This week brought a rare bit of good news for human rights in the poor, rural, tribal districts of eastern India. After spending over two years in jail on false charges, human rights activist Kartam Joga was finally acquitted of all charges. Like Binayak Sen, TG Ajay, Kopa Kunjam, Ramesh Agrawal, and Harihar Patel before him, the government of Chhattisgarh tried to silence Kartam Joga for daring to demand that human rights and democratic principles be respected in Chhattisgarh. And once again, the courts found that the state had no case.
Jagatsinghpur district in the eastern Indian state of Orissa is a poor rural place. But it is at the crucible of a battle for the future of India.
In 2005, state and national governments approved a massive steel plant here, and the South Korean steel company POSCO prepared to sink $12 billion into the project. Yet from the beginning, local residents objected to this top-down development, which would push them from their farmland and fishing spots, depriving them of their homes, land, and livelihoods (if history is any guide, they were likely to end up in distant urban slums).
After hundreds of villagers were forcibly evicted last summer opposition stiffened locally, across India and around the world. By late 2011, the Orissa government began resorting to jailing peaceful protest leaders on false charges. First it was Abhay Sahoo – who had also been jailed for 10 months in 2008-9. Then, it was Narayan Reddy.
Vedanta, a UK-based corporation that mostly operates in India, has a big PR problem of its own making. For example, it has been implicated in creating a toxic red mud pond that threatens the lives and livelihoods of thousands of tribal people in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.
You would think that Vedanta should do what’s right and take steps to ensure that the environment and livelihood of the neighboring villages are protected. Vedanta might have taken steps to apologize, compensate and clean up the mess that they’ve already made in those communities.
In recent weeks, human rights and environmental activists have celebrated a court ruling rejecting a massive expansion of the Vedanta Mining Company’s hazardous alumina refinery and toxic red mud pond located in India’s eastern state of Orissa.
However, peaceful protesters continue to face police violence at the site, and 47 villagers have been jailed on false charges, signaling that the saga of Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery is not yet over.
In a victory for human rights, the High Court of the Indian state of Orissa has upheld the Indian government’s 2010 decision to reject UK-based Vedanta Resources’ plans for the six-fold expansion of the Lanjigarh aluminum refinery, finding that the project violated the country’s environmental laws. Vedanta Aluminum had challenged the Ministry of Environment and Forest‘s decision in the High Court in November 2010.
Residents of 12 villages who live in the shadow of the massive refinery – mostly Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit communities who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods – have long campaigned against the expansion, arguing it would further pollute their land and water.
The refinery, which has been in operation for four years, fails to meet accepted national and international standards in relation to its environmental, social and human rights impact. The authorities must order an immediate clean-up of the site and monitor the health status of the local communities.
The Indian state of Orissa is where the Vedanta Aluminum Company (Indian-based subsidiary of a UK multi-national) runs a refinery in Lanjigarh. This refinery is home to a nearly overflowing 92 billion liter (24 million gallon) pond of rather innocent sounding red mud. Already this year, video shot by local residents show the walls of the pond being breached and streets being flooded. Compared to what is to come, the leaks have been relatively small.
When the monsoons come however, over 4,000 families in 12 villages will be threatened.
And red mud is not as innocent as it sounds. It is the leftovers of the aluminum refining process that includes highly toxic alkaline chemicals and radioactive materials. When the pond overflows its walls, red mud will contaminate drinking water, farmland, and homes, leaving environmental devastation in its wake and threatening the health and lives of thousands of people. This may sound familiar. Just last year a red mud spill in Hungary did the exact same thing.
Amnesty International applauds the Government of India’s decision to reject a bauxite mine in the Dongria Kondh region of the state of Orissa.
We also welcome the government’s decision to suspend the clearance process for the sixfold expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery at the foothills of Niyamgiri, operated by Vedanta subsidiary Vedanta Aluminium, after a government’s expert committee found it to be illegal.
It’s not often that we get such a clear cut victory, but this is one of those occasions.
“After years of struggle and visits by committees our voice has finally reached Delhi,” a Dongria Kondh leader today told Amnesty International.
