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Orissa: A continuing denial of adivasi rights

By Anu Kumar

The recent Justice PK Mishra Commission report on the Maikanch firing in Orissa's Rayagada district, in which three adivasis were killed in December 2000 as they opposed displacement, faults the police for excessive use of force. But the report dilutes its impact by observing that environmental protection cannot hold back Orissa's development

The recently-submitted Justice P K Mishra Commission report on the Maikanch firing incident in Orissa's Rayagada district has managed a careful balancing act. The commission was set up by the Orissa government to probe the deaths of three adivasis (tribals) killed in police firing in Maikanch on December 16, 2000. For over a decade, adivasis in the area have opposed UAIL's bauxite mining project in the region, aware of the displacement of population and ecological devastation that could follow. The commission has agreed that while there should not be senseless destruction of the environment, the state cannot afford to remain backward as a result of environmental protection.

The report gives a shot in the arm to UAIL and the state government who have been trying to kick-start the export-oriented alumina project, halted since 2001. In 2000, when the police fired 19 rounds (not necessary as the commission puts it) on a crowd of unarmed adivasis, it formed part of a series of similar confrontations between adivasi groups and the authorities. In 1993, when the project proposal was presented to the people of the most-affected villages, Kucheipadar and Maikanch, the adivasis resolutely opposed it. Since then they have contended with harassment, police brutality and state coercion. By 1995 land acquisition was already under way, often violently.

Organised under the banner of Prakrutik Sampada Surakhya Parishad, and other surakhya (protection) samitis, the adivasis' struggle has spread to more than 200 villages. They are aware of what is at stake - barely 100 km from Baphlimali Hill, the proposed mining site, is Nalco's bauxite mine/alumina smelter, which in just 10 years reduced the area's adivasis to landless ecological refugees. Also close by is the Hirakud dam which in the 1950s uprooted a large number of adivasis, many of whom were displaced a second time when their compensated lands were found to be coal-rich. In Orissa alone, already 14 lakh people, mostly adivasis, have been displaced by development projects. The Baphlimali hills are the source of 350 perennial streams. Deforestation caused by the mines and smelter will be aggravated because of the hilly terrain, resulting in frequent flash floods and landslides.

The company and the government, however, maintain that the bauxite-alumina complex would help the adivasis. And the P K Mishra Commission feels that bauxite extraction would not have an adverse impact on the environment. As early as last April, the Indian Aluminium Company (Indal), UAIL's sole owner, had announced its decision to recommence work at the site; it hopes to produce 15 lakh tonnes annually by 2007, the project's first phase. In the last few years, the state government has continued with the formalities of licenses, permits and land acquisition - a process made easier because most adivasis, unaware of regulations, do not register their land rights. The 2,800 hectares thus acquired would be handed over to UAIL soon.

Among its recommendations, the P K Mishra Commission has advised the government to consider the possibility of giving land in lieu of land taken from adivasis. But while the Baphlimali area is to be given over to mining, assessments by various groups reveal that the requirements of 2,610 hectares of land, including 1,000 hectares of cultivable land for the factory/wastage dump alone, will cripple the livelihoods of most settlements in the area. In fact, many villages stand to lose 75% of cultivable land and will not even be considered displaced, rendering the people virtually landless. Even after the project's completion, adivasis can expect to see very few benefits since few can hope to gain employment, except as construction labour or menial help.

While the Commission did fault the police for excessive use of force, it did not recommend any action against them. But then the Maikanch incident is in line with similar recent incidents when the state has unleashed its machinery to brutally repress protests by marginalised sections. Two months after Maikanch, protests against the Koel Karo Dam in Jharkhand led to the shooting of several adivasis resisting displacement. Madhya Pradesh has enacted the MP Special Areas Security Act to ban public protests and people's groups the state considers a threat; and early this year, the police fired on adivasis in Kerala's Muthanga reserve while they were agitating for land promised them by successive judicial orders. More compelling is the conclusion reached by former judge D S Tewatia in his investigation report on the Maikanch incident - the state's administrative machinery, the police in particular, appeared to have worked at the behest of the powerful aluminium consortium.

Despite all the rhetoric of participatory development, Rayagada's adivasis were denied even limited constitutional rights. The process of limited 'consultation' on land acquisition that the Panchayat Act for Scheduled Areas provides to adivasis was avoided. The government and UAIL are also in contempt of the Supreme Court's 1997 decision in the Samatha case, which prohibits mining by private companies in adivasi areas.

(InfoChange News and Features, November 2003)