MAC: Mines and Communities

Niyam Raja: Tribal Villages Bulldozed as the Shadow of Vedanta Looms over One of the Most Sacred Mou

Published by MAC on 2004-02-09

Niyam Raja: Tribal Villages Bulldozed as the Shadow of Vedanta Looms over One of the Most Sacred Mountains in Orissa

By Felix Padel and Samarendra Das

9th February 2004

Within the last two weeks, starting on 23rd January, four Adivasi villages have ceased to exist, forcibly evacuated and bulldozed, along with their surrounding fields, to make way for Sterlite's planned alumina refinery near Lanjigarh. This is the southeast corner of Kalahandi District. The villagers have been taken in lorries to a new "colony" of concrete boxes, 3 kms away, where they are being held under police guard - a kind of concentration camp. No journalists have yet gone to interview them, but we managed to visit and speak with them on 7th-8th February. We had just met a Sterlite official down the road, who spoke of how the project would spread "enlightenment" among the tribals, ending their poverty and giving them jobs. He described the project as "a baby that is still in its mother's womb, not yet born." But for the people in the colony, the baby has indeed been born, and it is a rakshasa-baby - a demon, that has already devoured everything they valued.

As we spoke with them in their new colony of gaily painted but soulless concrete shells, they gathered round us like silent ghosts of their former selves, with dignity, and total despair. They spoke very softly, turning their faces away to hide their tears, trying not to be overheard by the security guards who sidled close by. Even labouring jobs the company is giving mostly to outsiders. The people in the colony are either turned away, or get slave-like work for which they are paid late or not at all. They still have this winter's grain to eat, but know they are unlikely ever to grow their own food again. They've lost the homes they or their parents made, the fields and gardens where they worked every day, most of their animals (as there's no space or grazing for them here), and even - as one woman said - their gods. The chief deity of the Kond tribe, the Earth Goddess Darni Penu, is represented by sacred rocks set in the middle of each village, and these have been bulldozed into oblivion along with everything else.

They face a double despair, despised by the company officials as well as their former neighbours who are furious with them for selling out. For these destroyed villages, Kinari, Borobhota, Sindhabahili and Kothduar, are among six that believed the company's promises and chose last year to accept compensation in cash - a decision they now bitterly regret: "we cannot eat money", and they know it won't last long. They never expected this total, sudden destruction of everything that was their life and identity. Another six villages that refused compensation last year are awaiting their fate. They know that police could arrive to move them any moment, but say they will resist and die rather than be moved. Several village elders in Belamba, Kopaguda and Turiguda described to us how they stood up to the Collector when he visited last year, and respectfully but firmly refused his offers of compensation. Again - "we cannot eat money". Most of these villagers are Maji Konds or Harijans, and money figures low in their system of values. They know they stand to lose everything that makes their life worthwhile, including their existence as a community. They say the Collector got angry and told them their villages would be destroyed whether they accepted compensation or not, and he would not visit them again.

Lanjigarh is the key project of Sterlite, whose finances come from its twin company, Vedanta Resources. Vedanta was launched on the London Stock Exchange just two months ago, in December 2003. It raised a record $1 billion for this Lanjigarh project - though newspapers at the end of January reported a sudden 11% fall in the share price due to investors' concern at reports of local resistance at Lanjigarh. Both Sterlite and Vedanta are headed by a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), Anil Agarwal, and the Chairman of Sterlite is Brian Gilbertson, an Australian who is one of the world's wealthiest mining magnates. Sterlite has the appearance of an Indian company, but is actually a multinational, notorious for spiriting its profits out of India via Mauritius, big scale tax avoidance, and repeated share scams, as well as particularly atrocious pollution from its copper smelter at Tuticorn in south India, where regulations have been ignored. Now that it is linked to London through Vedanta, the process of taking its profits out of India is streamlined.

The Lanjigarh project involves a bauxite mine high up on the 4,000 foot northwest ridge of the Niyamgiri mountain range. The Niyamgiris are home to a people who call themselves Jarene. Outsiders call them the Dongria Konds. They are one of Orissa's most distinctive and traditional tribes, and live in about 90 villages, scattered throughout this range. For them, as for the Maji Konds in the plains area below, the Niyamgiris are their place of origin. The presiding deity of these mountains is Niyam Raja, who also receives worship at Hindu temples in the non-tribal towns and villages round the periphery of these mountains. Niyam Raja's name means "Lord of the Law" or "Lord of Dharma". There is wonderful forest throughout the Niyamgiris, but the ridge where the mine is being staked out ready to start has exceptional forest on its expansive summit, as well as its sides - home to tigers and elephants, as well as innumerable other species. Half the mine site is Reserved Forest, which is supposed by Law to be preserved. This whole forest, on the Kalahandi-Rayagada border, is one of the best in Orissa. The north ridge of Niyamgiri has many springs on its sides which form the source of the great Vamsadhara river. This mountain should never have been leased for mining.

