The good, the bad & the ugly

Print edition : July 11, 2014

People of the Dongria Kondh tribe at a gram sabha at Tadijihola near Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Odisha on July 23, 2013. The meeting rejected Vedanta's mining project. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Activists march from Tarapur against the proposed nuclear power project at Jaitapur, in April 2011. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The Jaitapur Nuclear power project site, in April 2011. Photo: Vivke Bendre

An agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in September 2012. Photo: PTI

A HILL AND ITS PEOPLE: NIYAMGIRI, ODISHA

By Sagnik Dutta

WHILE legitimate questions can be raised about the source of the foreign funding of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) within the existing legal framework, one cannot ignore the role played by some of these organisations in highlighting the human rights abuses and violations of environmental laws by corporations, and in mobilising international support for the cause of indigenous communities. The attempts of the corporate giant Vedanta to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, which would have potentially destroyed the homelands of the Dongria Kondh tribal people, is a case in point. In this case, concerted attempts by the human rights organisation Amnesty International exposed the potential risks in Vedanta’s bauxite mining plan. When contacted by Frontline, Amnesty International did not offer any specific comments on the recent Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) report.

Since 2010, the organisation, through its reports and fieldwork, has highlighted the concerns of the indigenous communities in the Niyamgiri Hills. The setting up of an alumina refinery plant by Vedanta in Lanjigarh involved the diversion of 58.943 hectares 0of forest land. Sterlite (the parent company of Vedanta) first submitted a proposal in 2003 to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), seeking clearance to set up an alumina refinery in the district which it claimed did not involve any diversion of forest land within a 10-km radius. The Central Empowered Committee, however, objected to the grant of clearance on the grounds that the refinery would be totally dependent on the mining of bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills in the district, which not only was a vital wildlife habitat, but was also part of an elephant corridor. The committee also felt that the project would dislocate tribes such as the Dongria Kondh. The MoEF scrapped the Stage 2 forest clearance for the Niyamgiri mines in August 2010. The refinery closed down in December 2012 on account of non-availability of bauxite.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment on bauxite mining in Odisha, endorsed the powers of village councils to take a decision within three months on any claims of cultural, religious, community and individual rights of forest dwellers. The decision on the Vedanta group’s bauxite mining project was also left to the village councils. Subsequently, the MoEF revoked the grant of forest clearance for the Niyamgiri mining project after the local gram sabhas rejected the mining proposal.

The introductory chapter of a book titled Injustice Incorporated: Corporate Abuses and the Human Right to Remedy, aptly sums up the attitude of the corporate giant Vedanta towards the series of allegations of potential human rights abuse and environmental negligence levelled against it by human rights organisations and activists. It says: “In some respects the corporate model is antithetical to the right to effective remedy; by admitting and addressing human rights abuses companies expose themselves to financial liability and reputational harm which shareholders (if not the directors and officers of the company themselves) see as entirely contrary to their interests. Consequently, the most common corporate response to allegations of abuse and demands for remedy is defensive. This response itself frequently leads to further abuse; as companies seek to manage and contain the risks to themselves they—whether intentionally or not—can block legitimate routes to remedy. Amongst the ways that companies do this are: deals with governments, denying victims access to vital information and using vastly greater financial means to delay and frustrate attempts to bring cases to court.”

In 2010 and 2011, Amnesty International published reports documenting what it called human rights abuses and violation of environmental norms by Vedanta’s alumina refinery project. The report published in February 2010 noted that the pollution associated with the refinery had seriously undermined the right to health and a healthy environment and the right to water. It also said that the proposed bauxite mining project threatened the survival of a protected indigenous community and the companies involved in the mine and refinery projects had ignored community concerns, breached State and national regulatory frameworks and failed to adhere to accepted international standards and principles in relation to the human rights impact of business.

Subsequently, in a report published in 2011, titled “Generalisation, Omissionss and Assumptions”, Amnesty International carried out a review of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out by Vedanta. The report showed multiple flaws in the EIA. It said that the choice of locating an alumina refinery in the Lanjigarh area was never properly assessed in the EIA alongside potential alternatives. Data were not presented on the cumulative impact of multiple projects, including the expansion plan of the refinery. The refinery’s EIA failed to take into account the risk of locating an alumina refinery next to the Vamsadhara river, which runs close to several villages whose inhabitants used it for drinking and bathing. The only rationale for the site choice presented in the refinery’s EIA related to economic considerations, which raised the concern that environmental and social considerations were given little weight. Also, the model used for determining air pollution was unreliable as the EIA failed to identify all sources of pollution, neglected the impact of topography and relied on unreliable weather data.

