The lure of bauxite

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Ganja, or grass, grown along the pathways in the hills in the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha Border region. It has replaced other cash crops. Photo: KUNAL SHANKAR

THE Indian state is almost absent at Khajuriguda and its surrounding villages, spread over some 100 kilometres, and so is modern technology. There is a school for the 25 children of the village up to seventh grade, but the two teachers assigned to it have not turned up for work for the past two months. When they do come, it is usually for two days a week. The nearest government hospital is 83 km away; if it is not able to meet the medical needs of patients from the village, they must travel to Malkangiri, the district headquarters, which is about a 110 km away. Villagers showed job cards issued under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme on July 5, 2006. No government official has visited the village since. There are no mobile phone towers in what is called the Andhra Pradesh Odisha Border (AOB) cut-off area, a large swathe of heavily forested land without any paved roads.

The police say the region is a Maoist safe haven because the inaccessible terrain makes security deployment impossible. In the past, Maoists evaded arrest after carrying out their activities in one State by fleeing into the neighbouring State.

Khajuriguda is poverty-stricken, but it is located in an idyllic setting. Nestled close to the Balimela Reservoir, it looks out onto the spectacular rolling hills of the Dhandakaranya forest range. It took five hours on a motorcycle to reach Khajuriguda from Munchingiputtu, the closest town in the Integrated Tribal Development Agency area of Andhra Pradesh. The distance is only 35 km, but to reach the village one has to navigate through precariously winding, hilly dirt roads.

Ganja and Bauxite

Ganja cultivation has increased exponentially in the past two years in the area, as revenues from traditional farming have been meagre. Most communities in the region speak Kui, a language of the Kondh tribes, or Kodhu as they are referred to in Andhra Pradesh. Officials of the Tribal Welfare Department of the Government of Andhra Pradesh say there are only 30,000 Kodhu families in the entire 11 mandals, with a population of 1.2 lakh.

The Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, commonly known as “Act 1 of 70”, restricts sale of tribal lands to any other community and regulates it even among tribal people. A united opposition, strengthened by grass-roots mobilisation by Maoists, stalled a proposed amendment that would have allowed bauxite mining in the Scheduled Areas—the 11 mandals of Visakhapatnam district. They constitute over 56 per cent of the district’s land mass of 11,161 square kilometres. The area boasts a forest cover matched by few other parts of the country and accounts for one-fifth of the country’s high-quality bauxite reserves—the raw material required to make aluminium. Government estimates put the deposits at 500 million tonnes in Andhra Pradesh alone, and five times that in Odisha.

In 2005, armed with a resounding mandate, Congress Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who had opposed mining while in opposition, signed an agreement with Ras-al-Khaimah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, to float a joint venture that would pump in Rs.4,500 crore to build an aluminium refinery, and another Rs.7,000 crore for a captive power plant. This led to one of the biggest mobilisations of the tribal communities living around the area targeted for mining—the Chintapalli forest range located about 150 km from Khajuriguda.

At Jerrela village in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, Ambrangi Shanti, a young ward member of the village panchayat, is a fiery anti-bauxite activist. The village sits on bauxite reserves and overlooks another village wedged into a hill that was considered for mining. Speaking with great clarity, Shanti said that ironically she learnt of the ill effects of bauxite mining during a promotional trip sponsored by the State government in 2000 to Damanjodi in Odisha, where the public sector National Aluminium Company, or NALCO, refinery plant is located. She said, “That’s when we came to know that if mining is opened all our villages will be affected; we came to know that during the 1990s earth samples were taken from here, and they realised the rich bauxite deposits in our villages. This area has coffee plantations and other crops that are good for our livelihood. Farming takes place year-round, but if there is mining, the dust will spread across our fields, pollute our water sources and damage our crops. We now know that bauxite is a toxic metal. The only alternative would be to relocate, but a similar forest area cannot be replicated. Therefore, we will not allow mining here.”

The agreement with Ras-al-Khaimah led to the formation of AnRak, a joint venture with the Penna Group holding a minority stake. The plant was set up, but the shutters were never allowed to go up. A lone guard sits outside the 5,000-acre site in Narsipatnam where the plant has been built, with well-attended and lit-up roads. Last December, Chandrababu Naidu’s government finally relented and admitted the deal with Ras-al-Khaimah was one-sided and “not in the best interest” of the State’s tribal communities.

Kunal Shankar