When I arrived at Biju Patnaik Airport, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, I was struck by a billboard above the luggage carousel: "Mining happiness for the people of Orissa - Vedanta."
What cruel irony. The poster should have read instead, "Undermining happiness for the people of Orissa." The opening of an aluminum refinery in Lanjigarh, in south-west Orissa in eastern India, by the Vedanta Aluminum Limited (VAL), a subsidiary of British based mining group, Vedanta Resources plc, has brought nothing but misery, disease and impoverishment to the Kondh communities of the area.
Vedanta has received unconditional support from the State of Orissa, to start an open pit bauxite mine in Niyamgiri Mountain. It has also been given the green light from the Supreme Court of India. However the Court has left the final decision with the Ministry of Environments and Forests. The minister, Jairam Ramesh, has told the parliament that Vedanta does not have final forest clearance, a prerequisite for starting the mining work.
If Vedanta's bauxite mining project is allowed to go ahead it will endanger the very survival of the Kondh, a unique and already vulnerable tribe who have lived there for generations. They rely on the forest and streams to graze livestock and gather food, medicines and vital drinking water. The lush forests of Niyamgiri Mountain are a pristine ecosystem of great conservation significance. So important is the local environment to the Kondh that they consider the mountain to be a living God and claim that their spiritual, cultural and economic well-being are embedded deep within it.
The top of Niyamgiri mountain, where the mine is planned, is the source of two rivers, the Vamsadhara and the Nagaveli, and thirty six springs. The Wildlife institute of India states that "it is anticipated that the removal of this layer of bauxite at the top of the mountain which stores water will impact ground waters in the region, and consequently the quality of forest lands."
The streams that run through the hills are the only source of water for the Kondh: the Central Empowered Committee to the Supreme Court anticipates "adverse effects of mining will affect not only bio-diversity but availability of water for the local people." Mining operations would result in desiccation, reducing the flow of the two rivers and the streams. The mine will also cause increased erosion and pollution of the water systems, resulting in deteriorated water quality.
The bauxite mine will affect not only the livelihood of the Kondh, but also water sources in the entire surrounding areas.
In April I traveled to Orissa representing the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation with Action Aid to meet with the Kondh communities. The journey from London to Niyamgiri was grueling: an 8 hour flight from London to Delhi, a 2 hour flight to Bhubaneswar, a 9 hour train ride to Rayagada, a 2.5 hour car journey, a motorcycle ride and finally a hike on foot. The road conditions were treacherous. At one point our car skidded into a ditch and 15 men had to pull us out.
There are approximately 80 million tribal people ('Adivasi') in India, 73% of whom live below the poverty line. The Kondh population is approximately 15 000; most of them live in the state of Orissa. There are 3 distinct groups of Kondh: the Dongria (hill dwellers), the Jharania (who live near the streams) and the Kutia (who live in the plains). Despite vast investment in mining and related industries in Orissa, it remains one of India's poorest states; around 46% of Orissa's families live below the poverty line, earning less than 15,100 rupees, the equivalent of US$ 330 per year. Most of these communities are Adivasis living in rural Orissa.
During my journey to Orissa I visited various villages, including Rengopali, Bandhaguda and Tamaksila. At every stage of my trip, at every village the communities and their leaders were eager to tell me their tragic side of the story.
The Kondh's testimonies exposed the modus operandi of Vedanta as fraught with human right violations, intimidation and manipulation of the law. The government of Orissa is contributing to the demise of the Kondh, by continually favoring the interests of Vedanta, and ignoring laws that recognize tribal rights. In collusion with the State authorities, Vedanta is using the local police to forcibly displace people and crush the indigenous land rights movement.
According to the Site Inspection Report commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and conducted between the 26th January and 1st February 2010, by a forestry official, a former government wildlife official and an independent sociology expert, the government of Orissa, "has received material assistance from Vedanta... This is a disturbing state of affairs and needs to be checked if the neutrality of the state is to be maintained."
In 2008 the Supreme Court of India ordered that a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) should be set up to ensure sustainable development of local communities, protection of environment and conservation of wildlife. According to an Amnesty International Report, Sterlite India has 49% stake in this SPV, the government of Orissa has 26% and the Orissa Mining Corporation the remaining 25%.
