What does intense mining mean to Saranda tribals?
On the morning of May 4, senior officials of the maharatna public sector undertaking Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) and some mid-level mandarins of the government were expected at the middle school in Dimbuli village, a few kilometres away from the block office at Manoharpur.
The school was the venue of a gram sabha meeting that would take up the matter of the acquisition of nearly 1,000 hectares of land of the tribal villagers by SAIL for a beneficiation plant, a new township and a tailing pond. At the school, the children had been called out of their classrooms and made to stand in two queues in the corridor. They shuffled their positions according to class as teachers hurried with the last-minute instructions about the welcome. As the SAIL team made its entry, one of the teachers led the children in a prayer song, a strikingly odd welcome. The children repeated the lines in a rhythmic monotone often missing the words. Clearly, this was not the one they sang regularly.
The ceremony over, one of the SAIL officials asked the children if they knew any other songs. One of the boys from the senior classes, in his early teens, was made to stand at the head of the assembly and sing. The boy stared at his foot, a little embarrassed by the attention, and began. With the first few lines of the song, an uncomfortable silence came over the assembly. It was not a prayer that the boy sang, not even a clichéd patriotic song. It was one of revolution, of resistance, of the struggle for rights. With the ground decked for the gram sabha, the song rang out more powerful than it would have otherwise. As the song ended, the official who had asked for the song, tried to spin some PSU magic educating the students about what SAIL was, what it was doing and how the thalis in which they had their mid-day meals were quite possibly made of SAIL steel. The children, however, seemed more interested in the lemon and orange squash being mixed in huge aluminium vessels.
This picture, as real as it was then, is almost allegorical of the mining corporate-tribal relationship in Saranda today. Over a period of nearly a hundred and ten years, private and public sector mining concerns have come to the forest for its high quality iron ore. SAIL, Usha-Martin, Ores India, Mishrilal Jain and many other mining concerns operate in the area today under 44 licences. A further 19 are awaiting various clearances. With the talk of every new licence, the adivasis were given assurances that mining, coming at a great cost to the ecology of the region, will create jobs and deliver essential services – giving them a large bite of the development pie. Today, however, the trickledown economics of industry-led development has failed to work its promised magic.
Some of the mining companies, none more so than SAIL, have tried to deliver certain essential services like drinking water through hand-pumps and tanks, school infrastructure like new classrooms and laboratories and medical services under corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. But the fact remains that CSR is far from being an antidote for poor governance. The new classrooms remain underutilised with not enough teaching staff in schools, the hand-pumps have run dry in certain villages while in some they have fallen into disrepair.
“There is very little development to speak of in the villages. CSR has become a way to temporarily douse the anger in villages that has peaked while the state and companies benefitted at our cost,” says Pradeep Mahto of Kumarbeda village. Most of the agricultural land in the village is proposed to be acquired for SAIL’s beneficiation plant.
The distress of the tribals is compounded by the fact that years of indiscriminate mining has rendered the land in some villages like Dhobil barren while perennial streams have either dried up or shrunk. In the shadow of SAIL’s Chiria mines, operating since 1936 (under Indian Iron and Steel Company until 2010), the top soil in Dhobil’s agricultural lands is now buried under layers of red mud that get washed downhill every monsoon. “The red mud sits on nearly 25 hectares of land. We gave up tilling the land after our crops failed repeatedly,” informs Bidu Champiya, a 36-year-old Dhobil farmer.
The discontents of industry-led development have turned their anger on the mining corporate (active and future entrants) and their facilitator, the state. At Dimbuli, before announcing the commencement of the grams sabha, the munda (the traditional village head), Akhilendra Naik, submitted a charter of demands and queries on behalf of the affected people to the SAIL officials. The villagers had demanded a fair compensation for their land and jobs for people in the extension project. They wanted to know why despite profitable mining in Chiria, the nearby villages suffered the worst infrastructure woes, why their youth found little employment in SAIL. The document was a simultaneous voicing of the people’s aspirations and an indictment of the failure of the PSU to address them.
However, one can’t summarily label the tribals as anti-industry – there are those who want their stake in the forest and its riches honoured while some others want the mining activity to be conducted in a sustainable manner minimising the damages to the forests, says Sushil Barla, a district general secretary of the Congress party in West Singhbhum and a member of Jharkhand Human Rights Movement. At a meeting of village heads, panchayat representatives and village-level government functionaries, Bishnu Munda, the munda of Ushariya village, which stands to be affected by the proposed mining of the Kudliba hills, said: “We are not anti-development or anti-mining. But the primacy of our agriculture and our ecology is a non-negotiable. So, if the government wants mining in these parts of the forests, it has to make these a priority in its development plan.”
