instances when the contractors, after employing the workers for months, settled their accounts with Sterlite and disappeared without paying the workers. (Sterlite has repeatedly given contracts to people who have a history of cheating workers. This is despite the fact that workers have complained to company officials about the contractors' fraudulent activities. Sterlite, however, claims that it's an issue to be settled between the contractors and the workers.)
Rambali Yadav of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, a workers' organisation, has a long list of workers who have been exploited. For instance, there is the case of a private group called Balaji Metal and Mineral Company, which excavated and transported bauxite for Sterlite on a contract basis. After collecting their payments, the company's officials vanished. The workers of this company have to be paid outstanding wages of Rs 1 crore and 80 lakhs. Worse still is the fact that the state government, though fully aware of the company's vile acts, tried to get Balaji to undertake contract work for its Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC). Says Rambali Yadav, "Not only was no action taken against the company, but government officials tried to make Balaji a contractor for the CMDC. Our strike forced them to postpone their decision on handing over the contract to this company, but from this very act, one can understand what the intentions of the people involved with Sterlite and the Chhattisgarh government are."
If statistics provided by Sterlite group are to be believed, around five lakh tonnes of bauxite can be excavated from Mainpat annually. According to the figures for 2005-06, Mainpat produced 565,301 TPA (tonnes per year) of bauxite. In spite of reaping such rich dividends, Sterlite never bothered to pass on even a few benefits to its workers.
Around 4,500 people are said to be working for the company, undertaking tasks ranging from excavation to logistics. But the workers don't get any of the benefits that are mandated under the company's own employment rules. For instance, the workers are entitled to receive bonuses, but they have never been given any. Pregnant women workers are supposed to get Rs 40,000 for their medical and delivery payments but not one of them has received any money for the past one-and-a-half years. Women workers are also entitled to maternity leave and are supposed to be paid during their leave period. But not one woman has received this benefit.
The company's rules prescribe that workers should get housing, and that educational facilities should be provided for the children. But the company has taken no steps in this direction. Besides, even the most basic of safety gear is not provided to the workers though this is mandatory. Workers don't have helmets, boots or caps, and people have lost their lives because of these reasons. There are no health facilities on or near the excavation sites either. There is no talk of compensation when a worker dies onsite. No one takes the onus for the loss of a life, least of all the company.
No Penalties, Only Rewards
It's ironical that Mainpat, once known by the sobriquet 'Shimla of Chhattisgarh', is so polluted that people have stopped visiting it. Its landmarks, such as Kudridih, Kesra, Barima and Sapnadar, are now mere mining spots of the Sterlite group.
Just like its predecessor BALCO, Sterlite has shown no concern whatsoever for the environment. Mainpat's climate itself has undergone drastic changes because of the deforestation in the area. Manoj Pingua, the then Surguja collector who was recently transferred to the post of director (tribal welfare), pointed out that the company had ignored all the rules and regulations while excavating bauxite. When the lease was initially inked with BALCO, over 9,000 sal trees stood on the land. When Pingua surveyed the area, he found that Sterlite had cut down 4,000 trees illegally, including sal and other trees.
In the light of the illegal tree chopping, Pingua recommended to the government that the lease agreement with Sterlite should be abrogated. The government instead ordered an investigation, which confirmed the already known fact of the illegal cutting of 4,000 trees. Pingua forwarded the report to the government, once again recommending that the lease be scrapped. However, in what has become a routine state of affairs, no action was taken against Sterlite.
In fact, while Sterlite indulges in illegalities such as chopping down trees, the government rewards it by increasing the production capacities of its mines. Permission was given to increase the production capacity by six lakh tonnes in the Kudam mines of Mainpat, by four lakh tonnes in Tati Jharia of Kusumi and five lakh tonnes in Samari. All this was done without the people of Mainpat knowing about it, though a 'public hearing' purportedly took place on the subject. The few who knew about it weren't allowed to participate in the so-called 'public' meeting.On the other hand, Suresh Chandra, the area officer of the Environment Conservation Board, claims that action has been taken against Sterlite for increasing its production capacity in one of its mines
- the Barima mines - without securing permission. The matter is now in court, he says. Chandra also adds that public hearings were held when the production capacities in the other mines were increased with government permission. According to him, no objections were raised at the meetings. Nevertheless, there have been several instances when government officials and Sterlite have been at loggerheads over issues such as illegal excavation of bauxite, and the company's failure to level mine surfaces or take steps for local development. On certain occasions, Sterlite has even had to stop its bauxite excavation work because of this conflict. However, no matter how many rules Sterlite violates - and this is indeed a common occurrence - things always work out in the company's favour.
Rules are for Others
The area in which Sterlite is carrying out bauxite excavation in Kabirdham, the home district of state chief minister Raman Singh, has also seen its fair share of controversies. No private company has been given the right to excavate bauxite from the mines in this area, but Sterlite seems to enjoy special privileges. The company excavates 300,000 metric tonnes of bauxite every year.
Over four decades ago, the Madhya Pradesh government declared that all the bauxite in Kabirdham (which was then in Durg district) was reserved for public undertakings. It even issued a notification to this effect (number 2918/ 2875/12) on June 16, 1969. It was on this basis that BALCO was granted the lease of this area. When BALCO's rights were transferred to Sterlite after its disinvestment on March 2, 2001, it should have been automatically understood that Sterlite, being a private and not a public company, would not have rights on the Kabirdham mine. However, Sterlite managed to retain control over the mines.
