Spouting Vedanta, Modernity and tradition

Dongria Kondh Dance

When a “senior journalist who has written several books on development” abdicates either sanity or integrity or both and starts spouting propaganda that has been rejected by the people it attempts to enslave, it falls upon the humble blogger with no dependence on advertisers to call for a sanity check, because it appears that B G Verghese has lost it totally.

All quotes are from this article except ones in italics where it is specifically mentioned otherwise

In essence, B G Verghese has some knowledge of mining. Or tribal life. Or uses irrefutable statistics (no, not the Vedanta pamphlet). No? Oh well…. So, Mr Verghese, let us see what this article is really saying in the name of an expert opinion on the *welfare* of the tribals.

The State government decided that a sample poll of 12 palli sabhas located on the slopes of the proposed mining site would suffice though others, including the Union ministry for tribal affairs hold that all the 112 or so Dongaria Kondh villages in the Niyamgiri Hills should be consulted.

That is not a coincidence. Vedanta built a $2 billion refinery and signed on for 150 million tonnes of bauxite from the (state owned) Orissa Mining Corp BEFORE getting environmental clearances. Vedanta sinking is not going to make the state happy. Reports from the ground clearly indicate that the 12 sabhas were selected (by the state) as to be least hostile to the project. All 12 ended up rejecting Vedanta anyway.

This sacred land was the source of their religious and spiritual wellbeing, livelihood and water, plant, wild root and herbal resources as (hunter-) gatherers and jhum farmers. Should mining be permitted, streams would dry up and people would despair and die.

Are these viable arguments or partly the product of understandable anxieties based on exaggerated notions of the consequences of mining expressed by project and ecological naysayers?

Dongria Kondh DanceLolwut? A carpet bombing of religious beliefs and traditions and entire livelihoods? Here’s an idea. No livelihoods depend on the Ram Temple. It is also a religious belief thing and has actually done more damage than some remote tribals few even know about. How about convincing them to give up their rights (Either side – not picky as long as conflict ends) and saving the country from a major headache?

As for whether drying of streams is a viable argument, most of India is headed toward being water scarce in a little over a decade. Does water count as an important factor in decision making? Damn straight it does.

Are these partly the product of paranoia? ”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” ~ Joseph Heller (Catch 22)

Red mud, increased turbidity in water bodies, irreparable damage to aquatic habitats and corrosive dust are recognized as consequences that will need severe mitigation to minimize. We aren’t talking prevent or reverse here.

Some fears are clearly wrong. Bauxite hill tops are here characteristically overlain with impervious strata that do not permit percolation. Thus rain drains down the hill slopes where some percolation takes place. The hill tops therefore only have sparse forest cover. Removal of the overburden to extract bauxite would thereby facilitate percolation and improve the water regime.

Orly?

Here is some information from Jamaica (deliberately not using data from India, since it will either get blamed on the inefficiency of the system, or “foreign funded” NGOs or some nonsense). Whole document is worth a read, but I’m quoting some important bits here:


Jamaica Bauxite Case (BAUXITE)


CASE NUMBER:131
CASE MNEMONIC:BAUXITE
CASE NAME:Bauxite and Jamaica

[…] The principal environmental issues facing Jamaica’s second largest industry are caustic soda contamination of water supplies, bauxite and alumina dust, and eco-system dislocation. However, the island is so dependent on the export that it is very difficult to stop the practice. […] The major environmental problem caused by the industry is the disposal of the tailings, which form an alkaline mud. The original procedure that was used to dispose of the red mud to pump material into mined-out ore bodies and dyked valleys. However, these “red mud lakes” resulted in the percolation of caustic residues (sodium) into the underground aquifers in local areas.

Worth mentioning here is a hint that it might be a good idea to google for news on Vedanta’s tailing ponds in Goa. Not claiming it as my data though. Let’s continue with the “neutral”.

