The Polavaram test
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The Polavaram test

Stopping Vedanta breaks an established cycle of lawless profits and tribal penury. But the biggest challenge for Jairam Ramesh awaits, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Aug 26, 2010 00:46 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

'Neither did the affected persons have any access to the executive summary of the project in the notified place nor did they have any opportunity to participate in (sic) public hearing and express their view on the impact on the environment of the area…'

Sounds familiar? This comment isn't related to one of the world's biggest mining companies, Vedanta Resources, and its stymied plans to extract bauxite from the sacred Niyamgiri Hills in opposition-ruled Orissa.

The National Environmental Appellate Authority made that comment in December 2007, as it quashed — for the first time ever in a decade of its existence — the first clearance given by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests to the giant R9,000-crore mega dam and irrigation project of Polavaram (completion date: 2014) to harness the Godavari river in eastern Andhra Pradesh.

In these days of shock and euphoria (depending on who you are) over Vedanta, it's important to understand Polavaram, India's "next Narmada", as some call it, a reference to Gujarat's Sardar Sarovar, thus far one of India's most controversial dam projects.

In scale, Polavaram, or Indira Sagar — as Andhra has smartly named the main dam, in a country that still reveres Indira Gandhi — pales in comparison with the 9 sq km bauxite-mining lease denied to Vedanta. Polavaram could eventually displace about 277 villages and 1.8 lakh people (the Narmada project displaced 1.7 lakh). But there are strong similarities in policy, emotional appeal and the road ahead for India.

First, as Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh acknowledges, Polavaram has a "conditional" clearance for swallowing up forests, as Vedanta did before being rejected.

Second, the Andhra government is pushing Polavaram, as the Orissa government did with Vedanta. The dam project is state-run, and though Vedanta is India's third-largest private conglomerate, the bauxite was to be mined by the state.

Third, there are fears that Polavaram will displace primitive tribal groups, as the Vedanta project threatened to do. Like Vedanta, it is accused of trying to bypass these communities instead of getting their consent.

Vedanta gained international notoriety because its mines would have dislocate the Dongria and Kutia Kondh, whose traditional knowledge, religion and sustenance spring from the Niyamgiri Hills. This isn't very different from the Konda Reddi (loosely, rulers of the hills) and Koya tribes, their culture and religion embedded in its land and forests.

The Polavaram project will submerge about 3,000 hectares of forests. This means it will run afoul of the Forests Rights Act (FRA), a law that was the prime reason for tripping up Vedanta's mines, and a law that didn't exist when Gujarat's Narmada project was cleared.

A powerful law passed in 2006, the FRA gives communities power over forests around or near their traditional settlements. The loss of these homesteads and the resulting destitution is now implicated as the chief reason for the spread of the Maoist insurgency across India.

Public hearings are a requirement under older environmental laws for all projects that dislodge people, but in forest areas, this isn't enough. Under the FRA, no land can be given for 'non-forest purposes' without a clearance from local gram sabhas (village councils). Gram sabhas must also certify that all provisions of the law were followed to their satisfaction.

India's laws will be upheld in letter and spirit: This is the message the government wants to convey from the Vedanta decision, after decades of condoning violations and payoffs that allowed a snatch of tribal land and forests, below which is stored the greater part of India's mineral wealth.

Nearly a million hectares of forests have been cleared for 11,282 projects over the last 30 years. Industry and infrastructure projects repeatedly and brazenly flout India's forest, environmental and tribal-rights laws. The development has indeed delivered substantial macro-economic growth, but locally only contractors and shopkeepers flourish.

There is overwhelming evidence that the condition of the poor, especially tribals, has worsened.

Some 90 million Indians are tribal, less than 9 per cent of India's population. Yet, they comprise 56 per cent of India's displaced people, says N.C. Saxena, member of the powerful National Advisory Council (NAC), in a note prepared for internal NAC discussion. Since 1990, says Saxena, roughly 8.5 million tribals have lost their homes. In roughly the same time, consumption of foodgrain has fallen by up to 15 per cent in tribal populations under 15. More than half of India's tribals are illiterate and malnourished, higher than the national average.

These findings will be discussed by the NAC next month. Data like this prompted UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi to give Ramesh the go-ahead for a widening environmental crackdown. He has now stalled the Navi Mumbai airport and India's largest foreign investment, the R56,000-crore South Korean steel plant in Orissa (though this may eventually be cleared), among 64 blocked projects and 469 waiting for clearance.

The big picture: India can't do without mines, expressways, factories and dams, but these cannot be at the cost of the poor and at the peril of randomly denuding forests and polluting water. Governments and companies must follow laws, not collude to abuse them.

Indira Sagar must now undergo the same FRA scrutiny that Vedanta did, specifically because Ramesh's party, the Congress, rules Andhra, which he also represents as an MP. Ramesh says if "even a single hectare" in neighbouring Orissa or Chhattisgarh is submerged — the proposal to stop this is an R700-crore wall to contain the waters of the dam within Andhra — the conditional clearance will be revoked. Judging Indira Sagar as Vedanta was will be Ramesh's greatest test.

Only then can we accept that India truly has a new balance.

First Published: Aug 26, 2010 00:33 IST