In 2002 Vedanta approached the communities surrounding Lanjigarh, informing them that they were going to build a factory. Vedanta promised employment for everyone, assuring the Kondh that only one village would be displaced. Instead, Vedanta built the Lanjigarh refinery, which stands in a 750 hectare complex, next to the Vamsadhara river, the main source of water for drinking, cooking, washing, irrigation and cattle for the local people, and many villages downstream.
Local residents told me that some had received notices from the Kalahandi District administration telling them that their land was to be compulsorily acquired for the refinery. In 2003 Vedanta forced the community of Kinari to vacate their village. Vedanta coerced farmers into selling their land for far below its market value. In contravention of the 5th and 6th Schedules of the Constitution of India, hundreds of people have been displaced. The few people who had titles to their land or records given by the revenue department (TATA) were promised 100,000 rupees per acre. Those without titles were promised a one off settlement of 50,000 to give all their rights away. Worse still, those willing to give up their homes were promised up to 1,000 rupees. According to a report by Amnesty International in 2009, 118 families were fully displaced and a further 1,220 families sold their farmlands to Vedanta. It is believed that Vedanta now owns over 3000 acres of land, including forest land. Vedanta is currently seeking clearance for the compulsory acquisition of an additional 1,340 hectares of land, for expanding the refinery.
Although the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (or PESA) of 1996, grants village councils ('Gaon Sabha') certain political, administrative and fiscal powers, in Orissa, the election of village councils has been indefinitely postponed. Vedanta has violated the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, passed in India on 18 December 2006 (also known as 'Tribal Rights Act' and the 'Forest Rights Act'), which grants forest-dwelling communities the right to land and other resources. In addition, no comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) which is a prerequisite for Clearance under the Environment Protection Act, has been carried out. Furthermore the rapid Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted in 2005 was not made available to the public.
The Kondh have been coerced into giving up their homes, their land, and their means of survival, in the name of 'public purpose.' They were promised employment and prosperity. Instead, they got the Lanjigarh refinery. Vedanta claims that the refinery employs 200 local people; in fact, I was told that the mine is run by 57 foreign nationals. The refinery has brought nothing but disease, impoverishment, and environmental degradation to the local communities.
When I arrived at Rengopali the villagers told me how they used to grow millet, beans and peas. They harvested leaves, pineapple, jackfruit, mango, banana, chillies, ginger, turmeric, bamboo and roots from the forest. Fresh water was plentiful. The Kondh used to own 400 acres of land. Now they have been left with only 60 acres. They are fighting to retain that remaining land, their forest and their place of worship. "Every day is a struggle to survive."
The refinery has created two red mud ponds the size of several football pitches near Rengopali into which bauxite ore is washed, along with chemicals, causing toxic fumes and polluted dust. Lutni Majhi, a woman living in Rengopali, told me, "Now, not only is it hot during the day, it is hot at night as the refinery is functioning all the time. Before, we had forest and trees around us, it was much cooler." "We've never had this much heat, flies and mosquitoes." The water sources are exposed to dangerous contamination. The red mud pond is now being expanded. Vedanta has tried to destroy and close a village road which children use for going to school. Their recent attempt to block this road failed but they are determined to deny access to the villagers.
The local people are suffering the consequences of pollution caused by the refinery. New diseases affecting peoples' lungs and eyes are already widespread. According to the Site Inspection Report, 13 people have died from TB in the last 2 years and 200 to 250 cattle and goats have perished. I spoke to a man who is dying from an unidentified respiratory illness resembling TB. When I spoke to his wife, she told me that the hospital could not diagnose her husbands' illness. She was distraught; she fears that she too will be left alone to fend for herself and their children.
The Kondh have suffered grave violations of their human rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living, including a healthy environment.
"The refinery has built its walls right here making our access to the river very difficult. The water we use now is contaminated with ash pond waste. Our children have blisters and skin problems."
In Bandhaguda, which is less than two hundred meters from the refinery, the villagers told me a particularly disturbing story. When Vedanta started to cut the forest to build the refinery, the villagers organized a protest in front of the construction site. Four hundred people from the community, including women and children, demonstrated. The police arrested all the men, keeping them in jail for seven days. When they were released they were told they had become outcast and needed to go to Puri to pray and redeem themselves, at the Lord Jagannath's Temple. The State police were used alongside Vedanta company goons to forcibly take them to far off Puri. When the men of the village were brought back, the walls around the refinery were already built. Their ancestral graveyard was destroyed when the area was illegally enclosed in the Vedanta refinery compound in violation of Customary Law.