[…] Furthermore, these ponds never dried out after they were full and consequently had to be abandoned. Recent readings obtained from domestic water wells in the vicinity of Jamaican alumina refineries have indicated elevated sodium and PH readings. Also, the escape of caustic soda (which is used to extract alumina from raw bauxite) into the groundwater supply significantly increases sodium concentration of domestic well water mostly in the rural areas. Sodium is associated with a higher incidence of hypertension. As a result of its genetic composition, the Jamaican population is particularly subject to hypertension, which can be aggravated by high levels of sodium. The environmental impact of Jamaica’s bauxite mining symbolizes the majority of mining or heavy industrial operations. Bauxite mining, which is considered as surface mining, is land extensive, noisy and dusty. Mining pits are often interspersed with small rural communities, thereby requiring companies relocate the people and/or to monetarily compensate them. An increasing concern is the loss of habitat for Jamaica’s unique plant and animal species. Also, bauxite mining severely affects the water retention capability of the soil. The Jamaican Mining Act of 1947 requires mines to remove topsoil before mining, and restore it as part of the reclamation process. However, due to the enlargement of the surface area after mining, and the extraction of much bauxite, the soil is less capable of retaining water. Where formerly annual crops were grown, now only tree crops and pasture are feasible, and water reaches the aquifers more quickly.

[…] Two other environmental impacts of great concern is dust and caustic soda contamination. The particularly small size of both raw bauxite and alumina very often affect areas downwind of mining, transport, calcining, and ship loading operations

[…] In addition, since the 1950’s a significant amount of land purchases have been executed, however there still remains a substantial amount of small settlers residing and carrying out subsistence-level farming on bauxite lands. Generally, these individuals are found within very tightly-knit communities and kinship groups. The overwhelming impact of the acquisition of their lands and the process of relocating them into new communities that are yet to be developed very frequently results in the separation of family groups. Attempts have been made to relocate of these individuals onto larger subdivided holdings in close proximity to the established community facilities. However, the voluntary admission of small settlers to temporarily relocate during the period in which their lands is being mined, and to which they are permitted to return once the lands have been rehabilitated is yet another goal to be attained.

New projects are hardly news in Orissa. Development-hit people from everything from mines to weapons testing ranges have the privilege of being relocated here. Many of them several times, as in relocated from their relocated reloation. What will a few “do-gooders” tell them about “generous compensations” that they haven’t seen around them. Vedanta is hardly Orissa’s first mining project. Most “development hit” people are left to fend for themselves here, while a few token ones are given pretty goodies and a lot of photo ops so important people can showcase their development.

Further, the current levels of education, malnutrition and health are utterly pitiable, with rampant cerebral malaria and other killer diseases, lack of easy access to potable water from distant streams, and the absence of roads and market access.

Erm, Vedanta is a MINING COMPANY, which wants to mine their land, which adds dust to the air and caustic soda to the water (please read again), not some romantic version of “Doctors without Borders” or something.

Thus any external intervention, properly regulated, could be a blessing.

Erm, the government isn’t capable of ensuring people’s rights, you pointed out. Vedanta went and built a refinery without environmental clearances. What part of this sounds like the government is capable of “properly regulating Vedanta? How does this compute?

Instead, we have relatively well-heeled outsiders and activists coming from afar, like Rahul Gandhi and Bianca Jagger and other do-gooders, striving to preserve the notion of the’noble savage,’ whose life at the end of the day is “nasty, brutish and short”.

Ah yes, the outsider argument by the native, right? Oh wait… I meant in defense of the native… oh scratch that… One kind of outsider is “evil”, but this company may be British and it may have caused environmental messes in other places, but it is called Vedanta! Which would be based on the name of holy books of completely native people from… not Niyamgiri. Do you have *any* idea how absurd this sounds, Mr. Verghese? On one hand, you’re claiming a right to appropriate the living grounds of people against their consent. On another, you’re foulmouthing the intervention of outsiders who don’t have the interest of the tribals at heart, and at no point does this occur to you that it may be *you* who’s coming in with an idea no local can recognize? At least you can’t be called a do gooder, Mr Verghese. Or even do good.

On the orders of the Supreme Court, VAL is committed to spending 10 per cent of it profits before tax or Rs 10 crore, whichever is higher, for “sustainable development” of the area. Thus it has over the past decade spent some Rs 170 crore on developing social and economic facilities for the benefit of those living around the Lanjigarh refinery and Niyamgiri mining site.

