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Destroyed by 'development'

By Subrat Kumar Sahu

The onslaught on Orissa’s forests began with the Hirakud dam, Rourkela steel plant, Mandira dam, the Upper Indravati hydroelectric project. Three million forest-dwellers in Orissa are estimated to have been displaced since Independence; most have vanished without a trace. Now it’s the mining leases that are destroying these forests. But local communities are no longer silent about this ‘development’

Read Part 1 of this series here
Read Part 2 of this series here
Read Part 3 of this series here
Read Part 5 of this series here
Read Part 6 of this series here

Seventy-five-year-old Raimati has to make quite an effort to walk up the 50-foot slope from her ‘workplace’ to her tiny hut in Benakhamar village on the banks of the Upper Indravati reservoir in Nabarangpur district in Orissa. Her ‘workplace’: a manual stone-crushing unit (illegal, according to the administration) run by women like her in the village. They heat the stone by burning fuelwood underneath it for hours; crush the stone into small pieces using a big hammer; and then pound the small pieces into stone chips using medium-size hammers. Even as this tedious process goes on non-stop every day, they might have to wait months for a contractor to come by and buy the chips, at Rs 750 per tractor-load. A meagre sum for a task that involves a month of hard work by a group of four to five women.

Seventy-five-year-old Raimati by the Indravati Reservoir: “Do you think I can lift this hammer and crush stone for a living? But I have to.”

Raimati can barely lift the hammer. But she has no choice. “Despite the hardship, I cannot ensure a square meal for myself every day,” she says absent-mindedly, looking across the vast spread of the Upper Indravati reservoir. She points somewhere in the distance and says: “That is where we used to live, in our village surrounded by dense forests. They drowned our happiness, our beautiful world… And look at me now! Do you think I can lift this hammer and crush stone? But I have to, otherwise the stomach burns!”

Punai, a 55-year-old woman, comes up to Raimati and says: “Life was so beautiful in the forest. No one ever went hungry. The fruits alone sustained us for four months of the year. The forest used to provide us plenty. We also ploughed the land. But they threw us out, and drowned everything. And we are left with nothing.”

Nearly 50,000 forest-dependent people were forcibly evicted from their homes in the 1980s and 1990s to make way for the multipurpose Upper Indravati Hydroelectric Project that submerged 11,000 hectares of prime forest, one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in Asia. The displaced forest communities had no option but to retreat to the banks of the reservoir. The road that came with the project, tearing into the heartland, ensured that the remaining forest around the reservoir was wiped out by the timber mafia, in connivance with forest officials, in less than a decade. And so the 50,000 displaced forest-dwellers lost whatever livelihood base they were left with.

The Upper Indravati dam displaced 50,000 forest-dwellers and inundated 11,000 hectares of virgin forest in south Orissa

The misery of the people of Indravati is a small example of how ‘development’ has destroyed traditional communities that depend on natural resources not only for their survival but also to keep their rich socio-cultural ethos alive. A way of life that is aligned with the natural evolution of the planet, its resources, and its life forms.

Dr Walter Fernandes, director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, and former director of the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, estimates that between 1947 and 2000 over 60 million people in India were forced to move from their natural homes. Of this, 3 million people were displaced in Orissa alone, most of them forest-dwellers.  

The Hirakud dam -- an impeccable symbol of development for the insensitive middle class -- submerged around 75,000 hectares of dense forest, grazing lands, and farmland, rendering homeless around 180,000 people who were dependent on local ecosystems for their survival. The Rourkela steel plant – another pride of the Oriya middle class -- decimated 11,200 hectares of primary forest, evicting 15,000 indigenous people. And it does not end here: in order to feed the steel plant electricity and water, the Mandira dam was constructed, submerging 4,500 hectares of virgin forest and displacing an unaccounted number of forest-dwellers. Then the rail network linking the steel plant with Hatia, Barsuan, Bondamunda and other places evicted 20,000 more people.

Post-Independence, it has been the mining sector in Orissa that has caused the forest folks most distress. Of the 5,813,700 hectares of ‘categorised’ forest area in the state, mineral reserves have been identified on some 3,500,000 hectares; that’s more than 60% of the total forest area. According to a press statement by Orissa’s steel and mines minister, Raghunath Mohanty, in June 2009, “preliminary exploration for mining had already been done on 3,100,000 hectares of forestland”. That, coupled with the rate at which the Orissa government has been signing MoUs -- more than 80 by now -- with metal, mining, and related industries speaks volumes about the fate that awaits forest-dependent people in the state.

