Adivasi struggles against the aluminum industry continue in Orissa, east India.
by Jo Lawbuary

The, adivasis (adi=original, vasi=inhabitants) of the Kashipur region of southwest Orissa, India, have painted bows and arrows on their houses, in readiness for battle. For the Paroja- Kondha are set to lose their ancestral land and homes, apparently in the 'national interest'1, to make way for the thrusting modernisation of large-scale industrial development - in this case, the aluminum industry; but not without a fight.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the many margins the adivasis inhabit; political, economic, social, the reaches of globalisation are closing in. Beneath the hills that have been their home for how long, no one quite knows, is India's largest reserves of bauxite2, the ore from which aluminum is produced.

In globalisation speak, it is a foregone conclusion that these people will be moved on somewhere; anywhere, in order for the bauxite to be mined. Since the liberalisation of India's markets in 1990, the incorporation of India into the global economy is on the fast track. Orissa, particularly, has emerged as the mineral hotspot of the subcontinent, and foreign investors are queuing up to get a look in3. The east Indian state also supports one of the largest adivasi populations of India. According to the 1981 census, about six million indigenous people accounted for over a quarter of Orissa's total population, and 12% of India's total adivasi population4.

Currently, they must be something of an inconvenient blot on the otherwise industrial landscape. Where once they remained an invisible mass to the world outside their scheduled areas, adivasis have now become visible, and vocal, in their protest, at the prospect of losing the centre of their worldview; their hilly land, their forests and their homes.

The adivasis of Kashipur are pitting themselves against a consortium of foreign transnational corporations (TNCs) under the name of Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), in what is a 100% export-oriented undertaking. TNCs making up the consortium are Alcan, a Canadian transnational and its subsidiary, Indal, also the Norwegian subsidiary of Norsk Hydro, Hydro Aluminium.

UAIL plans an extensive 'greenfield' (virgin land) alumina project in the Koraput and Rayagada districts of southwest Orissa. Bauxite will be mined from the adivasi Baphlimali hills, where an estimated 200 million tonnes is located, and transported along a 20km conveyorbelt, to a refinery at Doraguda, which will have a 2.5 million tonne per annum capacity. The processed product, alumina, which is the intermediate material in producing aluminum, is being touted as the cheapest in the world, at $85 a tonne5 and will feed the growing demand for light metal in cars, particularly in American, but also Asian markets. The scheme demands over 2000 hectares, necessitating the loss of three villages, and land in which twelve villages have legal claims. Numerous other villages will have their access to common resources, such as pasture and water curtailed6- a significant blow to the subsistence economy of the region.

The environmental impact of the venture will be severe; the region will be transformed into a mining landscape, as hills are razed to the ground7. Loss of vegetation will affect the recharge of local rivers and streams that carry water to the region, resulting in their possible drying up. Lack of soil binding vegetation may also increase the likelihood of flash floods and landslides. Degradation will be entrained on the landscape of southwest Orissa due to various processes associated with alumina production. Solid effluents such as 'red mud' from bauxite processing will be created in millions of tonnes, and will need to be stored in large 'ponds'8 apparently underestimated by UAIL in their environmental assessment by half. The preference for open cast mines will compound the overall environmental impact, as they are more difficult to rehabilitate after their working life, require greater area and more social displacement, but provide a quick return on investments, and are the favoured choice of industry 9,10.

UAIL has been ruthless in its pursuit of Orissa's bauxite. Given the keenness of both the government of Orissa and UAIL to develop the area industrially, apparently in the peoples' interest, it is, then, strange that UAIL has had to resort to a 'dirty tricks' campaign to secure the land rights for the scheme; trickery, coercion and threats were widely reported amongst affected villages, with some individuals even signing land rights away at gunpoint to local officials and police11. Other tactics have been a lack of consultation with local people affected by UAIL's plans, and wilful misinformation regarding the consortium's motives - when surveying began in the mid 1990's, locals were variously told of plans to implement agricultural improvement schemes, and to monitor the spread of malaria12.

