Jul 15 2010

The Suffering of the Humble.. and Our Complicity

Orissa invaded by VedantaOrissa is the most mineral rich state in India. It is green and fertile, a patchwork of tiny fields and thickly forested mountains with waterfalls tumbling over their red rocks. Like many of the world’s remaining areas of natural fertility, these mountains are largely populated by tribal peoples, which in India are called Adivasis – meaning literally ‘the original inhabitants’ – and are thought to be one of the oldest civilisations in the world. One quarter of the Orissan population are tribal, making it also the ‘poorest’ state in India according to the World Bank. But its figures judge well-being only by monetary exchange, and fail to mention that there has never been a famine recorded here, and that many Adivasis rarely use money, living in balance with the mountains, streams and forests which provide everything they need. In thanks for natures’ providence many Adivasi cultures worship the mountains on which they depend as Gods, and vow to protect their bountiful natural systems from damage. Some of the Orissan mountains are among the last ancient forest capped hills in India, thanks to the determination of tribal inhabitants against British colonial efforts to log them.

More equality amongst the Adivasis

When I stayed with Adivasis in India several years ago I was struck by the differences between their society and modern Indian culture; there seemed to be greater gender equality, openness and freedom compared with the strict caste system and repressive religious and gender divides which are so evident in much of mainstream India. They were more fortunate and they knew it. They were not wooed by the cities, the promise of money or the discourse of ‘development’ which has repeatedly threatened their ancient existence. If you think this sounds romantic and idealistic, you are right – and it is interesting in itself that we are often so cynical when we are confronted with these qualities in humanity – but the reality of this description has earned them the title of ‘the real Na’vi’ from the blockbuster film Avatar – a nature connected people who have captured public imagination with a sense of something mostly lost in our over-developed (Western) world.

The comparison to Avatar doesn’t end there. Adivasis across Orissa (and all over India) are threatened by a multitude of mining and heavy industrial projects, which plan to exploit the red-rocked hills for the bauxite, steel and iron ore they contain, dam the rivers for electricity to process these metals, and export them to the West. Theoretically this will generate hard cash for India’s modernising economy, but in reality it is exacerbating inequalities and mostly benefiting India’s richest people, and the multi-national mining corporations who profit from India’s cheap power and cheap people. Many of these projects are supported by the World Bank, Western governments and NGO’s under their programmes of ‘development aid’.

Wishes to start mining operations

One such project has recently come under major international scrutiny. In the Niyamgiri mountain range in Western Orissa, a London registered company called Vedanta are after the bauxite capped mountains which are sacred homes to the Khond tribes who live there. They want to take 18 million tonnes of bauxite per year from the Niyamgiri hills over the next 25 years, then leave the hills depleted and move on. The bauxite will be refined in the existing plant at Lanjigarh, at the base of the mountains, where local populations already suffer from dying crops, respiratory problems and birth defects caused by heavily polluted water and falling ash from the plant.

Vedanta claim that they will bring money, education and development to the area, and that their activities will follow the highest codes of environmental and social excellence. But the evidence on the ground does not agree, and the project has been plagued by controversy. In 2007 the Norwegian Government’s pension fund pulled its $13 million of shares in Vedanta as it believed its involvement could result in “an unacceptable risk of contributing to grossly unethical activities”, and just last week the Bank of England similarly dis-invested from the company on human and environmental grounds after UK authorities in India upheld allegations of illegal and unethical activity against tribal people in Orissa.

Under the pretext of development

Despite this criticism the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and World Bank have been instrumental in encouraging such projects through massive ‘development’ loans which are conditional on “program(s) to reform the business and direction of government”. This means privatisation of the water and power sectors and promotion of mining opportunities for foreign companies through low rates of tax, which further diminish any economic benefits to the local government and people. Activists and social commentators have pointed out that resource extraction from India to the West is many times greater today than it was under the East India Company of British colonial rule. The only difference is that the neo-colonialism has a human face and promises ‘development’ and an end to poverty, despite evidence to the contrary.

A recent documentary by respected film-maker Simon Chambers showed the realities of Vedanta’s corporate social responsibility programmes and public consultation in Niyamgiri; an empty village hospital bearing the company logo which had never had doctors or provided healthcare, a new Vedanta community where police patrol the streets and the residents were bribed to praise the company for the camera, and dissenters who were threatened by company security and thugs.

Both Vedanta’s subsidiaries Sterlite and MALCO have been charged in court with the criminal violation of Environmental laws, callous dumping of toxic wastes and illegal construction, yet the Supreme court has overruled other legal proceedings and granted the company permission to mine.

A battle for land

But the Adivasi inhabitants have not given up. They point out that the rich bauxite caps of the mountains are like sponges which guarantee a water supply to rivers in the whole district. Without them the streams will dry and many will suffer. They decry the waste of an ecosystem which has supported their people for hundreds of generations in only 25 years, and ask how we can call this ‘development’. As Adivasi movement leader Bhagaban Mahji has said;

“We cannot eat money, and we know it won’t last long. We have lost our land and livelihood. While they make promises of better life for us, we are left only with problems.”

The Khonds have fought tooth and nail for their right to exist sustainably here. In 2009 10,000 villagers and concerned citizens held hands to form a 17 kilometre human chain around the hills. They have blockaded the roads and lain their children in front of bulldozers saying ‘what future is there for them if you build this mine?’. They have faced police oppression, shootings and continual threats. Recent evidence suggests they are right to be so cynical about the project. Of half a million Indians displaced by mining in the last 10 years in just four states, 92% are much worse off, even if they receive the paltry compensation offered by companies. But tribal people are disposable in India, and the model of western development suggests that indigenous communities and undisturbed nature must go if they are to join the modern world.

Our responsibility

For us in the West this is a harsh wake up call. The metals which make our planes, tower blocks, disposable cans, and most frighteningly our weapons, have a huge cost to the earth and to some of the people who live most sustainably on it. From the forests where the ore is found, the damming of rivers for refining and smelting, the polluted air and water left behind, to the dumped rubbish of yesterdays trendy phone, yesterdays redesigned house and yesterdays bombs; we are all complicit. It is also all of us, and our children and grandchildren who will ultimately suffer the effects of a world polluted and impoverished by resource scarcity. These effects are hidden from us by outsourcing them to desperate countries where human rights and environmental laws are lax, while our economic system keeps the real costs of the pollution and degradation separate from the end product – meaning we can get cheap flights now, but pay for the associated polluted water, displaced people, climate change and health problems later through taxation.

Today our institutions talk a lot about carbon, but they are wrong to dwell only on this by-product of modern civilization. Policies which reduce carbon, but ignore the rest of the damage inflicted on people, places and natural systems which support us, are dodging the issue; our use of almost all of the earth’s resources is unsustainable, wasteful and ultimately harmful to ourselves. Unless we can learn something from the Adivasis who live most sustainably on this earth, or even the mythical Na’vi of Pandora from the film ‘Avatar’ – who’s values run deeper than our mostly consumer based happiness – we have little chance of reaching our full human potential.

This article by Miriam Rose originally appeared in the first issue of the monthly newspaper Róstur