Indeed, the situation is so chaotic that nobody even knows what happened to around 32,000 adivasi families (more than 200,000 people) in the Joda and Badbil areas of Keonjhar district, where mining (mostly iron ore) has been taking place for the past 40-odd years. They simply disappeared without a trace! In Damanjodi, in Koraput district, where NALCO (National Aluminium Company) has been mining bauxite in the Panchpatmali mountains since the 1980s, more than 70% of indigenous forest-dwellers who once were completely self-reliant today eke out an existence below the poverty line.

The onslaught on forest communities that started with the commercialisation of forests during the British Raj has now become a multi-pronged attack, with scores of ambitious development projects -- mining, dams, metal factories, rail network, tourism -- in the pipeline, and many more in the offing. These so-called ‘development’ projects seek to wipe out large tracts of primary forest forever and destroy forest-dependent communities.

The Khandadhar mountain in north Orissa with its magnificent waterfall is waiting to be mined by Korean steel giant POSCO. Local forest communities are fighting tooth-and-nail to save their only source of livelihood

In Orissa, the extent of forest area diverted for non-forestry use since the 1940s would be close on 200,000 hectares; most of them inhabited for generations by forest-dependent tribal populations. Between 1980 and 2007 alone, according to government records, the area of forests diverted for non-forest activity was close on 35,000 hectares, and this does not include vast tracts of forest promised in MoUs but not yet transferred by the state to industry.

Response of forest-dependent communities

Soon after Independence, especially around the time when the Hirakud Dam was coming up, communities displaced by such projects did not know how to respond to their predicament. But resist they did.  However, an unprecedented degree of state repression, ironically now empowered with ‘democracy’ and helped by the feudal class that primarily represented the new political class in Independent India, succeeded in suppressing the spontaneous but unorganised resistance by forest-dependent communities.

By the late-1970s and early-1980s, the winds of ‘environmentalism’ had already started blowing in Orissa. By this time too, most communities had witnessed the devastation caused by development projects. The 1980s saw the beginning of a new phase of resistance to such projects. The ‘Save Gandhamardan’ movement around the Gandhamardan mountains in western Orissa is a classic example in which communities, social formations and individuals cutting across social structures joined in to successfully force the state government to scrap a mega plan for bauxite mining by BALCO (Bharat Aluminium Company). Gandhamardan has been a source of livelihood not only for thousands of adivasis but also for scores of farmers, traditional health practitioners, and other social groups.

Another successful movement was the Baliapal movement in coastal Orissa where people fought a long, hard, democratic battle with the state to stop a huge military base from being set up there.

Unfortunately, after the economic reforms of 1991 in which India took the path of rapid and indiscriminate industrialisation, Orissa turned into a sort of ‘laboratory’ for the neo-liberal agenda, putting huge pressure on the state’s forests, water sources, and energy supply. Metal factories, power plants, dams and mining units sprouted like mushrooms all across the state, especially in forest areas.

Taking on the assault

Communities everywhere are resisting being sacrificed at the altar of development. In many cases, people have been able to halt the progress of industry, putting the brakes on the disruption of their lives and livelihoods: Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Jagatsingpur, Niyamgiri are just a few of the names…

But despite the widespread resistance, a number of communities have already been devastated. A prime example is the Sambalpur-Jharsuguda stretch in which Lapanga falls; Lapanga boasts the oldest ‘recorded’ instance of community forest management in the state, since 1936.

An elder (who pleaded anonymity) of the widely publicised and respected Lapanga Prajarakshit (community-protected) Jungle Committee says: “What tremendous collective efforts and care went into protecting the village forests here, for decades! But today this place has become unfit for human beings to live. Not only have we lost large areas of forests to factories all around, the environment is totally destroyed… even the social environment now stinks! Living here is going to be even tougher in future.”

