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The stranglehold of finance capital over the state

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Women collect coal scraps from an overburden dump for a nearby open pit coal mine. Overburden is the fertile soil (formerly used for agriculture) that has to be removed to get at the coal underneath. In the process small pieces of coal are also picked up which are scavenged by local villagers to be sold for cash. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

Is ours the age of the struggle between the state and the market? Or is it the age in which the state bowed to financial control over it? From a perspective which integrates labour, environmental stewardship, cultural safeguarding and a just human development, the state is firmly in the grip of finance and its liberalisers.

What has come to be called neo-liberalism is in short the expression used to describe the relentless and growing control of resources of every sort, be they mineral, human or environmental. If there has been a problem of neoliberalism it is that it failed to increase the rate of profit consistently and never achieved levels comparable to those of the ‘Golden Age’ between 1948 and 1973. The series of ‘booms’ of various kinds, which caught the attention of investors, bankers and speculators, have had much to do with the seeking to replicate the conditions of those years (in Deutschland they called the period ‘die Fette Jahre’, the fat years).

Boys carry large lumps of coal that they have scavenged from an open pit mine near Dhanbhad. They will carry this coal several kilometres to sell in a local market. As mining has displaced agriculture, scavenging for coal on the edge of mines has become one of the means of survival for those who have been displaced from an agricultural life by mining. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The essence of financial liberalisation, seen in its totality, is to ensure the stranglehold of finance capital over the State, Prabhat Patnaik has explained in a commentary in People’s Democracy (the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India Marxist). This may appear paradoxical at first sight: as the term ‘liberalisation’ appended to ‘financial’ suggests, the basic aim of the process is to liberate finance from the shackles of the State, ie, to ensure not the control of finance over the State but the negation of the control of the State over finance. But the remarkable aspect of financial liberalisation consists precisely in this: what appears at first sight as the liberation of finance from the shackles of the State is nothing else but the acquisition by finance of control over the State.

In his short essay, ‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson has explained that these booms were the result of the following factors which he enumerates as under:

The first and most fundamental was simply greater exploitation of the workforce, by increasing productivity on the one hand (making fewer workers work harder and longer) and decreasing the share of income going to labour on the other (paying workers less in real terms).

The second was the expansion of private capital into two new areas: first through the expropriation of the remaining ‘commons’ in the Global South, releasing value which had previously been embedded in nature and hence unavailable for the purposes of accumulation; then through privatising state-owned industries and public services, providing resources which-potentially at least-could be used directly for production rather than in the process of realisation or as part of the social wage.

The third was the emergence of new centres of capital accumulation outside the established core of the world system in East Asia and above all, in China, which contributed to a partial restoration of profitability as a manufacturer of cheap consumer goods for Western and, above all, US import markets, and as the source of loans to the US through Treasury Bonds, which are then loaned again to American companies and consumers.

The fourth, itself a result of profit rates failing to consistently reach what capitalists considered acceptable levels, was a fall in the proportion of surplus value being invested in production and the rise in the proportion being saved, to the point where the latter became greater than the former. The need to find profitable uses for surplus capital, where productive investment was insufficiently attractive, tended to draw industrial capitalists towards financial speculation. This did not mean that industrial capital became subordinated to financial capital – rather, their interests converged.

A series of murals painted by the Tribal Women's Artist Collective from Hazaribagh. The collective attempts to keep tribal artistic traditions alive in the face of population displacement from tribal areas due to the spread of mining and the conflict between the India army and Maoist guerillas. The designs and styles are unique to each individual artist and were traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The turn to finance had implications beyond a shifting focus of investment, which tends to be compressed into the term ‘financialisation’. But among all the complexities of arbitrage, derivatives, hedge funds and the rest, there are two essential points about financialisation which need to be understood. One is that, financial speculation, like several of the factors discussed here, can increase the profits of individual capitalists at the expense of others, but cannot create new value for the system as a whole. The other is that, in so far as profits were raised, one aspect of financialisation became more important than any other and consequently needs to be considered as a factor in its own right.

This, the fifth and final factor, was a massive increase in consumer debt. Credit became crucially important in preventing the return to crisis only after the post-1982 recovery had exhausted itself. In so far as better-off working class people have spent borrowed money on commodities which are above the minimum needed to reproduce their labour, it is a response to their situation under neoliberalism. But the main reason for increased debt has been the need to maintain personal or familial income levels.

Men transporting baskets of coal onto railway carriages at Sauanda railway yard. Most of the workers have migrated to work in the area having been displaced from their traditional livelihoods in the countryside. Lacking title deeds for land on which they have farmed and hunted for millennia, the rural adivasi communities are being displaced to make way for new industrial developments planned to capitalise on the land's mineral wealth. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The points that Patnaik, Davidson and several others have been making, with increasing urgency in recent years, is that the freeing of finance capital from all social obligations like priority sector lending targets and differential interest rates, not only increases its profitability, even while pushing petty producers and small capitalists deeper into crisis, but also allows it to pursue its own profit-seeking ways over a global terrain, which has the effect of subjugating the State to the thralldom of internationalised finance capital.

In short, financial liberalisation is the process through which a fundamental change is enforced on the bourgeois State: from being an entity apparently standing above society and intervening for the ‘social good’, which means keeping in check to some extent the rapacity of big capital, even while promoting it and defending its monopoly privileges, the State becomes exclusively dominated by financial interests (with which big corporate interests are closely enmeshed) and loses its relative autonomy vis-a-vis such interests. We have not the ‘rolling back’ of the State as neo-liberal ideologues suggest, but State intervention in the exclusive interests of finance capital.

[‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Editorial Board of the journal International Socialism.]

Costing Goa’s mineral resource curse

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Coconut palms line bunds between fields and alongside streams

Coconut palms line bunds between fields and alongside streams

In late August we had a discussion to talk about the ways in which the ‘suppressed entitlement’ of Goa’s population, in relation to mining profits, could be freed. This would have the effect of galvanising a sense of right and ownership using the admittedly troublesome monetary incentive route (we will find a way to deal with this).

The concentration of wealth is astonishing, even in a region that is part of a country whose state Gini coefficients for income are well over 0.45 (over 0.30 is considered to be potentially socially destabilising). Goa’s top six iron ore mining families together with India’s largest private sector iron ore exporter have amassed immense wealth. Based on the derived industry profit for 2009-10, the share per resident family is Rs 3.19 lakh (not including profits from illegal ore sale, not subtracting for the ‘producer’s share of risk and managerial input’).

Based on time-series profits for the years 2000-01 to 2009-10 and average per ton prices we can ‘entitle’ the 360,000 resident families to their ‘withheld shares’ as follows: Rs 2.80 lakh in 2008-09, and working backwards Rs 2.50 lakh, Rs 2.15 lakh, Rs 1.80 lakh, Rs 1.45 lakh, Rs 1.10 lakh, Rs 76,000, Rs 40,000 and Rs 28,000. This totals close to Rs 16.5 lakh due per family for a decade of mineral exploitation. That’s one aspect, to place in perspective the stratospheric super-profits of the main mining families (companies). The other is to work towards a ‘true cost’ accounting of the extraction.

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

The startling per family ‘entitlement’ also raises the question of how they have been used by the state of Goa. The indications from the contribution of mining and quarrying (the basic accounting head) in the Goa state accounts is that this has contributed between 6% and 4% of state domestic product. We may raise this contribution by 2% to include mineral extraction activities not covered directly by this head. Even so, where is the gross capital formation rate at the state level to show how this wealth has been used? Where is the rise in the net savings rate to show how this wealth has been retained? These are serious questions for the state government to answer.

A ‘true cost’ accounting of the extraction will help us achieve two things:

1. It will help fix the liability of the state administration towards the costs of ecosystem loss and degradation caused by mineral extraction.

2. It will similarly ‘spread the liability’ on a per family basis so that an economic disincentive is created at the household level for such an activity (mining) if households shared both profit and liability.

