Vedanta and lessons in conservation

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

image The Forest Rights Act of 2006—also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act—came after considerable and bitter opposition from conservation groups.

They said the Act, which would grant land rights to tribals and other forest dwellers, would destroy forests and wipe out wildlife. Worse, the rights would make it easy for developers to take over forests. In other words, acknowledging the right of people over their forest was a bad idea.

The recent Vedanta decision—to reject clearance to the multinational company's bauxite mining project in Orissa—must be viewed in the light of this opposition. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests' panel, chaired by former bureaucrat N C Saxena, has indicted the state government for its non-adherence to the Act. It found the Act, which stipulated that the rights of tribals be settled before clearing any project, was followed only in the breach. More importantly, the Act says the forest-dwelling communities must give their consent through the gram sabha before a project is cleared. The Saxena committee says this was not done. Worse, it found the state government tried to cover up its negligence. The bottom line is that people living where mining is proposed are against the project. They were not heard.

It is for this reason (and for Vedanta's non-complian ce with environmental laws) that the ministry took what is clearly a tough decision against the powerful company.

As we celebrate the decision favouring environmental justice over destructive development, we must stop and ask: have we really understood green concern in this poor country of ours? In the 1970s, when the environmental movement took root in the country, it had two distinct streams. One was a movement to conserve wildlife. The 1970s saw the beginning of tiger conservation in the country. With this grew the conservation movement, aiming to secure habitats for animals but failing to safeguard the needs and rights of people who lived there.

In the same decade was born the Chipko movement— women in the Himalaya stepped in to protect their trees from wood cutters. But their move was not to conserve trees; they wanted the rights to cut trees. They also said— but few heard them—they would not cut the trees because the forest was the basis of their survival. They knew the value of the environment.

This was the other stream of environmental consciousness, which got lost somewhere along the way. We began to follow the environmental movement of the rest of the world, which would first destroy and then learn to repair or conserve. The Western environmental movement was not about changing the way we did business with the environment itself.

I believe the reason we followed the Western model was we did not trust the poor in the country with protecting the environment. Even when it came to afforesting the land people and their animals used, or regenerating the water bodies in villages, we trusted officials over people. The policy kept people out of their forests, made them trespassers in their own land, denied them their rights and their choice for development.

But today, the modern Indian environmental movement should stand humbled. It is the activism of the same people we middle-class environmentalists distrusted that has defeated one of the world's most powerful companies, Veda nta. This is the environmentalism of the very poor. Their activism is driven by the need for survival. They know their livelihood depends on natural resources, the land, the fore sts and the water. They also know that extractive and resource-capital intensive development is not inclusive of their needs. They are poor and will be poorer once the mine is dug or the forest is cut. It is for this reason they have fought relentlessly against Vedanta. Let us be clear, this is not a movement of the city-bred green lobby. This is a movement of a tribe of Primitive forest dwellers who worship the Niyamgiri hill. It is their belief in their culture that made them fight.

The question I have is whether their victory will change beliefs. Will we learn the development lesson—to create a model of growth and conservation that uses people as a resource for local development?

It is important to understand that green actions that drive people out of forests are today roughly equal to the assault by the development lobby that takes away their resources. On the one hand, development needs their land, their water and their forests. On the other hand, conservation wants to throw them out of their land and forests. India's forest policy, for instance, has been broadly driven by two imperatives: to extract the resource for industry or to conserve the resource for wild animals. In all this, people have increasingly nowhere to go. This is why India is seeing more anger against wild animals, more violence in forests and more destruction of habitats.

It is time we trusted people. If and when we do, the victory over Vedanta (and others like it) will be complete. Only then.

—Sunita Narain

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Dear Madam, I understand your

    Dear Madam,
    I understand your stand over the action taken by the MoEF.
    But isn't there another side of the Coin. The central government has tried to sympathise with the tribal people but stopping Vedanta would not improve the Primitive Tribal Group (why we want to keep them primitive in contemporary times). The views expressed by the Saxena committee on the Tribal views are not exactly the tribal's views as they can't even communicate in languages understood by them. It is the will of a handful of misguiding people. Why the government doesn't want to take these Tribals in main stream. Why inspite of rejecting the project the talks regarding how this project should help these 7000 odd people living nearby. The money lost by companies in Market could have coversely utilized for helping people at the bottom level. This has not crossed over either in mind of regulator or activists. We on the other hand want them to continue growing pine apples, honey and cut the trees themselves for fire wood and not allow them the luxaries we enjoy. This also is not INCLUSIVE GROWTH as a principle. We may be very happy by defeating a company but what good that would do to the people there.
    I am not pro-distructive development but I am with sustainable development and inclusive growth.
    Rajesh Singh

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • It's an excellent example of

    It's an excellent example of Good governance on the part of the MoEF and should act as a deterrent for all others who had been taking, all these years, government clearances as fait accompli and should bring in radical changes in their company’s attitudes, thinking and rightful actions towards sustainable developments in the country. The companies need to shun away from the unregulated and unbridled greed for material gains at the cost of damaging of our eco-system irreversibly for the next generation to suffer and curse our generations. This should now teach them company a lesson and prevent them from further damage to our environment, by way of polluting our aquifers, flora and fauna from contamination from Cadmium, Mercury, Nickel, Cobalt, Selenium, Vanadium and other heavy metals, (it need not have to be elaborated here on the harmful effects of these metals, on the ecology and on the human beings, which is already well documented); normally co-occur and get simultaneously extracted in varying proportions along with the mining, mineral dressing and extraction of Zinc, Lead, Copper, Aluminium, etc, and are being discharged unregulated to our ecological system. The Environment Ministry has taken a landmark step forward in raising the bar for metallurgical, chemical, e-waste, and all other highly polluting industries to take up sustainability development as a way of life and there are no - any short cuts. This movement of tribal from Niyamgiri, has demonstrated that power is not back with the tribal, it has been taken back by them. The lessons from this peaceful Dongria Kondh movement should encourage Vedanta to revisit some of their so called Sidhantas – and align with the “Ten Principles of UN Global Compact”.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Rajesh, Vedanta and many

    Dear Rajesh,

    Vedanta and many other corporations have built many big projects earlier in Orissa and other tribal and non tribal regions of this country. Do you think in those places they have empowered the tribals to get into the 'mainstream'? If you visit any of these places you'll not see a trace of tribes nor the forest... This whole idea of 'civilising' the tribals by snatching the resources they nurtured is a huge condenscensation and cannot be called sustainable or inclusive...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply