ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Skewed Development Policies

The Utkal Alumina Project

Unnecessary and often excessive use of force by the government to silence legitimate protests of the adivasis and tribals affected by the Utkal Alumina project in Odisha, makes one wonder about the orientation of the state’s development policy. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Make in India” campaign to attract foreign and Indian investors in September 2014, I was in Kashipur, a district of Odisha where Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), a subsidiary of Hindalco Industries belonging to the Aditya Birla Group, had recently started its production. Addressing both the Indian and foreign investors, Modi said, “India is an opportunity” and “be assured you will not lose your money”. At the event, Aditya Birla Group Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla said, “manufacturing is required to put economy on a higher trajectory”. But going by the track record of UAIL in Odisha, it seems Birla was talking about economic development for some and not for all. In its bid to establish the alumina refinery plant and start mining bauxite in the captive mine allotted to it, UAIL has trampled over the rights of the most oppressed and marginalised adivasi community residing in the Kashipur region.

The Genesis

Utkal Alumina, a joint venture of four companies, including Hindalco, was formed in 1992, with the purpose of producing alumina by sourcing bauxite from the rich reserves in the Kashipur block, Rayagada district. UAIL’s project comprised a 1.5 million tonnes per anum (mtpa) alumina refinery located at Doraguda village, bauxite mines in Baphlimali hills and a captive co-generation power plant of 90 MW. 

But in the face of large-scale protests and strong resistance of the local adivasi community to the setting up of the plant, two of the partners, Norsk Hydro of Norway and Tata Sons withdrew from the consortium. Alcan of Canada later sold its stake to Hindalco in 2007. The defiant Aditya Birla Group, now the sole owner of UAIL, dug in its heel and was determined to set up the plant. In its efforts, it was aided by politicians, administrators and police officers, who joined hands with the company to intimidate people to part with their land and livelihood.

On 16 December 2000, three adivasis died in Kashipur area while protesting against the bauxite mining and alumina plant project in the area. The police atrocities continued, and in 2005-06 people were arrested, tortured and lathicharge (Worried over the delay in implementation of the project, the two original joint venture partners, Tata Sons and Norsk Hydro, had earlier pulled out of the project, while another foreign partner, Alcan, had sold off its stake to Hindalco in 2007). With the people and the environmentalists up in arms against the project, UAIL was able to start the construction of the refinery only in 2008 and completed it by 2012.

Recent Violence

On 25 August 2014, a large contingent of armed police and a revenue officer with magisterial power reached Baphlimali hill, the bauxite mining site of UAIL, and started beating the villagers of Paikakupakhal village. When I visited the village on 5 October 2014, Padam Nayak, a resident of the village, said, “they were in 25 four wheelers and one bus”. Many people got injured and three of them namely Mangaldan Nayak , Kalendra Nayak  and Kiyabati Nayak, all dalits, were hospitalised. The incident was not highlighted by the  mainstream print or electronic media.

The Paikakupakhal village has 277 houses, mostly inhabited by dalits and adivasis, and is located near the entrance of the Baphlimali mine. On 20 August 2014, all villagers went to the mining site and demanded work from the company. Initially these villagers were vehemently opposed to the mining of bauxite in Baphlimali hill area. The plateau of the hill and its slope have traditionally been used for cultivation of paddy and different pulses. After the arrest and torture of the villagers due to their stand of “no mining” in Baphlimali hill, they succumbed to the pressure exerted by the government andstarted a dialogue with the executives of the company. Only after being assured by the company’s officials that mining would not affect agricultural production, did the villagers permit transportation of bauxite. Since 2012, the company has been transporting bauxite by trucks to its Doraguda plant to convert it into a semi-finished product, alumina, before exporting it to the US and Europe.

The UAIL is happy with “large deposit (bauxite) in single plateau”, “abundant coal” and “relatively cheap labour” in the area, as per its report for investors (March 2014). But before starting production, it occupied village forest land in Bhitarmuskuni (5.18 acres) and reserved village forest land in Tikarapada (68.32 acres) for construction of red mud pond and ash pond respectively. It has constructed the alumina refinery at Doraguda on the gram sabha land (1.5 acres), reserved village forest land in Dimundi, an adivasi village (162.41 acres) and bhoodan land (60 acres). The law  stipulates that bhoodan land cannot be transferred for any purpose.

The area where the plant has been set up has been classified as a Fifth Schedule Area, where a gram sabha resolution is mandatory for issues such as setting up of industries, infrastructural development projects etc. The gram sabha resolution copy accessed by this author through RTI shows signatures of company officials with their designation. But signatures of government officers which are mandatory under the Odisha Panchayat Raj Act are absent. Whether the resolution was stage managed by the company or was it actually passed by the gram sabha, the lips of the government officers at the Kashipur tehsil office and district collector office at Rayagada are sealed. The villagers, however,  deny the knowledge of such a resolution.

Environmental Degradation

In the last two years, activities like mining of bauxite and its transportation by trucks to the refinery, installation of conveyor belts and construction of roads to top of the hill have already destroyed agricultural fields in Paikakupakhal, Hatimunda Tikiri, Jogiparitunda and several other villages in close proximity to the mining site. The police action against protesting villagers in Baphlimali Hill has shattered hopes of the people.

On this hilly terrain, continuous movement of trucks have led to soil erosion which has brought several houses closer to the edge of the slope. The company has already constructed its site office on two acres of patta land of Padman Nayak without payment. Chairman Birla’s assurances of ”generat(ing) new jobs” is meant to make working people homeless and jobless.

Several other villagers like Alekha Nayak, Ghunua Nayak and adivasis like Gurunath Jhodia, Trinath Jhodia and many others of the village have lost their dongar land (cultivable hilly land) due to mining. Agricultural land in the region is adversely getting affected and there is a loss of productivity due to soil erosion. Perennial streams are also dying.

But the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s report is silent on the environmental degradation caused by the activities of UAIL. The company submits a compliance report every six months, which routinely states, “adequate measures are being taken at the mining areas such as drainage system to catch precipitated water with adequate no. of check dams”. But none of the government officials ever visit the mining site to see if the company is complying with the norms, and even if they do visit on a rare occasion, they hardly ever consult with the villagers. Even the new government at the centre is silent on the entire issue.

The aluminum industry is campaigning for boosting consumption of  aluminum to tap the domestic market as well. They are making an effort to increase the per capita consumption of aluminum from 1.3 kg per annum to 10 kg by 2020, so that India could be number one in aluminum production. To achieve that target they will have to raise production from 1.6 to 1.7 mtpa to 10 mtpa by 2020 or 2025. And who would bear the consequences of an almost eight-fold increase in  production? It would be the people of Paikakupakhal and other villages in the vicinity of the project.

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