How are the populations of the 11 talukas (populations in the note below) to benefit from their share of ‘entitlements’ and ‘liabilities’ of the export profits and environmental burden of iron ore mining? To what extent must the state administration bear the liability and underwrite the costs of mitigation for all of Goa’s affected (directly and indirectly) families? How can participatory shares and fund instruments be created that embody these concepts, who will regulate them, how will they be counter-guaranteed? These are the community economics questions that will face us when we make such calculations.

The full article is on this page.

The people and forests of the Niyam Raja

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Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

This is a further extract taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The pictures accompanying this post are also taken from the same report.

“Kutia Kondh and Dongria Kondh – The two communities believe that that the hills are sacred and that their survival is dependent on the integrity of this ecosystem. The proposed mining lease site is among the highest points in the hills and is considered especially important as a sacred site. The proposed mining lease (PML) area is used by both Dongria and Kutia Kondh for their livelihoods as well as religious practices. Their customary use of the area, including for grazing and the collection of forest produce, is well documented.

[Other posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle: Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them, A victory for the Dongria Kondh, India’s unseen Niyamgiris, Images of Niyamgiri, The last stand of the Dongria Kondh]

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Mining operations will have significant adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these communities. Mining will destroy significant tracts of forest. According to the assessment of the Wildlife Institute of India in its 2006 study, as many as 121,337 trees will have to be cut if the mining lease is granted. Of these, 40% will be in the PML area and the remaining 60% would have to be removed to make the access road and other planned activities. Since the Kutia and Dongria Kondh are heavily dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, this forest cover loss will cause a significant decline in their economic well-being. It must be noted that the Vedanta proposal assumes that no displacement will be caused by the mining project whereas there is overwhelming evidence that mining will not only result in widespread resource displacement but may well permanently undermine the survival of the Dongria Kondh.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

While both Kutia and Dongria Kondh communities will be adversely affected by mining in the area, the likely negative impacts on the Dongria Kondh are a particular cause of concern. The Niyamgiri hills are the sole and unique habitat of this tiny community. Any major disruption of their relationship with their environment is not only a serious violation of their rights under the Indian Constitution and forest laws, but also a grievous threat to their cultural integrity and their ability to survive as a distinct social group. The Committee found convincing evidence that mining will destroy Dongria Kondh livelihoods and culture.

Data collated from the DKDA (Dongria Kondh Development Agency, a government body) and the Forest Department shows that, of the total Dongria population of the 7,952, at least 1,453 Dongria Kondh live in villages in and around the Forest Blocks of the proposed mining lease area. Their cultivated lands lie in close proximity to the PML area. Mining-related activities such as tree-felling, blasting, removal of soil, road building, and the movement of heavy machinery will deny them access to lands that they have used for generations.

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Further, these activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for their agriculture. Given the almost total dependence of these villages on the eco-systems of the Niyamgiri hills, mining operations will severely threaten the livelihoods and basic survival of the Dongria Kondh. In addition, the influx of migrant workers and the demands that their presence will make on the landscape will entail major disruptions in the economic and social well-being of these small and self-contained groups.

If permitted, mining will directly affect a substantial section — almost 20% — of the Dongria community. An impact on such a significant fraction of the population of the community will have repercussions for the overall viability of the group and its biological and social reproduction. All the 104 Dongria Kondh villages are linked by marriage, since the member of a clan must seek a spouse from another clan. The circulation of women and bride-price between villages is essential for maintaining the social and economic integrity of the community as a whole. It is clearly indicated that if the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongria Kondh population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community. All the Dongria Kondh that the Committee spoke to stressed that mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life: “Niyam Raja has given us everything. If they take the dongar away, we will die.”

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Anthropologists who have conducted research among the Dongria Kondh are of the view that they are unique community whose distinctive identity is evident in their language, kinship relations, expertise in agro-forestry, and customary practices. For example, Dongria Kondh speak two languages, called Kuyi and Kuvi, with a proto-Dravidian structure and vocabulary which is unrelated to Oriya, the state’s official language. Their religious practices anchor them in the landscape of the Niyamgiri hills and any severance or disruption of that relationship will be a grievous blow to the community’s self-identity as well as material well-being. As a Primitive Tribal Group the welfare of the Dongria Kondh is mandated for special protection by the government. It is clear that the government is responsible for protecting their rights and that mining in this region would seriously undermine the fulfilment of this responsibility.”

