MAC: Mines and Communities

Blood and bauxite: Impoverished Indians fight Alcan's bid to open a mine in their backyard

Published by MAC on 2003-11-15

Blood and bauxite: Impoverished Indians fight Alcan's bid to open a mine in their backyard

by Chandra Siddan, Montreal Mirror, Canada

November 2003

The first thing that greeted Angad Bhalla on entering Maikanch, a town in the east coast mineral-rich state Orissa, India, was the painting of an Adivasi tribal man in traditional clothes and the admonition: 'Police No Enter'.

The sign is a clear indicator of the relationship between the Adivasis (tribal people) and the state police after what happened here on December 16, 2000. Activists and Adivasis had gathered, as they had many times since 1993, to plan their strategy of resistance to the government takeover of their agricultural lands for mining purposes. When the police moved in to break the meeting up, violence erupted, culminating in the police opening fire, killing three and disabling many more.

It was news of these murders that drew the attention of Angad Bhalla, a Canadian filmmaker who was in India to shoot a film on a Coca-Cola plant in Kerala, a state on the country's southwest coast. But the Kashipur incident - named after the district in Orissa in which it took place - and the story of the Adivasi movement against the aluminium industry made him embark on the documentary film project UAIL Go Back. The film has been shown on the smaller festival circuit around the country, but it highlights a big problem, with roots in Montreal.

A decade-long fight

The Kashipur incident was a critical point in the eight-year long struggle between the Adivasis and the state government of Orissa, but the government is seen by many as only a front for "the company." The company in question is Utkal Alumina International Ltd. (UAIL), one of whose stakeholders is Alcan, the Montreal-based aluminium giant that owns 18 per cent of global aluminium refinery capacity and is deployed in 41 countries, employing 53,000 people. UAIL, currently a joint venture between Alcan and the Indian Aluminium Company Ltd. (Indal), has been working to set up an aluminium plant in Kashipur since 1993, when the federal government of India made the decision to privatize its hitherto public mining industry.

One hundred per cent of the annual one-million tonnes of aluminium that is expected to be produced here will be exported to the Middle East and North America. And once the government approved the privatization plans, it eschewed its responsibility to the Adivasis and is now in the process of dissolving the constitutional protections that ensure Adivasi control of their own land. Palma, an Adivasi woman, says to Bhalla in his film, "These companies have begun a theatre and our politicians are paid actors in their play."

Orissa is rich in bauxite, the mineral that contains aluminium's raw material, as well as coal, limestone, silica, chromite, dolomite and nickel, to mention a few sources of its mineral wealth. Its mining history began in the 1950s. By 1970, it had 155 working mines and by the early 1990s, 281. According to a report by Mines, Minerals and People, a Hyderabad, India-based organization that represents tribal people and groups, mining and major dams have to date displaced 150,000 Adivasis in Kashipur. By the early '90s, the state's mining industry had gone global. The government of India has approved investments from 13 multinational companies from the U.S., Australia, the U.K., South Africa and Canada. Alcan is one of them.

Learning from experience

But half-a-century of development has impoverished the Adivasis. Displaced from their land and discriminated against in the industrial job market, they are now fighting to keep their land, their only remaining resource. In Dhamanjodi, a town four hours away where an aluminium plant has operated since 1986 (run by the state enterprise NALCO with the collaboration of the French multinational Pechiney), the Adivasis have an immediate reference. Those who took government compensations frittered them away. No one got jobs at the plant. Non-Adivasis from neighbouring states are favoured for the jobs. Women have their own problems with settling for the cash compensation - many of the men spent the money in a matter of months, leaving nothing for their families.

Opponents say the UAIL project will cause major displacement, health risks and destruction of the livelihoods of 60,000 people in the area. According to the company and government's estimate, only 2,452 acres and three villages with a total 148 households will be displaced.

The worst fears are for the environment: the mine would be located in the catchment area of the Khandabinda and other tributaries of the Indravati river. The fear is that the mining sludge will silt up the Indravati and bury the surrounding Kalahandi district's reservoir, endangering the chronically drought-prone area, not to mention risking human and animal health.

Marginals get radical

India has the second largest concentration of tribal peoples after Africa and they occupy the lowest rung in the Indian economic and social system. Orissa has a remarkably high percentage of Adivasi; while the national Adivasi population is 8.1 per cent of India's total, they make up 22.21 per cent of Orissa's population. There is an added demographic of Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, who occupy the bottom rung of the caste system, making up 16.2 per cent of the population. In Kashipur district, 68 per cent are Adivasi and 18 per cent are Dalits. This concentration may have something to do with their radicalization.

What is unique about the anti-mining movement in Kashipur is that it is organized and led entirely by the Adivasis, and that it held out for so long - it has been active for over 10 years. It has encompassed protest meetings, opinion polls (where 96 per cent of the Adivasia said no to the project), rallies of thousands (one, in 1996, involved 20,000 people "gherao"ing - surrounding - the company office) blocking roads, bridge construction and convoys of company staff cars on PR trips. Protesters have been teargassed, beaten and, in Maikanch, killed. It has resulted in many arrests and numerous court cases involving Adivasi men, women, NGO activists and even children.

UAIL was a joint venture promoted initially by Norsk Hydro of Norway, Indal and Tata Industries Ltd. Tata eventually withdrew and Alcan became a joint partner in 1999. After the police firing at Maikanch village in December 2000, Norsk Hydro withdrew. According to Angad Bhalla, the work of Norwegian environmentalists and church groups in creating an anti-mine campaign had an impact on the company's decision. Alcan, however, has stayed on with its 35 per cent stake in the UAIL project.

Activists in India are hoping for a similar movement in Canada since, according to Achyut Das, an activist involved in the movement, Alcan's role is crucial in the future of UAIL.

Waiting for answers

Pending the release of the judicial enquiry into the Maikanch killings, UAIL activity is dormant. Though the enquiry is completed, the report has not been released. Meanwhile, Alcan has emerged this year as one of the "World's Most Admired Companies" on Fortune magazine's global corporate reputation survey and is rated high by GovernanceMetrics International, a global corporate governance ratings agency, for its social responsibility.

It's also poised to acquire French multi-national Pechiney, following various regulatory bodies' approval this autumn.

Alcan states that it awaits the release of the report. Joseph Singerman, Alcan's Montreal-based media representative, says that the results of the judicial enquiry into the deaths of three men have been in the state government's hands for nine to 10 months but have not been released to Alcan. Nor has there been a briefing to anyone about the results of the enquiry.

When Angad Bhalla first went to Kashipur to do research for his documentary, the Adivasi tribal people were delighted to hear he was Canadian since the Montreal-based Alcan is a big part of what they're fighting against. Asked if the industrialists and the Adivasi cannot arrive at a negotiating point, Bhalla says, "I don't think we have the right to determine what that point is. It is for the Adivasi to decide how their land is utilized."


1. Kashipur web site:
2. Environmental impact of the mining project:‘Assessment of Environmental, Economic and Social Impacts of Bauxite Mining and Alumina Processing in Orissa’, TARU, June 1996, New Delhi.
3. Information about the fifth schedule:
4. Killings on Dec16,2000:
5. Judicial enquiry that cleared the government and the company:
6. Information on "UAIL Go Back" - A Film on the Kashipur movement :

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