Lodu Sikaka, kidnapping victim and activist for human rights in Orissa. Copyright: Survival International
UPDATE 2: Lado Sikaka was released, so please stop action. Mr. Sikaka says that while he was there, he was beaten on his hands and legs, and interrogated about whether he had links with supporters of banned Maoist groups. and was involved in any violent incidents in the Niyamgiri Hills. He replied in the negative. However, his captors forced him to sign two blank pieces of paper, before taking him to the nearby town of Kalyansinghpur and releasing him there. He is currently walking back to Lakpaddar, the village where he lives, accompanied by several Dongria Kondh Indigenous people. The Rayagada district police superintendent has denied that Lado Sikaka and Sana Sikaka were detained by police.
UPDATE: Here is the online action, where you can click to send an email. Thanks for writing on Lano’s behalf.
Sana Sikaka and Lano Sikaka were kidnapped by 15 armed plainclothes officers at the foothills of Niyamgiri mountain (in the eastern Indian state of Orissa), as they were leaving in a van to travel to Delhi, where they planned to campaign against a bauxite mine project. The gunmen confiscated the mobile phones of activists and their vehicle. They then detained Lado and Sana Sikaka, driving them towards the neighboring district of Rayagada where Sana suspects Lado is being held.
One of the activists, Sana Sikaka, was ‘released’ late last night by being thrown out of a van, and has alleged that the gunmen were police. Lado Sikaka, the most senior leader of the Dongria Kondh indigenous community, is still being held by the gunmen. It is a very urgent and dangerous situation for Mr. Sikaka, so I urge you to take action immediately.
Survival International, a group dedicated to the human rights of tribal peoples worldwide has more information and an action. I’m also embedding a video below. I find this especially outrageous that this kidnapping happened on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The Amnesty International section in the UK announced today that Bianca Jagger (ex-wife of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger) has submitted 30,000 signatures on a petition asking Vedanta Resources, a large UK-based company to respect the human rights of the Dongria Kondh people of the Indian state of Orissa (see more, here and here).
The petition adds yet more voices to a chorus of criticism of Vedanta’s governance and ethical standards. Last week responsible investment research specialists EIRIS published recommendations to address investors’ concerns about Vedanta’s environmental, social and governance practices. Dutch pension manager PGGM divested their £11m stake in the company earlier this month.
Vedanta Resources, through its subsidiary companies, plans to mine for bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills, considered sacred by the indigenous Dongria Kondh community. The proposed mine may also threaten the community’s rights to water, food, health and work. Final permission for the projects is pending with the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, whose expert panel is due to report their findings shortly.
Bianca Jagger said:
I appeal to investors – including local UK councils who still hold shares in Vedanta – to listen to the voices of the Dongria Kondh and consider the human rights consequences of the proposed mine. I will continue to campaign in support of the Dongria Kondh until their demands are heard.
Whenever there are “development projects” in various parts of the world, the ostensible reason given is almost always that they are good for the economy in some way– i.e., they “provide jobs” for the community where a project is being sited. This rationale is usually the only one cited to tip the scale in favor of a project irrespective of the costs to the community. It leaves me a bit “dazed and confused” (to quote Led Zeppelin– see video below) even as an economist because there is more than just jobs that play into whether a development project is good for the community. Things like whether the project will affect drinking water supplies, whether a project will result in soil contamination and also whether a project’s sponsors will treat the community in line with human rights law.
In Orissa, we seen over and over again that a company moving into a community for a “development project” means water and soil contamination and other human rights violations. Protesters are beaten or killed, property is confiscated and communities are left seething over their land and people being abused.
For the last two months, Kalinganagar has been witnessing recurrent clashes between the state police and about 250 well-armed private civil militia supporting land acquisition on the one hand and the adivasis protesting against government acquisition of their lands and habitats for setting up a six million ton capacity Tata Steel plant and a common road corridor. On March 28, 30 adivasi protesters sustained bullet injuries as police and the civil militiamen fired upon a 250 strong group of protesters who pelted stones at them in a bid to prevent them from taking over the land meant for the common road corridor.