The government of Orissa, too, has emerged as a force unto itself, in smoothing UAIL's path, and riding roughshod over the adivasis of Kashipur. Not only has the state administration marshalled the special state police force to brutally quash local protest, the government of Orissa has also ignored its own constitution regarding adivasi rights. Indigenous communities in southwest Orissa are legally 'Fifth Schedule', which confers on them certain rights. These constitutional rights include consultation of the gram sabha or panchayats (village councils), prior to any acquisition of land for developmental projects in scheduled areas, and before resettling and rehabilitating those affected13.

A recent report by the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, is damning of both the government and UAIL for their neglect in consultation on land acquisition and R and R. CSD found that communication was restricted to merely conveying orders for land to be acquired, and for compensation to be dispensed. The report highlights that the usual requirements of rehabilitation, such as land to land exchange, community resettlement, employment security, protection of livelihood needs or entitlement to common resources have not been taken into account14.

CSD reserves singular criticism for the government of Orissa, which 'smacks of vendetta and intolerance' in its campaign to silence local non-governmental organisations working with adivasi communities. NGOs have undertaken developmental work in some of the most deprived areas of Orissa. They have also provided a channel of communication through which a normally voiceless community has been represented and heard. Since expressing criticism of UAIL's treatment of project-affected people and relaying adivasi concerns, four NGOs have been 'de-registered' and had their funding withdrawn. The situation has been brought to the attention of Amnesty International, who released a press statement (8 February 1999) expressing 'concern about wider moves to restrict freedom of association or NGO activity'.

Lack of transparency and heavy-handed tactics by UAIL and the government has only strengthened local feeling against the project. The sometimes volatile situation has been aggravated by the hiring of 'goons' by the consortium15, to intimidate protestors, police violence against women and children peacefully opposing the scheme16 and mass arrest of protestors17.

UAIL and the state government, however, do not appear to consider the adivasis' claims as legitimate; when the adivasis reject the concrete shacks constructed as recompense for the loss of their homes, and are not keen, or willing, to become industrial labourers, as an alternative to their lost livelihoods, they are charged as being anti-development, and anti-industrial18. Some have been displaced by large-scale industrial development before, and have experienced at first hand, woefully inadequate rehabilitation and resettlement schemes, while few benefit from the offer of new jobs. Loss of self-reliance and the breakdown of communities and families are routinely observed in those that are reduced to 'living like refugees in ill-planned rehabilitation colonies'19, while extra strain on shrinking resources may fuel conflict all round.

The state government would still have us believe that this industrial development is for the benefit of the adivasis, and in the national interest. It is hard to see how this is the case. Certainly not for the adivasis, who will be trading the focus of their worldview; their land and homes, and livelihoods, for a landscape of environmental degradation for all and a life of industrial labour for a few. Nor will the state of Orissa necessarily benefit. As the venture is a 100% export-oriented, private sector undertaking, the prime beneficiaries will be the geographically footloose TNCs. Profits will flow not just out of the state, but also out of the subcontinent20.

As the profits flow away from Orissa, the costs, in terms of environmental degradation, and social upheaval, will remain in the landscape and the people of east India, long after UAIL has packed up and moved on. The production of the cheapest alumina in the world, as proclaimed by UAIL at $85 a tonne, will not be achieved due to the purity of Orissa's bauxite, as UAIL maintains, but more likely, by externalising costs. UAIL's alumina will effectively be a discounted product, by minimising costs, such as environmental protection or rehabilitation measures, and having a captive labour force. The costs, however, will be disproportionately borne by local communities, who will have had their environment trashed, and lost, or had access to their resources curtailed.

