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Small People’s Voices

Omkar Goswami


On 24 August 2010, the Government of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest rejected a plan by the Orissa Mining Corporation to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills to feed Vedanta’s aluminium smelter at Lanjigarh. The decision was taken a day after the seven-member statutory Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) agreed with the substantive findings of a report submitted by a special panel under an the chairmanship of N.C. Saxena, ex-IAS officer.

According to the FAC and the ministry, the key issues were:

Violating the Forest Rights Act, 2006, specifically protection of the rights and livelihood of primitive tribal groups, to which the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh belong. According to the FAC report and that of the Saxena committee, their religious rights and sources of livelihood would apparently have been severely compromised by the proposed mining activity.

Violating the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, by Vedanta Alumina Limited allegedly illegally enclosing over 26 hectares of village forest commons (gram jogya jangal) within the premises of the Lanjigarh refinery.

Violating the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, by Vedanta apparently being engaged in expanding the refinery capacity from 1 million metric tons per annum (mtpa) to 6 million mtpa without obtaining all the requisite clearances.

Supposedly supplying incomplete and inaccurate information to the regulatory authorities regarding the span of encroachment of forest land.

I care deeply for the environment. However, being no expert, I am in no position to judge whether the FAC and the Saxena reports are correct in their facts. Since the decision of the Ministry of Environment is based on the findings of these two reports, I also have no basis to question the minister, Jairam Ramesh’s assertion that there was “no emotion, no politics, no prejudice” in taking the decision; and that it was taken according to “a purely legal approach”.

My piece is not about Vedanta, Niyamgiri and Lanjigarh. It is about mining, the environment and the rights of the local people; and about the voice of the minority in a true democracy, which will hopefully be a multi-polar and multi-cultural India’s real strength.

Unlike what most people think, democracy is not about untrammelled majority rule. Far more importantly, it about creating institutions that protect minority rights. The same Hindu maximalist who will hate me for the last sentence will agree in a trice that minority shareholder rights must be protected in a takeover; or that minorities need to be protected from majority pogroms. It is the same principle, but over different terrains.

The problem with mining in much of India is that some of the richest lodes are located in abysmally poor and obscenely under-served tribal belts — be these in Orissa, Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand. You may argue that the mines will bring much needed development; create jobs; craft conditions for tomorrow’s education; and eventually produce greater income and empowerment for the poor tribal. In rare cases, you may be right, such as what has occurred over almost a century in the Tata owned and leased iron ore and coal mines around Jamshedpur. Quite often, you will be factually wrong.

But even if you were correct in theory, people who are being asked to give up a way of life — however primitive and benighted it may be to the modernists’ eyes — have the unquestioned right to choose the lifestyle and livelihood they want, and demand not to be swayed by what the rest of the world thinks is good for them. The democratic task is to try and convince; the autocratic action is to insist upon the licence to ‘do’ in the name of ‘progress’.

The 19th and the 20th centuries have seen many genocides of the powerful over the powerless: of rifle wielding hunters over tigers, lions and tuskers; of the ‘Go West’ white man slaughtering native Americans; of the white people butchering Aborigines in Australia; of a Austrian lunatic creating a milieu to massacre over six million Jews; of Sikhs being slaughtered after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and Muslims after Godhra. Throughout this period, the small, underprivileged and weak had no voice worth the name.

Either we are a democracy; or we are not. If we are, as we claim to be, there will be occasional cases where — by sheer providence or otherwise — the small will have a voice. A voice that demands their way of life. A voice that will need to be heard. Even at the cost of a certain kind of progress, which I expect this magazine endorses.

History may judge the Dongaria and Kutia Kondhs to be ‘dumb’. But they spoke. And were heard. If we want them to change their minds then, as Vito Corleone said, “Make them an offer that they can’t refuse”. If not, be humble and understand this is what freedom is all about. The stage for small people.


Published: Business World, September 2010


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