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Prasanna Kumar Nayak of the Utkal University, Orissa, has written on tribal development in Orissa for the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). This is a postdoctoral research centre based in Leiden and Amsterdam. His account provides a contrast to the effort made, around 30 years ago, towards providing the tribals of Orissa health and education infrastructure without disturbing their identity. Nayak’s article is titled ‘The rise and fall of tribal development in Orissa’.

“Already in the early 1970s, at a time when tribal development received new impulse from the Indian government’s Fourth Five Year Plan, many development activities in the field of horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, health and education, as well as the construction of roads, buildings and dug-wells were undertaken in rapid succession in the tribal areas of Orissa. Political will for making tribal development a priority continued with the Fifth Plan, from 1974 onwards, with activities reaching a peak in the early nineties, the end of the Seventh Plan.

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

At that time, I was making frequent trips to different tribal areas in the north, south and west of Orissa. What impressed me most during my extensive field visits was the host of activities pursued by the field officers and staff of development agencies and the schoolteachers in residential tribal schools, and their concern for and commitment to the tribal people. Added to that, the frequent supervision and monitoring of the activities and assessment of progress by government officials was really quite noteworthy. Despite lapses and many shortcomings in the execution of the development schemes it remained satisfying to observe that there was discipline in the government machinery of development administration.

Among the tribal development success stories in Orissa from that period are the orange, lemon, ginger and banana plantations, as well as the high yielding rice cultivation in Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas, home to a large population of Lanjia Saora. The orange, ginger, banana and pineapple plantations in the Niyamgiri areas where mostly members of the Dongria Kondh tribe live were also very successful development schemes. The same can be said of the cultivation of vegetables in the hills which gave people the opportunity to earn cash in addition to pursuing their traditional subsistence agriculture on the hill slopes.

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cash crops and vegetables were also encouraged among the tribal villager’s adept at plough cultivation on the plateaus, plains and terraced fields. They were also trained to raise bovine animals. Orissa’s tribal schools were well managed, and provided a congenial environment for their pupils. Teachers worked hard at teaching and shaping these children with a spirit of dedication.

The children responded with good performances and examination results were satisfactory. Although there were severe public health issues in most of the tribal areas, primary health centres (PHCs) were established and free medical services were available for tribal people. At the same time, road networks were developed at a rapid pace, facilitating the communication and transportation of development input to many villages.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dug- and tube wells were installed in most of the villages and many families availed themselves of the benefits of irrigating their land. It can certainly be argued that the quantum of infrastructure work and economic development activities undertaken during the seventies and spilling over into the early eighties resulted in significant progress and lasting development in the tribal areas of Orissa.

Initially, the pursuance of economic development programmes and the modus operandi of the development agencies were in no way disruptive to the socio-cultural and community life of the tribal people. Instead, development personnel were enthusiastic about their development goals and engaged with local people when problems arose. Politically, these tribal areas were relatively quiet. The development policy plan, the project personnel, people and politics seemed to be in harmony with each other! The result of the development activities undertaken in tribal areas was a slow and steady progress with tangible results and lasting effects.”

Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them

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Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

This extract is taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

SECTION 2: Likely Physical and Economic Displacement due to the Project, Including the Resource Displacement of Forest Users 2.A. The Kondh: Social Identity and Livelihoods

The forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.

In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’.

They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. As Narendra Majhi, a Kutia Kondh from Similibhata village, said, “We worship Niyam Raja and Dharini Penu. That is why we don’t fall ill”. Sikoka Lodo, a Dongaria Kondh from Lakpadar village said, “As long as the mountain is alive, we will not die”. Dongaria Kondh art and craft reflect the importance of the mountains to their community— their triangular shapes recur in the designs painted on the walls of the village shrine as well as in the colourful shawls that they wear. All the Dongria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).

