Theirs to mine?

This is the question angry and beleaguered tribals in Orissa and Jharkhand are asking, as mining companies set up shop in the midst of their land and forests, rooting to uproot them.

It is a question the companies answer firmly in the affirmative. In 1993, the government of India began to deregulate the mining sector. States rich in mineral wealth, such as Orissa and Jharkhand, literally took up the call to 'open up'. Agog, private mining interests queued up. Awed, state governments went on a spree, signing one joint venture after another.

Today, this question openly haunts India's governors. For states have blithely bent the law of the land. They seem proud to venture on as the repressive arm of projects hell-bent on meeting production deadlines. The Centre looks on, blind.

Certainly, this question provokes another: cannot India's mineral wealth positively sustain people, instead of being the source of development's latest genocide here?

Published: Friday 15 April 2005

Theirs to mine?

State siege: police post at vi (Credit: Santosh mahapatra)In the Kashipur block of district Rayagadh, Orissa, a 12-year-old conflict between villagers and a mining consortium shows no signs of abating.

Utkal Alumina International Limited (uail) was formed in 1992. Initially comprising of partners indal, Tata, Norway-based Norsk Hydro and Canada-based Aluminium Company of Canada (alcan), the consortium today consists of hindalco (an Aditya Birla Group Company that acquired indal) and alcan. The former is the larger partner, holding 55 per cent of uail shares; the latter holds 45 per cent. Tata and Norsk Hydro withdrew from the consortium in 1997.

By this time, people in Kashipur were turning hostile to uail 's project -- an alumina refinery plant at Doraguda near village d -Karol, coevally sourcing bauxite through open cast mining -- a grossly polluting method -- in the Bahplimali hills of village Maikanch. uail's survey work had begun secretively. Villagers were routinely told it was government work. Then, as rumours began doing the rounds that a huge project was to come up in the area, people began to mobilise. On December 1, 1993 local people met the chief minister to demand project cancellation.

Then the arrests began
Implicating villagers in false cases. Harassing. In 1996, at a mass meeting, the Prakrutika Sampads Suraksha Parishad was formed to block the plant as well as open cast mining at Bahplimali, a hill locally revered: it used road blockades, public meetings and pada yatras (foot marches) as modes of protest. And barricades. At one such barricade raised on the Maikanch village road, on December 16, 2000, police fired on a crowd of 300 protestors, killing 3 and injuring 30: the day before, Maikanch villagers had stopped political leaders from attending a 'multi-stakeholder dialogue' uail had organised at village Nuagon.

So it came to be that uail, which was supposed to begin production in 2002, was forced to reschedule the production deadline to 2005.

December 1, 2004 to ...
The tribals of Kashipur block have been existing in a state of siege, found a fact-finding mission of the People's Union for Civil Liberty (pucl) that, alarmed by reports of police firing and rape, reached village Kucheipadar -- the nerve centre of resistance -- on January 26, 2005, Republic Day, in time to witness a black-flag hoisting.

On September 7, 2004, a Kucheipadar villager narrated to the pucl team, the district administration laid the foundation stone for a police station at village d -Karol, the site of the alumina plant, and quite near Kucheipadar. Villagers in the vicinity took up another round of protests, but police forces continued to be deployed in the area. On December 1, 2004 about a 1,000 people carried out a roadblock against the proposed station. Eight platoons surrounded them. Amidst abuses hurled back and forth, the police lobbed tear-gas shells and lathi-charged.

For a month afterwards, the reprisals continued. Villagers in the area haven't been able to work their fields, or trot off to market, for fear of being picked up by the police, or goons hired, the pucl report quotes villagers as saying, by uail.

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