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Monday, June 09, 2014  
Gandhamardan: A nature's paradise endangered by the White Gold Craze
"The 213MT bauxite reserved in Orissa's Gandhamardan hill range has still remained an allurement to the corporate players engaged in aluminium production and export. The hill range has again come in news after Vedanta pursued its proposal with Government of Orissa for mining in Gandgamardan after being denied of Niyamgiri. Knowing that the hill range turned into a battle ground between people and the corporate house BALCO over the issue of mining where people had the victory,  companies are still in queue to get a lease to dig out bauxite from the core of the hill that hosts thousands of rare medicinal plants, herbs and shrubs, twenty two major water streams and four all weather waterfalls and a thick and diverse vegetation offering direct livelihood to more than 20000 families  and an indirect livelihood to lakhs of families living around the hill range. The fresh queue of companies has again threatened Gandhamardan and the unique bio-diversity it hosts. When the companies are putting all their efforts to get a mining lease from the government of Orissa, people living around Gandhamardan are getting ready to make history repeat if the government of Orissa takes any decision against their wish."
Basudev Mahapatra & Bibhuti Bhusan Pati

The silver jubilee of the movement against mining of bauxite in Gandhmardan hill range didn’t come with a taste of success achieved by the people and the activists, but with another call for the local people to get up once again for the protection of the hill that provided livelihood to lakhs and played a major role in balancing the local ecology.

It’s already 19 years since the last movement could compel the state government to stop mining in the hill range. The Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Parisad People’s Movement has already celebrated its silver jubilee. Yet, even today Gandhamardan resounds with the slogans like “BALCO hatao, Gandhamardan bachao!” [Ban BALCO, save Gandhamardan]. Players of the last movement still chant - “Let land go, life go, but long live Gandhamardan.

After BALCO, NALCO had also eyed upon the 213 Million Ton bauxite reserved in Gandhamardan. But apprehending that a quick persuasion of the mining proposal would convert the whole affair into a misadventure, NALCO preferred maintaining silence even though its proposal is still in the queue.

Inspired by the huge reserve of bauxite, Officials from NALCO visited Gandhamardan hill range on March 23, 2007 being accompanied by the then Chief Secretary of Orissa and other higher officials to discuss mining in Gandhamardan. As a reaction Tankapani village saw a rather huge congregation of people on April 1, 2007 followed by another on May 3, 2007. Reminded of the agitation against BALCO, NALCO retraced its steps.

Now, the new owner of BALCO – Vedanta is again excited to venture into Gandhamardan for mining of bauxite from the belly of the hill range. The conspiracy is never-ending.

After being denied the Niyamgiri hills, Mukesh Kumar – the CEO of Vedanta – met the officials of Orissa Mining Corporation to give all OMC officials a big shock who advised Mukesh Kumar not to rather ask for Gandhamardan as it would put the company in a much bigger trouble than what it experienced at Niyamgiri. Immediately, on the 27th of September 2010, the Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Parishad, a conservationist outfit dedicated to protect Gandhamardan, arranged a public meeting to make the people aware of the developments.

In the present scenario, companies like Vedanta et al are only too anxious to mine and lift the 213 million tonnes of bauxite lodged inside Gandhamardan. And, as a counter the local populace is up in arms spreading awareness and organising the mass for a protest in the form of a huge agitation on the 1st of January 2011.  According to Dhiren Mohanty, the Convener of Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Parishad, the forthcoming agitation is going to take the shape of a gigantic agitation that is going to put an all time end to the operations by the Gangs 213 MT. The Parishad has decided to submit a memorandum to the governments at the Centre and State demanding protection and security of Gandhamardan. They propose to place before the government a demand that any further requests for mining in Gandhamardan by any company be rejected summarily by OMC.

Gandhamardan is a 90 km long and 20 km wide hill range spread over Padmapur in Baragarh district and Patnagarh subdivision in Bolangir district.  It is a part of the Eastern Ghat mountain range of Western Odisha and is popular in many other names like ‘Vindhya Giri’ and ‘Gandhagiri’. 800 meters above sea level, it is located between 82-54 East longitude and 20-54 north latitude.  According to records, the annual rainfall here is approximately 1363 mm. The total hill range has 20 thousand hectares of tropical forests and land divided into two forest divisions – Bolangir Forest Division and Bargarh Forest Division. The northern portion is in Bolangir district while the western part lies in Bargarh district. The initial satellite map survey showed that Gandhamardan had 840 streams.  Due to environmental catastrophe resulted by BALCO’s test mining in the eighties hundreds of natural springs faced an abrupt unnatural death. At present only 152 small springs making 22 major streams and four waterfalls do remain. These streams are not rain-fed but they are the main source of water for the two important rivers of Western Odisha— Anga and Suktel. If the water sources from the Gandhamardan hill range die out, then, inevitably, the process of desertification would be expedited in the already famine prone districts of Bolangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi.