The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia (ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri (urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

They listed some of the items that they collect from the forest: different kinds of edible tubers (bhatkand, pitakand, mundikand); mahua flowers, siali (Bauhinia) leaves and jhunu (aromatic resin from the sal tree) for sale; and bamboo and wood (for implements and fuel) for their own use. Different parts of the PML [proposed mining lease] are identified by specific local names depending on the nature of the vegetation. The grassland edge area of the PML is locally known as Aonlabhata for the large number of amla (Emblica officinalis) trees found on the plateau which the Kondh harvest for medicinal use and for sale.

With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resource satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only four households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage.

Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating (lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.

Special mention must be made to the livestock that the Dongaria Kondh rear, especially the buffaloes that have particular cultural importance for them. Livestock is not reared for milk but for draught and meat. Buffaloes are highly valued for ritual purposes — religious and wedding-related festivities involve the sacrifice of buffaloes. Their biggest festival, Meria, is celebrated every three years in the month of Magh (January-February). During this festival, buffaloes are offered to Niyam Raja and their blood is allowed to seep into the earth. Buffalo meat is eaten fresh and dried for later use. Payments of bride-price also usually include one or two buffaloes.

The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy. When the Committee visited the grassy plateau that forms the PML area, we found a herd of fifty buffaloes grazing. Since they were unaccompanied by any person, the village they belonged to could not be ascertained. Traces of old campfires at the edge of the plateau indicated that the area is used extensively and regularly by cattle and their herders. Given that the PML has excellent grass growth, this large number of buffaloes on the site was not surprising. In discussions with villagers in the neighbouring villages of Rengopali, Bandhaguda and Kendupardi, the Committee was repeatedly informed that their cattle graze on the PML for substantial lengths of time, ranging from four months to eight months each year, as part of their customary rights.

The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom we spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor. Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.

The Dongaria Kondh we met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”

A victory for the Dongria Kondh

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Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Vedanta has been stopped. The mining conglomerate has been refused permission to work in Orissa by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. A high-level committee was commissioned by the ministry earlier this year to deliver judgment on the country’s most controversy-ridden mining proposal. Vedanta Resources plc and the Orissa Mining Corporation planned to extract bauxite from the top of part of the Niyamgiri mountain range in Orissa. On August 16th the committee, headed by N C Saxena, delivered its conclusions to the Ministry and unequivocally condemned the project.

Business Standard reports that the Saxena panel was commissioned by the Environment Ministry which had set up a four-member team headed by Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, to probe into the alleged violations of tribal and forest laws. The Saxena report has also accused the company of illegally occupying forest land for its US$1.7 billion mining project. The allegations have been, however, strongly refuted by the Orissa state government, which claimed that the Saxena report has cast aspersions on the state over grant of mining licenses, even though the Supreme Court has already given its ruling on the matter.

“No Ministry can abdicate its responsibility of enforcing the laws passed by Parliament,” said Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment, citing the Attorney General’s opinion that he was free to decide on final clearance despite the Supreme Court ruling. “My Ministry cannot function on the basis of fait accomplis:Since August 2008, a lot of new information has come to light. It is on the basis of this incriminating new evidence that the decision has been taken.”

[Earlier posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle are here, here and here.]

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

The Saxena team discovered numerous instances of negligence – to the point of criminality – on the part of local government officials and the state government itself. It  highlighted egregious violations of existing legislation to protect Indigenous Peoples rights (specifically as Forest Peoples). Not least, it roundly condemned the manoeuvres and activities of UK-listed Vedanta – both in regard to the mine and the construction of its adjacent alumina refinery.

In its introduction, the Saxena Report on Vedanta and the mining of Nyamgiri stated:

“In the committee’s view the mining of Nyamgiri would:
* Destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups
* Destroy more than seven square kilometers of sacred, undisturbed forest land on top of the mountain that has been protected by the Dongaria Kondh for centuries as sacred to Niyam Raja and as essential to preserving the region’s fertility.
* Endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods of these Primitive Tribal Groups
* Seriously harm the livelihood of hundreds of Dalit families who isndirectly depend upon these lands through their economic relationship with these Primitive Tribe Groups,
* Build roads through the Dongaria Kondh’s territories, making the area easily accessible to poachers of wildlife and timber smugglers threatening the rich biodiversity of the hills”

