Lacking among the Have-Nots: The Faring of the Locals in Extractive Industrial Setup

The ability to endure the externalities arising out of environmental disruptions is crucial in understanding environment-related inequalities. This ability is what separates the community that can fare well in undergoing major structural changes, namely, the “haves,” from those that cannot, the “have-nots.” Taking into consideration the extractive industries, this article ventures through the various aspects of inequalities faced by the communities as a result of resource extraction in terms of displacement and externalities in terms of health hazards, livelihood, and issues of agricultural productivity, mining closure, accidents, and gender. Through this process, the relevance of the Marxian arguments of exploitation is examined in the domain of metabolic rift.


An interdependence among human beings and their respective environment can be observed throughout the World, for example, the beach is a provider of livelihood to thousands of people from its nearby towns and villages; forests act as a fallback option by being an important source of water, food, and materials that ensure liquidity for subsistence, thereby providing a “safety net” in times of hardship. Thus, the relationship between human beings with their environment is such that any disruption has a direct bearing on the lives and livelihoods of human beings, pushing them into deep, long-lasting inequality and poverty. Inequality in the sphere of ecology and environment—as opposed to the widely discussed economic inequality—is not just a simple distinction between the rich and the poor, between different classes of people, or power-based differences; it is embedded in a complex but continuous chain of interrelated components. It involves a wide difference in the ability of these dichotomous groups to be able to effectively handle the externalities arising out of environmental disruptions. This difference in the ability results, apart from income differences, from factors such as the existing occupational structure (evident in rural areas), legal framework (whether the laws ensure the sustainable well-being of the society), education, geographical settlement, and social infrastructure, among other factors.

This framework draws rich inspiration from Karl Marx’s work on capitalism, dreaming of an economic system with a characteristic of socialism—a just and equitable economic system exclusive of exploitation. Capitalist social relations, as understood by Marx, separate the trichotomy of economy, society, and environment (Tilzey 2017). In all his economic works, social metabolism played an important role (Foster 2015). According to him, human production functioned within the universal metabolism of nature. With this background, he developed a theory, now known as a metabolic rift, introduced by John Bellamy Foster (Davidson 2018). It refers to Marx’s conception of the role of capitalism towards an ecological disruption. It extends the Marxian theory towards understanding the ever-changing relationship between human beings and nature (Foster 2000). It leads to criticism towards capitalism as a factor that can put the nature–human relationship in jeopardy.

Marx’s concepts of metabolic rift, social metabolism, and universal metabolism of nature have together played a crucial role to understand the complex trichotomy of economy, society, and environment. Foster et al (2010) amalgamated the metabolic rift with the planetary boundaries framework and called it the ‘global ecological rift’—the unstable human–nature relationship arising from capital accumulation. Against this background, this article looks at the dynamics of capitalism on the human–nature relationship within the context of extractive industries in India, where the intricacies associated with the issue of the “metabolic rift” is the main focus of this article.

The Context

The idea of this article emerged from a chance sighting and evaluation of two pictures of a mineral-rich district of Sundargarh, Odisha, across a longitudinal interval of 20 years. Drastic ecological changes had taken place over these 20 years. A landscape, then rich in natural endowments, was now reduced to a site of catastrophic exploitation of natural resources. This particular district contributes a lion’s share of the gross district domestic product to gross state domestic product. Sound institutional arrangements are instrumental for this revenue maximisation. However, the potential of the mining sector to generate a huge revenue has been interlinked with a large number of negative externalities, violent conflicts, and poor economic performance (S K Mishra 2012; Kannabiran and Mishra 2016; Rao 2005; Mishra and Mishra 2014). The social impact of such negative externalities on the communities that reside in the vicinity is rarely taken into account. Apart from this, the relentless transformation has also been associated with unequal distribution of wealth and the advent of the Anthropocene—the geological phenomenon wherein collective actions of humans as geological agents produce harmful effects, upsetting the climatic and environmental conditions of the earth. One of the net outcomes of this process has been that these negative effects are primarily endured by the “lives” of the mining community closely connected with these activities.