On the 3rd day of my visit we made our way to one of the Dongria Kondh villages, Tamaksila, about 30 km's from Rayagada. The Dongria Kondh are considered by the Indian government to be an endangered Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) and are recognized as "a people requiring particular protection."
It is near Tamaksila, at the top of Nyamgiri, that Vedanta proposes to mine bauxite to feed the refinery that is currently poisoning the communities around Bandhaguda and Rangapoli. If it goes ahead, the mine will destroy the livelihood and way of life of the Dongria Kondh communities. The very existence of the Dongria Kondh is hanging in the balance.
The Government of Orissa failed to inform the Kondh of their rights under the Forest Rights Act and Vedanta did not warn them of the potentially devastating impact of its project. According to a report from the UK National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, "Vedanta failed to engage the Dongria Kondh in adequate and timely consultations about the construction of the mine...Vedanta did not respect the rights and freedoms of the Dongria Kondh consistent with India's commitments under various international human rights instruments, including the UN international covenant on civil and political rights, the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, the convention on biological diversity and the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people."
The path to Tamaksila had been dug up, apparently for the purpose of laying an asphalt road to connect the villages in the mountain to the Panchayat. I learned that the real reason is to give access to Vedanta. The deep trenches on the path made it difficult for us to drive both vehicles up to the village and it was decided that one vehicle would transport some of us up and the rest would make their way on foot.
We finally reached the village after another 20 minutes' drive. Before us stood quiet mud huts with thatched roofs, holding Mahua tree hay and flowers that had been put there to dry. The only sounds to be heard were bird calls, the mooing of the indigenous breeds of cows, and the flurry of the poultry scattered by our vehicle.
Our hosts took us further down the path that passed through the village. Suddenly in front of us stood a large gathering of more than 100 members of one of the oldest surviving indigenous people: the Dongria Kondh. Many of them had walked 10 km's or more from their villages further up in the hill just to meet us and share their concerns about the imminent threat to their sacred mountain and to their way of life.
I was very moved by the beauty of the place and the unforgettable sight of the Dongria Kondh community waiting for us. As soon as we came up the hill they announced our arrival with drum beats and began their traditional welcoming ceremony. Two young men with handmade drums started singing a slow rhythmic song about Niyamgiri. A group of beautiful young girls started singing in tune with the boys and dancing arm-in-arm. Like their life in the mountains their music too was peaceful and rhythmic. The lyrics were poignant. It eulogized the mountain and listed the gifts the mountain gave to them. I was told how their struggle had made its way into all of their songs. The song ended with the line, "we will not leave Niyamgiri".
A group of smiling women surrounded me and put their arms around my waist, leading me to my assigned seat. Before I sat down, they gave me a beautiful bouquet of scented flowers and put a garland of flowers they had picked from the mountain around my neck. They welcomed everyone with the traditional 'tika' on our foreheads, made with the paste of turmeric and rice.
The women and girls were wearing their traditional colorful clothes, beaded jewelery, hair pins, ear and nose rings, and head necklaces. In contrast, the men wore plain dhotis. Many had long hair tied into a knot in the nape of their necks. In traditional fashion some were carrying axes on their shoulders and in their hands. One could already see the influence of 'development' in some of the young men wearing shirts and t-shirts, as opposed to the older men of the tribe sitting bare-chested and breaking into song every now and then.
We all sat around in a circle. They brought us chairs to sit on; but the men women and children of the Dongria Kondh sat on the ground. As soon as I asked questions they stood up and began to tell me with great urgency their concerns and fears that Vedanta was going to destroy their mountain and their livelihood.
Kuleska Patru one of the leaders of the Dongria Kondh told me, with passion and determination, "We will not leave Niyamgiri." Without our mountain, our god, there is no life for us; we will resist the forced expulsion till death." "Just as a fish cannot survive outside of water, the Kondh cannot survive without Niyamgiri." The message the Kondh asked me to bring to the Indian Government, the Chief Minister of Orissa, Vedanta and their shareholders and to the people at large was loud and clear: "We are prepared to die rather than abandon our sacred mountain; we don't know how to survive in the outside world". "No amount of financial reward or relocation packages can compensate for the loss of our livelihood and our sacred land." "Please tell Vedanta that the Kondh do not want the mine to be built."
Their hope is that the Government of India and the Chief Minister of Orissa, Naveen Patnaik will respect their livelihood, their culture, and their fundamental human rights and prevent Vedanta from causing the irreversible destruction of Niyamgiri Mountain, by allowing it to become another industrial wasteland.
