Tribes trampled by mining in central India

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Gold in plenty and coal for everyone. This, in a few words, is the promise being made by Raman Singh, chief minister of the state of Chhattisgarh, in central India, to the local people and above all the mining companies and investors attracted to this verdant region abounding with forests, streams, rivers and hills rich in minerals: iron, bauxite, limestone, tin, dolomite, gold…

Mainly rural and populated with tribes and low castes to the tune of over 50 per cent, Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states in India.

In an interview recently given to Business Standard, Raman Singh nonetheless boasts of his “pro-poor” policy and over 7 per cent growth in regional GDP for 2015-2016. He hopes to focus on gold exploration and extraction, to create jobs and revive the jewellery and goldsmithing trades.

The announcement accompanied Vedanta Resources’ winning bid, in February, at the auction for India’s biggest gold mine, 140 km from Raipur, the state’s capital.

India currently imports around 1000 tonnes of gold a year, making it a major import sector. This auctioning of a gold mine, a national first, is in line with the government’s desire to monetise and bring the precious metal back into circulation, to contain its import. Gold in India, amounting to almost 20,000 tonnes according to government estimates, is mainly stored in private homes or in temples.

The announcement resonated like a shiny promise for the Chhattisgarh region and its mining communities. This state in central India, already known for coal mining, could diversify into gold mining.

Non-governmental organisations, such as the public interest research and advocacy organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, are somewhat sceptical.

“Does mining increase poverty? Most people living in these mineral-rich states say it does, and the macro-economic statistics support this argument. States like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, which are heavily dependent on mining resources, have very low per capita incomes, greater poverty, high rates of malnutrition and mortality,” indicates a book published in 2008 by the Centre for Science and Environment on the correlation between mining and poverty among tribal people.

Survival International has already alerted global public opinion to the takeover of the Dongria Kondh tribe’s lands in the neighbouring state of Orissa, where the fight against the very same Vedanta group was resumed at the beginning of March.

In Chhattisgarh, the fight seems compromised. Coal mining has already gained ground. On 8 January, the central government withdrew the ancestral land rights of tribes in the Surguja district, despite their being guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act, which gives tribal peoples priority in decision making over the use and management of the forests.

A procedural irregularity was used to justify the withdrawal of their rights. According to journalist Raksha Kumar, it is an illustration of “forced development”, reinforced by the Make in India campaign launched by the government, which has built the infrastructures needed for vast deforestation and mining operations.

A public company, Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL), and a private one, Adani Minerals Private Limited, now hold the right to exploit the region’s coalmines, reports The Wire. Yet the Surguja tribes have been fighting these projects for years.

“We are firmly opposed to the unbridled exploitation of these resources,” insists Himanshu Kumar, a local activist, in an interview with Equal Times. “The problem in Chhattisgarh is that as soon as you question a development project you are accused of collaborating with the armed Maoist militants.”

Chhattisgarh, like other central states, is part of India’s notorious “red corridor” where a Maoist guerrilla group known as the Naxalite movement continues to operate.

In the name of fighting terrorism, the government has long used militias, forcibly recruiting women and children and committing the worst abuses - like the Naxalites – against the local population, trapped on all sides by the worst human rights abuses.

“The government is determine to acquire land and has no qualms about using such methods to break any kind of activism. I fear for the future, when we’ll see an escalation in the current violence,” explains Kumar, who is preparing to launch an awareness raising campaign in June in favour of human rights and against abusive mining in the region.

The persecution of journalists, associations, lawyers and human rights activists has been stepped up since the end of 2015.

Soni Sori, a tribal activist, member of the Aam Admi Party, known for having endured unspeakable violence after denouncing the state’s actions in 2011, suffered burns to her face after being attacked with a chemical at the end of February. Her sister was kidnapped at the beginning of March.

For Raman Singh, however, speaking to The Economic Times on 18 February, the situation is quite normal, the Naxalite threat is now minimal and Chhattisgarh will soon become a state where business will flourish.

 

This story has been translated from French.