To ensure the well-being of the people close to the mining units, whether existing or newly established, legal frameworks come into place. That is to say, law, control, and coordination can be considered as together, forming the base of political ecology (Toumbourou et al 2020). But the moot question is are the existing environmental laws able to protect the interests of the common people or are they spearheading the interests of the elites (the capitalists, which in this case would be the mining companies)? The main argument of this article rests on the struggle of the transition of the mining community from a traditional to a market society wherein demands of the market shape social relations in myriad ways. The multi-faceted issues discussed in this article through different case studies are displacement, agitation, impact on livelihood and externalities in the form of agriculture and health, accidents, impact on gender, and mine closure.

A Just and Equitable Economic System: A Crosscheck

The conversion of a landscape, once rich in natural endowments to a site of catastrophic exploitation of natural resources, assigns minority status to a group of people. The entire process provides a clear divide between its communities: “development refugees” and the rest. This disjunction further results in the development of refugees seeking employment in other lesser-known sectors, where they are unable to access the vantage points in terms of both employment and social status, thus becoming marginalised in all aspects. There are several studies which show that minority workers in comparison with workers from majority groups tend to earn substantially lower wages (Epstein and Gang 2010; Bhaumik et al 2006; Blau and Kahn 1997). There are instances of them scavenging in the vicinity of the coal mining areas of Jharkhand and Odisha as a result of the loss of their traditional occupation. To sustain their livelihoods, they risk their lives and die in mining accidents (Rao 2005; Mishra and Mishra 2014). These marginalised communities and their economic contribution remain obscure, that is, in oblivion or rarely acknowledged, since most of the time such people are unorganised or often deemed illegal, thus rendering them vulnerable and frequently susceptible to oppression by even the law enforcement agencies. They are a minority in terms of status but constitute a significant volume in numbers and lead their lives mostly negotiating with various organs of the state, yet remaining outside the formal sectors of the economy. A sociological loss in terms of occupational displacement as a result of mineral extraction is vivid in this picture.

This article attempts to focus on a range of issues related to the extractive industries. These issues are addressed with the help of selected empirical studies and academic literature. The thread that connects all these issues is the mining community itself as it features throughout the discussion. The thrust of the arguments through these different sections is to highlight the debate of “push for mining” versus “push back against its impact.”

Occupational Transition and Structural Change—How Do the Locals Fare?

Setting up a new extractive industrial unit anywhere, first and foremost, from a social perspective, poses the problem of displacement, which is the forced movement of people living in the locality of the proposed unit to a new area. Naturally, the most likely solution given in this situation would be compensation, primarily economic. But the question that follows this “simple” solution is would it be enough to fill in for whatever is lost in the process of displacement? Kannabiran and Mishra (2016) provide evidence of the only mechanism adopted for land acquisition—“eminent domain” in three mining regions of India—“the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL)", Jharsuguda, Odisha; “the National Thermal Power Corporation”, Korba, Chhattisgarh; and Singareni Collieries Company, Telangana, for the larger interest of the state. However, the benefits received had no match with one another even though the displaced communities, for whom they were meant, were very much homogeneous. A point to be noted here is that these locals, because of dislocation, are forced to undergo a structural change that includes a change in the mode of living and possibly occupation. While those equipped with education may be able to cope with this change, others who have been in a particular profession for years may not be able to achieve the same. This situation is very much relatable to those involved in the agricultural sector, particularly small farmers who do not have access to any form of unearned income. A more vivid picture of the same problem can be viewed by considering resource loss in the form of deforestation. It is known that forests form a rich source of not only tangible food products and medicinal herbs but also help in maintaining the ecological balance. There is also the aesthetic and cultural value that the tribal inhabitants attach to the forests, making them unwilling to forego their sacred lands. The case of bauxite mining in India highlights the perils of the tribal inhabitants due to their forestlands being used for large-scale extraction, which otherwise is the primary source of their sustenance (Oskarrson 2015).

