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In a way, the story of what's going on around Niyamgiri is the classic story of India. Only we aren't used to seeing dark skinned tribals who have never seen an air-conditioned room as "people like us". Yet, they are stuck in the middle of the most typical melodramatic soap opera that Indian protests could wish for.

If you simply read the details of the case, you'd wonder what the big deal was. Big corporate illegally built a refinery, so wake up law enforcement. Shut it down. The end.


Not so fast.

This is India.

Here, if someone breaks laws and they are rich, a cottage industry springs up to fix it. Usually at the cost of those who won't boost the economy by creating such jobs. So.... [cue dramatic music]

The illegal refinery maker gets a quick makeover, hops onto a convenient white horse brought around by the new liveried stable boy and goes charging in a haze of dramatic lighting, soft focus and a haze of surrealism you only find in films.

Said knight SAVES the wicked people who want to kill him in a classic demonstration of Gandhism. The contrast is ramped up a bit. The wicked tribals must be Maoist supporters or something (at least one TV anchor believes this to be so and went requesting for Lal Salaams).

But no film finishes in the first five minutes, right? So we have the tribals, miraculously rescued from their wretched lives still plotting against the white knight. You know what happens when the bastiwalas are out to lynch the hero. We are a socialist state, and no one buys the film if you call the Bastiwalas the villains. You need a real villain.

Enter Girdhar.

Dongria Kondh DanceThis is whoever agrees that the tribals have rights. They are inciting the bastiwalas, who normally would never want to keep their homes when the builder comes with the bulldozers. I mean, doesn't everyone walk out when evicted from their homes? Everyone who are decent folks, that is, not the people who take homes on rent and refuse to vacate.

So anyway, back to these squatters occupying National Property. They should go back to wherever they came from.


Tribals say they came from here. Vedanta came from outside. Now what?

Enter the script writers. Director is screaming "You can't talk about these things. We need to talk development.

D'uh of course.

While they work on the script, let me confess this is a tedious metaphor, because what's going on in Niyamgiri is sinister and not really ending with the credit roll.

What is really happening there is that there is an entity who has simply convinced a lot of powerful people that it is in their interest to declare them the rightful owners of that land. In a manner of speaking. The original inhabitants are now treated as encroachers delaying the true owner from fulfilling the destiny of that land. And there is no one these tribals can trust beyond the few people who agree that they have rights. And those people are being undermined too.

At this point, I don't think who funds the people endorsing the tribal rights is an issue. If they are not Indians, it is a pity that the largest democracy of the world did not have people who believe in rights of citizens and someone had to come from outside to help those people. If the cause is right, the cause is right.

The government is choking funding to NGOs helping its own people, because the NGOs are opposing government sponsored exploitation of the people. They are spreading canards about NGOs running publicity campaigns against the government. As if a government that can get free and unlimited coverage in National media can be "out publicized" by an NGO - no matter how well funded - if they have a clear and reasonable point to make.

But it doesn't work like that. Vedanta is funding political parties. It is funding enough journalists and media houses that they see an encroachment of the environment as the right thing, and not agreeing to being evicted from their irreplaceable home as the wrong thing. It is purchasing bauxite from the government owned corporation. These are a lot of powerful people who only have to murmur for it to echo across the country.

When motivated "reporters" actively go organizing scenes to video and show the world, the tribals are too stupid to understand that they are being framed in a media trial. The tribals do as they are requested - either from the inherent amicability of those living close to nature, or because they are hoping that these big journalists from the city will help them by bringing attention to their cause. Instead, big journalists are there to engineer scenes to show them as enemies of the state.

A government that should care about the rights of its citizen is blatantly helping the encroacher enslave them. We have one ex-lawyer f Vedanta in the Parliament. We have the state government doing all it can to sabotage the hard earned gram sabha hearings by choosing a few villages that give their client the least hostility. And client it is, if Vedanta is paying vast amounts of money to them.

In spite of this, when the first gram sabha categorically refused Vedanta for the entire region, the state representatives tried to return the status quo to a limited area during the hearing itself.

