What is Sacred?


By B.G. Verghese

Twelve pallissabhas (tribal gram sabhas) in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa polled  the entire 250 square km area is the sacred abode of Niyamraja, the supreme deity of the 8000 strong DongariaKondh, a primitive tribe, straddling the Kalahandi-Rayagada district divide. The Supreme Court had on April 12, 2013 directed that tribal opinion be specifically sought on whether the proposed lease of a 660 ha area for a bauxite mine to feed Vendanta Aluminium Ltd’scurrently one million tpa alumina refinery (sought to be expanded to 6 mtpa), 40 km away at Lanjigarh, vitiated their religious and cultural rights.

The State government decided that a sample poll of 12 pallisabhas located on the slopes of the proposed mining site would suffice though others, including the Union Ministry for Tribal Affairs hold that all the 112 or soDongariaKondh villages in the NiyamgiriHills should be consulted. The exercise of ascertaining the views of the 12 selected pallisabhasindividually was completed between July 18 and August 19. The near-unanimous view was that the entire Niyamgiri range was sacred and not just the area around the temple near Hundaljalidedicated to Niyamraja sited atop the highest peak and some 10 km from the proposed mine. This sacred land was the source of their religious and spiritual wellbeing, livelihood and water, plant, wild root and herbal resources as (hunter-) gatherers and jhum farmers. Should mining be permitted, streams would dry up and people would despair and die.

Are these viable arguments or partly the product of understandable anxieties based on exaggerated notions of the consequences of mining expressed by project and ecological naysayers? Some fears are clearly wrong. Bauxite hill tops are here characteristically overlain with impervious strata that do not permit percolation. Thus rain drains down the hill slopes where some percolation takes place. The hill tops therefore only have sparse forest cover. Removal of the overburden to win bauxite would thereby facilitate percolation and improve the water regime.

Secondly, in the 660 ha area leased to VAL, the mining area would be smaller.Within that, the actual area mined at any one time through the mine-fill-reclaim technique would maybe not be more than 10 per cent of the leased area which would in fact see continuous ecological improvement in all respects. The current slash and burn method of cultivation, on the other hand, is more damaging ecologically.

Further, the current levels of education, malnutrition and health are utterly pitiable, with rampant cerebral malaria and other killer diseases, lack of easy access to potable water from distant streams, and the absence of roads and market access. Thus any external intervention, properly regulated, could be a blessing. Instead, we have relatively well-heeled outsiders and activists coming from afar, like Rahul Gandhi and Bianca Jagger and other do-gooders, striving to preserve the notion of the“noble savage”, whose life at the end of the day is “nasty, brutish and short”.

On the orders of the Supreme Court, VAL is committed to spend 10 per cent of it profits before tax or Rs 10 crores, whichever is higher, for “sustainable development” of the area. Thus it has over the past decade spent some Rs 170 crores on developing social and economic facilities for the benefit of those living around the Lanjigarh refinery and Niyamgiri mining site. This includes the building and running of schools, a hospital, operating mobile health vans, provision of water supply and power, setting up a self-help group for the local women and so forth. Has any critic compared this with the work done by the state-sponsored DongariaKhond Development Agency? And what of other tribal areas in Odisha or elsewhere? Which loud-mouthed activist has lifted a finger to assist the most wretched of our people who languish in splendid isolation? What even has the State been able to accomplish?

The pallisabha consultation cannot lead to sweeping diktats. Parts of Sikkim have been declared sacred. Some today want allof Uttarakhand above Rishikesh to be treated as sacred territory. Many rivers, mountains and lakes in India are sacred to one community or the other. Are all these to be declared out of bounds?

The Supreme Court has declared that the mineral and other natural resources  are national assets held in trust by the Government. The tribal people have an entitlement to surface minerals but cannot claim exclusive overall rights. Nevertheless, the DongariaKondhscan demand that they be treated as stakeholders in the land acquired and in the stream of future benefits – the regulations regarding which are being improved under the new Land  Acquisition and Resettlement Act, upgraded provisions regarding the assessment of the net present value of forests, and enhanced norms for corporate social responsibility that were first set out in the seminal Samantha judgement in 1996 relating to the transfer of a mining lease from the public to the private domain in a Fifth Schedule Area near Vishakapatanam in Andhra.

Hopefully, the Ministries of Environment and Forest and of Tribal Affairs will jointly advise the Supreme Court accordingly. The sacred site atop the Niyamgiri range and its immediate surroundings should be protected and honoured. But the rest of the DongariaKondh abode should be opened for development of tribal welfare alongside national development, through VAL in this particular case, or any other corporate, PSU or the State elsewhere. . The nation needs bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper and other minerals, well-conceived water storages and diversions, power plants, rail and road connectivity, ports and social development in these back-of-beyond regions that the Maoists are taking over on account of callous neglect and lack of development.

The Government also needs to move forward briskly with project clearances on the basis of due diligence, so that procedural delays do not stall progress. Laws and rules too must not apply retrospectively if India is to be a credible investment destination for anybody.

Likewise, the debate on GM agro-development, especially in its application to GM foods, cannot be cocooned in special interests and dogma as has been the case in India. The report of the Technical Expert Committee on GM crops was apparently published without the knowledge or consent of R.S Paroda, representing the agriculture and plant genetic resource discipline. A whole host of other national and international scientist associated with BT development have strongly criticised the Expert Panel for expounding narrow and short-sighted views that inhibit if not endanger the country’s future food security. The Food Security Bill has been passed with amendments that should satisfy the states. However, feeding the hungry must ultimately come from increased production and job creation to combat employment through infrastructure development at higher levels of skill and remuneration that lift India out of poverty.

Nostalgia, fanned by latter-day Luddites, is not the way forward. What is sacred – sentiment or a richer life for the most wretched?  



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