Edited Excerpts from an interview •
Can you give us a background of the various stages through which the Vedanta and POSCO projects have come along and how they have taken on a trajectory different from each other? While Vedanta was debarred by a veto from the local village councils, POSCO was allowed by the UPA in controversial circumstances.
Vedanta’s project in the Niyamgiri Hills fell in a Schedule V area, which enjoys certain constitutional guarantees, whereas POSCO is not in a Schedule V area. Therefore, to that extent, constitutionally, POSCO stands on a different footing. As per the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the gram sabha’s approval is necessary for any activity, industrial or mining, in the Schedule V areas. Later, the UPA enacted the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to recognise and regularise the land occupied by tribes for centuries. The need for it arose because these areas had not been surveyed; they were declared to be forests by virtue of a gazette notification. Consequently, even the tribals were deemed as encroachers and this has been the case since the 1920s during the British rule. It was in order to correct this historical injustice that the Centre introduced the FRA. Now, in our federal set-up, it is for the states to implement it.
Without recognising the rights of the people living in the forests, there is no basis on which you can compensate them or give them other benefits. Niyamgiri is a case in point. Originally, only the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) were involved. By the time I took over, they said it was too late to involve the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, but I insisted that it, too, should be involved. However, that was not done.
Having said that, let me clarify that I am not against mining per se but one cannot go against the existing laws or constitutional provisions. After all, who benefits from such projects? In a Schedule V area, non-tribals can’t buy or acquire land on a lease. Is Vedanta a Scheduled Tribe? What is its locus standi to get into a Schedule V area? To this, the Odisha government says it gave the land to the OMC, but the latter is actually registered under the Companies Act and is not an arm of the government. In popular parlance, we call it a government company because the government has maximum shares in it, but tomorrow, if it wants to sell its shares, there is no need for a parliamentary nod; the board of directors can simply okay it. So these are loose ends that need to be looked into. I hope a lid has now been put on the Vedanta issue.
But the Vedanta and POSCO cases have shown policymakers in a bad light. Your view.
Inclusive growth must include the poorest and most exploited sections of society; the most needy people must be taken along. But if development means hiking growth rates by turning a dozen into billionaires or millionaires, your figures may look sound but what happens to the millions of people who fall behind? So that is a totally distorted and warped way of looking at it. Therefore, this angle needs to be looked into, irrespective of which government is in power.
How do you see successive governments dealing with the growing discontent over land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation?
Why has this discontent arisen? Because land was taken away from owners in return for a paltry sum of money and then given to mining companies or industrialists or real estate agents who made millions from it. This is not what you call inclusive growth. Equitable distribution should be ensured. Justice needs to be done to these people. Many of these people cannot move the courts because they do not have money to hire lawyers. I have said time and again that left-wing extremism in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh or Jharkhand is the result of a lack of development and exploitation of the people; they are not even treated in a humane manner by successive governments. That is what has led us to this impasse today.
In your estimation, has the creation of separate states addressed the tribal question?
If you were sent as the chief minister of a newly created state, would you go in with an intention to alleviate the sufferings of the people or to make a fast buck? I am putting it very bluntly, but that is what is happening. Otherwise, how do you explain the chief minister of a state stashing away money that he could never dream of?
Are you optimistic about the welfare and improvement of the lot of the tribals?
I am optimistic, but it is a difficult task. Things have gone astray for too long a period. Now people are becoming aware of their rights. When we talk about mining, is it national wealth or does it belong to the person who gets the lease? You tell me, how has the State benefited from it? So we are losing a lot of our national riches and wealth. If we allow this approach to continue, we may be depriving ourselves of something that we may not get when we need it in the future. All countries today are trying to conserve and preserve; so mining is okay for development purposes if a country needs it, but not when two people get the lease deed, fill their coffers and line their pockets with gold.
In hindsight, and by virtue of having headed this ministry in the past, is there scope for improvement in the manner in which the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has functioned to this day under successive governments?
For one, the MoEF has the sole right to clear or reject projects. The Schedule V and VI areas, meant to protect tribal interests, relate to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is under the panchayati raj ministry. In my time, I headed both the ministries of tribal affairs and panchayati raj, but that is not the case today with the Narendra Modi government. In the UPA, I had made efforts to ensure that the tribal affairs ministry has a role to play in clearances, but that was not done. Furthermore, the Forest Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations, does not have representation from the tribal affairs ministry. I had said that an official of the level of joint secretary or any other appropriate position be made a member of this committee, but the MoEF rejected it. If this was done, there could have been better scrutiny of clearances.