It’s A Steal
- In 1970, the Gandhamardan Block-B mining lease was awarded to Odisha Mining Corporation
- In 2013 the Shah Commission pointed out various illegalities in OMC’s activities there, including the mining over 1.2 million tonnes of ore from 2000 to 2006 without required forest clearance. Two forest offence cases are on in the Keonjhar district court.
- In January 2015, the state government, on behalf of the OMC, applied for forest clearance (1,590 ha) to expand annual production to a whopping 9.2 million tonnes. This includes over 1,400 hectares of forest across seven adivasi villages.
- The OMC proposes to mine this area for 302 million tonnes of ore over the next 33 years. It estimates the annual sale value of the ore to be Rs 2,416 crore.
- The Union ministry of environment and forests is considering the proposal.
Gopinath Naik, a member of the forest rights committee of Urumunda village, is completely flummoxed. He has just seen a signature in English, purported to be his, certifying a gram sabha resolution, purportedly of his village. “I sign like this—in Oriya,” he says, demonstrating. “I’ve never studied English in my life. How would I sign in English?”
The ‘resolution’ records the consent of the adivasi villagers to hand over 853 hectares of forest land to the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), a public-sector undertaking of the Orissa government which holds mining lease in the region and carries out mining activities. The Urumunda resolution is one of seven identical gram sabha resolutions that the state government and the OMC submitted to the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) in January last year, as part of an application for forest clearance for expanding activities. The OMC, which calls itself “India’s largest public sector mining company”, wants to turn 1,590 hectares around Urumunda and six other villages in Keonjhar district, including 1,409 hectares of forest land (that’s about 45 Lodhi Gardens), into a 300 million-tonne ‘Gandhamardan-B Iron Ore Mine’, which it proposes to run for 33 years. Its documents put the annual sale value of ore from the mine at Rs 2,416 crore. The cumulative value of ore from the forest would then be over Rs 79,000 crore.
Gandhamardan, after which the mine is being named, is a biodiverse mountain range. The Gandhamardan area in Keonjhar district, over 250 km north of the state capital Bhubaneshwar, offers a striking landscape of adivasi Munda and Bhuiyan villages, deciduous forests, mountainside farms of corn, millet and sesame irrigated by natural streams. Wildlife, including elephant herds, roam parts of the forest, according to villagers and official documents. A third of India’s hematite iron ore reserves lie here.
From 2005-12, Keonjhar and the adjoining Sundergarh district witnessed a scramble to dig up the forests and mountains for ore, fuelled especially by lucrative exports to China. The attendant widespread breaking of law and abuse of local adivasi communities created, as the Justice M.B. Shah commisssion into illegal mining, which investigated these areas from 2011-13, put it, “super-normal profits”. The commission had darkly concluded that “there’s no rule of law, but law is what the mighty mining lessees decide, with the connivance of the concerned department”. In 2013, faced with growing questions, the Naveen Patnaik government issued recovery notices of Rs 59,203 crore to mining companies—a fourth of Orissa’s annual GDP. To date, miners have paid up not a rupee.
It is 2016 now, and to the adivasis it seems they mattered little then, and they matter little now. In Urumunda, besides Naik, whose name features thrice on the resolution, several villagers point out fake signatures and repeated names. Baidyanath Sahoo finds his name thrice and says mockingly, “They have sold me three times over.” According to the submission for forest clearance, the gram sabhas of Urumunda and six other villages in the Gandhamardan area of the district—Uppar Jagara, Donla, Ambadahara, Nitigotha, Uppar Kainsari and Ichinda—convened in November and December 2011. But in village after village, when shown copies of these resolutions, people say they’d neither held such meetings nor passed such resolutions.
In Nitigotha, panchayat samiti member Shakuntala Dehury let out a volley of abuses on reading a copy of the resolution claimed to be that of her village. It says, in language identical to resolutions from the other six villages, that Nitigotha residents held a meeting and said they are not using the forests for cultivation, house-building or any livelihood activities, and have no individual or community claims to it. Each resolution then has the villagers say that opening a mine will give them livelihood and that they are requesting the government to implement the forest clearance/diversion proposal.
As the petite Shakuntala reads out the resolution, the text amuses, then enrages, the villagers gathered around her. “Please bring the haraamzaada officer before me who has written this absurd and false resolution,” she says angrily.
Nitigotha and Ambadahara, like other villages in the area, and an estimated 15,000 villages across Orissa, have a long tradition of community protection of forests, which Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar might consider studying first-hand. Villagers here have drawn up a roster, which puts five of them on duty each day of the week to patrol their village’s section of forest and ensure no trees are felled, no timber smuggled out. “We are protecting the forest. The forest nourishes us,” says Kaviraj Dehury, among those on duty. “How would we ever sit in a gram sabha and say we have no claim to the forest, and that we request the government to give it to OMC?”
In Uppar Jagara, there are murmurs of “forgery, forgery”, as villagers mill around a copy of the resolution that the OMC and the state government claim was adopted by their village. Gobinda Munda is shocked to see his name feature twice, both times with different and fake signatures. “This is how I actually sign,” he says, and demonstrates how he does. Khageshwar Purti chips in, “Mining by the OMC has spoilt our farms, sapped our streams. We have made many complaints to the district authorities, but who listens to us? If we held a gram sabha to discuss their proposal, would we ever come up with such an absurd resolution?” As the crowd reads the list of names on the resolution, they discover that over half of the names appended to the resolution are of people not from their village.
