A plea for Odisha’s tribals affected by mining

As Odisha plans to auction its mines in the next few years, an Odia pleads for the communities to be affected the most, the state’s adivasis

By Charudutta Panigrahi
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2019
Members of Odisha's Koraput tribal group. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Members of Odisha's Koraput tribal group. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Members of Odisha's Koraput tribal group. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Odisha is the largest producer of iron ore and other non-ferrous minerals in the country. The state is gearing up for the auction of its mines.

This development is going to add tremendous value to the national GDP (north of two per cent) immediately in the next three to five years. India’s socio-economic and political standing would be positively impacted due to the mining in Odisha.

But what about the communities who would be affected by mining?

All the mines are located in the low-income areas of Odisha. Of course, the lease owners would have already provided the geological reports and exploration plans.

I am sure the government would also have prepared a roadmap for the smooth transition of the auction of lapsing mines. But do we have a community development agreement ready to be signed with the mine owners, post-auction?

More importantly, do we think that a community development commitment is necessary? If yes, then who would decide or facilitate a plan, which can be made mandatory for the prospective mine owners?

As a part of the action plan (the master plan by the state), which, I am sure would already have been submitted to the Centre, the community development perspective would have been stitched together. I hope so.

There is a sustainable development framework (SDF) to be ideally adopted by the mining companies. If it has not been made compulsory yet for the miners, it should be made so.

It is quite obvious that a huge land grab is threatening India’s tribal people and that includes Odisha. This apparently looks like a bonanza for forest-related industries and investments.

The forest-dwelling adivasis, indigenous tribes, found in all the mining zones of Odisha are the directly affected stakeholders under the February 2019 Supreme Court order for the eviction of close to two million adivasis from protected forest lands across India.

The claims of nearly 226,000 adivasi and other forest-dwelling households have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations.

But our shocking laxity has deprived the tribals from getting the testimonials for their ‘ownership’ evidence. Citizen services facilitated by the district or state authorities could have prevented the adivasis staring at homelessness, any moment (over 30,000 in Odisha).

They are condemned to be refugees in their own land. Is there any plan by the government or the miners to implement a systematic rehabilitation and resettlement programme for the local communities? I am sure there would be an estimate of the displacement but is there a blueprint for tackling the displacement?

Displacement would shock the communities, render them homeless and make them more vulnerable. Is it not our responsibility to rehabilitate them and handhold them to lead normal lives?

The Odisha Mining Corporation has demonstrated commendable efforts in community outreach and sustainable mining — through installation of solar plants, use of solar street lights in their mines, rain water harvesting and ground water recharging at the mines, installation of sewage treatment plants at the mines to re-cycle waste water, solar plants in mines to reduce the carbon foot prints and the like.

But it is one thing to buck up initiatives in safe and sustainable mining practices and another to take care of the lives around mining geographies.

An SDF would cover a lot many aspects and this includes comprehensive planning for the communities. Who is doing this or who is at least, planning to do this?

The communities are not capable of even expressing their needs. The civil society organisations are outdated and dispassionately removed.

I have trust in the industry (the miners) to commission professional help in assessing the needs of the communities with the help of the district authorities.

The district collectorates should:

1. Manage impacts at the mine level

2. Address social impact and community engagement

3. Report on sustainability by conducting social audits, energy audits, etc

A plea for tribals

Mining activities should not be allowed deeper dents on the social subversion of tribals. SDF is not a panacea, nor is it a part of the regulatory framework (it should have been) but it has the compass to cover comprehensively.

The social aspects of development projects are usually the most challenging and can pose a significant risk to their successful implementation.

That is because we are dealing with people with complex emotions, hopes, concerns, expectations and insecurities. Assessing a project’s impact on the biophysical environment does not require any complicated processes. Mineral resources are finite and non-renewable, at least in biological timescales.

Environmental, social problems along with mining-related risks are increasingly breeding conflicts between miners and local communities. Understandably so.

Can we, the civil society, be privy to the exploration plans of the bidding mining companies? Can we know about their blueprint for the mines communities? Can all this be transparent and upfront? Can this be in the public domain (on the department’s web portal)?

After all, it is about our land, our communities and ultimately, our treasury. What is secret in all this? A rapidly changing global order, energy transitions, climate emergency and supersonic technological advancement should enable exemplary development of tribals in Odisha.

Information and communication technologies can deployed for the development of the mines’ communities. Because the mining in Odisha would have global effect.

The resources which would be sucked out are non-renewable. I don’t know about you, but for me this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build or rebuild an equitable society. Live and let live.

If we don’t take care of our tribals, the repository of our riches and spirituality, no amount of economic growth would be worthy, viable and pro-human.

Charudutta Panigrahi is a policy advisor in sectoral reforms, the Chairman of FIDR, writer and political observer

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