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7 questions on Vedanta, Niyamgiri and economic development

Climbing the Niyamgiri Hills is a unique experience, most of which does not belong to the realm of logic, rationality — and this column. I thought I would get some insights into the raging controversy and the resultant debates currently on around the area. Gautam Chikermane writes.

columns Updated: Aug 30, 2010 01:05 IST
Gautam Chikermane
Gautam Chikermane
Hindustan Times

Climbing the Niyamgiri Hills is a unique experience, most of which does not belong to the realm of logic, rationality — and this column. I thought I would get some insights into the raging controversy and the resultant debates currently on around the area.

But after speaking to tribals, the locals at Lanjigarh at the foothills of Niyamgiri, the activists, the authorities and the company, all I have to offer is more questions.

The public part of the storm is clear. On one side stands the $7.9 billion (R37,000 crore) Anil Agarwal-managed mining giant Vedanta that wants to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills to convert into aluminium at its plant in the foothills. Standing by Vedanta is the Naveen Patnaik-led government of Orissa that wants the project to come up fast.

On the other side are the 1,453 people of the Dongria Kondh tribe, who live on Niyamgiri, a mountain they consider sacred. Their belief system hinges on an ecosystem that says everything on the mountain is sacred. From earth goddess Darani Penu (Supreme Goddess) and her husband Kotebali Penu to the lower gods — the arrogant Jatrakudi Penu, who brings drought; Bima Penu, who looks after crops and Takrani Penu, who protects them from disease — to its inhabitants, all is one. The now-popular Niyam Raja Penu, the god who protects the tribals from unnatural deaths, is one of many gods that the animistic-polytheist Dongria Kondh tribe worships.

While on the Hills, I found that the idea of a god for them is but an extension of life itself. It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s brilliant book Foundation’s Edge (1982), where on planet Gaia, plants, animals and men are all connected to each other through a consciousness.

“When the factory construction (of Vedanta refinery) began, we realised that this will be a rakshsa that will devour our hill,” the Niyamgiri Suraksha Parishad President Kumti Majhi said. “This hill is not a thing to be sold, it is for living.” The analogy with James Cameron’s Avatar is true.

On the debating table, therefore, is not a transaction of dislocation — how much to pay per acre, who to pay, how to create a corporate social responsibility model around it and so on — as is the case in say the outskirts of New Delhi where farmers are currently agitating to get a better price for their land. On the table is something that’s much deeper, more complex, multi-layered, something that will tax all our reason, our compassion and our action for years to come. Seven questions are bothering me:

One, should the world’s second-fastest growing economy consciously leave its statistically-insignificant but humanely-worrisome 1,453-strong group of people behind? Should we allow them to thrive on what the hills offer, on commercial produce that the hills can sustain?

“We don’t want any car or bike,” Kadra Bamunu, an axe-carrying farmer in the hill’s middle ranges told me through a translator. “We need only that which our stomachs want now. What we need we grow.”

Two, even if that is indeed the case, is it morally right to leave this chunk of Indians without healthcare, education, electricity, communication? Just 1 km into the hills and my mobile connectivity disappeared. I passed a signboard near a village that said it “has been electrified under Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana”, but there was no electricity there. I felt I was lost, the tribals couldn’t care less. On the way down, I met a midwife who said three tribals died of diarrhoea recently. Vedanta Chief Operating Officer Mukesh Kumar said it is impossible to get them to take medicines — they just keep it on top of their huts and offer it to the gods who they believe will protect them. “Can we allow such andhvishwas (blind faith) in our citizens?” he asked.

Three, does development have any meaning? So far, it meant an increase in per capita income that would come from jobs in the organised sector, largely in industry and mining. A large number of companies have taken up projects to help the local population where they set up industries become “employable”, through training and skills. Development has meant the ability to earn and consume goods and services. It has been an uneven development so far, but the trickle down is not far. What do you do when a group of people tells you that they don’t need any of this, can you force it down their throats?

Four, does it mean that if development as defined is rejected, Niyamgiri will remain a sort of tribal island — beautiful, no doubt, but an island still? The argument against it is: they don’t know what the benefits of development are, let them taste decent living, earn a decent income, then let them decide, right now, there is a consumption-asymmetry. Can we allow that, should we allow that?

Five, who will decide the direction of this development? If you think the answer is “free markets”, perish the thought. The Niyamgiri incident is a blatant joke on the free-market system. How can an illiterate, inarticulate, ill-informed group of people take decisions about their land, their lives against some of the world’s most sophisticated minds behind the state government of Orissa and Vedanta? The information-asymmetry is just too wide to even begin a discussion. Today, the two can’t even sit on the same table. On the other side, will natural resources such as bauxite or iron ore be left untapped because it is the natural habitat of tribals?

Six, where is our political economy headed? “I am your soldier in Delhi,” Rahul Gandhi told a small, 5,000-strong rally at Lanjigarh a day after the Vedanta verdict. “Development does not mean destroying a mountain or oppressing the poor. Look at how we are bringing development to Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. Our government in Delhi will fight for you.” I agree with his politics — if the state government, particularly its khaki uniform, has lost its credibility and the Centre has moved in to fill the void, a political advantage should be taken. Clearly, Niyamgiri is not the last such act on the political theatre.

Seven — and this is the most difficult question — how do you propose to bring economic well-being to Niyamgiri? The Dongria don’t want it. But they can’t be left behind as India progresses. The two have to meet at some point and that point doesn’t have to be one of conflict. Instead of looking at the two players as hostiles, it is the role of the government, policymakers and thinkers to throw up creative ideas that help bridge this gap. Remember, Niyamgiri is not about land acquisition that can be fixed as Parliament debates the bill shortly. It is about choices — national, corporate and individual. To view it as an either-or is a grave error all of us could be getting tapped into.

Could the first step to this long-drawn solution be to offer them healthcare, education and jobs, and then allow them to make their own choices, rather than making factory workers out of a set who like to swing the axe over the shoulder, reach out to eat a pineapple and sit all day living the miracle of life?

First Published: Aug 30, 2010 01:02 IST