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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 49, November 27, 2010

Stalling the Vedanta: Right to Tribal Self-determination Ignored

Wednesday 1 December 2010, by J.J. Roy Burman

Recently the N.C. Saxena Committee report on the Vedanta project in Orissa became instrumental in stalling the project on the grounds of environamental degradation—forests and animal life—and effect on the life style—social fabric of the Kondh tribes. The Committee stated that the Vedanta industry flouted the environmental laws and that the food source of the tribes would have been destroyed. This episode has been portrayed as a victory of the local Kondh tribes. But in reality this could not have materialised without the involvement of foreign funded NGOs who ensured the inter-vention of Rahul Gandhi and Jairam Ramesh, the Forests and Environment Minister.

I am happy that the Vedanta industry has been stalled. However, it would have been better if the whole issue was handled by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs stressing the issue of tribal rights. It is nothing to be proud of that a strong foreign funded NGO-backed environmental lobby with middle class urban background got the process initiated. Many of the environmen-talists in India fall prey to the international designs which aim at creating global carbon sinks in the Third World countries. Similarly the urban elites of the Indian NGOs try to pass the buck to the tribal areas.

It may be recalled that in the famous Chipko area of Kumaon the Bhotia women from Reni village hugged the trees to save the Chir forests; but later joined the ‘Jangal Kato Andolan’ and cleared the forests so as to obtain the benefits of roads, electricity and schools, to which the Forest Department was objecting. In Gujarat too tribal leaders have objected to being denied of mining by them in the wild life sanctuaries in the name of protecting the Cinkara. I have also written elsewhere that the onus of maintaining forests should not be left only on the tribes. The environmental lobby must plan to have more forests in the urban areas and non-tribal rural areas. It should also ensure an end to unbridled consumerism of the West. The funds received by the donor agencies in reality originate mainly from the tribal areas of the Third World countries.

THE issue of ‘Right to Self-Determination’ of the tribes in Vedanta episode has been ignored. The media has failed to name a single tribal leader involved in the anti-Vedanta movement. In the given case the Vedanta infrastructure should have to be handed over to the local tribal bodies. If needed, they should be allowed to retain 100 per cent income. The decision should be left to them whether they want to have mines or they want forests. In Nagaland, the Nagas have not allowed the ONGC to drill petrol as they want to retain 90 per cent of the royalty, unlike Assam which retains only 10 per cent royalty. In tribal areas legal pluralism is in operation and not the command law of the state. This is particularly in operation in the North-East. The tribal State of Arunachal Pradesh has gone ahead to install mega hydro-electric projects to accrue funds for self-reliance and have ignored the directives of the state and dictates of the environmental bogey that is concerned about environmental viability.

The entire Vedanta agenda has been handled through the NGOs and political manipulations of the party in power at the Centre. This has led to ad-hocism and stunted the possibility of creating institutional mechanisms to properly monitor many other Vedantas existing in the tribal belts and outside. Pinning too much on the benevolence of a single person too is not judicious–even if he is the PM. This may lead to benevolent dictatorship or even to ‘Welfare Fascism’ as a means of mass mobilisation adopted by many famous environmental activists in India of late. Right to self-determination has been denied and the rule of the urban elites and the state reigns supreme.

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