The Saxena report also noted violations by Vedanta of:

The Forest Conservation Act – (1) The company is in illegal occupation of 26.123 ha of village forest lands enclosed within the factory premises. The claim by the company that they have only followed the state government orders and enclosed the forest lands within their factory premises to protect these lands and that they provide access to the tribal and other villagers to their village forest lands is completely false. This is an act of total contempt for the law on the part of the company and an apalling degree of collusion on the part of the concerned officials. (2) For the construction of a road running parallel to the conveyor corridor, the company has illegally occupied plot number 157(P) measuring 1.0 acre and plot number 133 measuring 0.11 acres of village forest lands. This act is also similar to the above although the land involved is much smaller in extent.

The Environment Protection Act (EPA) – (1) The company M/s Vedanta Alumina Limited has already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per provisions of EIA Notification, 2006 under the EPA. This amounts to a serious violation of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act. This expansion, its extensive scale and advanced nature, is in complete violation of the EPA and is an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land.

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The welcome decision has come after months of high-pressure lobbying by Vedanta and its industry supporters, which has been countered on the ground by rallies and information campaigns mounted by many activist and citizens’ groups. The struggle of the Dongria Kondh has found support around the world. Yet the upholding of the findings of the Saxena team owes a great deal to the independence of India’s processes of law, which were underscored again on 19 July 2010 when, in another mining case, the Supreme Court temed developmental policies as “blinkered”.

The Supreme Court said that the promised rights and benefits never reached marginalised citizens fuelling extreme discontent and giving birth to naxalism and militancy, which are threatening the sovereignty of the country. Referring to the large-scale displacement of tribals from forest land in the name of mining and development, the Court said non-settlement of their rights and non-provision for timely compensation of their lost land has created the worst kind of hatred among them towards development, possibly giving birth to extremism.

“To millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word that is aimed at denying them even the source of their sustenance,” a Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and B S Chauhan said. “It is cynically said that on the path of `maldevelopment’ almost every step that we take seems to give rise to insurgency and political extremism which along with terrorism are supposed to be the three gravest threats to India’s integrity and sovereignty,” it said. “Why is the state’s perception and vision of development at such great odds with the people it purports to develop? And why are their rights so dispensable? Why do India’s GDP and human development index present such vastly different pictures?”

India stifles all inquiry into Maoist/Naxal movements

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Rally in RajamundhryThe Government of India has warned what it calls “sympathisers” of the Maoists / Naxalites in the country that they face action under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The state’s warning that it can take such action simply means that the expectation of inquiry and dialogue into the causes underlying Maoist / Naxalite programmes is a misplaced one.

The statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs is titled ‘Government Asks People to Be Vigilant of CPI (Maoist) Propaganda’ (Thursday, May 06, 2010):

“It has come to the notice of the Government that some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs/intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps as would provide support to the CPI (Maoist) ideology.

“It is brought to the notice of the general public that under Section 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, any person who commits the offence of supporting such a terrorist organization with inter alia intention to further the activities of such terrorist organizations would be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with fine or with both. General public are informed to be extremely vigilant of the propaganda of CPI (Maoist) and not unwittingly become a victim of such propaganda.”

“This is being issued in public interest so that the general public are aware that the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and all its formations and front organizations are terrorist organizations whose sole aim is armed overthrow of the Indian State and that they have no place in India’s parliamentary democracy. CPI (Maoist) continues to kill innocent civilians including tribals in cold blood and destroy crucial infrastructure like roads, culverts, school buildings, gram panchayat buildings, etc. so as to prevent development from reaching these under-developed areas.”

The Times of India: “The dire warning, which marks a significant escalation and carries the risk of confrontation with influential rights activists, also represents a rebuff to the post-Dantewada clamour for a relook at the use of force against Naxals. This comes at a time when several such activists have been named in the FIR along with Kobad Ghandy for helping the alleged Naxalite leader in waging war against the state. A senior Delhi Police officer said there was ‘growing evidence’ that a section of the intelligentsia was helping the Naxal leaders flee states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal to set up base in colonies of east and south Delhi. ‘Besides this, these individuals are also helping various frontal organizations of the Maoists to raise funds,’ said the official.”

