The red soil in the hills that surround the tiny village of Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, Odisha, is full of bauxite — the source material for aluminium used in everything from aircraft to beer cans. Yet, mining in Niyamgiri hills has been scuppered due to concerns over the welfare of tribals residing there. But is it all that bad or is it media hype by those determined to hold the nation back? Kushan Mitravisits Lanjigarh to find out the other side of the Niyamgiri story
The transformative power of good education is something we all know about. However, living in large cities, one forgets just how a good school education can make a difference. The best way is to see it in action in a part of India where good schools were non-existent. The Dayanand Arya Vidyalaya (DAV) International School in Lanjigarh and its students are a prime example of the transformative power of education.
The 900-odd students in this school may not seem like much compared to the thousands of students in some large urban schools. But many of these students come from the surrounding villages of this impoverished town, and a large majority of them belong to scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. And for many of them, this is the first time a member of these families has been exposed to proper formal education. If indeed the task of any Government is to expose those previously left behind to proper education, this is where one experiences it first hand.
The problem is that the Naxals that operate in and around this area hate education, with schools being destroyed, and students — and not just in Odisha — brutally murdered. We will not name the students to protect their families from retribution from Naxals, but speaking to a few children, it is impressive to hear about their dreams and ambitions.
In a hospital close to the school, 150 patients come daily; 250 during the peak monsoon season. From hundreds of malaria deaths annually, which was the leading cause of mortality in an area where the average life expectancy was barely 50, now there are no malarial deaths.
But how did we reach here? How did we reach Lanjigarh? It is rather remarkable how the red dust and rock at one end of the Vedanta Resources facility in Lanjigarh emerge as a fine white powder a few hundred metres away. But this decade-old plant is far from running at its full capacity. Indeed, it is just running at a quarter of its commissioned amount.
The reason is not that the white powder produced by the plant, a substance called alumina, is not in demand. Despite the crash in commodity prices across the world, prices of the finished product that emerges from alumina — the shiny metal aluminium — has seen a recovery over the past few months. Additionally, in a growing economy like India, demand for aluminium has been steadily increasing.
Yet, the plant stutters. That is because the reason this huge refinery is placed in Lanjigarh — the middle of almost nowhere, six hours by road from either Visakhapatnam or Bhubaneswar, the largest cities closest to it — is home to some of the world’s highest quality bauxite. Bauxite, the mineral from which alumina is refined, is usually 40 per cent aluminium along with some iron, vandantium and titanium.
The Niyamgiri hills that rise a few hundred feet from the main entrance of the plant have some of the world’s best bauxite. Yet, thanks to a mix of evangelical NGOs supported by the Naxals and a misguided United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, the mining project is stalled and the conveyor belts meant to bring in the bauxite lie rusting. And that is a pity, not only for the staff that works at the plant, but also for the villagers and tribals impacted by it.
Lanjigarh is also one of the Blocks in Kalahandi district of Odisha, which unfortunately became a byword for poverty, deprivation, and underdevelopment in India, and has struggled to shake that tag off. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi famously visited the district to shed crocodile tears over starvation deaths which had forced mothers to sell their children so as to make some money to eat. And along with Rayagada and Koraput in south-western Odisha, this led to the rise of Naxalism in this part of India.
Kalahandi was one of the few districts in the mineral-rich Chota Nagpur Plateau to have never had a major factory until Vedanta Resources started work in 2006. The rich bauxite resources attracted Anil Agarwal, Chairman of Vedanta Resources, here. It also attracted evangelical organisations desperate to “harvest souls” as well as some environmental and humanitarian NGOs desperate to stop the factory.
The ostensible reason the factory was to be stopped was because it would “destroy” the Niyamgiri mountains, home to the Dongria Kondh tribe, a foraging hill tribe that still lives on slash-and-burn farming. The Dongria Kondh’s god, the Niyam Raja, lives in these hills, and the NGOs, some of them well-meaning, managed to convince the tribals that the home of the Raja would be destroyed by the “big, bad” Vedanta Resources.
A well-orchestrated campaign with protests in London, where Vedanta is listed, followed, and it caught the attention of the publicity-hungry Congress leadership, desperate to be seen as saviours of India. So despite the UPA Government giving environmental clearance to the plant, some 30 years after his father lamented the state of Indian development at Lanjigarh, Rahul Gandhi and his lackeys followed suit hoping to stitch up the tribal vote. But to little avail, as the Congress in Odisha — like in most of the rest of India — was wiped off the electoral map.
The massive attention and case that followed in the Supreme Court, convincing arguments were given for why Vedanta should not be allowed to mine bauxite. Incidentally, Vedanta does not own the mines but the Odisha State Mining Company does. Impassioned pleas were made towards the livelihood of the hill tribes. And the 12 villages that live on the hills were allowed to have a vote to decide the outcome of the plant. Trained by the NGOs and terrorised by the Naxals, the outcome was a given. Yet, visiting Lanjigarh one wonders whether Vedanta is so bad.
This is a part of India where despite the occasional political visit, the State has not really arrived. There is little sign of the Government. Opportunities are limited, and while the railway are in an impeccable state, that is because there are trains hauling coal and iron ore every half hour, with passenger trains few and far between.