Perhaps a worse form of occupational compensation (if they have lost agricultural land) for the displaced would be to employ them in the mining industry to extract the resources, giving them contracts that provide seemingly decent pay and, in rare cases, other incentives. In a sense, this is one case of an even larger phenomenon, commonly referred to as De-peasantization (Chowdhury and Lahiri-Dutt 2016); the displaced peasants have to leave agriculture, an occupational structure that has supported their generations for ages. The other implication of this arrangement is that it reduces these groups of people to dependents since they possess neither agricultural land nor a job. Then there is to be considered another group of people that were landless even before such a change but used to work on these patches of land that have been acquired now. Therefore, in the absence of any livelihood options, the immediate alternative for these people is to collect coal. This has been termed by the company as “illegal mining,” which is prevalent in all mining-rich areas of India and around the world (Mishra and Mishra 2014). This kind of “occupation transition hazard” takes a toll on the marginalised sections in the extreme case of the closure of mines. The observation made from a sample of 422 households of 24 mining villages from the closed lead mine called “the Hindustan Zinc Limited” in Sargipalli, Odisha, reveals many facets of the post-mine closure scenario—lost bargaining power to negotiate a just wage rate in the overpopulated labour market, skilled labour having become daily wage earners without any assured income, adverse impact on the local economy, etc (S K Mishra 2018).

The discussion so far leads to one important observation: approval is essential in setting up an extractive unit in an area. Of course, resistance is to be expected from the inhabitants of the area, especially in the current information era as opposed to the previous “word-of-mouth” era where it was relatively difficult to assess the adverse impacts. With the advancement of communication technology and access to information, a drastic change can be observed from previous times wherein people are better aware of the possible socio-environmental impacts due to extractive industrial projects (Conde and Billon 2017). Technology here acts as the inhibitor of the metabolic rift, making people and society more aware to prevent ecological disturbances. This of course indicates a mistrust towards the industrial organisation’s ability to be able to prevent these impacts in the first place, further solidifying the claim that mere monetary compensations cannot attract approval. An example illustrating this statement would be the environmental movement against gold mining in Latin America, evident from the slogan, “water is worth more than gold” (Urkidi and Walter 2011), thus showing that knowledge and information do play a role in causing resistance from the communities. Such people are unwilling to obtain one resource by foregoing the other.

The rich urban inhabitants, on the contrary, hardly have to face such issues owing to their reassuring ability to be able to easily switch from one job to another, with minimum possible loss; this is the result of a mal-regulated (not unregulated) mining market. In this setup, while those who derive the utility from the output thrive in joy, it is those extracting the input for the same who suffer. This is a classic element in the Marxian approach: the conflict between the transnational benefits and the local negative impacts (Urkidi and Walter 2011)

Externalities: Health and Agriculture

Upon visualising the cost component of the so-called development—visualising development from a community perspective—the basic answer starts from the concept of impoverishment. Even though mines earn huge revenue for the country, the implementation of these mining projects in rural areas has a large number of externalities. The two important externalities are in the form of reduced agricultural production and the issue of ill health. With high economic growth, extractive industries also intrude negative health externalities on communities. Academic literature shows the diverse impact of mining on human health. There is evidence of respiratory illness, malaria-related lost workdays (Saha et al 2011; Hota and Behera 2015), an increase in the number of non-communicable diseases (Chatterjee 2022), risks related to noise, trauma, and incidence of cancer (Donoghue et al 2014). It affects agriculture mainly through land degradation and farm invasions, water and mercury pollution, the shift of agriculture sector to mining (Ofosu et al 2020), de-peasantisation of indigenous communities (Chowdhury and Lahiri-Dutt 2016) and lower average yield (Hota and Behera 2015). In this case, the metabolic rift takes an extended form: ecological damage in the form of unregulated mining leading to occupational disruption, with ill health as the medium of this disruption. This occupational disruption would again in some other way, say migration for other jobs, result in another ecological damage, thus leading to a perpetual cycle.

So, it is clear that environmental impacts are not merely about the resources that are depleted, the pollution that occurs as a result, or the resulting health impacts. It should also be about exactly who are the people most vulnerable to these adverse impacts, which in this case would be generally, but not universally, those in the middle and lower classes. This requires a further extension of the theory of metabolic rift towards a more sociological perspective and not confining to the economic-ecological one; it is people who are to be addressed first, as they are the ones who can address the environmental issues. Continuing with the case of mining and quarrying and taking the example of Odisha, it is seen that the marginalised groups in mining districts that comprise majorly of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have a greater proportion of malnutrition than in the non-mining districts despite the increased per capita income in the former (Hota and Behera 2019). This scenario goes on to show that high pays alone are insufficient to solve the problems of malnutrition, poverty, and mortality rates. Such regions require specialised interventions in the form of effective policy designs by the authorities, especially the local bodies, to allow for not only growth but also environmentally sustainable growth.