BALCO had come in search of bauxite deposits in Gandhamardan after completely destroying the hydrological stability and sanctity of another important mountain ‘Amar Kantak’ in Madhya Pradesh – the source of the waters of the Narmada, the Sone and the Mahanadi rivers. The destruction of Amar Kantak to feed its one lakh tonne aluminium plant at Korba in Madhya Pradesh was a high cost to pay for the reserves.

In 1978-79, after BALCO abandoned Amar Kantak Hill range in Madhya Pradesh, the then Central Cabinet Minister for Mines, Biju Patnaik showed it the way to the holy hills of Gandhamardan in Odisha.  In the eighties, the Congress Party and the then Chief Minister of Odisha J. B. Patnaik were only too eager to act on a deal with BLACO. In 1983, the then union minister for mines N.K.P. Salve along with CM J.B. Patnaik laid the foundation stone for BALCO’s mining project in Gandhamardan that was to mine bauxite worth 1500 crores of rupees. BALCO promised to give employment to hardly 2000 local people with the requisite qualification and experience.  This was a mockery on the local people who were poor tribals and hardly had any education and experience of bauxite mining.

Political leaders and the representatives of BALCO could not find any solution to the problem that day. Questions from the local public rendered them answerless and compelled them to turn back. The J.B. Patnaik Government tried to use coercion to suppress the voice of the people. But they could not contain the seeds of dissatisfaction that started taking roots.

Two specific incidents inflamed people to join the movement to save their hill god from the brutalities by a company named BALCO. One, the test blast in the Gandhamardan hills that shook the ancient Nrusinghanath temple to such an extent that the Garuda Stambha collapsed and tremors were felt both in distant villages including the two major centres of religious belief Hari Shankar and Nrusinghanath. Cracks due to the tremors were so strong in many places that the utensil and other household materials fell down making people feel absolutely insecure. Secondly, the catch dam made by BALCO at Manabhanga in the name of supporting irrigation turned out to be a sham as instead of building anything beneficial for the public, it submerged about 30 acres of fertile land and the famous orchards of Madhuban – the primary source of livelihood for the people of 5 Gram Panchayats. These two incidents fuelled the movement against BALCO and made it more poignant. The local people were petrified by the tremors that shook their homes and created cracks in their walls. The mass dissatisfaction took a fierce shape in the Nrusinghanath temple congregation and the seed of an organised movement to save Gandhamardan was sown here in February 1985. The news of Paikamal agitation did spread like wildfire to the districts of Bolangir, Bargarh, Sambalpur, Kalahandi, Nuapada and even to the neighbouring state, Chhatisgarh.

In the summer vacation of 1985, a group of NSS volunteers of Sambalpur University had camped in the Gandhamardan hills. The campers observed the situation and could feel the impending danger to Gandhamardan and the complete ecosystem if mining was to continue in the region.  Some of the campers formed a group for the protection of Gandhamardan. In an organised manner they spread awareness amongst the people of that area.  On the 14th of August 1985, 19 young men joined hands to form the Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Parishad and shouted with the slogan that echoed in every household - “Amar dabi maan Sarkar, BALCO asura nai darkar”, which means - Government must concede to our demand; we do not need BALCO monster!  The reverberation reached the government and BALCO was forced to move out and the people’s movement won the battle.

After several rounds of discussions with the people of the area to motivate them in support of BALCO, the then Chief Minister Janaki Ballhav Patnaik realised the significance of Gandhamardan and its links with the life and sentiment of the people.  In meetings between the public, the representatives of BALCO and Chief Minister Janaki, the BALCO officials were at a loss to answer the public questions raised by the Chief Minister. In an endeavour at justice, J.B. Patnaik withdrew the permission given to BALCO on 15.09.1989 to mine Gandhamardan. Yet the people didn’t forgive the government led by JB and, as a consequence, Congress lost in the 1990 assembly elections.

