Monday, September 08, 2008

Resistance to Displacement through Forest Rights Act

Priyanca Mathur Velath

Displacement and resistance have co-existed in India’s history since even before its independence. However, the past few years have particularly witnessed violent upsurges to industrial units being set up on fertile lands, where people have been farming for generations, and on forest land, that has traditionally been the home of indigenous and rural communities. Even though Schedule Five of India's Constitution prohibits the alienation of tribal land to non-tribal private companies, people continue to be uprooted from their lands and livelihoods by developmental projects.

The harsh reality is that the biggest foreign direct investment project in India since independence actually intends to displace hundreds of tribals from their original habitat in their ‘sacred’ hills in the state of Orissa. But the affected people of those areas in Orissa have been far from silent. They have not just been most vigilant is voicing their protest against this ‘development without a face’ but have also done so through novel methods.

Resistance to development-induced displacement in India has come a long way from the first satyagraha led by Senapati Bapat against the Tata Dam on the confluence of the Nila and Mula rivers at Mulshi Peta near Pune in 1918 to the violent agitations against the Tata car factory at Singur, Nandigram today. The protesting Mulshi Malwas used to have boiling water thrown at them by the British officers while the farmers in West Bengal have faced bullets. However, the tribals of Orissa have decided to arm themselves with the newly enacted Forest Rights Act (FRA)

In August 2008, the so-called "Green" bench of the Supreme Court delivered a double blow to the Orissa tribals facing displacement by giving its go-ahead to Sterlite Industries to divert forest land for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills and to the South Korean steel-giant POSCO's proposed steel plant in Jagatsinghpur. The Court simply asked Sterlite industries to pay Rs.55 crore towards a 'wildlife management plan for conservation and management of wildlife around the mine' and Rs. 12.2 crore towards 'tribal development'. The miniscule amount that has been attributed as accountability cost is undoubtedly shocking when the entire project is worth a whopping $12 billion. But what is indeed unfortunate is that these pronouncements seem to have pulled the spanner off this huge project.

POSCO-India had signed an MOU (Memorandum of understanding) with the Orissa government to set up a 12 million tonne steel project at Paradip, in Orissa's Jagatsinghpur district for which it needs 4,004 acres of land there. As nearly 3000 acres of the required land requires forest diversion approval, the project hinges on this approval that the government is seeking from the Ministry of Forest and Environment and the Supreme Court. The preparatory work that it was supposed to start on the land given by the government to the project was stalled as the land was found to be recorded as forest land. But now the Supreme Court's approval shall allow work to progress.

The protesting tribals have this time found a new ally to once again stall the go-ahead granted by the Court. It’s the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. In Jagatsinghpur, the residents of Dhinkia village have passed a resolution declaring that their forests are ‘protected’ community forests, as categorised under the FRA, and under the FRA consent from the gram sabha or village council is necessary prior to the acquisition of such declared forest land. This move has been thought of as a well-timed strategy to block the Court’s go-ahead. Realising the implications of such a resolution the local administration had actually refused to accept Dhinkia village’s notice under the FRA. However the gram sabha was resolute and it sent its resolution through registered post to ensure that it reached!

This one simple act of resistance is bound to complicate matters and inhibit the smooth flow of the project. The frustration of the protestors is understandable. The project authorities have not shown much interest in ensuring the rights of those affected. There seem to be not much meeting grounds between the Dongaria Kondhs, the original inhabitants and custodians of the Niyamgiri Hills and the mighty Vedanta company intending to displace them. Many mistakenly thought that Anil Agarwal, Vedanta's Executive Chairman had recognised the rights of the Dongaria Kondhs to withhold from the project, when in reality at the company's Annual General Meeting in London on 31 July he referred to the necessity of permission from the Supreme Court and the Government. With this permission being granted, it was thus left to the Kondhs to devise their own strategies. In fact, what the Dhinkia villagers have done is now being viewed by many other tribal groups and villages as a model to be replicated.

Far away from India, in Norway, the Norwegian Government Global Pension Fund dropped Vedanta from its investments, citing in its Council of Ethics' report to the Ministry of Finance of Norway that Vedanta's "planned mining project in the Niyamgiri Hills may entail considerable negative and irreversible effects on the whole ecosystem of that area" and that "this indicates a pattern of behaviour where such violations are accepted and have become an integral part of corporate practise. This pattern represents an unacceptable risk that the company's unethical practise will continue in the future." It is indeed unfortunate that a company is condemned for its un-environmental friendly actions on Indian soil by another nation but still it continues to enjoy the patronage of the Indian state. Such circumstances can only expect unprecedented reactions – like that from the Dhinkia village.

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