Gender Disparities in the Mining Sector

The ability of women to preserve the environment and ecological balance better than men stems from their caring and nurturing virtues (Atif et al 2021). The same holds for the role of women in mining. Over the last few years, there has been a change in the visibility of women miners in the economy. In many developing nations, women have been drawing their livelihood either by directly working as miners or supporting other family members engaged in mining activities (Lahiri-Dutt and Macintyre 2006). However, the literature on mining has reflected on the negative impact of mining on women. The role of women in the mining industry has declined over the years. In most countries, mining remains a male-dominated sector (Lahiri-Dutt 2000). This is partly because of the institutional mechanisms restricting women from working beneath the mines on grounds of evidence suggesting an impact on their health and that increasing mechanisation reduces the need for a manual workforce (MMSD 2002).

The important causes of low participation of women in the workforce are mechanisation, ban on women working in mines, taboo on higher caste women working in mines on the grounds that it is not socially prestigious, and education standards of women not being high enough to get a good job (P P Mishra 2015; Hoffmann and Duarte 2021). In the case of other castes, most of them are used to collecting forest products, and as forests are being destroyed due to mining, this activity too has decreased. With mining, the economic standard of the households has risen considerably; hence, women are no longer sent out for work (P P Mishra 2007). With mining, they have lost their socio-economic status. The presence of barriers in a patriarchal society prevents them to attain real empowerment. Mining can be a sustainable vehicle of economic upliftment only if gender concerns are incorporated in every aspect of development models. Having said that, even while in the mining workforce, external shocks can bring out differential impacts among the genders. In particular, a study based on the collapse of the coal industry in the United Kingdom notices that in terms of gender, men are easily able to procure jobs in the manufacturing sector upon a mine closure when compared to women (Aragon et al 2018). So, a class-wise analysis of the adverse impact is incomplete; a gender-based outlook is required to be incorporated as well.

A recent field visit was made by the authors to MCL (Basundhara Coalfield Area) of Sundargarh district, Odisha, to understand the abrupt societal changes, which are associated with the opening of a mine, on women as important actors among communities affected/impacted by mining. The first and foremost issue, which brought out larger vulnerabilities in the socio-economic lives of the women, was the parallel growth of mining activities and the liquor business. Women held the view that the majority of men in this area are addicted to the consumption of liquor and this leads to domestic violence. The subsequent visits and immersed discussions among the women identified 10 key issues as impacts of MCL on women: (i) increased insecurity, (ii) sexual harassment, (iii) rape and murder, (iv) social stigma, (v) dowry, (vi) dispute over  share in the property, (vii) domestic violence, (viii) infertility, (ix) drop out, and (x) foeticide. This is an indication of the lack of focus on corporate social responsibility on behalf of the mining companies as well as the lack of stringent legal enforcement for women from the side of the local government. The rift in this case thus escalates to causing gender-based impacts catalysed by institutional set-ups: the mine openings, though with chances that can empower women, and the local governing bodies that are to ensure such empowerment, are unable to stand up against the already deep-rooted societal thinking towards women working in mines.

The Concept of a Just Economic System: Where are We?

The mining communities are thus at the intersection of increased and persistent social and economic marginalisation, rendering them extremely vulnerable. One can see the emergence of a new category of the “have-not” community due to the implementation of extractive industries—a clear divide in the form of health, livelihood, agricultural operation, domestic violence, sexual violence, insecurity, etc. On the whole, it is seen that these communities have  very little space in the institutional infrastructure made by the state. This exclusion makes them a separate category—the “have-nots,” which are always a part of the cost component of development. In other words, the multiplicity of impacts that have increased suddenly and sharply in line with mining activities clearly indicate that these communities are very far from “a just economic system without exploitation” within the context of the metabolic rift. Only the recognition of responsibilities from the side of people—whether individuals, firms, legal institutions, or society—can help maintain their synergy with nature and ecology, thus leading to successful attempts towards narrowing the rift.

This manuscript was prepared as part of the University of Hyderabad-funded project (grant ref: UoH-IoE-RC3-21-047). The authors thank the anonymous reviewer whose comments greatly improved the manuscript.

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