Sandeep Sahu

By Sandeep Sahu

Weeks before the 2004 elections, I happened to be Kalahandi. After completing the day’s work, I happened to meet a few people who had just returned from the Gram Sabha earlier in the day where consent was wrested for setting up of the 1 million ton per annum (MTPA) capacity bauxite refinery by Vedanta. The account of the Gram Sabha meeting they presented was scary, to say the least. Hundreds of armed police personnel had virtually taken over the meeting venue; vocal opponents of mining in Niyamgiri in the village had been whisked away by cops; those who could have raised an objection had been warned by the local administrator against voting against the resolution; the Collector and the SP were at the spot trying to ensure that the operation was completed without a hitch. The presence of the Collector and SP at a meeting that should have been overseen by officials of the local administration in normal course left no room for doubt about the determination of the Naveen Patnaik government to secure the consent of the Gram Sabha, at gun point, if necessary.

Now cut to July, 2013. In the days leading up to Palli Sabha meetings in a cluster of villages in and around the Niyamgiri hills mandated by the Supreme Court to take a call on whether bauxite mining should be allowed in the hill considered sacred by the Dongria Kondhs who inhabit the area, a virtual reign of terror reminiscent of 2004 had been unleashed by the administration. Villagers were threatened and booked in false cases; activists were kept away from the area and the fear was palpable. The government had chosen the 12 villages where Palli Sabhas were to be convened carefully, hoping that the Palli Sabhas would toe the government line and give consent to the mining proposal. But all its calculations went horribly wrong as all 12 Palli Sabhas voted unanimously against the proposal. If the state government failed to have its way, it was certainly not for want of trying.

But the rejection did not deter the government. After the Palli Sabhas rejected the proposal for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills, it started looking for alternative deposits of bauxite in this bauxite rich area and finally zeroed in on the Kodinagmali hills in neighbouring Koraput district for which the state owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) held the lease for decades, making it clear that it would brook no resistance to its plans to ensure that the Vedanta refinery is not starved of raw material.

And now the sudden and yet-to-be-explained decision to transfer of Koraput Collector Poma Tudu, barely three weeks after she took over, offers further proof of the determination of the government to bail out Vedanta in wanton disregard of the rights granted to the people of the area under the Constitution. [Incidentally, Koraput has seen three Collectors come and go in the last two and a half years alone and 17 in the last 19 years, making mincemeat of the guidelines issued by the Personnel and Training department of the Union government that stipulates a minimum term of two years for Collectors and SPs!] What makes the transfer particularly noteworthy is the fact that the Collector received the marching orders on the very day she had managed to end the 10-day long agitation by locals who had stalled transport of bauxite from the mines. She was thus punished for an act that should have actually earned her praise. Though the details of what exactly transpired at the meeting convened by the Collector and attended by DIG, South-southwest Himanshu Lal and SP K Vishal Singh is not clear yet, it is a reasonable guess that she conceded at least some of the demands of the people of 22 villages around Kodingamali opposing mining in the hills. And this precisely is what appears to have earned Tudu, who had earned a reputation as a pro-people officer during her earlier stint as Nuapada Collector, the wrath of the government.

The whole episode has thrown up several questions that need clear and convincing answers. Has the consent of the special board under the chairmanship of the chief secretary been obtained before transferring Tudu as required under the rules? Is the outsourcing of mining operations to Mythri Infra, a Vishakhapatnam based private company, by OMC legal when the Supreme Court has already held such sub leasing illegal? Has the charge by the agitators that bauxite is being mined on the basis of a ‘fake consent of Gram Sabha’ been addressed? If doubts on this score are being expressed by the very people who have given their ‘consent’, why doesn’t the government convene a fresh Gram Sabha to remove misgivings on the consent once and for all?

The irony is all this is happening barely three months after the people of Odisha, including those in the area, gave an unprecedented fifth successive term to the Naveen Patnaik government. It is just another example of the lengths to which this supposedly ‘pro-people’ government would go to oblige the mining lobby, even if it means riding roughshod over the rights of the people guaranteed by the Constitution.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)