Over the last 20 years, large tracts of forest have been cleared in the mineral rich districts of Odisha to make space for mining industries. This has severely affected the food and nutritional security of the indigenous communities. For centuries, forests have been a vital source of livelihood for the communities. Non-timber forest produces like tuber, roots, wild mushroom, fruits and berries, which were an integral part of the diet of the adivasi communities and provided essential protein and vitamins, are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Activists fighting for the rights of the adivasi communities claim that the environment and social fabric of adivasi-inhabited areas are severely threatened by large-scale mining and industrial activities. Besides causing drastic climate change and a decline in wildlife, mining in Odisha has displaced and severely undermined the low-carbon-footprint lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of adivasis and other marginalised communities.
The UAIL case
Take, for instance, the case of bauxite mining by Utkal Aluminium International Limited (UAIL) in Baphlimali. The Baphlimali hill range is situated in the south-western part of Odisha. The major part of the hill falls under Kashipur block of Rayagada and the rest is in the Kalahandi district.
For centuries, adivasi communities like the Paraja, Jhodia, Penga and Kondh have been living amidst the Baphlimali foothills. For generations they have depended on Baphlimali for jal, jamin aur jungle (water, land and forest). Rain-fed agriculture of millets, cereals, pulses, paddy and collection of non-timber forest produces were essential for the livelihood of the communities. And most importantly, Baphlimali is also one of their sacred places.
Baphlai Budhi is the reigning goddess of the adivasi communities and is supposed to remain on top of the Baphlimali plateau. Over the years, UAIL has constructed wide roads against the length and breadth of Baphlimali, and check posts have been set up at several places at the hill top. The adivasis are now forbidden from accessing the top of the Baphlimali and are helpless when it comes to protecting their own goddess.
For UAIL, the deep bond of the adivasis with Baphlimali is meaningless; its sole objective is to make billions in profit each year by extracting bauxite from the heart of the hill – the sacred site of adivasis.
In Kashipur, it has been reported that opencast bauxite mining activity by UAIL has caused environmental degradation in the region due to deforestation, biodiversity loss, wasteland generation, dust and noise pollution, pressure on local resources and soil erosion. Local communities have complained that they are suffering from several health issues like brittle bones, tooth and gum infection, lumps of dead skin and respiratory problems.
In order to extract bauxite ore deposits through opencast mining, the above ground vegetation is completely removed. This means removal of several tonnes of low grade ore which is dumped on the nearby vegetation along the steep slopes. The mining activity leaves a toxic residue known as ‘red mud’, a by-product of bauxite that percolates into the soil. Farmers complain that flash floods and rains brings red mud to their agricultural land, reducing its fertility.
There is also a heavy loss of pristine natural vegetation due to the mining activity, which severely affects the local biodiversity. The flora found in Baphlimali consists of 560 plant species including eight species of rare and threatened plants. UAIL, on its part, has claimed to have taken up plantation activities in the periphery areas. However, conservationists have said that UAIL has planted acacia, which is not a native species and is thus adversely affecting the local ecological setting of the region.
Sumani Jhodia, a renowned tribal leader of Kashipur in Odisha, said, “The plight of women is worsening as they have reported an increase in domestic work hours since the disappearance of the forest, shrubs, bushes and contamination of water sources resulting from bauxite mining. Now they have to compete with the migrant workers to access fuel, firewood and fodder. This is something we have never seen earlier. It is only happening now due to mining”.
There is an increased influx of labour from outside the region to do jobs such as driving trucks, mining and operating heavy machinery. These workers and their families reside on the mining sites and in nearby labour camps. They use the neighbouring forest for fuel wood, and local streams and wells for their water needs. This dependence has led to a large scale thinning of the adjoining forest and has resulted in conflicts with the local communities over access these resources.
“Three tonnes of bauxite, a thousand tonnes of water and huge quantity of electricity are required to extract one tonne of alumina. In addition, dams are required for such massive quantity of water and electricity. In the process, poor tribals lose their identity in bauxite mining,” said Srinibash Das, a development professional associated with the adivasi communities of the Kalahandi Balangir Koraput region in Odisha. “It is really a matter of concern that our so-called politicians and government officials are deliberately ignoring the issues of adivasi. As if industrialisation has become a buzz word for them.”
“With India’s economic policies inclining towards potential market forces and liberalisation ideologies, the rights of people over their resources and democratic ways of life may continue to be threatened,” said Biranchi Patel, who is associated with Agragamee, a local NGO based in Kashipur. The capitalist agenda that has ravaged the world with reckless destruction and disrupted socioeconomic and political stability in the name of development should not be repeated here in Kashipur.
Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked with the indigenous communities in India and Cameroon, especially on the issues of land, forest and water.