Does this mean that the Chhattisgarh government does not consider the Madhya Pradesh government notification valid? Far from it. After Sterlite was granted the lease of the Bodai-Daldali mines in Kabirdham, seven private companies applied to the government for permission to work in the bauxite mines in Banki area in Kabirdham district. But these applications, which the government received between 2003 and 2004, were rejected on the basis of the Madhya Pradesh government's 1969 notification. If, as the government says, private companies cannot mine minerals in this area, why has Sterlite been given special permission?
Moreover, it's widely believed that Sterlite has also mortgaged the mines in Kabirdham and Mainpat for loan purposes. For the company's version of events, this writer contacted Deepak Pachpore, the head of public relations of the company, several times, but was told that he was "busy" each time.
Chandra Shekhar Dubey, a Member of Parliament who is part of various mineral committees, says that Sterlite mortgaged the original mining lease deeds of Mainpat, Sarguja and Bodai-Daldali Kabirdham mines to the Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Trust Company Limited for a long-term loan in October 2004. This, he points out, goes against the lease agreements. Dubey demands that the government terminate the shareholder agreement with Sterlite because of the company's violations, and also ask the Central Vigilance Commission or the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter.
Besides, Sterlite, which was granted a 30-year lease for excavation in an area spread across 591 hectares in Kabhirdham, started its work without rehabilitating the displaced people, many of them Baiga tribals. Fifty-two families had been displaced because of Sterlite's work at the time of writing.
When the Sterlite management acquired the Baigas' land in Semarsenta, Daldali, Rabda, Kesharmada and Munda Dadar villages, located about 100 kilometres away from the Kabirdham district headquarters, it made many promises to the tribals. But the company didn't keep its word. Instead, it now says that it's up to the Chhattisgarh government to provide land to the displaced tribals. Once the land is allotted, the company will fulfill its other assurances, it claims. The tribals had demanded relocation to an area with proper facilities, and jobs for at least one member of each displaced family. But, as the government takes its own time to reply to the land question, Sterlite is busy converting the farms of tribals into pothole-filled, barren land.
Displaced tribals say that Sterlite started excavating bauxite on January 1, 2004, after acquiring 591 hectares of land, 300 of which belonged to farmers. The Baiga tribals owned 100 hectares. According to Roop Singh Udde, a resident of Semersanta, the government and the Sterlite management relocated 50 percent of the displaced Baiga tribals in Semersanta village to Baijalpur, Tarsingh, Singhari villages in 2004. They were, however, not given any land for farming and were also deprived of basic facilities such as hospitals, schools and roads. As Udde says, "We had 12 acres of land in the name of my father. Sterlite started its excavation work on that very land, and it has been dug up completely. As compensation, the government relocated my father to Baijalpur. But no one has come to enquire about how we have been surviving." There is no question, clearly, of giving the displaced jobs, though their only source of income - their land - has been brutally taken away from them.
On January 7 this year, the tribals started a strike, demanding a ban on Sterlite's excavation. But after seven days, the government managed to convince the tribals to call off their protest by assuring them that the land was only being demarcated, and that excavation wouldn't start till they were compensated with alternative land. The district administration also assured the tribals that their problems would be sorted out in two months, but nothing has happened till now.
NS Chaudhary, the manager of the Daldali mining area of Sterlite, says that the government is handling the land issue. He adds that Sterlite has already deposited money with the government for acquiring land and that the relocation process is expected to start soon. But he has nothing to say about Sterlite's promise to give jobs to one person from each displaced family.
Apart from reneging on its promises and assurances to locals, and violating government rules with impunity, it's believed that Sterlite has also not been entirely truthful about the reasons why it has been increasing the capacity of its Mainpat and Bodai-Daldali mines. Its Korba Aluminium Complex, with a capacity of two lakh metric tonnes per year, is able to run on the bauxite from Mainpat (four-and-a-half lakh metric tonnes) and Bodai-Daldai (three lakh metric tonnes). However, Sterlite applied for permission to expand both these capacities, under the guise that it needed the boosted production for enlarging its Korba refinery. Sterlite wanted to increase its capacity by three lakh metric tonnes at Mainpat and at Bodai-Daldai by nine-and-a-half lakh metric tonnes. Incidentally, while kicking off the work at these mines in 2003, Sterlite had stated that it would use the bauxite for starting an alumina refinery and ammonium smelter with a production capacity of six lakh metric tonnes. But curiously, this refinery hasn't moved beyond the planning stage.
According to Dubey, Sterlite's real interest in expanding these mines has nothing to do with Korba. "Sterlite wants to run its refinery in Lanjigarh (in Orissa) with the bauxite from Mainpat and Bodai-Daldali," he says. But the mines themselves had been leased to Sterlite on the condition that the bauxite excavated would be used only in Chhattisgarh, Dubey adds.
A journalist questioning these discrepancies is told that no one in the Sterlite group has the time to clear the air. A local asking these questions often ends up in jail. Yadav, who was behind bars for no reason, is a prime example of the company's underhand ways.
[These two articles are chapters from a new publication by Panos South Asia:
"Caterpillar and the Mahua Flower; Tremors in India's mining fields".
Edited by Rakesh Kalshian: ISBN 978-99933-766-7-5
Panos South Asia (PSA)
D 302, 2nd Floor, Defence Colony
New Delhi 110 024, India
Reproduction is welcomed for educational purposes. A download of the complete book can be obtained at: http://www.panossouthasia.org/pdf/Caterpillar%20and%20the%20Mahua%20Flower.pdf]