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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ved'anta': Avatar in real life 3D!

Amidst all the 'breaking' news and despondent views on the economy coming out of India I read a piece of news that all 12 gram sabhas in the Niyamgiri hills had unanimously rejected the idea of bauxite mining. The decision of the Dong(a)ria Kondh is a big step towards a small victory of the rights of minorities and the preservation of our over the edge environment. While I was relieved to hear the news, that feeling was quickly replaced with anger. I'll specify the reason for this later in the post. Lets look at some of the points that merit discussion.

Proponents of mining may highlight the INR 50,000 crores of investment that Odisha will be deprived of and the bad precedent the incident will set to potential investors. 'What about the economic development of the region, the nation at large and of the tribes that this project will usher in?' the proponents might ask. I'll answer the questions in a minute but I feel the questions themselves warrant comments. In asking these questions, it seems to me that the proponents assume that only rapid large scale industrialization - mining in this case - will inevitably bear the fruits of economic prosperity for everyone in the region irrespective of local environment or people issues. They also at the least seem to be willing - if not completely willfully blind sided by the ramifications of such large scale rapid industrialization that I suspect is the more frequent case - to trade off ecological damage for short term profits. They have arrived at the conclusions based on a convenient route to profit and by overlooking important datasets/ issues. So lets look at some data that throws light on the impact of this project on the region and its people.

The proposed Vedanta bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri would employ a mechanized open cast mining method. Bauxite mining in Niyamgiri will come packaged with hazards of noise and air pollution, increased sodium levels in the well water, significant deforestation at the mining site and the access roads,and highly damaging consequences to not just flora and fauna but the very socio-economic existence of the Dongaria Kondha, 20% of whose total population live in the region where mining was proposed. Approx 250 jobs are estimated to be created by the mining project that is expected to last for 23 years; none of these 250 jobs I suspect will go to the illiterate and low skilled indigenous folks. The plateau on which mining was proposed is one of the main sources of water to the Vamsadhara River and per the N C Saxena panel report mining on this plateau would be a "hydrological disaster". For more on the Niyamgiri region, Dongaria Kondh and the adverse impacts of mining on them read the below reports -

Report by Center for Science and Environment -

N C Saxena panel report submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests

To answer the above questions in a more direct manner - it would not be a INR 50,000 crore loss for India or Odisha if the mining project doesn't go through. There are tested means other than to approve mining in ecologically sensitive areas to raise revenue, pay for deficits, modernize the economy and uplift people from poverty. Vedanta backing off will not send the wrong signals to investors, on the contrary it will send positive ones - that while India embraces globalization and encourages businesses and investors to make a profit, India and its people shall not be easy targets for large conglomerates who disrespect local communities and whose business models don't result in a win-win situation. Businesses and investors cannot ignore a growing economy with roughly 17% of world population that is enhancing its capacity to consume. As a result India will attract investors who are genuinely vested in development of local population, and are committed to fair sharing of wealth by partnering with communities to add value.

I do not wish to imply that the Dongaria Kondh and other tribes continue to live in poverty. But mining in the face of evidence suggesting irreparable damage isn't the solution out of poverty. The solution I think lies in alternative models for inclusive growth - for example: accelerated dissemination of education through the use of technology such as wireless communication, affirmative action w.r.t education to offer equal opportunities and/ or a development of forest based economy - viz. carpentry, sale of forest produce, eco-tourism to uplift the tribes in the region. One can hardly dispute the social and economic return on investment of such programs. Incremental developments in education, healthcare and economy with long term goals of integrating the tribes with the modern economy will be more sustainable than big bang approaches veiled in the illusion of development that are more likely to exacerbate the problem of inequitable concentration of wealth.

To those who have got to their 'Aha! But what about irrationally basing policy and decision making on the tribe's belief that the hills are sacred' moment, although I generally agree with you, in this case I will ask you to interpret their beliefs with an open mind and maturity. The Dongaria Kondh are a uneducated bunch of people living in poverty isolated from conveniences of modern world and unexposed to the sciences as we've been taught. They depend on the forests not for their summer vacation in the woods but for their existence. Put the two together and you can see why believing in a supernatural being could give them an illusion of security. Again, the giant gap in their understanding can be bridged not by rapid industrialization but by education and the knowledge of the workings of the physical world. What frustrates me is the way in which some educated people harp on this sacred hills belief and conclude that since this supernatural belief is the only argument against mining, it should be discarded and the 'rational' decision of mining bauxite in Niyamgiri has to be taken. This brings me to what infuriated me.

After I read the news I watched this video on NDTV -
In this video Mr. Jaithirth Rao has basically just one point - the irrationality of the 'sacred hills' belief. Despite Ms. Sunita Narain putting forth the environmental and people concerns, Mr. Rao misses these points entirely and keeps barking up the rationality tree! He cites the example of a temple being moved to pave way for the KRS dam in Karnataka as an example of rational decision. If you want to go down the rationality path then why allow places of worship to spring up in cities/ towns and non hunter gatherer societies? To me the more fundamental question is how to get people especially the educated ones off their subscription to religious mass delusion. In Goa, India where I grew up rash driving is a menace. The narrow roads and the construction of places of worship at turns making the turns blind only worsen the problem. I'm not suggesting that places of worship cause accidents, but they don't remedy the situation either. I mean, if you think building places of worship at turns without bending light to enable sight of oncoming traffic is a good idea, why not go all the way and put up a sign there for the fatally wounded that says "Why wait for an ambulance when your ride to heaven is already here!" Mr. Jaithirth also went on to ramble about the exploitation of hypothetical oil reserves comparable in volume to those found in the middle east. This guy evidently sleeps through 'Climate Change 101' that is ironically accessible outside ones window nowadays. A 2007 Lehman Brothers report noted that every two degree rise in temperature would knock off five percent off of India's GDP! (source link below) For more on climate change costs to India read the article here -

The shaky grounds for the assumption and the willingness to compromise on a fragile environment lead me to believe that the proponents of the Vedanta bauxite mining in Niyamgiri are either the some already wealthy direct and indirect beneficiaries of bauxite mining, salivating politicians/ bureaucrats whose last name could change from Das-patnaik to Das-carode given the size of investment and the ample opportunities for graft through necessary state intervention, or some lame urban folks who think 'Capitalism!   iPhone!  cool!' and 'Tribes!  jhingha la la hoo!  not cool'

This is James Cameron's Avatar playing in real life, so pick a side!

PS: To the execs who decided to go ahead with the Lanjigarh alumina refinery before identifying a stable source of raw materials my advice is this - delete Niyamgiri bauxite mining project details from your LinkedIn profile, spruce up your resume and float it around!
Also the Das-patnaik bit is not intended to offend the Das-patnaiks and I don't mean to generalize anything about the Daspatnaiks. Its just tongue in cheek humor with a little sarcasm.