Land, loss and lunacy – Niyamgiri’s story of India out of sight

A tiny hamlet in the state’s Raygada district consisting of merely 48 Dongaria Kondh tribals, empowered by Supreme Court’s landmark decision of April this year, was the first in a series of twelve village sabhas which will be held across the areas that will be affected by Vedanta’s bauxite mining at Niy bbb camgiri. In a dramatic meeting that lasted over four hours and was attended by District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra serving as observer, tribals emphatically refused consent to the project that various publicity departments were desperately trying to project as their salvation.

But much water has flowed under this bridge, and more will flow. The combined forces of greed and impunity from consequences are a formidable enemy and the state has a record of wearing down any demand for human rights by simply reverting to a stand that has been rejected by those who dissent. Over and over, in varied ways.

Proceedings got tense when on completion of the representation by the tribals, it was declared that their religious and community rights were confined to their villages and did not extend to the entire Niyamgiri hills range. Lingaraj Azad, organizer of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti said, “This amounts to cheating. We are traditional followers of our deity who not only resides in the Hundaljali but also elsewhere and this mining project will ruin their abode and also threaten our existence.” Hectic parleys and heated exchange of words between members of the village and other tribal leaders and the district judge ensured that in the end, the resolution passed mentioned that the rights of the natives extended across the entire hill range.

Of course, the villages allowed to have a say are already selected from among those where the Vedanta view has the greatest chance of being echoed. Reminds me of how Maharashtra government had conspired to prevent the realities of farmers in Vidarbha from being observed by the All Party Parliamentary Committee that was to study impact of genetically modified organisms.

People living at the grassroots have existential struggles to prevent the rich and famous from appropriating their very lives.

All over the country are echoes of these same issues. In Gujarat, you have farmers resisting land acquisition for the special economic zone. In Uttarakhand, there were people whose homes were acquired for hydro electric projects that became their destruction. There are people opposing their land being acquired for nuclear plants. Dams dislocate people by the millions. We, who were aghast at peaceful protesters being lathicharged by the police when it came to middle class protests in Delhi, are barely aware that lathi charges are so routine for people the state intends to evict, that newspapers see no news in it. It is, after all everything going as per plan in a boring routine. Thrash the squatters (on their own land) till they get fed up and leave.

Even as vast tracts of forests go to companies for “progress”, tribals who have traditionally lived off the land are losing access to it. Suddenly their home is National property and they must move out of the forests. They who nurtured forests, protected trees have lost their rights because those who can afford bulldozers can “process” them for paper (or something else) more efficiently.

And the propaganda is fantastic. I remember someone being angry with me for not knowing “ground realities” – that tribals were propped up by activists to keep demanding money and place hurdles in the way of projects. And why would activists want to place hurdles? It is a western agenda. Seriously? And here I was thinking that it was the “West” profiting from these projects. The World Bank has money stuck in some, multi national corporations are going to profit from others. How is it that the tribal is so stupid that they cannot recognize prosperity and can be “brainwashed” to remain in poverty and be thrashed by the humanitarian developers? Tell me, what incentive would be a good one to get you to deprive yourself and your family and keep protesting? Would you give up your home in return for inadequate money that cannot buy you comparable land and home? Why should you?

In a country that mints money from exporting minerals, the mines themselves are surrounded by crippling poverty. Economic policies are driving people away from traditional livelihoods. We are losing 2000 farmers a day. Every single day. for a decade at least. Do the math. We are losing 135 hectares of forest cover per day. Remember what they taught you in school about trees preventing soil erosion and retaining water in soil? The water table is in peril in large swathes of India, but the government hardly seems to see this in a crisis in a country of our population. Water bodies have been privatized – sold or on lease. Now we have metered drinking water. Soon, you will find water allocations and then when water is not enough, the whole thing will be turned over to private gigs waiting to own your needs in return for guaranteed money every month. What happens to those who will not afford to pay the bills? Who knows? a fifth of our population still lives below a completely absurd poverty line of Rs. 32. Many of them have water bodies at walking distance that cater to factories, while their fields have no water except rain.

All in the name of progress. The great God of GDP showers its blessings on the almighty decision makers. The textbook defense of progress uses words of law. Everyone will be rehabilitated. They will get a truckload of money – amounts they couldn’t even dream of. Locals are greedy. Activists have anti-national agendas… the list is endless. Few of these noble defenders will admit, that the World Bank, famous for extending money to third world countries like us for an agenda, was forced to admit that most people displaced by projects they funded were not rehabilitated. This will not be something you will find the Prime Minister announcing when he announces a new project bringing pride to India in a canned speech delivered from paper to camera without going through a human in between. Imagine:

“It is with great pride that I announce a new dam to be build on river XYZ, which will cost [insert-amount]. Around 2 million people will have to leave their homes and we will make sure they do it. We have clobbered the protesters yet again and we will continue to do so till they give up. We will also give a couple of thousand of them homes so that we can show the world we are kind and you can enjoy your electricity without guilt. Jai Hind”

Why would they? After all, they care about you. Why bother your conscience with the cost of development?

The answer to “Whose land/water/country is this anyway?” invariably seems to be “The guy with the pile of bank notes sitting in another place”.

And now the second gram sabha on Niyamgiri too has voted solidly against Vedanta’s bauxite mining on their land. Expect more underhand nastiness from our beloved government. Too much money at stake to not squash these brave people like bugs.

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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