Another member, a middle-aged man who also pleaded anonymity, says: “Our elders had sown the seeds of prosperity for us by keeping the forests, and my generation reaped the harvest. But what is our next generation going to do? What will they survive on? We still have about 300 hectares of forests. But suddenly, after these companies came here, trees in our forests are being felled every day and transported out. We do fight, but they come with the company goons. We do not know how to tackle the problem. Our elders had protected this forest for over 100 years by contributing foodgrain set aside from family rations and also by putting in voluntary labour. Earlier, 80% of the village forest and farmlands was lost to the Hirakud dam; now the remaining 20% of forest is in the greedy eyes of the companies. We do not even know where they came from.”

Walking with him in the forest, I could feel his helplessness. The forest is dotted with hundreds of stumps of freshly felled sal trees. Our conversation is interrupted by the sound of heavy trucks plying right through the forest. He says: “This was the go-danda (path meant for cattle to return home). But now it is a sort of highway for vehicles belonging to the Hindalco coal mine located just a few kilometres from here. They cut so many trees to build this road.” He adds: “Due to the factories all around, especially the Bhushan Steel Company, and the coal-carrying vehicles, this place has turned into an industrial dump yard. We are inflicted with strange diseases now.”

What used to be the village go-danda is now a conduit for heavy vehicles carrying coal and ash

I saw industrial waste, especially ash, dumped randomly all over the place, even on the main road. I learned that in order to carry away one truckload of ash from the factory, a truck owner gets Rs 11,000. However, it is not specified where he is supposed to dump the ash and so he takes the easiest way out! On a prominent signboard showing you the way to the Hindalco coal mine, you cannot miss the tag line: ‘We care for the environment’!

Hindalco ‘cares’ for the environment

I follow the ‘environment-friendly’ directions given by Hindalco and end up near Beheramunda village, about 10 km from Lapanga. Manbodh Biswal, a local activist who was arrested for questioning the state about allowing the company to set up on forest land, and is now out on bail, wonders: “There was a dense forest standing here. How did the company manage to get the land? Moreover, they have acquired the village commons and have paid some paltry compensation. It’s like hacking your head off and then saying that the rest of your body is okay for you to live a lifetime!”

It is not only forests being appropriated by development projects that have shaken the local economy. Kabiraj Mahanand says: “More than 75% of our Khenda Gram Jungle (Khenda village forest) was lost to the mine; now we try and protect the remaining 25% of forest. But the pollution is so great that we find it difficult to live here.” Ugrasen Mahanand adds: “Because of the dump yards, our farmlands remain waterlogged; it’s been six years since we have cultivated our lands.”

A little while later, Manbodh Biswal laughs and tells me that what I had mistaken for a hill was actually a dumping site for soil extracted through mining.

Dumping clogs fields and destroys forests

As soon as we reach the village of Matulu Camp, we are accosted by an army of women who think I am a company official. “We had cut down on our daily rations for decades to keep the forests alive. You come and take away our livelihoods?” an old woman says, charging at me. For the next one hour it’s like a rehearsal for a fight already ordained. As we are about to leave, the old woman barks out an order: “Go and tell all these companies to pack up and leave our lands and forests.” I wished that her words could have reached the ears of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

The Sambalpur-Jharsuguda stretch is testimony to the dark side of Orissa’s ambitious industrial development drive, in the past 10 years. Apart from destroying forests rich in resources, industrial pollution and waste have reduced farm output as well. An unplucked cauliflower looks like a palm-full of cowdung meticulously placed on the ground! And the biggest paradox is that many of the industrial units have been certified as CDM (clean development mechanism) projects even as the rest are awaiting certification!

The middle-aged man in Lapanga says: “When we keep the forests and, in effect, keep the environment clean, we never get such certificates! Why?”

In Ghichamunda village, the monthly meeting of the village FPC (forest protection committee) is on when I arrive. The villagers tell me: “In order to efficiently protect more than 800 hectares of village forests, we have divided ourselves into three groups and work in close coordination. But the Bhushan steel plant and the Vedanta smelter are already wreaking havoc on us. They are dumping ash in our forests; Bhushan has in fact taken away the grazing fields and lands from the adivasis in addition to a large government area that they use for their ash pond. Due to industrial pollution, leaves are turning black and trees have stopped growing. We now avoid the village road leading to the town because it is so full of dust. We practically have no road now. They are constructing new roads inside the forest only to facilitate the dumping of ash. All the petty agents and contractors have come together. The moment someone tries to raise his voice, a bundle of currency notes is pushed into his mouth, to choke his throat. If that does not work, they will intimidate you for life. A terrible time has descended on us. But we will keep up the fight. We have given our sweat and blood to our forest, our goddess!”