One of the first things Vedanta did was to establish the DAV International School, with the DAV Foundation. The principal, Shukla Chakrovarty, came from Bhubaneswar to this backwater to establish a school with just three students. Over the years, the school has grown and now has an annual intake of 90 students. While plant employees’ children get admission, the lack of growth at the plant has meant that most of the annual intake is of children from the neighbouring towns and villages. These children are a great testament to the power of education.
One boy in Class 10 spoke about his ambition to join the Army. Another girl from Class 9 spoke about her dream to become an administrator, and another boy wanted to become a journalist. These are hopes and ambitions that these children have to travel the world and whose parents never even left the district, some who live in hovels without electricity.
“I feel that we have made a difference to the lives of these children in a way that few other schools can. I came here because I wanted a challenge, and I believe that these children will be my greatest legacy,” Chakrovarty says.
We are not naming the children for fear of them or their families being attacked by Naxals; the SP of Rayagada spoke of a college student who was murdered by the Naxals recently because he questioned them.
And it is the same story a few kilometres away in the hospital too. Lanjigarh was a malaria-infested zone. Today, the area — despite the inhospitable monsoons — has seen no malaria related death in three years. Yet, the villagers in the hills still see their kith and kin die as the Naxals prevent them from accessing the school or hospital.
Indeed, some of the Naxals and village leaders have chosen to sacrifice their own children to disease rather than to accept aid. Lives are being lost because the narrative of “Vedanta is evil” has to be maintained.
“Education and healthcare are the enemies of the Naxals. In their misguided quest to rid the world of social inequality, they need to realise that integration with the State will do more for these people than burning the provisions that we give the villagers”, says K Siva Subramani, the Superintendent of Police, Rayagada district, where a part of the Niyamgiri range falls.
Vedanta officials admit that the refinery, despite being the cleanest alumina refinery in the world and a zero-emission and zero-discharge facility, will pollute a small amount. However, the plant head, Bimalendu Senapati, says that they are constantly improving themselves. “We are now reprocessing the vanadium and selling it to sulphuric acid manufacturers. We reuse all our caustic liquid, we make bricks from the ash and are figuring out how to refine other materials from the ‘red mud’ waste, which includes titanium.”
Yet, the bauxite is not from the Niyamgiri mountains but from as far away as Gujarat and even Papua New Guinea. “Our costs are double of what we should incur if we had local bauxite,” says Senapati. “This might be the most advanced plant in the world but with the commodity price crash, we are making a massive loss.”
With an investment of Rs8,500 crore, this plant ought to be a shining example of India’s industrialisation, yet some parts of this massive refinery lie rusting away.
The plant, despite running at a quarter of its capacity, provides direct employment to over 2,000 people and also supports the local economy. The employed include 75 workers whose land was taken to build the plant and who live in a resettlement colony called Niyamgiri Vedanta Vihar.
Speaking to a roomful of these workers, many of them tribals from the plains, often relatives of the tribals in the hills admit that it hurt to leave their old villages. But now, earning an average of Rs25,000 per month, some of them have cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen televisions. “We have health insurance. I don’t need to worry about family members dying every time we get a fever. My children are studying in the DAV School and they will go to Delhi or Mumbai. I can operate machinery and use a computer now. My life has changed,” says Bhuma Harijan.
Others from the villages and surrounding towns like Muniguda, the closest railhead, talk of how the plant is giving opportunities to the local youths. Parimita, from the district headquarters of Bhawanipatna and a science graduate, talks of how the plant has given jobs to educated women from the area. “Earlier we all had to travel to South India for jobs. Who wants to move away from home for opportunities?” she says, adding that almost 80 per cent of the plant’s workforce are locals from surrounding districts.
“Earlier Kalahandi was famous for all the wrong reasons; this plant is a good reason to be proud of Kalahandi, but the world still thinks that it is evil because they have not witnessed how this plant has positively impacted our lives.”
And the local economy has also benefitted; youths previously unemployed and with little to look forward to are being trained in various skills at the Yuva Pragati Kendra. The managers at the facility are particularly proud of the 10 youths who recently acquired jobs at retail shops in Bhubaneswar.
In the small village of Lanjigarh, about a 10-minute drive from the plant, the Sakhi Self-Help Group has been helping local women with loans. Several run provision stores and do odd jobs like tailoring. The women realise “Bauxite nahin toh kuchh nahin”, and say that they have actually been in touch with the local legislators for bauxite.
Basanti Sain talks of the benefits that the plant has brought but is scared about what will happen if the plant goes away. “We had nothing 10 years ago; today we all have brick houses and can look forward to a better life for ourselves and our children.”
Indeed, plant officials talk of how the Odisha Government is assuring them of bauxite supplies. Employees and villagers alike want the plant to succeed, and talk of those scuppering the plant in negative tones, with Rahul Gandhi being a particular object of derision. “He talks of women empowerment; this plant has actually empowered women and he wants us to fail,” a local woman strongly points out.
Unsurprisingly, the Congress is almost non-existent in this part of Odisha. Plant officials also want the world to know that mining will not destroy the hills; indeed they feel that the Dongria Kondh tribe has to be brought into Indian society. They need to progress, they need education and healthcare. Yes, they should preserve their traditions, but how can one justify short life expectancies, how can one justify young people dying of malaria, and illiteracy in the 21st century? This is a story that needs to be told.sha