Journalist | Writer | Analyst
13 April 2009
In Kalahandi, battle for livelihood trumps war for votes
Of all the disconnects between the economic ‘base’ and political ‘superstructure’ of Indian electoral alliances, none is more glaring than the tie-up between the Biju Janata Dal of Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the Left-inspired Third Front. For even as the Left has made the anti-people neo-liberal policies of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre the target of its nationwide campaign, Mr. Patnaik remains firmly wedded to one of the most predatory forms of extractive capitalism anywhere in India.
Here in Kalahandi, all the promises and pitfalls of this model are on open display, dividing its victims and hope-filled beneficiaries, suborning the institutions of the state and throwing an open challenge to those who speak of development as an inclusive process. Lanjigarh is today frontier country and what happens here tomorrow, after the elections and beyond, will likely determine the direction India takes. The election is essentially a three-cornered fight between the sitting BJP MP, Bikram Keshari Deo, Congress stalwart and former MP Bhakta Charan Das and Subhas Chandra Nayak of the BJD. But the polls mask a more bitter and fundamental contest. On one side is the political clout and financial muscle of a powerful business house — the Indian-owned MNC, Vedanta — which established a massive aluminum refinery here in 2006 and is pushing for the immediate commencement of bauxite mining in the picturesque and ecologically-fragile Niyamgiri hills which ring this small town. And on the other, thousands of local tribals and non-tribals, who say the mining project will completely destroy their lives.
In Chhatarpur and Bandiguda right next to the refinery, and villages elsewhere, local residents openly express their preference for the ‘haath’ of the Congress. Mr. Das has been vocal in his opposition to Vedanta and his supporters have actively taken part in the struggles of the villagers and were also involved in a major case against the mining project in the Supreme Court. Despite the court-mandated Centrally Empowered Commission coming out against the Niyamgiri project on environmental grounds, the SC gave the green signal last year, overturning a plea by the Dongria Kondhas who live on the hill that their livelihood and religious rights would be destroyed once mining begins. It is not just the Dongrias who say the hill is sacred. “Niyamgiri belongs to Niyam raja,” Bhima Majhi of Turiguda, a Kondha, told The Hindu. “We worship him up there and in our village. And because of him, the hill gives all of us everything we need — food, water, forest products.” These sentiments appear to be shared by virtually everyone cutting across caste, tribe and even class lines. “Niyamgiri is our life”, Niranjan Acharya, an Ayurvedic doctor and activist said. Once it is gone, we will have nothing”.
With both the BJD and BJP strongly defending Vedanta, the fight, at least around Lanjigarh, seems to favour Congress. But Kalahandi is a large constituency. In the district headquarters of Bhawanipatna, opinion is divided on the bauxite project but most people this reporter spoke to said they expected the region to benefit in the long run. Local traders said sales had increased since the refinery was set up but also said the endless stream of trucks running into and out of Lanjigarh had ruined the local highway. Even in town, though, many seemed inclined to vote for Bhakta Charan Das in spite of his opposition to Vedanta, mostly out of fatigue towards having the same MP representing them since 1998. But for the Assembly, urban residents spoke highly of Mr. Patnaik and the BJD.
Vedanta claims that its project will bring benefits to the population around Lanjigarh, a claim belied by the absence of employment for locals and mounting environment-related problems the refinery itself has generated. As part of its contribution to local welfare, the company built a 20-bed ward for the local government hospital. When this correspondent visited it, the ward seemed unused. Dr. Debashish Ray said Vedanta had built the ward but neither it nor the government had provided any extra staff or facilities like quarters. “I would say Vedanta has made no contribution here,” said Dr. Nagendra Rajsamukh, another resident physician. Both doctors said the refinery had led to an increase in the incidence of skin and respiratory diseases because of water and dust pollution. “From afar, everything seems OK,” said Dr. Ray. “But only those who live here know what it is like.”
Even before the mining has started — a process the locals say will lead to water streams from the hill getting choked — the large red mud pond Vedanta has built near its plant has already cut off water to dozens of acres of farm land. And in village after village, this reporter saw residents with skin ailments and heard of an increase in TB. Govind Majhi, a 15-year-old boy in Bandiguda, held out a blistered hand that he said was caused by bathing in a polluted nali. “If a neta’s son falls ill, Vedanta will even fly him by helicopter,” said a villager. “But for us, there is nothing.”
Asked about the promised jobs, Mukta Harijan, a wisened but sprightly Dalit woman in Chhatrapur pointed to the scores of young men standing around. “Most of the work is being done by people from outside. When our youth ask for work, the security guards demand a gate-pass and turn them away.” Villagers said that whenever they try to protest, the police quickly move in. In Bellamba, locals said three villagers — Manglu Majhi, Hari Majhi and Dhanurjay Patra — were still in jail three months after being arrested for taking part in a peaceful dharna.
“Vedanta tells people in Delhi, ‘we have given everything — electricity, roads clinics,’ but they have done nothing,” said Doisingh Majhi of Bellamba. In Kendu Bardia, Kumti Majhi, a local leader of the anti-Vedanta movement, told me about how villagers last week managed to stop the construction of a conveyor belt that will be used to bring bauxite down from Niyamgiri once the mining starts. “They will try again after the elections and the police and administration will back them,” he said, “but we will continue to resist.” Niyamgiri, he said, was not the property of the government and the courts had no power to hand it over to Vedanta. “The hills belong to the adivasis and we are not going to let go.”