The scenic Niyamgiri Hills where the Dongria Kondh tribals live      

Agrawal and Patnaik in happier times

The Vedanta story as it unfold

Protestors who do not want to trade their pure habitat for money


By Nitish Chakravarty

There are struggles in India, for that matter the world over, that do not end in a hurry. They are struggles between job creation and environmental conservation, between business empires and moneyless indigenous tribals, between state and federal Governments.

At the moment, though, jobs, business empires and the state Government of Orissa, not unexpectedly, are not quite on the winning side. The protagonists in this struggle are Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh in New Delhi, Orissa’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, and U.K.-based NRI businessman Anil Agarwal of Vedanta.

For all three in August, it has been a tough walk to walk. Orissa is India’s poorest state, with over 47 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, but also one the country's mineral-rich states. Patnaik who has won three state elections for his party—Biju Janata Dal named after his illustrious father Biju Patnaik—is mandated to create more jobs in the state. 

Ramesh who has infused life into the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in New Delhi in the last one year that he’s been at its helm has a task of preserving India’s natural heritage, the target of relentless destruction by business conglomerates for decades. Audaciously, he has opposed several projects across India into which businessmen are willing to pump in billions of dollars. If anything, his obdurate positions at times indicate his resolve not to be browbeaten by political pressures, sometimes inflicted by his own cabinet colleagues whose ministries are interested in clearing multi-billion dollar projects. 

While the PM is committed towards a Look East policy, it won’t be enough for Patnaik to just look to him to break the impasse. Right now his bęte noire is not ready to budge

Jairam Ramesh has shown admirable spunk in taking on billion dollar players, and sustained pressure from even his own cabinet colleagues while blocking mega projects

In August, enthused by a report of a four-member forest advisory committee, he stalled Vedanta’s project in the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa with a stop work order. The committee advised that Vedanta’s bauxite mining project would destroy forests, and thereby affect the natural living habitat of the Dongira Kondh tribal communities in the Niyamgiri hills. “There is no emotion, no politics, no prejudice…I have taken the decision on a purely legal approach; there are laws that are being violated,” Ramesh explained.

Agarwal, based in London, runs the largest mining company in India, and has mining operations in Australia and Zimbabwe. By mining bauxite in Orissa, he stands to not only expand his own operating base but also create a greater work force in this eastern state that badly needs more employment. The size of the proposed project is USD 1.7 billion (about Rs 7,800 crore).

For Patnaik, the stalling of the Vedanta project is a double whammy. He has for long been struggling with another gigantic project that still has not got environmental clearance—the USD 12 billion (Rs 55,000 crore) Posco project for setting up an integrated steel plant at Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa. That too has run into trouble with the MoEF. On August 30, a three-member federal team concluded a visit to Orissa and within 30 days will submit a report on the viability of the Posco project. The issue is stuck over the acquisition of land for the project, which according to the MoEF will violate the Forest Rights Act. The land targeted for acquisition has been described as fertile. 

Patnaik with the Posco India chief Dong Hee Lee

A gathering opposing Posco’s mega steel venture

Patnaik, meanwhile, has sought the intervention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and has described the MoEF’s move as obstructionist. He has reminded Singh that the Jagatsinghpur project has brought in the single largest foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country, and that the success of this project will directly impact future foreign investments in India. The Posco investment also fits in well with the Union Government’s Look East policy. This project too has the potential of creating thousands of jobs and spin-off operations in Orissa, something which Patnaik would undoubtedly wish to encourage as chief minister. 

“When the proposed project has reached a decisive stage, it is unfortunate to ask for halting all activities in the name of review of implementation of the Forest Rights Act,” Patnaik wrote in a missive to the PMO. He also accused the environment ministry of being guided by recommendations of a committee of NGOs and reminded that the move could adversely affect the flow of FDI. But his Government too has evidently been dragging its feet over submission of English translations for the proceedings related to settlement of claims that are currently available in Oriya. 

On his part, Ramesh has indicated that he may not be very harsh with the Posco project after all. “I’m acutely conscious of the larger strategic importance of the Posco project, I’m sure some way will be found out in accordance with the law of the land.”

While organizations like Vedanta and Posco, like many others worldwide, are no doubt concerned with the bottomline, it is also becoming increasingly evident that nature must no longer be indiscriminately exploited. It is important to preserve ancient cultures that are often rooted out when big dollars begin to storm their forested citadels. In older times, colonizers and conquistadors would simply follow a policy of extermination of natives, so that their imperial designs would not be hindered. In modern times, the bulldozers do the job.

Lately, though, several Governments worldwide have woken up to the need to preserve ancient heritage and native cultures. Classic examples are the preservation and earmarking of native Indian belts along the Amazon in Brazil and in the Caribbean archipelago that suffered incessant waves of colonial brutalism and pillage (as part of the "civilizing the savages" policy), and in many cases came to the point of being totally wiped out. There are well taken positions of preserving the native Indian cultures in America, both within the USA and Canada. In India efforts to conserve Jarawa tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been revitalized.

After dithering for more than 20 years, on June 29, 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. “Indigenous people around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources; yet throughout history their rights have been violated. Indigenous peoples are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.”

The declaration also says “that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.”

It’s a tough walk for all stakeholders. Patnaik needs to create jobs. Ramesh needs to justify his. Vedanta is on an expansionist binge, as are all big conglomerates for whom the scrip figures at the NYSE or BSE are benchmarks for modern day conquests. The worsening lot of the indigenous tribals of Orissa has to be reversed. The struggle is sure to continue—not everyone can have his way.

When he contested the last parliamentary and state legislature elections, Patnaik opted not to ally with the UPA and its flagship party, the Indian National Congress, to which Ramesh belongs. One wonders whether an alliance with the UPA could have made a difference to Naveen Patnaik? One also wonders then if Vedanta and Posco would have struggled with the Forest Rights Act? The answer, as Bob Dylan crooned, is perhaps “blowin’ in the wind…”

—The author started his journalism career in 1950, and retired as Political Editor of Deccan Herald some years ago. He has travelled extensively across the world and reported from inside the Central Hall in Parliament for various newspapers for nearly four decades. He is also an expert on Orissa. Reach him on

September 2010

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