From Niyamgiri, a lesson for democracy

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No entry All 12 gram sabhas in Niyamgiri have rejected the Odisha government’s move to allow Vedanta to mine bauxite. Photo: Jay Mazoomdaar
No entry All 12 gram sabhas in Niyamgiri have rejected the Odisha government’s move to allow Vedanta to mine bauxite. Photo: Jay Mazoomdaar

Our times make commitment an increasingly rare virtue. But few can fault the Odisha government for being untrustworthy; certainly not the mega investor. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik loves to sign grateful MoUs welcoming big money to Odisha. He also stands firm on his commitments of handing over land, water and mineral rights to investors even if statutory, judicial and democratic ‘exigencies’ demand otherwise.

Asked by the Supreme Court to take a call on bauxite mining in Niyamgiri, all 12 gram sabhas — the last, on 19 August — have asserted their community rights over the entire hills and rejected the state’s move to allow Vedanta to harvest minerals for its 50,000 crore Lanjigarh alumina plant. This triumph of grassroots democracy would have had a sobering effect on the ruling BJD but for its commitments.

On a news channel last week, BJD strongman Pinaki Mishra dismissed the gram sabhas as politically motivated — “the direct consequence” of Rahul Gandhi’s visit in 2010 — and inconsequential to the schemes of the state and Vedanta. “It means very little actually because we will give them (Vedanta) bauxite. We are committed,” he said, adding that the government was “very anxious” about the fate of the “large investment”.

According to Mishra, one option is to tap a few unexploited mines with L&T, which has a joint venture with Vedanta. While the company will now have to depend on bauxite from faraway Gujarat to keep its Lanjigarh refinery in operation, it has already sought clearance from the state government to explore the prospects of mining laterite, a bauxite substitute, in the state. But these are really considered “Plan C, D and E” by the company and state officials.

The real focus has shifted to a 31,183-hectare bauxite reserve about 40 km west of Niyamgiri. However, the mineral-rich Khandualmali and Krishnamali plateaus lie within 5 km of the Karlapat sanctuary, home to more than 1,500 tribals in 19 settlements and a healthy elephant population. Since no mining activities are permitted within 10 km of a sanctuary, the state’s Plan B for Vedanta depends, Mishra conceded, on “what the court’s wisdom in that matter will be”.

The Niyamgiri tribes, meanwhile, are waiting for their claims of rights to be sent to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, which will have to take the final call on the issue in its submission before the Supreme Court. While expecting their gram sabha resolutions to bring immediate relief from the apex court, the villagers say they know better than to lower their guard and are prepared for a long haul.

“We do not think we can depend on the legal safeguards to stop future attempts to mine our hills. We have to remain vigilant. Already, we have held a few solidarity meetings with our tribal brothers and sisters of Khandualmali (Karlapat) where the government and the company are now planning to source bauxite from. We are together in this fight,” says Linagaraj Azad, a Samajwadi Jan Parishad leader who has nurtured the resistance movement at Niyamgiri.

But for its unwavering commitment, Odisha will not rush to push the boundaries of statutory limits yet again after it failed to hand over the Karlapat bauxite reserve first to Vedanta and then to BHP-Billiton nearly a decade ago. After a field visit in 2004, the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court had concluded that the proposed Karlapat mines were too close to the sanctuary and the state in an affidavit assured that no mining activity would be allowed in Khandualmali.

If the state has decided to go back on that promise, its options include seeking denotification of parts of the sanctuary to create sufficient buffer, on paper, between the redrawn boundaries and the proposed mining areas. However, under the Forest Rights Act, the state will anyway require the consent of the gram sabhas concerned. The tribals of Karlapat will certainly weigh the risks of destabilising a water system that supports the Tel river, a major tributary of the Mahanadi, and antagonising the elephant herds against the promised benefits of mining.

Even after the Niyamgiri experience, the BJD, however, does not consider any of these concerns legitimate. The party feared that the Congress “will immediately start raising some environmental issue there (Karlapat) as well” because it “has always exhorted povertarianism”, said Mishra. He also underlined the Congress doublespeak with the example of the POSCO project, which is apparently being opposed by the local Congress leaders even though the prime minister and the Union finance minister are desperate for FDI.

Mishra, of course, glossed over the fact that the Congress government at the Centre rewrote the laws last year to shield unscrupulous mining interests from the scrutiny of the Shah Commission, which has been investigating illegal mining in the state. In July 2012, the Union mining ministry amended the Mineral Concession Rules, 1960, holding mining outside the lease area as “illegal” but excess mining inside the lease area as merely “irregular”. The Indian Bureau of Mines used this new definition to condone rampant excess mining in Odisha’s Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts.

Mishra’s grudge over the Congress’ doublespeak is also unfounded. Barring what was probably a tactical mistake by Rahul Gandhi three years ago — he has stayed clear of Niyamgiri ever since — the party has never inconvenienced the BJD. Three months ahead of the 2009 Assembly election, the high command had replaced then Odisha Congress chief Jaydev Jena with former Union minister KP Singh Deo, who could never impress party veterans such as JB Patnaik, and handed the BJD a virtual walkover.

It may not be a coincidence that the Congress again opted for a leadership shuffle in the run-up to the 2014 Assembly polls. While the party was experiencing a revival of sorts under Niranjan Patnaik, the high command sacked him to bring back Jena this May. The inexplicable move immediately triggered bitter infighting, which has been a welcome political reprieve for the scam-ridden BJD. Now, there is a lesson for Mishra who really should be more charitable to the Congress.

It does not look like the Congress is in any hurry to rock the BJD boat in Odisha. While neither can afford to strike a poll alliance with the other, it is possible that the Congress hopes to gain from the BJD’s tactical support in certain post-poll scenarios. But what really unites Patnaik and the prime minister is their penchant for committing too much too soon.

Time and again, at home and in Seoul, Manmohan Singh and his ministers have assured their South Korean counterparts that the POSCO project will go through. It never mattered to the prime minister that all this while, the issues have been with the Supreme Court and other statutory bodies to decide. It never occurred to Patnaik that he needed environmental clearances and the people’s consent for opening a new bauxite mine before promising Vedanta its possession.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the people’s courts at Niyamgiri have set a benchmark for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The apex court’s other verdict, giving landowners proprietary rights to minerals lying under their land, has redrawn the limits of state ownership. Now it is for our elected leaders to honour the people’s trust and commit and deliver within the confines of a democracy.

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