In the latest installment of the saga unfolding around Vedanta–‘the world’s most hated company’– and its attempts to establish bauxite mining operations in the Niyamgiri hills, the Supreme Court of India once again deferred its decision as to whether mining should be allowed to go ahead. Having already failed to bring proceedings to a close in December of 2012, on the 21st of January the court announced that it would be deferring its ruling for a further two weeks to give the central government more time to submit its affidavit. The date of judgement is now set for the start of February; however, as those who have supported and followed the case of the Dongria Kondh know, even if a ruling is made it is unlikely to be set in stone, especially if it does not favour Vedanta.
The Dongria Kondh, an Indigenous people who live mainly on the plateaus of the Niyamgiri region, have been resisting the proposed bauxite mine on their lands for almost a decade. At the heart of their drive to get Vedanta out of their lands is the meaning which the Niyamgiri mountains hold in Kondh culture. It is here that Niyam Raja resides, the Dongria Kondh’s god and provider of all life. For this reason the hills are sacrosanct, providing spiritual and physical nourishment for the Dongria Kondh who see them as the key to their identity and existence. Proposals to mine in the area are considered a defilement; there are areas from which not even they will harvest food. All is for Nayam Raja.
With the help of what has become a global campaign challenging Vedanta’s appalling human rights and environmental record the Dongria Kondh have thus far prevented mining in the Niyamgiri hills, despite governmental and court rulings supporting the mine’s establishment in 2008 and 2009. This is in part due to the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejection of the planned mine in 2010 which, it was hoped, had brought an end to 8 years of uncertainty for the Dongria Kondh.
The Saxena Report produced in support of this rejection stated that Vedanta had acted with “total contempt for the law,” ignoring the Environmental Protection Act and other legislation. The report also noted that the mining area is “beyond any doubt the cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Dongria Kondh” according to the Forest Rights Act (FRA) which recognizes the legal right of forest communities to withhold the use of their lands for industrial purposes unless free, prior and informed consent is given.
This denial of a mining permit was understandably met with jubilation by the Dongria Kondh and their supporters but, in what may now seem a prophetic manner, one of these supporters, the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), tempered the overjoyed response with this warning:
“There is a need to be vigilant against further possible transgressions by the company…one denial, one piece of justice will not undo years of governmental kowtowing to corporate greed.”
True to form, Vedanta did not simply take no for an answer. Adapting its strategy and utilizing the support offered by the Odisha State Government and the state sponsored Odisha Mining Corporation, Vedanta launched a legal challenge against the cancellation of their mining permit which continues to smolder today.
Disturbingly, with the court case still hanging in the balance and a showdown on the horizon, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has emerged in apparent support of Vedanta and others seeking to secure commercial concessions in forest areas. The PMO has called for the terms of the Forest Rights Act to be severely diluted in a move which is seen by many as an attempt to break down the barrier between Vedanta and access to the Dongria Kondh’s lands and resources.
The FRA was passed in 2006 as “a weapon of democracy in the forests” to counter the illegal land acquisition programmes allowed under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 which was later built into the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Neither of these Acts preceeding the FRA recognized the rights of any forests peoples. Instead, they were developed to override customary rights and claim land for the state. The legacy of these is one of social and environmental destruction.
Before the FRA, millions of forest peoples were labelled and treated as ‘encroachers’ on their own land. They were subjected to torture, forced evictions and were left without any hope of achieving justice as people without rights. The last eviction drive legitimized by this lack of recognized rights occurred as recently as 2002; more than three million families have been made destitute as a result of this unjust treatment.
Reiterating the importance between the health of indigenous and forest communities’ and the land’s, the scale of social disruptions caused by these acts has been matched only by the amount of environmental devastation they have brought about. The loss of 90% of India’s grasslands to commercial plantations and the destruction of millions of hectares of forest are a testament to this.
The FRA was introduced to turn the tide on these disturbing trends by legally recognizing the rights of forest communities, granting them land titles, usage rights and a political voice with which to defend their lands. Its dilution would be a disaster for the communities it has empowered and the state of the environment.
That the PMO has called for a watering down of the terms of the Act may be seen as a specific attack upon what sovereignty and autonomy the FRA bestows upon said communities. A weakened FRA favours industrial interests indulged by previous forest acts and reveals that elements of the central government continue to ‘kowtow’ with big business.