Speaking to Frontline, G Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive, Amnesty International India, explained Amnesty’s continued engagement with the local community at Niyamgiri: “The local community was receptive to Amnesty’s attempts to document violations and their informed consent was sought before highlighting their concerns. Amnesty has engaged with the community, the local administration, and State and national government institutions over the last six years, from the beginning of the research in 2008 up to the gram sabha hearings during 2013.”

On being asked about the attitude of the government’s regulatory agencies when Amnesty flagged off the concerns about the Niyamgiri project, Ananthapadmanabhan said: “Various officials of the local, State and national administration were cooperative and shared information with Amnesty’s researchers.”

Vedanta’s response

In August 2012, Vedanta published a report on its website titled “The Lanjigarh Development Story: Vedanta’s Perspective”, in which it defended its approach and attempted to rebut the findings of Amnesty in its 2010-11 reports. In this report, Vedanta gave a point-by-point response to all the issues raised by Amnesty. The company claimed that it had consulted local communities in implementing its project. The report also claimed that the company was alive to the needs of the Dongria Kondh community as a socially and culturally distinct, yet backward community and that it was dedicated to the community’s development. It also claimed that the company’s “processes, planning, and consultation have been in line with all Indian national laws”.

In response to this report, Amnesty published another report titled “Vedanta’s Perspective Uncovered: Policies cannot mask practices in Odisha”. This report demolished the claims made by Vedanta. It stated that the evidence gathered by Amnesty International over the past four years, including testimonies from the Dongria Kondh tribal people, minutes of official meetings, minutes of the 2003 public consultations held as per India’s environmental legislation, and the findings of the two official expert panels appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2010, did not support the claim of Vedanta that the company had consulted the local communities.

The report further demolished the claims of the company that its processes were in line with national laws. Vedanta’s report failed to consider India’s Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), under which prior consultation with the elected village council bodies of the Dongria Kondh community was mandatory before any plans for development were implemented. Vedanta’s report also failed to take into account the more recent Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), under which the claims of Dongria Kondh and other marginalised communities over their traditional forest lands and habitats in the Niyamgiri Hills needed to be recognised and settled in the form of grant of community titles to the lands they used. The Dongria Kondh have contended, in their testimonies to Amnesty International, that the public consultations held in the plains during 2002-2003 excluded them.

On the continuing role of Amnesty International in the region, Ananthapadmanabhan said: “Amnesty continues to be in touch with local activists, civil society groups, governments, political parties and human rights defenders.”



NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: JAITAPUR, MAHARASHTRA

By Anupama Katakam

In December 2010, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and the French nuclear engineering firm Areva S.A. signed a $9.3-billion agreement to build a 9,900 megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Signed in the presence of French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the prestigious project would be one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. In fact, when built, it would be the largest nuclear power generating station in the world by net electrical power rating, says literature available on the project.

Jaitapur is a small port located on the beautiful Konkan coast. The actual plant site is at Madban village near the port. As soon as the agreement was signed, NGOs, environment protection groups, anti-nuclear activists, local residents and even political parties leapt up in protest. Aggressive opposition has stalled work and now Jaitapur features in the infamous I.B. report on NGOs being used by foreign powers to oppose projects such as these to destabilise India’s economic progress.

The I.B. report clubs Jaitapur with other anti-nuclear projects in general and mentions it twice. Essentially, the report uses it as an example to prove that there is a network of operators who work towards ruining India’s nuclear programme.

The report fails to provide substantial details about the opposition movement or evidence of the alleged foreign funding it receives. There are several organisations and individuals involved in the protests, but the I.B. has not pinpointed any particular organisation in connection with Jaitapur.

According to the report, the network and a larger conspiracy unravelled after it was led to S.P Udayakumar, who was spearheading the anti-Kudankulam nuclear project in Tamil Nadu. According to the report, investigations revealed that there was a “superior network” and five other “territorial networks” in existence, led by prominent activists. While neither network exists in Maharashtra, a few of the named activists, such as Admiral Ramdass and Achin Vanaik, have been closely associated with the Jaitapur struggle.

The report says: “In the recent past these networks have coordinated radiation leak studies at Rawatbhata and Tarapore; stalling of Peringom plant in Kerala and instigation of recent protests at Rawatbhata, Fatehabad, Jaitapur, Mithi Virdi, Kundankulam, Kakrapur, Kovvada and Chutka sites.”

