Friday, September 03, 2010

Angels and Demons

The Vedanta order was not an isolated act of vindictiveness

By Swapan Dasgupta

The camera does not lie, but what it captures is determined by human preferences. This simple truth was more than evident when the TV cameras positioned at the venue of Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi's "victory" rally in Lanjigarh in Orissa's Kalahandi district last week focussed almost exclusively on the dais. Had the camerapersons directed their cameras at the crowd, as they did during Mamata Banerjee's public meeting in Lalgarh, they may have detected an intriguing feature of this much-hyped rally: the rows of empty chairs.

When it comes to the Congress Party's heir-apparent, bad news is, however, not news. In the dominant narrative of the 'environmental' war being waged in Orissa, it was always a straight fight between an endangered exotic India and the forces of exploitative capitalism, with little scope for ambiguity. The helpless 8,000-strong Dongria Kondhi tribe had been spared the destruction of their age-old way of life and the devastation of their sacred Niyamgiri hills by the son of the man who had first made Kalahandi the symbol of unacceptable poverty, and that was that. Gandhi was the sipahi of the angels and Vedanta personified the demons.

Yet, the empty chairs symbolised an alternative narrative of a backward state that doesn't want to be excluded from the relentless march of economic development. The London-based Vedanta may not be the exemplar of what goes by the name of corporate social responsibility but the $5.4 billion aluminium plant in Lanjigarh providing employment to some 10,000 people is Kalahandi's only reminder of 21st century India. Close the factory down and the district reverts to what it always was: a forgotten outpost of eastern India subsisting on agriculture, a few government jobs and oodles of welfare handouts.

This yearning for a better life may explain why Bhakta Charan Das, the Congress MP for Kalahandi and a driving force behind the present anti-Vedanta stir, was singing a very different tune when the issue hadn't been so politicised. Speaking in the Lok Sabha in November 1996, Das said: "The Government of India and the Orissa government should take keen interest to set up at least a large aluminium plant because we have got a heavy deposit of bauxite in Niyamgiri and Sijimalli of the Kalahandi district. If there is an aluminium plant, then a minimum of 40,000 people can sustain out of the different kinds of earnings from that."

Not that the world view of Bianca Jagger and Survival International is without takers. Without its aluminium plant, the district could, at a pinch, become a venue for eco-tourism and medicinal plants—there is a local belief that the Niyamgiri hills once contained Mount Gandhamadhana that Hanuman uprooted to source a medicinal plant for the dying Lakshman—which may help preserve the stereotype of otherwise happy tribals doggedly resisting the pulls of cruel modernity. Why, even the Gandhis may choose such an exotic, unspoilt venue for a quiet, environmentally sound short-break.

There is a compelling case for denying Vedanta the rights to mine bauxite from even a tiny corner of the Niyamgiri hills. Although the proposal was to confine the extraction of bauxite to just a small part of the 250 sq. km range, leaving the sacred sites intact—a sensitivity that never affected Jawaharlal Nehru when he proceeded with his frenzied construction of the 'temples of modern India'—it is common knowledge that the regulatory framework in India is so lax and prone to corrupt practices that the desecration of the entire Niyamgiri range would have been surreptitiously undertaken. In time, Kalahandi may even have turned into another Bellary where the iron ore from authorised mines is generously supplemented by the produce from illegal shafts. Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's commitment to an aesthetically pleasing and green Orissa is not in doubt—he is the author of a book on India's medicinal plants—but even he wouldn't have been able to control the outpouring of greed and the debasement of the political system that accompanies mining in India.

However, it is one thing to be wary of the potential havoc that bauxite mining could create in the Niyamgiri hills and quite a separate matter to ride roughshod over the due process of law. In August 2008, the Supreme Court cleared the Vedanta project including the proposal of the Orissa Mining Corporation to set up a dedicated bauxite mine for the company in an area covering some 5 sq. km of the hills. The Court approval followed reports by expert groups set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and was based on a scrutiny of laws that were in place at the time of the order.

In justifying his Ministry's firm no to any mining activity in the Niyamgiri hills, Union Minister Jairam Ramesh said there "was no emotion, no politics in this decision. I have taken a decision in a purely legal approach." He told the Financial Times that Vedanta's violation of the law were "too egregious to be glossed over." His conclusion was based on the findings of a committee headed by National Advisory Council member N.C. Saxena whose terms of reference were set on June 29 and then enlarged 20 days later—the same shifting of goal posts has, incidentally, also accompanied Saxena's inquiry into the proposed POSCO steel plant in coastal Orissa.

Apart from the propriety of a member of a political body attached to the Congress President reviewing a decision endorsed by the Supreme Court, there is a larger issue at stake. Among other things, Saxena was asked to assess Vedanta's compliance with the Forest Rights Act. This is intriguing since the Supreme Court didn't consider the Forest Rights Act for the simple reason that such a law didn't exist in August 2008; it was enacted subsequently. In other words, Vedanta has been indicted on the strength of a law applied retrospectively. Whether this corresponds to law or justice will be examined by the apex court when the matter is again referred to it. But on the face of it, the impression that the Government is undertaking a political witch-hunt is unmistakable. By this logic, many of India's industrial projects will not stand the test of retrospective scrutiny.

In the pre-liberalisation age, the Centre used the license-permit regime to discriminate against state governments that were run by non-Congress parties. The Left Front Government in West Bengal had to wage a sustained political struggle to secure permission for the Haldia Petrochemicals project and the Bakreshwar thermal plant. The end of socialist controls has allowed a semblance of federalism to return to our polity but this is now endangered by the misuse of environmental controls as a political veto. The Vedanta order wasn't an isolated act of vindictiveness; it was preceded by a peremptory order (based on the preliminary findings of another committee headed by Saxena) stopping the land acquisition for the proposed Rs 51,000 crore POSCO steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa. In both cases, the Centre acted unilaterally, in total violation of all federal principles, using the environment and rights of tribals as moral shield to justify political subversion and blackmail.

The Orissa Chief Minister is temperamentally non-confrontational and may be too much of a gentleman to replicate the Congress' skulduggery. But unless he reacts in a political decisive way to the Centre's declaration of war on Orissa, he may find the ground slipping under his feet. There is a vindictive Delhi Sultanate in place and the states of India must confront it.

The Telegraph, September 3, 2010

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