A Redefinition of Development
I have campaigned on these issues for nearly three decades, so I speak from first hand experience when I say that the Kondh tribe's battle to save their livelihood illustrates the struggle for survival that tribal and indigenous people are facing throughout the world.
When I read Arundhati Roy's essay "Walking with the Comrades" it brought back memories of the abuses I witnessed in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Brazil, amongst others. The struggle of tribal and indigenous people vs. corporations and states, over ancestral land rich in natural resources, is a global issue. Throughout history indigenous and tribal people have been oppressed and forcibly expelled from their ancestral land, their rights violated with impunity by governments that put the interest of corporations above their survival. This combination of factors has often led them to resort to armed struggle, in order to protect their families, their land, their livelihoods and their culture. Last year in Peru, hundreds of Amazonian Indians were wounded and arrested in clashes over oil and timber.
Vedanta's modus operandi is not an isolated case. People in the developing world have been victims of exploitation for centuries. Today, exploitation is no longer carried out by colonial adventurers aiming to discover new horizons for spices, tobacco or slaves. Now, it is often carried out by powerful businessmen representing mining, oil and gas or logging companies. These policies are being implemented "in the name of progress and development." The mantra is "maximum production, minimum cost and open markets."
The Indian state, enticed by visions of joining the developed world, is pursuing policies that use the same senseless tactics as the colonial powers of the last century. How is it possible that governments continue to pursue such irrational development policies, which blatantly undermine the basic human rights of tribal and indigenous people and the poorest sectors of society?
In addition to endangering the livelihoods of thousands of people, devastating the environment, wiping out precious biodiversity, fauna and flora and causing catastrophic climate change, the actions of these states and corporations have another important and often overlooked consequence: they are causing irreversible damage to the world in which future generations must live.
According to the UN, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they do business. It is deplorable that local inhabitants should have to implore and appeal to the better nature of shareholders and company executives to protect their human rights, their homes and their livelihoods. Companies who violate this fundamental right should be held accountable in a court of law.
In the 21st century, we need to redefine the meaning of "development." It must be sustainable. Any development project must take into account the needs and aspirations of the local communities, and should benefit all sectors of society. Respect for human rights and the environment must be a priority. As Our Common Future, the report published by the UN's Brundtland Commission states, development must "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The criteria for "development" need to be more holistic - instead of focussing on GDP, we need to take Human Development Indicators (poverty, health, mortality, education) into account, when assessing a 'development' project.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) refers to a commitment to business activity that promotes environmental, economic and social benefit. Today, CSR is often used as a window-dressing, by corporations for their commercial benefit, to improve their image with the public or with government. We just have to look at Vedanta's PR campaign for evidence of this. We must ensure that CSR becomes an integral part of business practice. Corporations must follow through with their pledges, to adhere to ethical standards, corporate responsibility and sustainable practice. These principles have to be enforceable - not as voluntary measures, but as a legally binding mechanism in international law. Corporate Social Responsibility is not only about how corporations spend their money, but about how they make it.
There has been some success in our campaign to hold Vedanta accountable. In February this year the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Church of England demonstrated their commitment to human rights and ethical investment by disinvesting from Vedanta. Edinburgh-based investment management company Martin Currie sold its £2.3m stake in Vedanta in 2008 on ethical grounds. In 2007 the Norway pension fund withdrew its investment of $15.6m based on the findings of its ethics committee, which stated: "Allegations leveled at Vedanta regarding environmental damage and complicity in human rights violations, including abuse and forced eviction of tribal people, are well founded."
It is my hope that the Indian government and particularly the Government of Orissa will do everything in its power to prevent Vedanta from endangering the survival of the Kondh. It is not too late to force Vedanta to adhere to ethical codes of practice that respect human and environmental rights. This may be our last chance to help the Kondh and prevent their way of life from disappearing altogether.
When I attended Vedanta's AGM last year, I spoke to Sitaram Kulisika, who was representing the Kondh people at the meeting. I was very moved by his compelling testimony, his commitment to his homeland, and his people: "Once they start mining, the mountain will be bulldozed and the rivers will dry up and our livelihood will be lost," he said. "We don't know how to adapt and survive and our way of living is not available in the cities. We will be extinct."
To find out more information about the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation campaign against Vedanta, befriend Bianca Jagger Kondh Campaign on Facebook.