A man I met at the Thelkuli bus stop in front of the Bhushan steel and power plant, said: “Someone somewhere is investing heavily to finish up all the forests.” That’s probably the reason why the forest department -- which is otherwise so proactive in taking up people’s claims over forests elsewhere -- does not intervene in the complex situation here. They don’t even come there to form JFM committees!

But at the foothills of the Gandhamardan mountains, both in Bargarh and Bolangir districts, where community forest management (CFM) groups are holding their ground, people are determined not to allow mining in the area. According to newspaper reports, nearly 30 mining companies have applied for permission and have been waiting for approval for a number of years. Apart from the local people’s strong bond with the forests and a rich tradition of self-governance, what gives them strength is the inspiring history of the ‘Save Gandhamardan’ movement that began in the 1980s.

In November 2007, after eight hours of trekking through the dense Niyamgiri, home of the Dongria Kondh tribals, in Rayagada district, we reached the village of Khambesi. It was dark and we were tired. We settled down to sleep in the front room of a Dongria house. But we could not sleep as the woman of the house coughed relentlessly through the night in the adjoining room. The next morning I asked an elderly woman why she wasn’t being taken to a doctor, and she said: “We are never affected by a disease that we cannot cure with the medicines that Niyamgiri has provided us. This is the first time that no medicine has worked!”

Although I completely believed the first part of her statement, I was as clueless as she was about why the medicine wasn’t working.

We climbed the last peak of the Niyamgiri range and what I saw on the other side was revealing. Out of nowhere, in the dense wilderness, was a sprawling factory belching thick dark smoke -- Vedanta’s alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. The Dongrias down in the valley on the other side were unaware of the toxic smoke they had been inhaling of late. How could they possibly have the cure for a disease caused by something they did not even know about! (However, six months later when I visited Khambesi again, the woman had recovered from the ‘strange’ disease, thanks to the same traditional medicines.)

‘Mining happiness…’ is the tagline on Vedanta’s billboards that clutter the urban landscape in Orissa. Just five years ago, the Lanjigarh area comprising 25-odd villages, inhabited by the Kondh tribe and dalits, at the foothills of Niyamgiri, was a serene landscape dominated by sal forests and intersected by the Vamsadhara river that emerged from the Niyamgiri. Today, one of the 80-odd MoUs signed by the state government has turned this pristine habitat into an industrial wasteland. Nearly 15,000 forest-dependent people have become refugees in their own homeland; large tracts of forest have disappeared to make way for the factory, ash ponds, red-mud ponds and roads clogged with trucks and the native forest-dwellers rambling about in search of some livelihood option somewhere. That’s ‘mining happiness’ for you! That’s ‘growth’, which the urban elite seems ready to trade anything for, including commonsense!

Arjun Chandi of Kadamguda village, close to the refinery, asks: “How can you call this development? Someone else comes here, destroys your forests, takes away your economic sources, pushes you on the road, and makes a lot of money. Where is development? If you want to give us development, first give back our forests, then talk about development.”

It is not all about the destruction brought about by the refinery alone. The mountain top from where we located the smoke-bellowing refinery downhill is where Vedanta is going to mine bauxite. And the closest village to the site is Khambesi on the other side. Villagers in Khambesi had told us that there were a couple of powerful blasts on the top some months ago (I immediately guessed those were the test blasts for mining). “The entire mountain had rocked then. There were cracks on our houses. And wild animals, including snakes, appeared in the village. We heard the roar of the tigers.”

Vedanta’s alumina refinery at the foothills of Niyamgiri, eating up people’s space, culture and lives

However, after witnessing the devastation at Lanjigarh, the Dongrias are now putting up a strong resistance; deferring Vedanta’s ‘mining happiness’, hopefully to the past. For the Dongrias know best what the forests, the hills, the hundreds of perennial water streams, and the wildlife mean to them... and also what ‘development’ would bring to them.

I remembered what Dodi Pusika, in the Dongria village of Gorata had told me, “We do not manage the forest; the forest manages us!”

(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He was formerly with TerraGreen, a magazine on the environment and sustainable development. He was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009 to research the history of community forest management in his native Orissa. This is part 4 in the series.)  

Infochange News & Features, April 2010