The Telegraph: “Human rights activists immediately saw in the warning a precursor to a large-scale countrywide crackdown on civil liberties outfits, writers, lawyers, academics and journalists. The move is exceptional in that such a public warning through a media note has probably never been made even against fundamentalist outfits.”
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan saw in the warning ‘a highly unusual step that clearly shows the intention of the government to try and browbeat and terrorise human rights activists and other intellectuals who have been questioning the motives and actions of the government in dealing with tribals and dissidents in the guise of an ant-Maoist drive’.”

Hindustan Times: “Civil society representatives raising voices in favour of Naxals may find themselves in legal tangles as the Home Ministry has warned of action against them under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.”

Indian Express: “Stating that it had noticed some Maoist leaders had been directly contacting certain NGOs and intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps to provide support to the CPI(Maoist) ideology, the Centre on Thursday said anybody supporting Maoists would be liable for punishment under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.”

The Hindu: “The Centre has warned civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, intellectuals and the general public to refrain from supporting the CPI(Maoist) ideology as it will attract action under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.”

Activist Gautam Navlakha of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has said that the warning from the government harks back to the years of the Emergency. “In two months, it is going to be 35 years of the Emergency (imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975-1977) and UPA-II [United Progressive Alliance] is de facto recreating the conditions of that period,” he said. “Instead of exploring more sensible and imaginative policies to deal with the Maoists and the tribals who live in the same zones where huge mining deals have been signed, the government is taking recourse to authoritarian and dictatorial measures,” he said.

Navlakha has written an account in the Economic and Political Weekly of a visit to Bastar he made with the Swedish writer Jan Myrdal.

“I am convinced that this is one rebellion which will test the resilience of the Indian state as never before. Precisely because it is a rebellion in which people are fighting to save their land, forests, water and minerals from being grabbed and they are convinced that they have an alternative vision.

“The Maoists are certainly not saints or sinners, but as mortals they show what an unflinching commitment to bringing about social transformation actually means and how far even limited resources can go to help people. Here was an alternative development model being put into practice by the Maoists in the course of which many aspects of social relations have been democratised quite significantly.” (‘Days and nights in the Maoist heartland’, April 17, 2010 vol xlv no 16, EPW.)

Images of Niyamgiri

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Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

The news agency Reuters has posted a superb picture slideshow on Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondh, with reference to their struggle against the mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources (please see my earlier post on the subject, ‘The last stand of the Dongria Kondh’). The pressure on the mining conglomerate is growing, for one of Britain’s biggest charitable trusts has dumped its holdings of Vedanta stock. Here is its statement:

“The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has sold its £1.9 million stake in UK-listed mining company, Vedanta, due to serious concerns about its approach to human rights and the environment, particularly in the Indian state of Orissa. Other investors which follow the Trust’s ethical policy, including the Marlborough Ethical Fund and Millfield House Foundation, have also sold their shares, taking the total divested to £2.2M. The 77,600 Rowntree shares were sold following nine months’ engagement over the company’s actions.”

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust“Vedanta plans to mine bauxite from a mountain in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri Hills, in the state of Orissa, which are sacred to the Kondh tribal people who live in the area. The company has already built a refinery at the foot of the mountain and the bauxite project is reported to be causing severe environmental damage at the expense of the local people.”

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Susan Seymour, Chair of the Investment Committee at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, said: “As a responsible shareholder we have serious concerns about Vedanta. We have heard first-hand about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights abuses in Orissa and believe Vedanta is pushing industrialisation to the detriment of the lives and lands of local people and at great risk to its own reputation. This behaviour may be legal but it is morally indefensible. We have therefore decided to sell our entire stock in Vedanta.”

“Although the company defends itself as an Indian company and talks of the importance of development in India, with which we would not disagree, it has chosen to raise capital in the UK and this implies being expected to meet the standards applied to all companies listed in the London market. We were not convinced Vedanta was addressing shareholder concerns quickly enough to avoid destroying people’s lives and creating irreversible damage to the environment. The company must realise that unless it makes significant changes soon, shareholders will continue to lose confidence in the company.”