When all 12 gramsabhas refused Vedanta, you had ministers saying that they would figure out Vedanta's bauxite from other places, while Vedanta was scoring publicity points as champions of girls rights, in collaboration with NDTV, whose anchor was setting up scenes to discredit tribals by REQUESTING them to do as she told them to. And they did it, for her. And she broadcast it as their anti-state inclinations.

You have eminent economists waxing eloquent about how Orissa needs Vedanta for development, when Orissa currently has highest revenues from mineral resources out of all states. If mining were to bring development to Orissa, it would have happened already. It doesn't. What those eminent economists say when they are not talking about Niyamgiri and recommending manufacturing as an urgent need to save Indian economy is true. If you sell raw materials and consume finished products, you will stagnate in poverty. Unless your raw good is oil, I suppose. Then you'll be saved by the largest military exporter of democracy in the world. But that is another story.

But here's the deal. A population of sheep fed the "right ideas to think" over a period of time thinks those ideas to be right. If people are not informed that Orissa leads the country in mining and they are simply told that evicting these tribals for mining will finally bring progress to a horribly poor state, they look no further before staunchly going around endorsing the eviction of these tribals for mining. Simple.

Not all that different from telling people that the Kudankulam plant will fix the power shortage in Tamil Nadu, when the total capacity of the built AND INTENDED plants is less than the deficit. When renewable power sources could have covered the deficit completely by now in a fraction of the investment and risk of Kudankulam. Naturally, people who don't know that Tamil Nadu is one of the places in India with the highest potential for wind power (which also installs rapidly) are told that the place cannot progress (there's that word) without a nuclear plant, it is people who *want* the best for the place who get conned into endorsing a highly inefficient solution that hurts the interests of the people they care about.

This is how exploitation takes place. Not all that different from some politician recommending women stay at home to prevent rape, knowing full well that it isn't the solution, but it really works for misogynists to push women back under control in the name of "caring" for them.

I have an ongoing war against disinformation as a tool for exploitation. Know this. 90% of what you see on TV has been put there to control what you think. This is a rape of your rights too. Your "free choice" is only as free as the information you have access to.

Whenever you come across an important issue, discard all current news about it. Go to google news archives, start reading. Don't trust anyone but yourself, or you become a part of the knife collection in the back of these poor tribals who have been stabbed in the back by every single authority who had any power to help them. The government abandoned them. The government conspired to take away their rights. Media abandoned them. Media created mass opinion against their rights. Media even exploited their hospitality and cooperation to get them to unwittingly pose for evidence against themselves. People who should have cared and had the power to add their urban (and thus heard more) voice in protest chose to not examine why their compatriots were being seen as against the progress of the country.

These aren't single knives, but entire categories of knives, repeatedly stabbed in the backs of those simple people who are too stupid to need money at the cost of foregoing living their lives in healthy, clean surroundings, among their extended communities, with some of the most progressive attitudes on gender, conservation and nurture of our planet.

Here is a video. Notice the chubby kids, gender equal society and healthy animals in the fields.

Here is the story of that knife.

At the end of the day, there are people who profit if they can get the rich wealth of these tribals. There are people who don't care enough to ask why someone would give up a better life because some outsiders told them to. It is one thing to incite a mob in a momentary protest. What would it take for someone to deprive themselves and their loved ones for years? And there is you. The one with the internet connection. The one who has nothing to lose if you spend some time idling around finding out why people are so keen on convincing you that other people who refused development for themselves (and no other) are wrong and need to be somehow overcome?

Does your gullibility make you an unwitting soldier against your bretheren?

Will you claim the freedom of your mind?

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.


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 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.

An article by Arundhati Roy that I respect highly. Originally published in theOutlook Magazine. Republishing here so that more people read it. Also a kind of public apology for writing criticism of her that did not acknowledge her excellent work. It was in the specific context of two of her articles, but got quoted by a few people as blanket criticism of her, which was definitely not my intention. I realize that my intention does not matter if its impact is off the mark. Putting this article up here is also a statement of respect. I am not, nor am ever likely to be “anti-Arundhati”.