So, what explains the widespread disenchantment of the tribals with industry-led development? “Even as the villagers are willing to further the dialogue on mining and development, the corporate are moving to subvert the policy diktats in order to avoid confronting sticky issues. Thus, there are serious doubts on the intent and sincerity of the companies in leading development in the region,” says Barla.
The point he raises is not unfounded. Under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), the mining companies are required to hold a gram sabha in the affected villages of proposed projects. Electrosteel Casting and Rungta Mines, both awaiting licences to mine in the Kudliba region, held their respective gram sabha in Chottanagra village, nearly 30 km from Ushariya. Arcelor-Mittal, eying the iron in Karampada, a fringe of Saranda, held its gram sabha in Kiriburu, some 20 km from the nearest affected village.
“For every failure of the companies and the state, CSR is brought out as a ready balm. In fact, poor implementation or otherwise, it has become an apology for the missing governance and unsustainable mining policies,” Barla adds.
SAIL, however, insists otherwise. “There are expectations of the people that we partner in their development, which is justified. SAIL took operational control of the Chiria mines only about two years ago and we are trying ever since to meet the peoples’ demands to the extent it is possible for us,” says Pradeep Kumar, DGM-CSR at the Chiria mines. “As a PSU, we are bound to be seen as the face of the government in the region. So, there is a general idea that all governance demands can be met through us. However, we have to adhere to guidelines that could prevent the immediate meeting of the peoples’ demands or the meeting of a specific demand altogether. This could foster a gap of trust,” he adds.
“In the last fiscal year, we spent almost `2 crore on various programmes, some of which could turn out to be truly empowering for the people. We have sent 62 matriculate boys last year for ITI training. We are running three ambulances in the region with three auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) linking the villages to SAIL’s Chiria and Kiriburu hospitals.”
SAIL got involved in the development process early on, even before CSR became a buzzword, asserts Kumar. The steel-maker sponsored the digging of wells in villages in the early 1980s. “The one in Patherbasa, dug in 1981, is still functional,” he notes.
“There has to be some appreciation of the challenges that we face here in Saranda. First, the remoteness and the security situation of the forest make it difficult for us to find partners to implement development programmes. For instance, we have had to issue notices inviting tenders for many projects over and over again because each time we find out that no one has applied. The bidding process has to be retained in the interest of transparency,” he says, explaining the delays in some projects.
Setting up an integrated development centre, a one-stop shop for governance envisaged under the Saranda Development Plan, at Digha is one such project. The company now awaits delivery of the pre-fabricated structures from Hindustan Prefab. “Once it gets here, there is the problem of the absence of infrastructure to contend with. The route from Manoharpur to Digha is one of jungle roads of murum, a small stretch of tarred road and a stretch from Jaraikela where the road is mostly potholes and ditches. Some parts of the route are stretches which, if they were a shred worse, would have been declared ‘not motor-worthy’,” Kumar rues.
While there are many proposals for community empowerment, there is a dearth of capable and earnest partners to implement, he informs. However, SAIL is taking remedial steps to correct some of these lags, according to Kumar. The Xavier institute of Social Sciences (XISS), Ranchi, has been engaged to conduct a need assessment survey in 38 villages near the Chiria mines to help SAIL take a more focused approach with CSR. The survey will help identify the right partner organisations. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, will study the red-mud issue at Dhobil and submit a report to SAIL, Chiria, with recommendations for a permanent solution to the problem.
“Like I said before, we are expanding from a toehold since the last two years. We are likely to partner faster and inclusive progress in the years to come,” Kumar says.
But it is unlikely that this plea will hold any water with the villages. The discontent is strong, forceful (“Not with SAIL,” Kumar remarks).
“The kneejerk CSR solutions are coming apart at the seams. The solar lamps that SAIL distributed in 2007 have all gone bust. There is very little to show in the villages that can be termed as ‘mining kalyan’,” says an Ankua villager, refusing to be named. He is understandably apprehensive – he works with SAIL as a miner.
Even though union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, spearheading the Saranda Development Plan, dissuaded any new mining project in the region, the government seems to be clearing the way for increased mining in the forest of Saranda. Given the history of corporate involvement in the region, the villagers’ fear that these new projects will take from them more than they give seems anything but unfounded.