Nuclear activism is a significant chapter in the I.B. report and that is the link to Jaitapur. It says: “In the Indian context, significant anti-development activities undertaken by NGOs in 2011-13 included agitations against: nuclear infrastructure in: Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Chutka (Madhya Pradesh), Fatehabad (Haryana), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), Kaiga (Karnataka) and Rawatbhata (Rajasthan).” And that is it. Nothing else is mentioned about the nuclear plant in Maharashtra. Little information is provided as to where the movement gets its funding.

In the case of Kundankulam, the I.B. report has more to say “As per intelligence inputs, eight out of the 11 NGOs involved in the protest were Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA) registered and primarily funded by Europe-based foreign donors. Of the eight NGOs from FY [financial year] 06-07 to FY 10-11, Rs.80 crore was received. Of this, Rs.43 crore (53 per cent) flowed to Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service (TMSSS) and Rs.20 crore (25 per cent) to Tuticorin Diocesan Association (TDA). The remaining 22 per cent foreign funds were distributed between six other NGOs, with RUC receiving 17 per cent.” Nothing on these lines is mentioned regarding Jaitapur.

The report names organisations such as the National Alliance for Anti-Nuclear Movement (NAAM), the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), Greenpeace and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) as being part of the Superior Network, all of which have a strong presence in Maharashtra.

The report does not name activists such as Vivek Monteiro from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Milind Desai of Mithgavane and Adwait Pednekar from the Konkan Bachao Samiti, who were the prominent faces of the agitation and have worked towards exposing the danger of setting up the Jaitapur plant. These omissions lead to the conclusion that the I.B. report has an agenda, says an activist.

It is understood that the State government desperately bid for the plant to be set up in Maharashtra, with the Konkan coastline and the Jaitapur port making it a favourable location for it. The primary reason given for a plant of this size was that it would help meet the country’s massive demand for electricity. The proposed project will have six units of 1,650 MWe each. Each unit, operating at full capacity, can generate 36-39 million units a day, says NPCIL.

With oil prices skyrocketing, coal reserves dwindling and hydro projects facing their own share of environmental issues, nuclear power, given India’s vast natural thorium reserves, was the most economically viable option, said the State government at the time. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) report done by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) cleared the project, saying there would be no impact on the flora and fauna and the radioactive releases would be insignificant. Protesters said it was a skewed report given that it was prepared by a government agency.

Protesters said the most fundamental argument against the nuclear power plant was that it was located in a seismic zone. Moreover, they said the reactors at Jaitapur were untested. They would be the first of their kind in the world and that led to the uncomfortable thought of a “nuclear fallout”. Finally, six reactors at the same site were cause for worry. For instance, only one reactor exploded at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011 and workers could not get out. The fact that there have been serious nuclear accidents terrifies the local people.



BATTLE DOWN SOUTH: KUDANKULAM, TAMIL NADU

By T.S. Subramanian

EVEN as a lively debate started over the I.B. report titled “Concerted Efforts by Select Foreign Funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects”, the role of churches and NGOs in running children’s homes received a lot of attention in Tamil Nadu. This, after two minor girls staying in a children’s home in Pollachi town in Coimbatore district were allegedly raped by a person at knife-point on June 11. The home was being run by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC). It was an unregistered home. What is puzzling is how the TELC continued to run the children’s home even after the Coimbatore Collector had ordered it to be shut down in November 2013. The Police arrested V. Veerasamy, 24, the prime suspect behind the crime, two days later in the nearby town of Udumalpet.

The incident brought into focus the pathetic conditions prevailing in several hundreds of these homes/orphanages run by NGOs and churches in Tamil Nadu. Facilities are minimal in these homes. Just a few plain rooms pass for homes. They do not have dormitories. They do not have enough toilets. There is no security in place. Children staying in these homes go to schools located nearby.

What is galling is that many of these homes are unregistered and are run illegally. For instance, out of 82 children’s homes in Coimbatore district, 42 are unregistered. Tiruchi district had 67, but seven have closed down on their own. Inexplicably, a number of children’s homes have come up in interior villages in Tiruchi district. It is suspected that many of these are run to cater to the “adoption” racket, so that childless couples from other countries can adopt the children staying there. It is easy for foreigners to adopt the children from these homes because their parents are willing to part with them. For, these children have parents who are in financially testing circumstances, come from broken homes or have unwed mothers. Or they are abandoned children.

