Issues of livelihood and displacement

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

THE police firing in Maikanch village that claimed the lives of three tribal persons, has seemingly infused new life into the doctrine of development that flows from the barrel of a gun. At the centre of the controversy is an alumina mining project which is being pursued by a consortium of three companies. The promoters of the project dismiss all opposition to their venture as wrong-headed and misconceived. The region is rich in bauxite deposits that call out for large-scale exploitation and only a mamm oth project of the sort they have conceived can open up the pathway to development, they argue.

However, several of the residents of Kashipur, who stand to lose their homesteads, think differently. Livelihoods are closely tied with land in this region. Compensation could conceivably be awarded for homesteads that are lost to the mining project. But these schemes are rather skewed in their application. Private land can be compensated for, but commons and forest land are not deemed to warrant material redress. Orissa also has a curious law which holds that land situated on a gradient would not be el igible for compensation.

Just over a hundred kilometres from the proposed project site is the mammoth aluminium plant of National Aluminium Corporation Limited (NALCO). Once portrayed as a showcase of public sector-led development, NALCO is today a rather indifferent financial p erformer.

For anybody seeking an objective assessment of how effective resettlement programmes have been in the context of mega-development projects, NALCO would be a suitable case study. The evidence here is unclear only because no systematic exploration of the t errain has been undertaken. However, activists of Agragamee, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is painted by the adherents of the developmental credo as the key villain today, have a story to tell.

As a public sector unit, NALCO was rather conscientious about implementing its policy of jobs for land. All the families that were dislocated in the project area were promised one job in the new factory or in its ancillary units. A resettlement town was also fashioned for the displaced people in the vicinity.

Agragamee believes that the NALCO experience is testimony to the inefficacy of resettlement plans, even when implemented with relative diligence by government enterprises. Families and communities have been splintered, lifestyles and livelihoods have bee n impaired and an entire culture of tribal self-reliance has been destroyed. They argue that the township that has been set up for resettlement is woefully deficient in basic civic amenities. And finally, the waste material spawned by the NALCO plant has blighted the physical landscape and polluted water sources.

As the crow flies, the Indravati hydroelectric power project is located just 10 km from the proposed site of the alumina mines. The proximate experience of the people displaced by this project is another reminder to the people of Kashipur that they shoul d not yield their lands and homes for the illusory benefits that the alumina mines could bring.

The formidable barriers that make it impossible for tribal populations to benefit from modern industry have clearly been overlooked for long. Today, the movement against the alumina mining project in Kashipur serves as a wake-up call. Unfortunately, the official response so far has been to blame the messenger and to lay the entire responsibility for the agitation against the project at the doorstep of Agragamee. Ever since the initial prospecting for the project began in 1995, Agragamee has been vilifie d as a developmental organisation that has a vested interest in the perpetuation of underdevelopment.

A reading of the background seems to highlight a quite different reality. Agragamee's principal offence seems that in two decades of work in Rayagada district, it has made the transition from the provision of welfare services to the advocacy of rights. A s long as it was confined to the former role, it was patronised and tolerated, indeed even funded quite liberally by the state and central governments. But now, with its vigorous espousal of tribal rights, it has graduated into the ranks of NGOs that imp ede progress and serve the interests of foreign sponsors. The similarities with the campaign of abuse that the Narmada Bachao Andolan has borne, are striking.

Achyut Das, director of Agragamee, has been charged with inciting the demonstrations that led to the police firing of December 16. A non-bailable warrant for his arrest has been issued and he today works under threat of detention. Vidya Das, another of A gragamee's founding members, denies that her organisation was in responsible for fomenting violence. The movement against the mining project, she claims, is led by a purely local body known as the Prakrutika Sampada Suraksha Parishad. Although not regist ered under law, it is a voluntary grouping that has attracted powerful sympathy from the tribal population in the area. It is a direct outcome of its advocacy of vital issues of tribal well-being, she says.

Agragamee has had a fairly long history of incurring official displeasure. In 1998, a series of official inquiries were conducted into its activities by the district administration. These alleged, often in defiance of recorded fact, that the organisation had not gone through statutory processes of audit, that it was instigating breaches of the peace and obstructing representatives of the mining consortium from conducting their business. In early-1999, the State government blacklisted Agragamee and three other NGOs working in the tribal regions of Orissa, cutting off their entitlements to all official funds.

The incident that directly led to the blacklisting occurred in November 1998, when a team from the mining consortium was stopped in Kashipur by a group of about 50 tribals. Three members of the team from the Norwegian partner, Hydro Aluminium (or Norsk H ydro), were then taken to a "public hearing" where they were made the reluctant audience to a string of denunciations against the project. Before they were released, the three Norwegians were asked to append their signatures to a statement criticising th eir own employers.

The recent police firing has reportedly alerted the Norwegian principals to the hazards posed by the project to rights and livelihoods in the region. A rethink is under way, which could conceivably lead to withdrawal. If that happens, it would be the thi rd major aluminium-related project to be cast into limbo as a direct concession to popular sentiment. Hindalco's proposed plant in Lakshmipur block seems a distant prospect while the troubles in Kashipur persist. Larsen & Toubro (L&T) has put its project in Sunger, also in Kashipur block, on hold. What these troubled projects draw attention to is the untenability of conventional notions of development - that intensive resource exploitation using giant industrial scale operations is an end in itself and that "trickle down" will in the long term, take care of all the recalcitrants.

With inputs from N. Ramdas in Bhubaneswar.
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