Soon after he acquired the chair of Chief Minister, Biju Patnaik once again headed for Delhi to chart out the mining of Gandhamardan and also to establish an Alumina Plant there. This he did as per the advice of some political colleagues and bureaucrats. But after studying the files from the days of JB Patnaik, he realised the blunder he was about to make. Sticking to the promises he made to his electorate, he scratched the MOU signed with BALCO in the floor of the assembly. That day Biju Patnaik addressed a huge bicycle rally by the people of Western Odisha in Bhubaneswar and said; “I am the leader of the people.  The wish of the people is what I wish. I killed Monster BALCO forever”, remembers Kuna Purohit, coordinator of Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Parishad.

A retired officer of Orissa Mining Corporation remembers the scintillating agitation of Gandhamardan and says, ‘Mining in Gandhamardan can become a nightmare for any company.  Mining Projects should not be encouraged here.  Rather, the protection of Gandhamardan is an absolute necessity. Gandhamardan is not merely an assembly of rocks, springs, plants and bauxite, but the representative of nature, age old legends, history, architecture, tradition, philosophy, science and tourism.  It provides livelihood to over one lakh people directly. It exhibits an unprecedented amalgamation of the Aryan-Dravidian and the Vaishanavite – Shaiva traditions.  Gandhamardan has its sacred place in the Puranas and the Ramayana. In 1413 AD, king Baijaldev of Bolangir and his queen had built the Nrusinghanath and Harishankar temples on either sides of the hill. The temples are unique because the idol of “Bidal Nrusingha” worshipped in the Nrusinghanath temple is not seen anywhere else in India, also the Vaishnav God Hari and the Shaiva God Shankar are worshipped in this sacred place. Scholars from across the country and abroad visit Gandhamardan to study Indian medicinal science, culture, tribal life etc.  Mining in Gandhamardan will destroy all it is worshipped for and will also ruin the social and economical backbone of over one lakh people. The every day earnings of the people here is possible due to the commerce of medicinal plants, firewood, forest and agricultural produce from the Gandhamardan. Mining will certainly squeeze the life blood out of this place and force the rich identity and civilization to die out. Instead, it could be developed as a hot spot of eco-tourism.”

Manoranjan Ray, a scholar from Mumbai how doing a research on the legends and history of Gandhamardan says that ‘this mountain range nestles about 18 historical forts.  It is said that the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna had established a school here. Certain stone edicts suggest that the Chinese traveller Hueng Sang had visited Gandhamardan. Even sant Kabir had spent a period of his life in this place. The hut where he lived stands a silent testimony to that.  The religious sentiments of the people around and Chhatisgarh have also a close association with Gandhamardan, which is popularly known as the abode of Gupta Ganga.  Apart from this, Gandhamardan is an ecological wonder.  It is a host to many herbs and plants that are either extinct elsewhere or are on the verge of extinction’. 

While explaining the specialties of Gandhamardan for the world of Ayurveda and nature therapy, Principal of Sri Sri Nrusinghanath Ayurvedic College and Hospital Dr Sushil Kumar Mahapatra says, ‘Gandhamardan hosts approximately three thousand or more species of medicinal herbs and plants. A survey conducted between 1990 and 1995 by noted botanists Dr. M. Brahma and Dr. Hari Om Saxena revealed that 784 species of plants thought extinct on the earth existed in Gandhamardan.  British botanist H.H. Hines had conducted another research here between 1921 and 1925 and discovered varieties of plants and noted down their unique medicinal properties. In 1950, famous Ayurvedic doctor Herbert Moony reported the existence of 1247 variety of herbs and creepers that were almost extinct. In 1963-64, the Botanical Survey of India reported the presence of 2400 varieties of precious medicinal plants and 300 different varieties of rare herbs and creepers.  In its report, the Regional Plant Research Centre has published that Gandhamardan is a boon for Ayurvedic Science and treatment as it is unique and there is no second to it exists elsewhere in India. The medicinal properties of Satabari, Panibel and Pancharistha herbs found in the Gandhamardan are just superb in terms of medicinal value and quality. Therefore, one should not even entertain the thought of mining in Gandhamardan.’

