Kalahandi, once known for its starvation deaths, is today the epicentre of the ‘environment versus development’ debate. But it wasn’t until the Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF) Jairam Ramesh echoed the Dongriya Kondh tribe’s complaints that the issue took centrestage. For now, it may seem that the green movement has won. But those being portrayed as ‘green heroes’ may have actually caused greater damage by their ‘display of solidarity’ with the tribals.
Perhaps the biggest damage comes from Rahul Gandhi’s recent visit to Niyamgiri. He made a legitimate people’s movement seem like a stage-managed show for his announcement of being the messiah for the oppressed in the corridors of power in Delhi. In his press conference, Ramesh kept asserting that “there is no politics” in his decision to stop Vedanta and that his orders were based purely on legal violation. But then why did Gandhi visit Niyamgiri just two days after the press conference? Does it mean that the N.C. Saxena report and the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee were all pre-dictated? Was it boldness on the part of Ramesh to issue orders against Vedanta? Or was he merely acting on the direction of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi? And what does this mean for the future of the MoEF?
In 2007, before the story hit New Delhi, Dongria Kondhs spoke on camera about the police atrocities for daring to raise their voices against the project. In Bandagudha, locals accused the state agencies of forced evictions. In 2006, to build the refinery, the police took the men of the village into custody for a night and sent them to a temple in Puri to “purify their souls”. On their return, they found that a wall had been built and their community forest had been taken over. For years, no one asked why the state police took it upon themselves to take the tribals on a ‘pilgrimage’.
But in 2009, Ramesh, using the newly-introduced Forest Rights Act, found out that Vedanta didn’t have the required consent from the tribals for mining. But within 48 hours of his stopping the project, it was clear there were other factors at play. Rahul Gandhi used this golden opportunity to take a chopper ride into the hinterland of Kalahandi. Suddenly it all seemed too well orchestrated to be dismissed as a happy chance. If Gandhi hadn’t taken that trip, Ramesh would have been justified in taking the moral high ground.
Ramesh has re-energised a defunct ministry. Today, he is being seen as the lone green warrior in the Congress, someone who loves the mangroves more than airports, who had the courage to say ‘no’ to BT brinjal and who sent a show cause notice to the Jindal group for violating green norms while setting up a steel plant in Chhattisgarh despite the owner being a member of the same political party as his. But what will he do in those cases where populist aspirations don’t align with environmental concerns? The controversy around the Navi Mumbai airport is one example.
By belittling itself for a decision that favours the young Gandhi’s political career, it is the role of the MoEF, and the minister, that will be under close scrutiny in the future. Will it follow legal procedure or work under pressure from the Gandhi family? These are genuine perception issues.
Perhaps Rahul Gandhi could have contributed to the welfare of the Dongria Kondhs in a bigger way by working from behind the scenes. But by reducing the MoEF to a ‘rubberstamp’ to Gandhi’s political aspirations, there’s now scepticism over the ministry’s capabilities.
Bahar Dutt’s documentary A Question of Land on the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri was aired on CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are personal.