Will tribal areas be protected from mining?

It is proposed that mining companies, which have operated with little regard for its environmental and social consequences, will be blocked by by the Ministry of the Environment and Forests from a third of the country’s biggest coal reserves because of their environmental sensitivity. The New York-based Blacksmith Institute ranks the Sukinda valley in Orissa, an iron ore-producing area, alongside Chernobyl, the Ukrainian site of the nuclear accident, as one of the most polluted places on earth.

The move has caused anger among Indian power project developers and mining companies, such as Essar, state-owned Coal India, Reliance and Adani. Industry leader Nik Senapati, the managing director of Rio Tinto India argued for stronger implementation of existing laws. 

The Indian government is realising that uncontrolled mining has fuelled a rural rebellion in tribal areas. PC Chidambaram, the home minister, offered to suspend MOUs signed with mining companies in order to bring rebel leaders to the negotiating table. 

Santha Sheela Nair, the secretary at the mines ministry, voiced an awareness of the social consequences, saying that tribal people “see mining as a loss of livelihood, loss of life and loss of the relationship with nature that they are used to”. 

For years it has been realised that projects which displace people are intrinsically damaging. In 2002, an article explained that, “the social devastation following the loss of traditional livelihoods combined with the displacement of thousands of families can never be computed. The socio-economic and environmental impacts of development schemes of this magnitude are irreparable and would extend far beyond the 1,800 acres of the estuarine region.” [TADRI PORT IN UTTARA KANNADA GETS CLEARANCE by Dr. Rashneh Pardiwala and Katy Rustom: Midday 14.5.02]

Four years later Walter Fernandes, Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, wrote: “in a rural area land sustains not merely its owner but landless service groups as well. The result of such deprivation without rehabilitation is impoverishment. Our studies show that once agriculturists have become daily wage earners, their income has declined by more than half and over 50% of them are jobless and below the poverty line. Many of them have pulled their children out of school in order to put them to work. In the absence of other sources of income, many have taken to crime or prostitution. Drunkenness becomes an escape from this trauma and wife-beating has increased. Others fill urban slums but are evicted to keep the city beautiful. Respiratory and malnutrition-based diseases such as tuberculosis are commonplace.” 

And this year Sriman Chakraborty and Shamik Sarkar have recorded in detail eye-witness accounts of the experiences of one set of displaced people in Kolkata. 

The Environment Minister has admitted India’s “pathetic” track record of resettling those who lost land to mining projects, a clear indication that it is time to stop displacing people by force and start working with them to improve their lot.


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