Written by makanaka

February 23, 2010 at 11:55

The last stand of the Dongria Kondh

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Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International

Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International report, 'Don't Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India' .

It’s a measure of the desperation of people that they must be compared to a fictional community in a film – no matter how good the film – in an attempt to be heard. The Dongria Kondh have been represented by Survival International as the real-world analogy of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned indigenous folk of the box office hit film Avatar.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, “Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.”

And so Survival International, an international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide, set up inspired piece of campaigning. The organisation has filmed and produced a short and stirring video on the lives of the Dongria Kondh, who with other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta Resources, a Britain-registered company determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong adivasi (indigenous) community spread over 90 villages in and around the hills, are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland.

Other Kondh groups are already suffering from a bauxite refinery, built and operated by Vedanta, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills. These hills are home to the Dongria Kondh, who consider the Niyamgiri Hills as sacred and do not cut trees or practice cultivation on top of the Hill as they worship Niyam Raja Penu, who they believe lives on top of the Niyamgiri Hills. Their identity is closely tied to the Niyamgiri Hills, which they believe are essential to their culture, traditions, and physical and economic survival.

“The Dongria Kondh are at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims,” said Corry. “The mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area. I do hope that (Avatar director) James Cameron will join the Dongria’s struggle to save their sacred mountain and secure their future.”

The outcry over mining and mineral ore extraction in Orissa has been growing steadily for over four years, with Indian and transnational mineral resources companies getting permissions to mine and build refineries. The victims have been small farming hosueholds and indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh, who have lived on and around the hills for centuries. The Dongria Kondh depend entirely on the hills for their food, water, livelihoods and cultural identity.

Late in 2009, Amnesty International placed the matter squarely on top of its global agenda with a first report. “The proposed mine could have grave repercussions for their human rights to water, food, health, work and other rights as an indigenous community in respect of their traditional lands,” said the Amnesty International report. “International law requires that governments seek their free, prior informed consent before beginning such projects. Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries have failed to take action to adequately remedy the problems identified above. The companies involved have also failed to abide by internationally-accepted standards in relation to the impact of business on human rights – to provide information, consult with people and refine plans to ensure rights are not harmed.”

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Alarmed by the scale of the outcry – and possibly by the growing evidence of the mercenary destruction of land and peoples being carried out jointly by the Indian state and mining companies – the Church of England decided to take some action. It has decided to sell the shares it held (as the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board) in Vedanta Resources on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). “We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares,” was part of the Church’s reason for dropping its Vedanta investment.

For its miserable part, Vedanta Resources has no qualms about using the typical corporate ‘responsibility’ jargon in vogue today in a sickening effort to explain how it works: “We believe that businesses will increasingly play a significant role in tackling and driving the sustainability challenge. Our focus on sustainability drives our conviction to pursue value creating projects and at the same time achieve positive environmental, social and health and safety outcomes.”

Its bauxite mining project will cover 700 hectares of land on top of the north-western part of the Niyamgiri Hills and involve excavation of a large section of the hill to a depth of about 30 metres. In May 2009, some members of these communities submitted an appeal to the National Environmental Appellate Authority within India’s central Ministry of Environment and Forests, to challenge the environmental clearance granted by the ministry for the proposed mining project. This appeal is now pending.

“Communities living in south-west Orissa in eastern India – already one of the poorest areas of the country – are at threat from the expansion of an alumina refinery and plans for a new bauxite mining project,” says Amnesty International’s hard-hitting report on the matter, ‘Don’t Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India’ (Amnesty International, 2010). “They have been effectively excluded from the decision-making process, and the land these people live on is or will soon be used to make profit for others.”

“The people living next to the refinery have already suffered violations of their human rights to water and health, including a healthy environment, because of pollution and poor management of waste produced by the refinery. The mining project will be located on the traditional lands of the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous community, which is considered endangered. They now live under the fear of losing their way of life and their sacred hills, as well as having their rights to water, food, livelihoods and cultural identity undermined.”