Orissa: Throttled Dissent, Overstepped Laws, Displaced People

Saswat Pattanayak

Here is a classic case of manufactured consent.

News is agog that India will have its Harvard University in next two years. Even Forbes Magazine testifies to that. The corporate media hails a proposed university in India to be the greatest hope of reified vision where huge mass of people will be educated for betterment of India’s economy; and, its poor state Orissa’s. It is being hailed as the institute that’s receiving the single largest donation ever worldwide: $1 billion, and yes its going to be the university with largest real estate holdings ever. So welcome to capitalism that apparently does good, through capitalists that claim to be philanthropists of great cause.

Are there any protests against the university? Hardly any. Who would protest establishment of a first world standard university in a third world standard country? Instead, there is huge celebration of this proposal, of a one billion dollar charity. It’s a poor peoples’ world, and free money counts. The donor, Anil Agarwal is being hailed as a messiah of sort whose generosity is redefining cannons of capitalism. ‘Let them eat cake’ is after all being replaced by ‘Let us serve them’!

The esteemed Chronicle of Higher Education has been publishing features to highlight Vedanta, and last week, it has advertised the vacancy positions, including that of a Provost and Chief Academic Officer. US-based Ayers/Saint/Gross Architects have been hired to design the Harvard clone. 8,000-acres of land are being earmarked for this gigantic project (Harvard has only 4,938 acres). In other words, the largest ever education project in the world is underway already.

Why?

The Corporate Charity for Profits Syndrome:

Last week, a LA Times investigation excavated how the richest man in the world Bill Gates evades taxes through his philanthropies. In fact, worse, his Gates Foundation invests 95% of its worth on industries that defeat the purpose of its 5% charity causes.

How much does Anil Agarwal, the 245th richest person in the world emulate the club chair? Totally. It appears, he fails to escape the capitalistic dictums: the crude greed in sophisticated pill. Proponent of the later stage of feudalism, landgrabbing capitalists have been targeting Africa and Asia for their wealth accumulation. And ironically, they have been employing causes such as AIDS and education as excuses to divert the public attention from the real issues: exploitation of resources, harassment of indigenous peoples, and murders of activists.

Behind the euphoria that outlines a $1-billion charity of Agarwal for the proposed university, lies the three years of vehement protests of thousands of indigenous/tribal people who are being inhumanly displaced a little distant away for a much larger corporate project that shall hamper the ecology and destroy livelihoods of local poor for the profits of the same bunch of profit mongers living in Britain.

The man who has promised to donate for university to educate people also happen to be the one who has been investing in nearby landmines to displace people and stake private ownership over public resources through suspect means. Only that, the dreams of furthering his landmining business would not advance if attempts are not made to eliminate the long prevailing popular resentments. And for that, the corporate house has taken shelter in some upper class intelligentsia that profits directly from a world-class educational institute in bargain. And this group of abettors comprises some high-profile educators inside India and outside of it, who have been impressing upon the media agencies to glorify this business house that funds their future abode.

The nexus between profiteering capitalists and kingpin professors also has complete consent from some political bigwigs and media business houses. All of them stand to benefit from a university that’s advertised as catering to upper class, upper caste youths of India who have had a remarkable private school education already, considering that the Vedanta University is to be based on “need-blind admissions”. So yes, in the most backward of states in India, only students with so-called ‘merit’ (implying most filtered students from urban school education) will benefit.

The Casualties of University:

I recently spoke with some activists participating in protests movements in Orissa against the Sterlite business expansions. The resentments are taking place at both the urban hotspots like Puri (near which the university is proposed) as well as in rural heartlands of Lanjigarh, Kalahandi (where the alumina project is underway).

Activists told me that at the university site, at least 20,000 people are affected by the project, whereas nearly a thousand are getting evicted. And yet, the business house is conducting press meets to send falsified numbers that the media are readily savoring. As per Ajit Kumar Samal, vice-president of the project, rehab packages are assured for all those going to be displaced. “The willing and educated persons of about 80 families, likely to be displaced, would be imparted capacity building training to absorb them in the project. We are ready to provide compensation amount as soon as the Government appoints a committee to fix the quantum” (The Pioneer, January 6, 2007). So, the number estimated by the Vedanta University stands at 80, from whom chosen few will be given compensation only after bureaucratic clearance. Of course, when it comes to affected people, the industries face bureaucratic hassles as well.

Adding more to the irony is the fact that with such billion-dollar promise quotes, the industry/government has succeeded in diverting the center of focus from Lanjigarh land scams to Puri as education site.

