Campaigners for tribal rights have accused the British government of unprecedented ‘cloak and dagger’ secrecy over a meeting between Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and Britain’s secretary of state for international development Andrew Mitchell in London last week.
Before Patnaik hurriedly left for India on Wednesday — cutting short his visit by a day to quell a rebellion by partymen — he met Mitchell on Tuesday. But details of the discussions are being withheld by the Department for International Development (DfID), which describes the meeting as “private”.
Odisha is one of three Indian states that will receive British aid until 2015. Last year, it was given £20 million — an expense that has become controversial because of allegations of massive human rights violations against tribals in the resource-rich state.
The line being taken by DfID — in a possible attempt to distance itself from the controversy over human rights violations — is that it wasn’t Mitchell who sought the meeting but Patnaik.
“Andrew Mitchell … was delighted to welcome the chief minister to the UK. He had a productive meeting with the chief minister where they discussed Odisha’s progress in reducing poverty and a new scholarship programme for Dalit and tribal girls to enroll in secondary school,” a spokeswoman for the British ministry told HT.
The spokeswoman would not say if Mitchell raised the touchy subject of human rights with Patnaik, but Indian sources who were present insist he did not.
Similar secrecy surrounds a meeting Patnaik had on Monday with researchers from Sussex University’s prestigious Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which is partly funded by DfID. After Patnaik cancelled a lecture at IDS, allegedly to avoid being questioned by activists and students, three researchers headed by the school’s director Lawrence Haddad, trooped into London to call on Patnaik.
“Two other researchers (apart form Haddad) who are experts on nutrition attended the meeting. I can’t provide you with their details,” said an IDS spokeswoman. “Nutrition was the main topic, and discussion also touched on education initiatives to keep girls in school and cash transfers to poor households. I won’t be able to provide you with any further information.”
In an extraordinary act of secrecy, she refused to give the names of the two other researchers from the institute, which takes a keen interest in India and has programmes for Indian scholars and civil servants.
Tribal welfare is key to the success of British aid to Odisha — a likely reason Patnaik brought along his tribal welfare minister Ramesh Majhi to London on the chief minister’s first visit abroad since assuming office in 2000. But human rights campaigners are not convinced by such moves.
Stephen Cory, head of Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, wrote off angry letters to both Mitchell and Haddad. “The development model that has been championed by Patnaik in his tenure as chief minister has been one of rapid industrialisation at the expense of human rights and, specifically, the rights of the tribal peoples on whose land much of the industrialisation has occurred,” Cory wrote, citing specific instances of rights violations, including police firings on tribals protesting against mining on their sacred land.
Amnesty International, the human rights group, also voiced its concern. “Prior to the Orissa chief minister’s visit to UK, Amnesty had written to the IDS about our human rights concerns on Orissa during 2006-2012 and asking that these concerns to be raised during his public event at IDS reportedly scheduled on 28-29 May. AI UK also wrote to Andrew Mitchell, asking him to raise these concerns during the chief minister’s meeting with the DFID,” said Ramesh Gopalakrishnan of Amnesty’s South Asia team.
Patnaik himself remained unmoved by the controversy generated by his visit. It was business as usual at a glittering reception hosted for him at the Institute of Directors by the Indo-European Business Forum on May 28. Assembled in the chandeliered room — Patnaik called it a “hallowed hall” — were many top-ranked Indian businessmen, led by the Hinduja brothers, Gopi and Srichand.
The Mittals were there in the crowded and ornate room, as were the Indian-origin Labour MP Keith Vaz and an assortment of individual British entrepreneurs keen to sniff out business opportunities in the mineral-rich state. Also among the guests was Anil Agarwal, the Indian-born billionaire and chairman of Vedanta Resources, a controversial FTSE 100 company whose bauxite mining activities in the Nyamgiri hills have been blocked by New Delhi.
“We are proud of our tribals,” Patnaik told the gathered investors. “We would like to have more downstream industries other than steel and aluminum; we want our boys and girls to be tech-savvy.”
“I could go on forever about nutrition, what we have done for our women and tribal people,” Patnaik said, giving the example of a state scheme offering people living below the poverty line 25 kg of rice per month at a subsidised price of R2 per kg.
But at least one major Indian-origin industrialist in London was understood to have raised the issue of human rights with Patnaik in a private meeting. “Patnaik said he wants to make progress but that he needs the help of the central government,” said a business source familiar with the discussions.