The Battle for Orissa

India: The Battle for Orissa” is the title of an article by Manjeet Kripalani, BusinessWeek‘s India bureau chief, dated 3 December 2007. The “battle” pits the world’s largest mining companies against the indigenous people (the “tribals”) of Orissa. In essence, a battle between “development” and the environment (primary forests, watersheds, biodiversity, wildlife protection) and the way of life of the indigenous forest dwellers.

For though the state has been known for decades for hunger and poverty, cyclones, and droughts, Orissa is now renowned for its mineral wealth: It has the majority of India’s iron ore, chrome ore, coal, and bauxite reserves. And all of this is required to fuel the country’s manufacturing revolution.

That’s why the world’s largest steel and metals conglomerates are sitting on Orissa’s shores, awaiting clearances from the government so they can get to work on the mineral ores there. Between Posco, Arcelor-Mittal, Tata Steel, Jindal Steel, and a few others, there is $45 billion in investment waiting to get into Orissa.

But they are all on hold. Like much of India in transition, Orissa is taking a long time to adjust to its new status. Much of the area on which (or under) the state’s mineral wealth sits is tribal, forested land that cannot be cleared and reassigned to companies without due process.

They [tribals] are the biggest losers in the transition, and there are very few to plead their case. Especially not the politicians, who in their desire to put Orissa on par with the rest of India, are doing whatever it takes to speed up development in the state, even at the cost of the environment and its people. That has become the basis of a major battle in the courts, in the Orissa legislature, and on the land itself.

Despite her statement above, Kripalani puts a somewhat positive spin on the current state of this “battle” by describing a stalled effort by Tata Steel to put a boundary wall around it’s 1,000 plus acre property which the locals refused to vacate (a dozen of whom were killed when fired upon by the police).  (This piece of property is probably insignificant to the Tata’s, whom Kripalani describes as the  “oldest commodity company to do business in Orissa” that “has been mining ore in the state for nearly 100 years.”)

Now Orissa’s tribals, and their fellow Indian citizens, are witness to a bitter battle over the nature of India’s mineral wealth and its true cost to both industry and society. … If all goes well, India will learn about the price of each ton of steel, not just its cost in monetary terms, but also its environmental and social costs. Luckily, Orissa’s resources are so plentiful that it will take 50 years before they begin to be depleted. Hopefully, the right battles will have been fought and won by then, and the right lessons learned.

I don’t know where Kripalani gets her optimism about India learning the “right lessons” and fighting and winning the “right battles”. Every government entity, from the Forest Department all the way to the Supreme Court has marginalized the tribals in favor of “development” and the requisite personal payoffs that come with it. And in one recent case regarding the mining of the summit of Niyamgiri, due process was completely denied.

According to the latest (2001) census, Scheduled Tribes make up 22% of the population of Orissa (with a total of 63 tribes recognized by the constitution of India) compared with 8% of the total population of India. The tribal people of Orissa occupy the slopes of the mountains in the region.

For generations, people here [near the Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary] had rights over the natural resources in their forests. With independence, however, forest resources were brought under the purview of the forest department, and local residents have been waging a fierce battle to re-capture their rights and secure their livelihood.

The story of Badrama’s tribal population goes something like this. The sanctuary, then a reserve forest, used to be under the control of the former state of Bamanda. According to the Bamanda Forest Rule, people living adjacent to the forest had rights to collect minor forest produce like edible roots, leaves, fruits, flowers and grass for bona fide purposes. The law even granted them permission to take up lucrative lac cultivation, especially of kusum trees inside the reserve forest, as well as free bamboo extraction by tenants to meet their domestic needs. Special concessions were given to primitive tribal groups like the Juang, allowing them to collect bamboo free of cost and with no prior permission. There was no restriction on their processing and selling products to earn a livelihood.

When the government declared Badrama a wildlife sanctuary, the forest department curtailed people’s rights and access to the forests. – From “Orissa’s tribals: Give us only what is rightfully ours” by Ranjan K Panda

One example of Forest Department intervention in the livelihoods of the tribals is the restrictions on the collection and processing of kendu leaves (used for rolling bidis – handmade cigarettes) and bamboo products. (These and other forest products have been nationalized.) The Forest Department either prohibits the collection of leaves and bamboo from the forests, charges an entry fee, or asks for bribes to allow collection. Since 1990, the Orissa Forest Development Corporation Ltd. (OFDC) has been responsible for the “collection, exploitation, and marketing” of forest products, including the marketing of kendu leaf (Orissa is the third largest producer in India), relegating the tribals to a Food for Work program funded by World Food Programme.

Industrial interests have been given a free hand to exploit the natural resources on tribal land.  Earlier this year, for example, Vedanta Resources PLC won their battle to mine the summit of Niyamgiri for bauxite to supply an aluminum refinery that it had built without first getting clearances to mine the hills.

In September 2004, the ministry of environment and forests had granted environmental clearance for the refinery, but the central empowered committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, noted that the clearance was obtained by concealing material particulars principally that no forest land was involved in the project, whereas about 660 hectares of forest land was involved. – From “Tribal trouble adds to Vedanta green tension” by Subrat Das, The Telegraph

Sanjay Parikh, the Supreme Court advocate handling the case on behalf of the tribal groups,  describes the Niyamgiri hills as a sacred site for the Dongria Kondhs – an area still forested and protected by the Dongria Kondhs who worship the trees, animals and plants in the forest. A source of springs that feeds rivers that supply water to the farmlands below. A rich primal forest that is home to leopards and an elephant corridor.

The Forestry Bench of the Supreme Court, composed of India’s Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Arjit Passayat (from Orissa), and S.H. Kappadia decided in favor of granting clearance to Vendanta Resources to mine Niyamgiri, going against the strong recommendations of their own advisory council, the Central Empowered Committee, and without hearing the arguments of Mr. Parikh on behalf of a petitioner representing the tribal people of Niyamgiri.

A recap of the Vendata case can be found in the following blog entry: “The Betrayal of Niyamgiri – Vedanta mining and the Dongria tribals.

As one outraged activist commented: “Just as the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has become like the Ministry of Mining, the Supreme Court is becoming like the Supreme Mining Clearance Court of India.”

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