Smooth Operation:

For a business baron who, according to Forbes Magazine, “built his London-listed Vedanta Resources by acquiring state-owned mining and metal assets in India where main operations are located,” it was imperative that the protests of environmentalists and other activists be dismissed as routine hindrances in “developmental” path whereas the mass looting of home country resources for individual profit accumulation is planned out. Its as though, the onus on protecting the mother nature lies only with some professional environmentalists who need to be chided for receiving money from non-governmental organizations, whereas the greedy corporate houses’ demands be hailed all the while, for their skillful trampling down of peoples’ aspirations to hold onto their forest lands for their meager livelihood!

Vedanta Resources has already completed its 1.4 million tonne alumina project in Orissa’s Kalahandi district despite resistance. But the protest movements against its further plans to take siege of Niryamgiri Hill is continuing without much support of media or political outfits. Following the West Bengal model, even the state’s official communist parties have not reacted much apart from scantily registering protests against governmental repression. Only the Marxist-Leninist front of the left wing have come out to support the peoples’ causes. Lanjigarh at the first stage has already witnessed the $874 million project, but is unwilling to part with more of its sacred hills.

What’s shocking in the entire process is that in spite of mammoth popular opposition to the mining projects in Orissa, Agarwal’s Sterlite has managed to sign an agreement with the state Government under Naveen Patnaik to set up both the alumina refinery in Kalahandi as well as aluminum smelter and power plant in Jharsuguda. Subsequently it reached agreement with the Orissa Mining Corporation to jointly operate the Niyamgiri bauxite mines. The refinery is almost completed and the importing of bauxite through Vizag port has already started.

Not just that the majority people have no say in a plutocracy such as India, where the rich landgrabbers still rule the destiny of its poor, the private corporate houses also flout the laws of the lands to go to such extremes as displacing people and terming them as encroachers on their own lands. Not just the fact that such lands are illegal to be sold to non-tribals, but also the fact that Supreme Court appointed environment-empowered-committee has strongly disapproved of the project location, has not dissuaded the state government from its unholy alliance with the foreign firm.

Apart from its obvious anti-people repercussions leading to displacement of tribal groups, Lanjigarh has attracted ire of the Supreme Court of India and subsequently many environmentalists. As a result, Ministry of Environment & Forest has also recently issued directives to the Wildlife Institute of India to undertake studies related to the impacts of mining on biodiversity including wildlife and its habitat in the proposed Bauxite Mining area at Lanjigarh, Kalahandi as per the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee.

The findings, among other things suggested the following:

A) Bauxite from the Niyamgiri plateaus is proposed to be extracted through open cast operations. Various kinds environmental degradations and impacts are associated with this kind of mining. These are : geomorphologic changes, landscape changes, loss of forests; land degradation; loss of flora and fauna; loss of habitat; geo-hydrological and drainage changes; land vibration, shocks, blasting and noise; air quality reduction, water quality reduction; disruption of socio-economic dependencies and public health hazards etc.

B) Bauxite mining at Niyamgiri will bring several changes due to blasting and disturbances to the forested habitat over a period of 25 years. The mining plan proposes to have 3 working shifts of 8 h3rs each per day and 6 days per week. Working of the mine during night shifts would induce disturbances due to illumination of the Niyamgiri plateau area and pose disturbance to wildlife species more specifically the nocturnal animal. The illumination may restrict movement and habitat use and reduce occupancy and utilization by several species. This situation eventually will reduce elephant movements across Niyamgiri massif to Karlapath and Kotagarh Wildlife Sanctuaries and ultimately effect the population structure and there by its genetic diversity. Exodus of human population to mining site will enhance conflict with wildlife so to their losses in long run. Bauxite mining in Niyamgiri plateau will destroy a specialized kind of wildlife habitat, dominated by grasslands and sparse tree communities. These kinds of sites are breeding habitat of many herbivores such as barking deer and four horned antelopes.

The manufactured euphoria over the richest proposed university in the world is as illusive as the concept itself. A business house employing power tactics, first tries to set up an ecologically disastrous mining project to exploit Orissa’s indigenous areas for private gains. Facing stiff opposition from people and environmentalists alike, it struggles to gain a foothold for almost three years. And finally, wins the corridors of powers as predicted, with a side dish, a dream university: one that has allured the intelligentsia and educated section of the state, to create a normalization that can facilitate corporate hegemony over a land’s soul—its peoples.

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