In Ambadahara, former sarpanch Gopal Munda shakes his head on seeing his name on four resolutions, one for each of the four villages that once fell under him. Each resolution states that the meeting happened under his “presidency”. “Who is lying in my name like this? Take me to a court in Bhubaneshwar or Delhi, and I will hold my head high and say I have called no such meetings in our villages,” says the burly man. And people around him say, “Because of these forests and mountains, we have our water, our crops. They are taking our wealth and becoming big people, while we languish.”
In Donla, Masuri Behra says wearily, “Why do they kick us in the stomach like this? We already have so little.” Villagers here ask, “When did such a meeting with so many people ever take place? Wouldn’t we know if it had?”
Accounts of villagers aside, the fact that each resolution from seven individual meetings reads exactly the same suggests foul play. The English translations of these Oriya resolutions are also identical to the last word—a fact that seems to have led to no questions in the mind of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEFCC when it discussed the proposal in its September 2015 meeting. On condition of anonymity, an FAC member said, “There is so much pressure in this regime to give clearance. Earlier, there was some scope to look at these things and ask questions. But now there is no time for this—nor are we expected to.”
But the larger question is: why swindle villagers like this? Because, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA)—described as a landmark law for India’s estimated 150 million forest-dwellers—the consent of over 50 per cent of a village’s adult population is mandatory for “diverting” (bureaucratese for cutting down) their customary forest land for “non-forest” uses, in this case, for taking over 1,409 hectares and mining it for 300 million tonnes of ore.
Enacted in 2006, FRA was a belated legislation providing recognition to the millions of Indians who have traditionally lived near forests but have had no legal right to their homes, lands and livelihoods. The law aimed to rectify the “historical injustice” of colonial-era legislation that turned forest-dwelling communities into encroachers on their own lands.
Under FRA, industrial takeover can take place only after the rights of the villagers over the forests they have traditionally used has been recognised. The ‘recognition’ is achieved officially by awarding individual forest land titles for families (in the name of the man and the woman), and a community title in the name of the village. This is vital, for it gives the locals a say in the decision-making process whenever the government or other agencies propose diversion—which usually amounts to destruction—of forests they have traditionally used. It also makes locals eligible for proper compensation if they decide to give such forested areas to industry. Without such recognition, locals remain excluded from any share in the lucrative monetisation of their resource. For example, as a senior forest officer asks, the OMC estimates the sale value of ore that it will mine at over Rs 2,400 per year, “but what do local tribals get from this arrangement?”
A January 2016 amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act strengthens the FRA law, by making the denial of forest rights a punishable offence. But in these seven Keonjhar villages, several people who have filed for forest rights titles have not got them. The few who have were awarded titles for patches of land (25 to 80 decimals), receiving rights for far less than what they had claimed. Further, the district administration has not awarded any title in two of the villages, Donla and Uppar Kainsari. An official involved with the fieldwork and processing of FRA claims said, requesting anonymity, “My seniors have told me that the forest area in Donla village is to go to the OMC for mining. So we should just ignore the villagers’ claims.”
In a further illegality, none of the seven villages in Keonjhar the OMC wants to claim forest from got community titles so far. This despite being adivasis having community forests—which they protect—within their customary boundaries and using minor forest produce such as firewood. Keonjhar’s then district collector Bishnu Sahu did not record the reasons why community claims had not been awarded here, even though the FRA law requires this. Instead, a January 19, 2013 certificate from him, prepared in support of handing over the forest to the OMC, states that all FRA rights have been settled in the seven villages. When contacted, S.C. Mahapatra, the forest and environment secretary in the Orissa government, whose department submitted the clearance application to the MoEFCC, said, “I don’t know anything about this” and hung up. He wouldn’t take subsequent calls.
In early November 2015, when they came to know of the fraudulent resolutions submitted in their name, two of the seven villages, Nitigotha and Ambadahara, sent letters to the environment and tribal affairs ministries, pointing out the illegalities. They also wrote to the Orissa governor, who has a special responsibility under the Constitution of safeguarding the rights of communities in adivasi areas. Over two months on, none of these authorities has responded to them.
It gets worse. From December 28-30, 2015, a three-member team from the MoEFCC’s FAC visited Keonjhar for a site inspection of the proposed mine. Their terms of reference included looking at the implementation of FRA in the OMC’s proposed mine area. On December 29, this reporter met the team’s head, Anil Kumar, an additional director-general in the MoEFCC, at the Keonjhar hotel where the team was staying. He insisted on speaking in the presence of OMC officials, with whom he was having breakfast. Kumar refused to answer any questions about the visit, or how the team intended to examine the implementation of FRA, saying, “The FAC’s work is confidential.” When pressed about how the committee intended to investigate villages’ complaints about the alleged forgeries, and if the members would visit the villages, Kumar said this reporter should inform him about the violations in an e-mail. Days earlier, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, listing his governments achievements to a newspaper, had said, “Environmental clearances are being granted as a rule.”
And on December 30, after three days in the district, the FAC team left Keonjhar, without having visited any of the seven villages or speaking to any of the villagers. The ‘site inspection’—as far as the FAC was concerned—was complete.
By Chitrangada Choudhury in Keonjhar, Orissa
Chitrangada Choudhury is a Fellow with the Open Society Institute. Email: suarukh [AT] gmail [DOT] com