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Why Sterlite-like protests are inevitable in India

More often than not, the State fails to implement environmental laws and use funds meant for affected communities effectively

analysis Updated: May 28, 2018 08:46 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
People stage a demonstration against the police firing on the people of Thoothukudi who were protesting against a copper smelter inTamil Nadu, in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. (Anushree Fadnavis/HT Photo)

The anti-Sterlite protest in Tuticorin is not the first in which citizens have taken on a company on the issue of pollution and human rights. It won’t be the last either, unless corporations learn to follow India’s green norms and respect human rights, and, more importantly, the State implements the laws in letter and spirit.

Sterlite Industries,a copper product manufacturing company, is owned by Vedanta Resources Plc, a London-based natural resources company. The mother ship was in the news a couple of years ago, thanks to similar violations at Niyamgiri, the site of bauxite mines, and also at its bauxite refining and aluminium smelting plant at Lanjigarh, both in Odisha.

Tuticorin and Niyamgiri-Lanjigarh have made it to the national headlines, but there are several ongoing low-intensity community protests against mining companies that we don’t even hear about. For example, last week, residents of the Dabal gram panchayat at Margao, Goa, which has iron ore mines, protested against mining companies for polluting their water and air, and the State for failing to do address this.

One has to just log on to the Environment Justice Atlas (https://ejatlas.org/country/india) and count the number of ongoing conflicts between the people and the State/companies in India. Most of these protests are borne out of the nagging feeling that people have got nothing while they have paid a high cost of mining activities. In the last one year, tribal communities of mineral-rich Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have revived a traditional movement (Pathalgari), demanding control of natural resources from the State. As expected, both states view the protesting tribals as criminals, missing the moot point: the trust in the State to bring development and ensure justice — similar to what protesters in Tuticorin must have felt — is fast eroding.

The State, however, has enough institutions, laws and funds to counter such apprehensions of the people. But more often than not, it fails to use them judiciously and effectively, leading to an atmosphere of distrust.

Take for example the case of district mineral foundations (DMF), which were set up in 12 mining states in 2015 after the amendment of the central mining law, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957. The DMFs, which actually recognises that to date mining has only benefitted companies, individual miners and the State but not the impoverished communities, sits on neat pile of cash contributed by mining companies, determined on the basis of their royalty payment: Rs 13,398 crore, as per the latest information released by the Union ministry of Mines. But according data provided by the states to the Centre, only 17% of the amount (Rs 2, 260 crore) of the DMF amount has been spent till the end of 2017.

This money has been collected from 12 mining states. More than 75% comes from four mineral-rich states: Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The DMF law lists clean drinking water supply, sanitation, public healthcare, education, skill development and livelihood, and welfare of vulnerable women, children and senior citizens as sectors or issues for investment by states. Nearly all mining-affected areas typically fare poorly on these indices.

Despite more than decent collection, the fund has not made much of a difference on the ground.

Two separate assessment reports, one by the Centre for Science and Environment, and the other by Oxfam India, point to certain implementation flaws of DMF.

First, the districts tend to use them for building physical infrastructure and spend on projects that already have existing funds.

Second, in many districts, there is no mechanism yet to ascertain the needs of mining-affected communities. The problem becomes acute because in many states, the authorities are bypassing the existing planning structure, the panchayat raj system.

Third, the involvement of communities on spending funds is minimal, resulting in unnecessary investment in dubious infrastructure projects. For example, in one of the districts of Odisha, the fund was spent on solar hand pumps which were of no use because of bad of quality of water. This could have been avoided if local people were asked about their views before sanctioning the project.

Fourth, there is no provision of providing alternative livelihood opportunities for the people affected by mining. Experts say that the funds should be used to prioritise agriculture, forest and other primary and traditional skill development sectors to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities. Instead, there is excessive focus on building infrastructure.

With substantial funds, clear objectives guiding the implementation, targeted beneficiaries and focussed intervention areas, DMFs can address deprivation and inequality.

Unfortunately, administrative disinterest and political manipulation could defeat its purpose.

@kumkumdasgupta

First Published: May 28, 2018 08:46 IST