While these homes reveal the seamy side of NGOs, there is a rosy side as well to them. NGOs played a sterling role in the relief and rehabilitation work in hundreds of fishing villages in Tamil Nadu which were affected by the tsunami in December 2004, winning the hearts of the fisherfolk. They moved in like a disciplined army, distributed clothes, medicines, food, boats and engines, and built houses for fishermen. The NGOs, which did sustained good work for many months after the tsunami struck, included the Chengalpattu Rural Development Society (CRDS), the Gandhian Unit for Integrated Development Education, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, Udayam Palliyagaram, Tata Relief, Youth with a Mission, Christ Faith Home for Children, ECI (Evangelical Church of India) Relief, and so on.

At Idinthakarai, a fishing village in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu, NGOs played a different game altogether, alleges the I.B. report. It was the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh which first alleged that NGOs, with funding from abroad, were instigating the agitation there against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP). The timing of the eruption of the agitation in September 2011, three months before the first of the two Russian reactors there was to reach criticality, remains an enigma to this day. Idinthakarai is the nearest village to Kudankulam, less than two kilometres away as the crow flies. At the vanguard of the agitation was the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), led by its coordinator S.P. Udayakumar (see interview on page 22).

The organisers of the agitation at Idinthakarai first exploited the fear of local fishermen in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in March 2011. Video films were screened in the villages around Kudankulam about how the Fukushima accident would lead to the birth of huge, mutant varieties of vegetables, fruits, butterflies, etc. Women around Kudankulam were told that they would become barren in case of a radiation leak from the Kudankulam reactors. When KKNPP officials wanted to organise a mock exercise of evacuation of villagers from Idinthakarai, Uvari, etc., as a preparation in case of a radiation leak, word was spread that the evacuation exercise was a cloak for the permanent eviction of thousands of people living in a 30-km radius around the project. Fishermen were led to believe that the discharge of coolant water from the Kudankulam reactors into the sea would kill the fish. Fishermen were told that it was the “irradiated water” which would be let into the sea. The villagers around the project site feared the worst when steam was let into the atmosphere during the first unit’s “hot run” before it reached criticality. Especially women were convinced that it was “poison gas” which was being released from the reactor. The very first hint that NGOs, with funding from abroad, were behind the agitation against Kudankulam came on February 4, 2012, when P. Chidambaram, then Union Home Minister, categorically said that those who were working against the nation’s development, with funding from foreign agencies, would have to face stern action. The timing and venue of Chidambaram’s warning were significant. It was a public meeting organised by the Congress party in Tirunelveli town (Kudankulam is situated in Tirunelveli district) to drum up support for the KKNPP. The Union Home Ministry had found that funds from foreign countries were flowing to some NGOs during its investigation, Chidambaram said. He warned these NGOs that if they were faking expenditure, it would entail severe legal action against them.

While Chidambaram’s remarks went largely unnoticed, the alleged role of the NGOs in the Idinthakarai agitation against the KKNPP hit the headlines only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a similar allegation. He told Science magazine on February 23, 2012, that “there are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces”. He then referred to the agitation against the Kudankulam project and said: “The atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.”

As if on cue, V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, went on the offensive. Manmohan Singh’s remarks were a godsend for Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s Ambassador to India, too. (The reactors at Kudankulam were from Russia, but it was NPCIL which was building the two units.)

Kadakin said: “We have been suspecting it all along. And I was openly saying this because it was very strange. Six months after the Fukushima tragedy, all those protesters [at Idinthakarai] raise their voice. They were sleeping for six months, and then all of a sudden, they raise their voice against the most secure, the best and the safest station in the world.” He added: “We were perplexed but now we stand vindicated.”

Narayanasamy asserted on February 24, 2012, that the Prime Minister’s specific comments were based on a probe by the Union Home Ministry. “These NGOs were receiving funds from foreign countries for social service… such as helping the physically handicapped and eradication of leprosy. But these [the funding] was used for the anti-nuclear protests.”

Narayanasamy provided more information at Tiruchendur on February 27, 2012. He said the bank accounts of three NGOs which received “foreign assistance” were frozen as they were found to be diverting funds for the anti-KKNPP agitation. The Union government, which investigated “the funding of anti-KKNPP struggle by foreign agencies”, found that 11 NGOs, including three located around Kudankulam, had received “assistance from abroad”. The assistance amounted to Rs.54 crore, according to him.

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