Monday, April 30, 2007

Sreelatha Menon: A tough easy choice

Business Standard, April 30, 2007

EAR TO THE GROUND
Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi April 29, 2007

Water or mines? The answer should be obvious, but thanks to the pots of gold that lie hidden in them, mines are robbing the countryside of its natural wealth.

Do you want water or minerals? The question need not always be this. But for many activists and communities arraigned against mines, it could be something as extreme, especially if it is someone in Vishakhapatnam fighting the depleting water levels, thanks to bauxite mining.

In Niyamgiri in the Lanjigarh block of Orissa’s Kalahandi district, the choice could be between the golden gecko (a rare lizard) sited there and bauxite. Vedanta has set up a refinery in a proposed wildlife sanctuary, though it has not yet got the permission of the Supreme Court to set up the mine. People are fighting to ensure it never gets the permission. At stake are 100 pure streams of water flowing down the valley which is the source of two rivers.

“Mines drink all the water, besides polluting them,” says Prafulla Samantara of the Lok Shakti Abhiyan of Orissa. He and Biswajit Mohanti of the Wildlife Society of Orissa are petitioners in the case against Vedanta.

Achyut Das and Vidhya Das, an activist couple, have been fighting the miners, Utkala Aluminium International Limited, from setting themselves up in Kashipur in nearby Raigarha district. “I have a non-bailable arrest warrant against me even now,” Achyut Das says smiling through his grey beard. There is a glint of victory in his eyes at the thought of a fight that has lasted for 15 years against a corporate.

In fact, Orissa, which has seen a massive flow of mining leases in the last few years, seems to be beset with landmines of resistance almost everywhere a mining site is planned. It is there even in the much celebrated Arcelor Mittal site in Keonjhar.

The conflicts end either in Kalinganagar type bloodshed or the ongoing use of police force, as in Jagatsingpur against those resisting Posco, or in a new rehabilitation policy announced by the Orissa government recently. Can a small room, a job for a member in the family and some cash substitute the vast wealth of land and forests? Again, there are examples of poorly managed resettlement of displaced persons in the past.

An asbestos mine abandoned decades ago continues to poison fields and the river in Roro in Jharkhand, thanks to negligence by its former owners, the Birla-owned Hyderabad Asbestos Company Ltd.

The law is incapable of holding them accountable. Petty sums are taken as guarantee for mine closure, point out activists. Tribal victims still walk Roro with dim vision and die of strange diseases.

“Not even a medical check-up was ever done,” Madhumita Dutta, an activist, points out.

In Jadugada, again in Jharkhand, a government firm has set examples of failure to build bridges with the people whose land it has decided to mine and spew with radioactive waste.

Uranium Corporation of India Ltd Chairman R Agarwal scoffs at the concept of public hearing and laughs at the possibility of health disorders among people in the area. He made a strange statement attending a workshop organised by the Centre for Science and Environment this week. “Poverty is the biggest polluter,” he said and walked out with his wife, even as activists from Jharkhand were virtually baying for his blood.

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