Silencing protests

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

RABINDRA JARKA, president of the Bisthapan Virodhi Manch (Forum Against Displacement), had not exactly bargained for a Diwali behind bars. He was whisked away by the police on October 25 when he was coming out of a meeting held in Bhubaneswar as part of the agitation against the displacement of tribal people at Kalinganagar in Jajpur district. Jarka is now lodged in the Jajpur Sub-Jail.

This is not the first time that tribal people opposing industrialisation have been incarcerated. On May 9, they were lathi-charged while protesting against the bhoomi puja of a steel plant project at Kalinganagar, where several steel plants, including a six-million-tonne project by Tata Steel, are coming up. Four persons, including two children, died as a result of police brutalities in subsequent days. Twenty-six persons, 25 of them women, were arrested, while 30 others were named as accused. The arrested persons were released after a long spell in judicial custody.

In the picturesque Kashipur block of Rayagada district, 48 persons were arrested between December 2004 and June this year. As many as 23 persons, including 12 tribal people from Kucheipadar village, are in judicial custody, while the rest have been released on bail.

Kucheipadar, a tribal village with a population of 1,500, has been the cradle of the anti-alumina agitation in Kashipur, which has been going on for more than a decade. Interestingly, none of the 48 persons was arrested for opposing the alumina refinery project of Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), a joint venture of the Birla group and Alcan of Canada, but rather on criminal charges.

Now an uneasy calm prevails in Kashipur. Fear of displacement and loss of livelihood has put the tribal people on the warpath against the government and the company authorities who seem to be working in tandem to set up the one-million-tonne-capacity refinery. The presence of a platoon of Orissa State Armed Police personnel inside the company's complex near the refinery site has only added to the fear. Utkal Alumina has allowed the police to use one of its buildings as a police post in order to provide "law and order support". Amid the deathly silence, the hum of machinery for grading the land at the site, where about 1,000 men work, and the sound of vehicles are the only signs of life.

"The Naveen Patnaik government is out to ensure industrialisation at gunpoint, ignoring the genuine concerns of the affected people," says Bhagwan Majhi, a resident of Kucheipadar and the convener of the Prakrutika Sampad Suraksha Parishad (PSSP), which has been opposing the project since land acquisition started in 1995. "We are very much against the alumina project because the refinery and mining of bauxite from the Baphlimali hills would adversely affect the livelihood of the tribal people and spoil the region's environment," said Majhi.

The people of Kucheipadar, who depend upon agriculture and non-timber forest produce, have been virtually under house arrest since December last. They complained that policemen on duty in the area harassed them whenever they went to the nearby villages or to the local market.

A total of 24 villages will be affected by the alumina project. People in three of the villages will be displaced and those in the others will lose their land. Although 2,155 acres (862 hectares) of land was required for the project, 154 acres, belonging to the people of Kucheipadar, has now been taken out of the project area in view of their protest.

But the administration is silent about the police highhandedness in Kashipur. Work on the project was stopped in December 2000 after three persons were killed there in police firing. But both police action and work on the project resumed simultaneously in December last year. The police lathi-charged protesters when they opposed the setting up of the police post at the plant site on December 1. The police action was repeated on December 16, May 10, June 15 and June 22.

"The environmental clearance that UAIL obtained for the project expired in September 2000. The ongoing construction is illegal because they have not obtained fresh clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest," said Prafulla Samantara, president of the Orissa chapter of the Lok Shakti Abhiyan and one of the petitioners against the Vedanta Alumina project at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district.

Bhagawat Prasad Rath, well-known social activist of Rayagada, echoes Samantara. "The project should be scrapped. The arguments for the refinery are not based on facts since no proper cost-benefit analysis, including the environmental and social costs, has been carried out. We will fight till the end as it involves the question of livelihood of the tribal people and the environment," said Rath.

The four proposed alumina refineries in this region would see the digging up of about 10 mountain plateaus to extract bauxite. Besides its obvious industrial use, the bauxite reserves in this Scheduled-V area are a source of several perennial streams that feed the rivers in this zone. The tribal people fear that indiscriminate mining would lead to the drying up and pollution of the streams.

The UAIL's Vedanta Alumina project is nearing completion but the company is not sure that it will be able to extract bauxite from the nearby Niyamgiri hills as three petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court against allowing bauxite mining at Niyamgiri, home to the Dongaria Konds, a primitive tribe. The Central Empowered Committee of the apex court has submitted a report stating that various clearances to the company were given in haste and mining in Niyamgiri will have an adverse impact on the ecology of the area.

Meanwhile, the authors of industrialisation are of the view that industrial development is the answer to the State's wrenching poverty. For them, issues such as tribal rights and the adverse impact on the environment can be put on the back burner.

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