You can’t have it both ways, dude. Chaps built an illegal refinery that got heavily contested. They did a lot of CSR bribes to get away with it. It was a gamble that failed. Believe it or not, whatever goodies they threw at the tribals were clearly not as good as you imagine, since the tribals prefer to keep their mountain instead of them. And it is their right.  They are not required to be able to write editorials in order to justify their decisions. They spoke in the gram sabhas.

This includes the building and running of schools, a hospital, operating mobile health vans, provision of water supply and power, setting up a self-help group for the local women and so forth. Has any critic compared this with the work done by the state-sponsored Dongaria Kondh Development Agency? And what of other tribal areas in Odisha or elsewhere? Which loud-mouthed activist has lifted a finger to assist the most wretched of our people who languish in splendid isolation? What even has the state been able to accomplish?

The idea that because people were not helped by a lazy state, there must be a free for all on whoever wants to exploit them is absurd. I know several activists who have indeed lifted more than a finger to help those people as opposed to slotting them into convenient places in your visions of development.

The Supreme Court has declared that the mineral and other natural resources  are national assets held in trust by the government. The tribal people have an entitlement to surface minerals but cannot claim exclusive overall rights.

You will have to provide me with some legal source for “The tribal people have an entitlement to surface minerals but cannot claim exclusive overall rights.” particularly that “cannot”, because they just did, and the Supreme Court is not unaware of the proceedings.

Hopefully, the ministries of environment and forest and of Tribal Affairs will jointly advise the Supreme Court accordingly.

The ministries aren’t smoking whatever Mr. Verghese smoking! They know there is only so much they can stretch a fictional case of development. Contrary to what Mr. Verghese believes, Odisha has the second highest revenues in the country from minerals – the first is not a state. Surely any development mines would bring would have been evident by now? Here’s a nice quote from the first paragraph of the statewise mineral scenario page of Ministry of Mines for you. Going to be really tough for the ministries to explain the virtues of that argument with these statistics.

During the year 2010-11, mineral production was reported from 32 States/Union Territories of which the bulk of value of mineral production of about 90.03% was confined to 11 States (including offshore areas) only. Offshore areas continued to be in leading position, in terms of value of mineral production in the country and had the share of 25.64% in the national output. Next in order was Odisha with a share of 10.62% followed by Rajasthan (8.58%), Andhra Pradesh (7.81%), Jharkhand (7.72%), Chhattisgarh (6.65%), Gujarat (6.33%), Madhya Pradesh (5.28%), Assam (4.64%), Goa (3.49%) and Karnataka (3.27%) and in the total value of mineral production.

Not only is leading the country in mineral production doing zero for Odisha’s development, the top five slots are not famous for development either. So it is this one mountain that is preventing mines from causing development, I think. BULL SHIT.

The nation needs bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper and other minerals, well-conceived water storages and diversions, power plants, rail and road connectivity, ports and social development in these back-of-beyond regions that the Maoists are taking over on account of callous neglect and lack of development.

No, Mr. Verghese, the Nation needs its financial deficit to go down. It needs a lot of money to fix a lot of very serious problems. The refineries and such are just one way of achieving it. Not even the best, since economists are forever whining about how it is not good to be exporters of raw materials and importers of finished products and how it brings about poverty (for Odisha?).

So, let us try another version of “greater good”. Are you willing to retain an equivalent of the mean national income and give the rest to the state in the interests of the “larger good”? If you refuse, would it be because some foreign funded evil people brainwashed you? Tribal communities that live in nature own the land as much as you own your home. Just like a slum dweller can’t say “oh, you have a large inherited property, use one room, we’ll settle development hit tribals in the rest (with adequate compensation as per govt rates, of course) and a small pickle business with smells that won’t really bother you” you can’t say “oh, they should be satisfied with this much and country can do what it wants with the rest.

If they live on it, it is theirs. We can give them a good deal they want to take, but we can’t just snatch it and throw some money their way, just because we *really* want it.

Wealth of some is in bank balances. For others it is free spaces to live in harmony. Don’t touch another’s wealth without giving up own.

Baat karte hain.

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About the Author

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

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