From its beautiful summit one looks down on the bare earth where the destroyed villages stood, just below. This is the site for Sterlite's alumina factory, to refine the bauxite into alumina (aluminium oxide). This type of refinery is enormous and highly polluting. To comprehend the impact it would have on the local environment one has only to visit Damanjodi, 150 kms away in Koraput District. This is Nalco's refinery, next to its 20 km long bauxite mine on the mountain of Panchpat Mali. The area for miles around already resembles a dessert, and the tribal villages have faced cultural genocide. Among the worst pollutants of such factories are the fumes and the highly toxic waste product known as Red Mud, full of Heavy Metals, which invariably has a highly damaging effect on water sources. India's Minister for the Environment declared some years ago that Panchpat Mali and Damanjodi alone produce more than enough bauxite for India's aluminium needs for the next 100 years, and no new bauxite mines should be opened.

Sterlite describe its Lanjigarh project as 50% for export. It is the frontrunner in a plan to vastly expand the mining of Orissa's bauxite mountains - a plan which Adivasis regard as an assault on the fabric of their existence, and which has all the characteristics of colonial domination. The Utkal Alumina project about 60 kms away in Kashipur (Rayagada District), where Hindalco is backed by the giant Canadian company Alcan, is apparently waiting to see the impact of current events at Lanjigarh. Utkal is 100% for export. Its implementation was stalled 3 years ago when police opened fire on tribal and Harijan protestors at Maikanch village in December 2000, killing three people. The Commission of Enquiry into this incident recently submitted its report, though it has not been released, and is widely regarded as a whitewash. Utkal is now getting ready again to set up a bauxite mine on Bapla Mali and a refinery near Kuchepadar and other villages, which are determined to resist. Utkal has let Sterlite take the front role now and set up its project first. Hence this sudden, aggressive demolition of villages, which appears to have strong Government backing.

The Lanjigarh project initiates a new scale of exploiting Orissa's natural wealth. By colluding in this, the Government is acting in the belief that this aluminium industry will stimulate Orissa's economy - a belief which much evidence suggests is seriously misguided. If all the mountains presently leased to mining companies start being mined, Orissa will face a social and environmental catastrophe, and the Government's authority is likely to become undermined and compromised by corporate lines and methods of control. Maybe this is happening already. Local society is becoming split between those for and against the mining. Kashipur politicians were saying shortly before the Maikanch killings that those against the Utkal project (who are predominantly but not only Adivasis) were "traitors", and those supporting it "patriots". Perhaps few people realize that Orissa's remarkable fertility and forests depend on its aluminium-rich bauxite mountains. Major rivers have their source on the slopes of these mountains, filtered through the bauxite. Bauxite has exceptional qualities for holding and chanelling water.

The aluminium industry has an extremely dark side beneath its shining surface. Its history shows a constant struggle for profits between Governments and mining companies - a struggle the companies have nearly always won. The belief that setting up a big aluminium industry will stimulate a country's economy has been repeatedly belied. Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, Suriname, Australia, New Zealand and others have seen this belief turn sour, when their aluminium industries have had the opposite effect, "enslaving" their national economies to foreign corporate interests, and causing a marked deterioration in living standards. Profits remain concentrated in the hands of a small elite of company executives and their associates - part of a neo-colonial plundering of developing countries' resources by multi-national companies (MNCs) and the Governments of the world's richest countries, where these companies are based.

The belief that an aluminium industry will kick-start a nation's economy has been promoted by these Governments and the World Bank. Its origin is the aluminium industry set up in the USA in the 1930s-60s, which played a key role in lifting America out of its Depression. This model has not been replicated elsewhere, mainly because the power base of the aluminium industry is still controlled from London and America. And the cost of this boom was extremely high. Some of the world's first mega-dams were built to power America's aluminium smelters. These displaced thousands of people and had an enormously negative effect on the natural environment, which the smelters continue to have. This aluminium boom was geared to supplying America's arms industry, and was a major factor in the Korea and Vietnam wars. The aluminium-hungry arms industry is still a principal source of profit for America. It is a little-known fact that arms manufacturing is aluminium's most significant and strategic use, and that bomb technology is largely based in alumina - from the incendiary bombs dropped on cities in the second world war, to the carpet-bombing "daisy-cutters" used with devastating effect in America's wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as for nuclear missiles. India's nuclear arms industry had a contract with Balco for the supply of alumina/aluminium, which Sterlite inherited when it took over Balco two years ago.

