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Cut out the shortcuts

The environmental mutinies dotting the country are about poor, ordinary people struggling to make us understand a no-brainer: they are poor, but modern development, which we call progress, will make them even poorer. Sunita Narain writes.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2010 00:02 IST

The Ministry of Environment and Forest’s decision to stall the Vedanta project in Orissa must be understood. The ‘story’ is about a powerful company breaking the law. But it is equally about a development puzzle in which the richest lands of India are where the poorest people subsist.

The N.C. Saxena committee has indicted the mining conglomerate on three counts of breaking the environmental laws. One, it took over and fenced village forests without permission. Two, the company was sourcing its raw material, bauxite, from illegal mines when the environmental clearance it got was conditional to such a course not being taken. The third charge, supported by papers of the ministry’s officers and the state government’s pollution control board, is the most damning. The company started expanding its refinery capacity from 1 million tonnes per annum (tpa) to 6 million tpa without any permission in hand.

In other words, there is still no assessment of the environmental impact of expansion, which increases the plant’s raw material requirement from 2.6 million tpa to a staggering 16 million tpa. Where will this bauxite come from? How many new mines will it need? Crucially, how many more forests would need to be cut and how much more water will be guzzled? Already there is local anger that the company is sourcing its water from the river Tel through a 65-km-long pipeline and bore-wells, in both ways imposing upon people’s access to this scarce resource. In addition, what will be the pollution load of the much-expanded refinery and can it be mitigated? But M/s Vedanta Alumina Limited doesn’t care about such details. In utter disregard for environmental concerns and existing laws, it has gone ahead with expansion.

The decision is also about a law of rights, which wasn’t adhered to by the state government. The Forest Rights Act (2006) clearly stipulates that the rights of tribals must be recognised and settled before any project clearance is given. Most important, the Act says that forest-dwelling communities must give their consent through gram sabha; only then will a project get the green signal. The Saxena committee says that this procedure wasn’t followed. Worse, the state government tried to cover up its negligence. The indictment of Vedanta shouldn’t shock us. But its impunity should.

The big question now is: what does the decision mean for future ‘development’ in mineral-rich areas? Let’s understand the cartography of modern India. Take a map. First, mark districts in terms of forest wealth, where rich and dense tree cover exists. Overlay on this another map, of India’s water wealth — the sources of the streams and rivers that feed us. Third, plot on the mineral wealth of the country — iron ore, coal, bauxite and all things nice that make economies rich. You will see all the three kinds of riches exist co-spatially.

But don’t stop here. Mark on this map another indicator — districts where the poorest people live. These are also the tribal districts of the country. Again, you will find a complete match. The richest lands are where the poorest people live. Now splash on the colour red. These are the very districts where Naxalites roam, where the government admits it is fighting its own people. Here is a lesson of bad development we need to learn from.

The problem is that mining takes away resources — minerals — and, in the process, degrades the land, forests and water people survive upon. Worse — and this is what truly complicates matters — the modern mining and industrial sector can’t replace the livelihoods it snatches away. Modern industry needs little local employment — Vedanta’s 1 million-tonne refinery needs just about 500 people on its permanent rolls and another 1,000 on contract. Modern, mechanised mining hires even less people. Moreover, local people are hardly skilled to even take these jobs and, so, end up losing their land and their livelihoods.

This is why Vedanta and the thousands of other environmental mutinies dotting the country are about poor, ordinary people (not the Naxalites) struggling to make us understand a no-brainer: they are poor, but modern development, which we call progress, will make them even poorer.

This is the environmentalism of the poor. They are teaching us the value of their natural assets. They know they depend on the land, forests and water in their vicinity for their livelihood. They also know once these resources are gone or degraded, they have no way ahead. For them, the environment is not a luxury but a simple matter of survival.

This is why the Vedanta decision is a tough call for the future. It will require us to change the way we do business — with people and with their environment.

First, ensure people have a stake in development. We can’t extract their resources, pollute their water or conserve their forests without providing benefits to communities that live on these lands. This is why the profit-sharing arrangement proposed in the draft Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act must be supported, against industry’s shortsighted opposition. Indeed, much more will have to follow.

Second, let’s get serious about democracy. The ‘veto’ provided in the Forest Rights Act means that people will say ‘no’ to many other projects. Here, we must accept at least two implications. One, project proponents will have to work harder to improve their track record to bring local communities on board. Two, India will have to do more with less. We won’t be able to mine all the minerals or acquire all the land or take away all the water to build all the industries we have planned or want to. We must reduce our need and increase our efficiency for every inch of land acquired, every tonne of mineral dug up and every drop of water used.

This is a really tough learning for some really tough going in the future. There are no shortcuts in this development. Vedanta has hopefully learnt this by now.

Sunita Narain is Director, Centre for Science and Environment, and editor of Down To Earth. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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