Publishing this article in five parts, on request of readers who find pages difficult to access on mobile phones.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

The low, flat-topped hills of south Orissa have been home to the Dongria Kondh long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kondh. The Kondh watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kondh it’s as though god has been sold. They ask how much god would go for if the god were Ram or Allah or Jesus Christ?

Perhaps the Kondh are supposed to be grateful that their Niyamgiri hill, home to their Niyam Raja, God of Universal Law, has been sold to a company with a name like Vedanta (the branch of Hindu philosophy that teaches the Ultimate Nature of Knowledge). It’s one of the biggest mining corporations in the world and is owned by Anil Aggarwal, the Indian billionaire who lives in London in a mansion that once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Vedanta is only one of the many multinational corporations closing in on Orissa.

If the flat-topped hills are destroyed, the forests that clothe them will be destroyed too. So will the rivers and streams that flow out of them and irrigate the plains below. So will the Dongria Kondh. So will the hundreds of thousands of tribal people who live in the forested heart of India, and whose homeland is similarly under attack.

In our smoky, crowded cities, some people say, “So what? Someone has to pay the price of progress.” Some even say, “Let’s face it, these are people whose time has come. Look at any developed country, Europe, the US, Australia—they all have a ‘past’.” Indeed they do. So why shouldn’t “we”?

In keeping with this line of thought, the government has announced Operation Green Hunt, a war purportedly against the “Maoist” rebels headquartered in the jungles of central India. Of course, the Maoists are by no means the only ones rebelling. There is a whole spectrum of struggles all over the country that people are engaged in—the landless, the Dalits, the homeless, workers, peasants, weavers. They’re pitted against a juggernaut of injustices, including policies that allow a wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources. However, it is the Maoists who the government has singled out as being the biggest threat. Two years ago, when things were nowhere near as bad as they are now, the prime minister described the Maoists as the “single-largest internal security threat” to the country. This will probably go down as the most popular and often-repeated thing he ever said. For some reason, the comment he made on January 6, 2009, at a meeting of state chief ministers, when he described the Maoists as having only “modest capabilities” doesn’t seem to have had the same raw appeal. He revealed his government’s real concern on June 18, 2009, when he told Parliament: “If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.”

Who are the Maoists? They are members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)—CPI (Maoist)—one of the several descendants of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which led the 1969 Naxalite uprising and was subsequently liquidated by the Indian government. The Maoists believe that the innate, structural inequality of Indian society can only be redressed by the violent overthrow of the Indian State. In its earlier avatars as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Jharkhand and Bihar, and the People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh, the Maoists had tremendous popular support. (When the ban on them was briefly lifted in 2004, one-and-a-half million people attended their rally in Warangal.) But eventually their intercession in Andhra Pradesh ended badly. They left a violent legacy that turned some of their staunchest supporters into harsh critics. After a paroxysm of killing and counter-killing by the Andhra police as well as the Maoists, the PWG was decimated. Those who managed to survive fled Andhra Pradesh into neighbouring Chhattisgarh. There, deep in the heart of the forest, they joined colleagues who had already been working there for decades.

Not many ‘outsiders’ have any first-hand experience of the real nature of the Maoist movement in the forest. A recent interview with one of its top leaders, Comrade Ganapathy, in Open magazine didn’t do much to change the minds of those who view the Maoists as a party with an unforgiving, totalitarian vision, which countenances no dissent whatsoever. Comrade Ganapathy said nothing that would persuade people that, were the Maoists ever to come to power, they would be equipped to properly address the almost insane diversity of India’s caste-ridden society. His casual approval of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka was enough to send a shiver down even the most sympathetic of spines, not just because of the brutal ways in which the LTTE chose to wage its war, but also because of the cataclysmic tragedy that has befallen the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, who it claimed to represent, and for whom it surely must take some responsibility.