In the global scene, India's aluminium companies are relatively small players. The interests which control them lie in America and the trading at the London Metals Exchange. Joseph Stiglitz reveals how Paul O'Neill, as head of Alcoa (the Aluminium Company of America), set up a cartel in the 1990s to control prices. This control is geared to exploit 3rd world resources and bring profits to the developed world. Thus the belief that an aluminium industry stimulates the economy serves to draw Governments into an exploited relationship, in which they sell off their natural wealth cheaply. The "Resource Curse" is evident in mining throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia: projects that were supposed to bring national prosperity have led to widespread impoverishment, and undermined the fabric of social life. Some of the world's cruellest regimes and civil wars are fuelled by mining. In Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola (to cite some most notorious cases) the mining of these countries' rich mineral deposits has caused immense bloodshed. The reasons are complex, but it is possible to see from what is happening now in Orissa, how mining companies tend to spread a real corruption in values. Both in Kashipur and Lanjigarh company officials are widely believed to have given large bribes to get their projects accepted. Speaking of another aspect of this corruption, the people of Belamba described to us with tears in their eyes several cases in the last month where their women have been seduced or raped by construction workers, many of whom have been brought in from outside areas.

Everywhere, it is indigenous or tribal people who lose the most, "sacrificed" for "national development". Utkal and Sterlite justify their projects in terms of "upliftment" of the tribal people. Yet most situations where such "development" has occured show the precise opposite - a marked deterioration in their standard of life, which starts with the literal "upliftment" of key villages: their wholesale removal and obliteration. The people of Kinari have been "uplifted" from their homes forever.

The World Bank has popularized the term "sustainable mining". This subverts "sustainable" to mean, basically, profitable. The only really sustainable lifestyles are those of indigenous communities, and others who live on the self-sufficient basis that is characteristic of tribal societies, and whose values and religion are based in respect for nature. For them, to sell their mountains for large-scale mining is an act of pure greed - an eating into the flesh of the earth. Critical studies of the world Bank show that it has always followed the interests of the MNCs and richest nations, especially the US Administration. In effect, the Bank functions as an extension of the US Treasury Depertment. The present Treasury Secretary is none other than Paul O'Neill. While the Bank has been careful not to openly support Orissa's bauxite mining, it is clear that behind the scenes, this is where some of the main pressure is coming from, not least so that India can repay its enormous debt from World Bank loans. Many of these loans were for profoundly "anti-people" projects, such as those which financed the Upper Indravati dams near Kashipur and the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, which have had devastating consequences for the inhabitants of several hundred tribal villages. Why should more Adivasis be sacrificed to pay back these loans? What have tribal people done to be dispossessed of their homes like this?

The DFID (Department For International Development of the British Government) works closely with the World Bank in Orissa. Beneath its promotion of "development" and "good governance" in all sectors, it has begun to play a key role in the gradual process of privatizing electricity, water and land, and to control Orissa's financial policies. The major share of Britain's "foreign aid" (which it distributes as grants) actually goes to British companies and consultants, including the notoriously right-wing Adam Smith Institute.

In other words, the Lanjigarh and Kashipur projects are part of a "corporate takeover" of Orissa, and of India's assets. George Monbiot has shown how the "corporate takeover of Britain" works, and George W.Bush's current US Administration is virtually a cartel of corporate heads: his election was "bought" with corporate funds, and company interests dominate the decision-making process in every field. What is happening now in India bears an uncanny resemblance to the way that India came under the control of the East India Company - one of the world's first and biggest companies - and the gradual way the EIC set itself up as India's Government. The exploitation of India's resources for foreign profit is no less now than it was 200 or 100 years ago. The exploitation has actually intensified, becoming alot more complex and manipulative. British EIC officials started a process of dispossessing tribal people that has escalated into the unprecedented scale of dispossession they are facing today "in the name of development", which operates through a subtler and more indirect cruelty.

We all believe in "development", but the way the term is used today to justify a purely economic and industrial process based on creating profit through exploitation is a subversion of language, and a belief that borders on superstition. Bulldozing Kinari is the latest in a long history of displacemnt. A project that proceeds with this authoritarian violence is bound to ruin lives, not develop them. It does not accord with India's Constitution and Laws, which guarantee a full and frank consultation with the people affected by a project. Can this "development" mean anything except the devastation of their lives? Or can they be allowed to develop according to their own decision?

The movement to stop more bauxite mining in Orissa had its first success in 1986, when it saved the Gandhamardan mountain range in west Orissa, which is superbly forested like Niyamgiri. At the foot of those mountains stand a symbol of this success: 2,000 flats which Balco built, now abandoned to the forest. The Lanjigarh and Kashipur movements show promise of success against all the odds. Can Niyamgiri remain the mountain of Dharma?

Felix Padel is an anthropologist who specializes in studying power structures, and the author of "The sacrifice of human being: British rule and the Konds of Orissa" (OUP 2000). Samarendra Das is an investigative journalist and writer, author of three books in Oriya. They are currently writing a book together on the aluminium industry.

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