Department of Forests and Environment, Government of Odisha in its annual financial report 2009-10, (page 12) has published that “there are 225 different varieties of near-extinct plants in the Gandhamardan. Over and above this, 136 varieties of very rare species of Orchids are found here. 3000 hectares of forest land around the Gandhamardan have been reserved for preservation and medicinal plant culture. With aid from the Ministry of Health, Government of India, a conservation project worth lakhs of rupees is in operation here.  Conservation of bio-diversity and medicinal plants has been undertaken in over 1000 hectares of forest land under the project. The project has involved the people of 25 neighbouring villages.’

A decade long struggle from 1982 to 1991 to save the land, water and forest of Gandhamardan ended with promises from the then leaders like JB Patnaik and Biju Patnaik.  People were assured that mining would be completely fore banned in this area.  But the craze for aluminium worldwide has again allured the governments and Indian leaders to build up nexus with corporate players and dig bauxite out of Gandhamardan by destroying an ecological heaven on the earth. In this regard, a memorandum was submitted to the President and the Prime Minister in September 2010 by a stalwart of the Gandhamardan Protection Movement (in the eighties), Prasanna Sahu alias Swami Somabesh.

‘Then the leaders were listening to the demands of people and realised the arguments behind the demands. Two of Odisha’s Chief Ministers JB Patnaik and Biju Patnaik went by people’s demands and cancelled the proposals of mining in Gandhamardan. Now the leaders have not remained the same. People’s desire and voice have become secondary in front of political aspirations of leaders’, says Swami Somabesh while stapling his two page appeal addressed to the president of India.

Through these years, the scenario has changed. Corporate invasion has been allowed in the name of economic liberalisation and development putting in place a feudalistic system of Governance under the mask of democracy. Loyalty of leaders has shifted its focus from people to their political masters. The craze for investment and industries has opened up opportunities for corporate players who have rushed in to loot the resources at the cost of common man’s livelihood. In spite of being elected by people, the government of Orissa has successfully alienated itself from people and has ordered its police to spray bullets on people and mercilessly combat all people’s movements raised to safeguard and execute their own rights given by the constitution of India.

Inspired by the changed situation, at least ten companies have applied to mine bauxite in the sacred hill of Gandhamardan. Crazy to sign MoU and show a bigger figure and investment mobilised, the government and its mining leasing and distribution agency OMC have put all the application in queue. On the other side, people living around Gandhamardan are again coming together to face any consequence to save their soul and god Gandhamardan. At one end, the allurement of investment and promises made to the corporate houses; and an ecological heaven and livelihood of lakhs of people at the other.

Interestingly, and ironically, the MLAs, MPs and Ministers who started their career in politics with such movements like the anti-BALCO movement of the eighties have sacrificed their voice against a ministerial berth or to prove their loyalty to the party chief. In such a situation, Gandhamardan sees no hope in its political products.

But the hope lies with lakhs of people living in and around gandhamardan for whom the thick forest cover on the hill is the primary source of livelihood. Hope lies with Iswar Birja and Jambabati Birja who lost everything – their land, the job of Iswar Birja and many more – just to save Gandhamardan from the corporate brutality. ‘We succeeded once in protecting Gandhamardan and will do anything to protect it if anybody ventures to destroy it for mining. The government can’t go against our wish because we are also a part of the government’, says Jambabati Birja.

Gandhamardan is not just a hill covered by thick vegetation or just a deposit of bauxite. It is central to a system that rules the local ecology. So mining in the hill will not only destroy the forest that bears thousand varieties of species but will ruin the water sources and economic backbone of local people. So, before taking any decision about mining in Gandhamardan the government should give a look at the earlier movements and take into consideration the emotional attachment of people with the hill and its bounty of nature. But the question is, whether the government led by Naveen Patnaik will behave as a people’s government or will stand by the corporate players and ignore people’s voice and their demands. It’s to be seen if 213MT bauxite and the promises of investment by a few profit monger corporate players allure the government or the people’s demand to protect their livelihood source compels the corporate loving Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to leave Gandhamardan to remain the nature’s paradise. However, when the government is already in trouble for violating the norms of Forest and environment Act to favour corporate houses at Niyamgiri and POSCO project area, any step for mining in Gandhamardan would make history repeat and prove to be another nightmare for the government and the corporate houses involved in it as it happened with the government led by Janaki Ballhav Patnaik and the BALCO.

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