Blood Ore & Mining in Odisha – Charudatta Panigrahi – October 2019

Odisha is the largest producer of iron ore and other non-ferrous minerals in the country. We are gearing up for the auction of the mines and everybody seems to be in a jiffy to get this done – the centre, the state, the industry. I had written about this earlier expressing my belief that this is going to add tremendous value to the national GDP (north of 2%) immediately in the next 3-5 years. India’s socio-economic and political standing would be positively impacted due to the mining in Odisha. There is a direct correlation. But what about the community people?

All the mines are located in the low-income areas of Odisha and India. Of course, the lease owners would have already provided the geological reports and the exploration plans. I am sure the government would have also prepared a roadmap for the smooth transition for the auction of the lapsing mines. But do we have a community development agreement ready to be signed with the mine owners, post auction? Importantly, do we think that a community development commitment is necessary? If yes, then who would decide or facilitate a plan which can be made mandatory for the prospective mine owners. As a part of the Action Plan (the master plan by the state), which am sure would have already been submitted to the Centre, the community development perspective would have been stitched together. I hope so.

There is a Sustainable Development Framework (SDF) to be ideally adopted by the mining companies. If it has not been made compulsory yet for the miners, it should be made so. It is impending and quite obvious that a huge land grab is threatening India’s tribal people and that includes Odisha. This apparently looks like a bonanza for forest related industries and investments. The forest-dwelling adivasis, indigenous tribes, found in all the mining zones of Odisha are the directly affected stakeholders under the SC order for the eviction of close to 2 million adivasis from protected forest lands across India. The claims of nearly 226,000 adivasi and other forest-dwelling households have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations. But our shocking laxity has deprived the tribals from getting the testimonials for their ‘ownership’ evidence. Citizen services facilitated by the district or state authorities could have prevented the adivasis staring at homelessness, any moment ( over 30000 in Odisha). They are condemned to be refugees in their own land. Is there any plan by the government or the miners to implement a systematic rehabilitation and resettlement program for the local communities? I am sure there would be an estimate of the displacement but is there a blueprint for tackling the displacement?

It seems that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has agreed in principle to give forest and environment clearance to the new owners based on Letters of Intent for a period of two years. This augurs well for the community work to withstand the early jolts and stabilise by the communities. Displacement would shock them, render them homeless and make them more vulnerable. Is it not our responsibility to rehabilitate them and handhold them to lead normal lives? OMC, Odisha Mining Corporation have had demonstrated commendable efforts in community outreach and sustainable mining -  through installation of solar plants, use of solar street lights in the mines, rain water harvesting and ground water recharging at the mines, Installation of STP at their mines to re-cycle the waste water, Solar plants in mines to reduce the carbon foot prints and the like. But it is one thing to buck up initiatives in safe and sustainable  mining practices and another to take care of the lives around mining geographies.

A Sustainable Development Framework would cover lot many aspects and this includes comprehensive planning for the communities. Who is doing this or who is at least, planning to do this? The communities are not capable of even expressing their needs. The civil society organisations are outdated and dispassionately removed.

I have trust in the industry ( the miners) to commission professional help in assessing the needs of the communities with the help of the district authorities. If at all, the District Collectorate is the governance, which is closest to the communities. If their capacities are worked upon then they could be the best point for monitoring of the i) Managing impacts at the mine level ii) Progressive mine closure & Landscape Restoration iii) addressing social impact and community engagement iv) reporting on sustainability, conducting social audits, energy audits etc.

The social subversion of the tribals, I have reasons to believe that these are not innocuous anymore,  should not be allowed to dent deeper by the mining activities. SDF is not the panacea, nor is a part of the regulatory ( it should have been) but it has the compass to cover comprehensively, all inclusive. The social aspects of development projects are usually the most challenging and can pose a significant risk to the successful implementation of projects. Because we are dealing with people with complex emotions, hopes, concerns, expectations and insecurities. Assessing a project’s impact on the biophysical environment does not require any complicated processes. Mineral resources are finite and non-renewable, at least in biological timescales. Environmental, social problems along with mining related risks are increasingly breeding conflicts between miners and local communities. Understandably so.

It is common sense. “You make supernormal riches out of virtually nothing (soil) and you don’t even care to look at the guardians of the bounty, the tribals”. How does this make any indifference tenable? I call this, the ‘arrogance of rent seeking caucus”.

Can we, the civil society, be privy to the exploration plans of the bidding mining companies? Can we know about their blueprint for the mines communities? Can all this be transparent and upfront? Can this be in public domain (on the department’s web portal?)?

After all it is about our land, our communities and ultimately our treasury. What’s the secret in all this? Rapidly changing global order, energy transitions, climate emergency and supersonic technological advancement should enable exemplary development of tribals in Odisha. ICTs (information & communication technologies) can deployed for the development of the mines’ communities. Because the mining in Odisha would have global effect. The resources which would be sucked out are non-renewable. Can we squander away this opportunity and not build our lives, in the best possible manner? I don’t know about you, but for me this is a once in a lifetime chance to build or rebuild an equitable society. Live and let live.

If we don’t take care of our tribals, the repository of our riches and spirituality, no amount of economic growth would be worthy, viable and pro human.

Let’s not stoke another Blood Ore !

Charudatta Panigrahi

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