Looking to make good on its efforts to roll back the FRA the PMO has called upon the Ministry of the Environment and that of Tribal Affairs to implement changes. Chief amongst these is an alteration of the terms of the FRA so that the observance of ‘public consultations’ is the only prerequisite to industrial and commercial developments being allowed. This does away with the need for the explicit consent of affected communities, destroying their political clout. Given that public consultations are common practice this alteration essentially means that far greater access to land, currently protected by the FRA, is likely to be enjoyed by the likes of Vedanta whose interests are purely commercial.
In addition, the PMO has suggested that a certificate submitted by a state government stating that the terms of the FRA had been observed should be deemed sufficient evidence that the act has been honoured. Given the Odisha State Government’s complicity with Vedanta despite their legal record is warning enough that such authorities cannot be trusted to oversee just procedures. Delivering the power to decide into their hands is sure to have a damaging effect on forest communities.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs of the Environment have yet to officially respond to the PMO’s assertions. However, The FRA was a flagship pro-tribal scheme for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), India’s ruling coalition, and the indication is that the PMO’s attempt to enact a u-turn on the FRA has received a hostile reception from the aforementioned ministries. Unsurprisingly, it has also been met by outrage amongst the indigenous and forest communities that would be affected.
Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo has publicly claimed that the interests of those trying to bypass the FRA are purely financial and has called for a strengthening of the Act. Noting to the amount of course cases in India, like that of the Niyamgiri mine, which are blocking ‘developments’ Chandra Deo has articulated the point that bodging legal protocol for financial gain “benefits no-one in addition to being illegal.”
Chandra Deo is joined in his support of the FRA’s integrity by Jairam Ramesh, the minister who ordered that the mine should be blocked in 2010. Despite the Odisha State Government’s attempts to stop him Ramesh visited members of the Dongria Kondh this month to assess the situation on the ground and ask “why for such a small need, a sacred place like Niyamgiri should be destroyed?”
Members of the Dongria Kondh who came to meet Ramesh brought with them accusations of harassment and intimidation suffered by the group at the hands of security forces. Lodu Sikaka, a community leader, reported being personally accosted as the security forces tried to impede the meeting between the Dongria Kondh delegation and Ramesh. Such repression has been encountered routinely by members of the Dongria Kondh who oppose the mine. They have been labelled as terrorists by Vedanta, threatened with death at the hands of its associated para-militaries and suffered terrorization for nearly a decade.
The motivation of the PMO’s effort to undermine its own legal scheme may go far beyond the accumulation of capital. It has been known for some time now that Vedanta plans to send the bauxite it hopes to mine from Niyamgiri to the affiliated Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd, suppliers of ninety percent of the aluminium used in India’s nuclear capable Agni, Prithvi and Akaash missiles.
India has been suffering nuclear anxiety for some years now with neighbouring Pakistan’s nuclear programme and tensions with China over various border disputes. Given access to the nuclear market by the USA, India has sought security from perceived threats by developing its own nuclear capabilities, entering into what some observers have labelled a ‘nuclear arms race’ with Pakistan. Whilst many believe that nuclear weapons are a purely political tool, acting as the most powerful deterrents rather than actual combat tools, anxieties and tensions remain between such nuclear powers.
The PMO, clearly feeling these tensions as the centre of the Indian side, has perhaps revealed something of its fears by turning on the FRA. The government’s legal and perhaps moral integrity is surely staked on the strength of the FRA as a flagship scheme for protecting minority groups and the environment, yet it would see this go to waste in return for access to what Vedanta can dig from the sacred ground of the Dongria Kondh and the perceived security it could bring. That the case for Vedanta has risen from the grave in which it was buried in 2010 is surely proof that the government has once more caved to international fears.
Should the FRA be rolled back as a result of these concerns and tensions it will not only be to the detriment of the Dongria Kondh, though their plight may be immediately worsened. All forest and indigenous communities would be negatively affected by what amounts to the simultaneous stripping of minority and environmental rights only recently enjoyed.
The latest supreme court case concerning Niyamgiri has become the flame around which the battle over the FRA and the fate of forest communities is being danced at present. A decision in favour of the Dongria Kondh may make it far more difficult for the PMO to enervate the FRA. It would also unite and give hope to all those, inside and outside of the Indian government, who would see tribal and environmental rights defended rather than thrown aside for the sake of Vedanta’s coffers and a nuclear arms race.
It’s uncertain times for all; however, at least one thing is certain: whatever the supreme court’s findings are, the Dongria Kondh will continue to fight for their rights and for Niyamgiri.