In the fall-out of negative publicity, changes have occurred at UAIL. One of the original consortium members, Tata, a prominent Indian corporation, has pulled out of the venture, and on its heels, another high profile Indian corporation, Hindalco, has recently pulled the plug on a similar alumina scheme, also in southwest Orissa. Whether this is directly related to the strong feeling of protest on the ground, is unknown, though the timing and political fall out may be significant, as the new chief minister of Orissa has ordered a review of mining projects in Kashipur, and an investigation into adivasi claims of foul-play by UAIL21. How this will affect the several TNCs considering mega alumina and aluminum ventures and expansions in this area, remains to be seen. Given the increasing momentum of globalisation, where national sovereignty, environmental protection, and human rights are subjugated, all in the name of free trade, and economic 'might is right' wins the day, local feelings may ultimately count for very little, and the industrial colonisation of Orissa will probably proceed apace. At UAIL, construction is due to start next year, though the consortium is keeping a very low profile in Orissa currently.

The bullying tactics of UAIL have also given way to a more benign fašade, intent on 'greenwashing'. Now, opencast mining is 'eco-friendly'22 and the consortium plans to develop the whole area. In an expression of philanthropic corporatism, and reminiscent of colonial discourse, Ivar Oellingrath of Norsk Hydro, launching a policy document 'Corporate Social Responsibilities Guidelines' comments 'natural resources in the area have already been stretched to the utmost. If the land continues to be farmed in the way it is today, the soil will be further depleted. Controlled industrial development will be the best thing for the area'23. Loss of resources for the displaced will accompany loss of social and economic autonomy, as the corporate realm paternally 'adopts' them.

The Paroja- Kondha have ceased to be agents of their own development. Indeed, it almost seems as if the Paroja-Kondha are not allowed to 'be' anymore. In what amounts to little more than the underlying colonial mission of 'civilising the savage', the 'development' of these people has now been passed over to the corporate realm - as a PR exercise. Adivasi worldviews are being increasingly contested by neo-liberal ideology -and losing. Is this ethnic cleansing by stealth?

 

  1. Mahapatra, R, (1999): Confrontation Mine. Down to Earth. April 15,1999, pp20-23.
  2. Singh, K, (1997): Orissa: From ‘Backward’ to ‘Investor’s Paradise’? Public Interest Research Group, Delhi.
  3. Singh, K, (1997): Orissa: From ‘Backward’ to ‘Investor’s Paradise’? Public Interest Research Group, Delhi.
  4. Padhi, GS, (1994): Forest Resources of Orissa. Padhi, Orissa, pp69-81.
  5. Financial Times, (1999) UAI ready to proceed with Orissa alumina project.10 June 1999.
  6. Leer-Salvesen, T, (1998): Local people chase Utkal contractor. Norwatch Newsletter. No.8 April 1998.
  7. Mahapatra, R, (1999): Confrontation Mine. Down to Earth. April 15,1999, pp20-23.
  8. www.alcan.com
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  14. Bandyopadhyay, D, (1999): Where assertion is insurrection. Economic and Political Weekly, March 6-13, 1999, pp576-578
  15. Leer-Salvesen, T, (1998): Workers mistreat protestors. Norwatch Newsletter. No.9 June 1998.
  16. Ronning, M, (1998): The fight against Utkal is coming to a head. Norwatch Newsletter. No.4 February 1998.
  17. Mahapatra, R, (1999): Confrontation Mine. Down to Earth. April 15,1999, pp20-23.
  18. Norsk Hydro, (1998): ‘Precise’ system sharpens farmers’ edge. Norsk Hydro News. 15 December 199.
  19. Das, V, (1998): Human Rights, Inhuman Wrongs. Economic and Political Weekly. March 14 199.
  20. Singh, K, (1997): Orissa: From ‘Backward’ to ‘Investor’s Paradise’? Public Interest Research Group, Delhi.
  21. Mahapatra, R, (1999): Confrontation Mine. Down to Earth. April 15,1999, pp20-23.
  22. Financial Times, (1999) UAI ready to proceed with Orissa alumina project.10 June 1999.
  23. Norsk Hydro, (1998): ‘Precise’ system sharpens farmers’ edge. Norsk Hydro News. 15 December 1998