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Monday, June 09, 2014  

In the name of Development:

Rights and Livelihood sources of Tribals sacrificed for Vedanta Aluminium

"When the Orissa government says that the Vedanta Aluminium project would benefit the tribals, the tribal communities are against the development as planned by the government and are opposing the project. But, overlooking the grievances placed by the tribal people and neglecting their demands, the government of Orissa rather uses its force to suppress the tribal opposition and make the project move ahead. At times, state police behaves like corporate goons and humiliate the tribals."

Basudev Mahapatra

Vedanta Aluminium Ltd., an industry set by London based Vedanta Resources Plc and partnered by its sister concern Sterlite Group, both owned by Anil Agrawal, is always in controversy for clear violation of law - be it to ensure the rights of tribals living in and around Niyamgiri Hills or protection of forests and environment. The industry is set in lanjigarh of Kalahandi district in Orissa.

As the company is given Niyamgiri Hills for bauxite mining, the project has been opposed by the local habitats – mainly Dongria Kondh and jarenia tribal communities – since its inception. The tribals oppose the project to avoid any kind of displacement and ruination of their hill god 'Niyamgiri' for bauxite mining.

However, nobody has yet responded properly to the issues of tribal people and the Alumina refinery is now operative to cause further trouble to the tribals living in the niches of the hill range.

Supreme Court imposed conditions on the company to make a comprehensive plan for proper rehabilitation and all-round development of the affected tribal families before displacing them. And, as per the instructions of the apex court, this was to be monitored by Orissa government. But as the government is almost maniac to see corporate owner smiling, tribal communities’ voice still remains unheard and their livelihood sources are being sacrificed.

On the other hand, since the plant has gone operative, emission of toxic elements into air and water by the refinery is badly polluting the water and air. The springs and fountains that have been an integral part of the tribals have gone toxic causing skin, kidney and cardiac ailments to the tribals. Not only adult members, even small babies are suffering from bronchial asthma, lungs problems, scabies and other skin ailments caused due to the pollution of air and contamination of water. Many have died also due to various water borne diseases. 

‘My father took a bath in the river. Returning from there, he started vomiting and died releasing toxic foams through his mouth. The company talks big and loud to the world but, in fact, gave us nothing but the caustic water, dust and pollution’, said Delia Harijan of Chhattarpur who lost his father.

‘Complaints before authorities make no meaning as the total machinery has been working to protect the interests of the industry. Even the state police force is being used for the purpose and tribal people have been harassed by state police. Many have been booked in false charges’, Delia added.

A similar kind of victim is Rudma Dongria of Chhattarpur who lost her husband in the toxins emitted by Vedanta Aluminium Industry. ‘My husband took a bath in the river. By the time he came home, his skin started itching and peeling. He died after a lot of suffering. I complained to the police and company. Nobody helped me. To calm down the situation, the company gave a job to my son but again expelled him after a month, said Rudma.

Rudma and Delia are not a few lone cases, People living in and around Niyamgiri hills are terribly suffering due to pollution by Vedanta Aluminium Company. Even children and babies are suffering from scabies and other skin ailments caused by the toxic emissions that contaminate the water streams.

A committee delegated by Environment Ministry of Government of India has recently given in its remarks that environment laws are openly violated by Vedanta. But, nothing of this kind is still visible either to Orissa’s Chief Minister and Steel and Mines Minister who blindly pursues the project.

Citing that the project is directly working against the life, livelihood and culture of the innocent tribal communities living in and around the Niyamgiri hills of Kalahandi, Norway government and recently Church of England have withdrawn their stake from Vedanta project. In spite of all negative remarks from international groups, Orissa government still supports the project against the rights of the tribals telling that these are all internal matters of the company.

Responding to a question - ‘instead of going for a rescan after critical remarks from world bodies, why the government is so persuasive about the projects of Vedanta group’ – Orissa’s steel and mines minister Raghunath Mohanty said, ‘Government is taking all care to see that all laws are followed in case of Vedanta Aluminium Project. And, about the withdrawal of stake by Norway government or Church of England, they are company’s internal matters and we have nothing to do about that’.

The statements of Orissa’s steel and mines minister clearly indicates the government of Orissa is taking special care to see that there is a law to justify every act of Vedanta Aluminium Company.

When the government says the project would benefit the tribals, the tribal communities are against the development as planned by the government and are opposing the project. ‘But, overlooking the grievances placed by the tribal people and neglecting their demands, the government rather uses its force to suppress the tribal opposition and make the project move ahead. At times, police behaves like corporate goons and humiliate the tribals’, said Prafulla samantara, a leading Human Right Activist.

Very often the government says that the project would take the tribal communities on the road of development. If so, why the tribals are opposing to the project? When this question was asked to a development resource person of Church of North India Synodical Board of Social Services (CNISBSS) Bibhudutta Sahu during his visit to Bhubaneswar, the reply was – ‘whose development is it’ and ‘who needs industries’? As to him, ‘20% of India need industry for their requirements and rest 80% are still fighting for a minimum living. Go to the communities living in Niyamgiri, Kashipur and other pockets where tribal communities live in and ask them what they really need. Ask them, if they are interested in Industrialisation over their land, their forests that have been associated with their life since generations. If they say yes, then proceed with industrialisation. But why are we imposing our perceptions of development on them?’

Bibhudutta rather came with a reverse question – ‘we are pushing the earth to the brink of collapse through our ‘greed’ and not ‘need’. Consumerism is driving us beyond sustainability. But, why the tribals are being sacrificed for this? Why should we invade the land of the tribals and grab them in the name of development? Why should we force them to leave their land and forests for our needs? Isn’t it there right to decide how they want to live their life with simple dignity? If tribal people of Niyamgiri are happy there and are living life peacefully, why are we forcing them to leave the place and move to the colonies? Do the planners think that converting a self-sustained tribal community into an industrial labour community is true development? Now, the government has to rethink over these questions and plan for the development of tribal communities. In fact, what the tribals of India need is ensuring and protecting their right over the resources they have been enjoying since generations. Neither the government nor the profit monger corporates should impose their selfish idea of development on the innocent tribals.’

All these appeals don’t make any sense for the local administration or the government of Orissa. ‘The tribal rights are simply sacrificed to ensure all benefits to a company that sets an industry to make profit, not charity. It’s not development but hijacking of resources that the tribal communities have been living on since generations’, said Prafulla Samantara.

‘Don’t the tribals have a right to decide how they want to live? Are they subjected to live on the desires of non-tribals and outsiders who always think the tribals worthless third class citizens? Is it what our planners and government want? Then why these hollow slogans of tribal development and empowerment?’ Bibhudutta raises all these questions citing at such attitude of a government to the issues of tribal communities, their rights and livelihood.

In a democracy if the elected government doesn’t protect the rights of communities whom they will tell? Are such situations making places like Niyamgiri heavens for Maoists because they can instantly get support of the communities that have been overlooked by the government for years together?

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