Save Koraput : the Wonderland (Koraput is the blessed land and the future of Asia)

Koraput valley: Photo by RashmI Ranjan Parida

By Charudutta Panigrahi

Undivided Koraput district is the Wonderland. From Lord Jagannath to fighter planes to Asia’s mineral treasury, it is complete & the people are content. Content because the tribals and their Lord live here. It is the sabar kshetra (the mystic land of the Lord) . This is the land where divinity and materialism co-exist in a unique balance.

Over the last seven decades we have systematically neglected Koraput to serve our commercial interests. The outsiders who have plundered Koraput in the name of development have scant respect for the land and its people. The leading social organisations working in the district have more workers from other districts who have no belongingness to the place. They are working in Rayagada, Nawarangpur, Jeypore, and other areas since the last many decades and yet things have not improved in the districts. Per capita income of Koraput should be one of the highest in India, but sadly always figures in the list of ‘aspirational districts” of Niti Ayog. The reserve of 310 million tons in Panchpatmali mines is world’s largest single-site bauxite deposit and yet Koraput suffers the indignity of infant death, large scale migration and rapid forest destruction. In Koraput 79% live below poverty line.

Most of the government officers after retirement love to settle down in Koraput, but while in job have, they done enough for the Wonderland?

Blood Ore:

The tribes of Koraput are mute spectators to the mining blitzkrieg unleashed upon them. Let not the mining giant corporates make billions on the misery of Koraput adivasis.

Let’s not stoke another Blood Ore !

Let’s share the development and affluence. Now there is an overdrive in the country and Odisha  for the auction of mines. But do we have a community development agreement ready to be signed with the mine owners, post auction? Importantly, do we think that a community development commitment is necessary? If yes, then who would decide or facilitate a plan which can be made mandatory for the prospective mine owners. As a part of the Action Plan (the master plan by the state), which am sure would have already been submitted to the Centre, the community development perspective would have been stitched together. I hope so.

There is a Sustainable Development Framework (SDF) to be ideally adopted by the mining companies. If it has not been made compulsory yet for the miners, it should be made so. The people of Koraput should ask for SDF of the mines.

It is impending and quite obvious that a huge land grab is threatening India’s tribal people and that includes Koraput. This apparently looks like a bonanza for forest related industries and investments. The forest-dwelling adivasis, indigenous tribes, found in all the mining zones are the directly affected stakeholders under the SC order for the eviction of close to 2 million adivasis from protected forest lands across India. The claims of nearly 226,000 adivasi and other forest-dwelling households have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations.

But due to shocking laxity on our part, the tribals are deprived from getting the testimonials for their ‘ownership’ evidence. Citizen services facilitated by the district or state authorities could have prevented the adivasis staring at homelessness, any moment ( over 15000 in Koraput). They are condemned to be refugees in their own land. Or are forced to out migrate as labour, humiliated, under paid and grossly deprived. The ‘originals of the land” are relegated to an identity-less existence. Don’t they belong to this country? Are they not our fellow citizens?

Is there any plan by the government or the miners to implement a systematic rehabilitation and resettlement program for the local communities? I am sure there would be an estimate of the displacement but is there a blueprint for tackling the displacement? Will the district authorities have the details?

Is it not our responsibility to rehabilitate them and handhold them to lead normal lives? OMC, Odisha Mining Corporation have had demonstrated commendable efforts in community outreach and sustainable mining –  through installation of solar plants, use of solar street lights in the mines, rain water harvesting and ground water recharging at the mines, Installation of STP at their mines to re-cycle the waste water, Solar plants in mines to reduce the carbon foot prints and the like. But it is one thing to buck up initiatives in safe and sustainable  mining practices and another to take care of the lives around mining areas in Koraput.

A Sustainable Development Framework would cover lot many aspects and this includes comprehensive planning for the communities. Who is doing this or who is at least, planning to do this? The communities are not capable of even expressing their needs. The civil society organisations are outdated and dispassionately removed.

I have trust in the industry ( the miners) to commission professional help in assessing the needs of the communities with the help of the district authorities. If at all, the District Collectorate is the governance, which is closest to the communities. If their capacities are worked upon then they could be the best point for monitoring of the i) Managing impacts at the mine level ii) Progressive mine closure & Landscape Restoration iii) addressing social impact and community engagement iv) reporting on sustainability, conducting social audits, energy audits etc.

The social subversion of the tribals, I have reasons to believe that these are not innocuous anymore,  should not be allowed to dent deeper by the mining activities. SDF is not the panacea, nor is a part of the regulatory ( it should have been) but it has the compass to cover comprehensively, all inclusive. The social aspects of development projects are usually the most challenging and can pose a significant risk to the successful implementation of projects. Because we are dealing with people with complex emotions, hopes, concerns, expectations and insecurities. Assessing a project’s impact on the biophysical environment does not require any complicated processes. Mineral resources are finite and non-renewable, at least in biological timescales. Environmental, social problems along with mining related risks are increasingly breeding conflicts between miners and local communities. Understandably so.

Mining royalty is the biggest non-tax contributor to the Odisha’s revenue stream pegged at Rs 6130.97 crore from production of 270.84 million tonnes (mt) and supply of 287.80 mt minerals in 2017-18. With the opening of the mines, the mining revenue is estimated to cross Rs 12,000 crore, 2021 onwards. The paradox is that education and agriculture term loans have the highest NPAs in the state. With the revenue from mining, the state should look at building parallel resources as standby. In about 5 decades from now all our reserves would be depleted and we would be an empty drum, ravaged and dumped. All the mineral-rich districts of the state featured in the list of most backward districts of the country. In Koraput, Asia’s bauxite capital, 79 per cent live below poverty line. The income from mineral extraction has not benefitted the regions from where the minerals are removed. Rather poverty has increased in many of these districts like Koraput and has majorly affected the social fabric owing to quick gains due to the ‘middlemen’ syndrome.

If business looks for quid pro quo, so does the public.

Can we, the civil society of Koraput, be privy to the exploration plans of the bidding mining companies? Can we know about their blueprint for the mine’s communities? Can all this be transparent and upfront? Can this be in public domain (on the department’s web portal?)?

Rapidly changing global order, energy transitions, climate emergency and supersonic technological advancement should enable exemplary development of tribals of Koraput. ICTs (information & communication technologies) can be deployed for the development of the mines’ communities. Because the mining in Odisha and specifically in Koraput would have global ramifications. The resources which would be sucked out are non-renewable. Can we squander away this opportunity and not build our lives, in the best possible manner?

If we don’t take care of our tribals, the repository of our riches and spirituality, no amount of economic growth or GDP figures would be worthy, viable and pro human.

Where is the CSR?

The civil society of Koraput should come together  and prepare a CSR White Paper which will help in providing the necessary framework for further integration of CSR in building a better framework of CSR in the District, helping to localise the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals as set universally by the UN), with emphasis on social impact. The social license to operate is no more the sole driver. It’s the human, environmental, societal and financial impact. The corporates don’t have to do CSR to appease local people for social license to do business in Koraput. They have to genuinely contribute to Koraput’s development.

In the last four years more than 1700 Cr has been deployed under CSR by about 280 plus companies. But the geographic spread of the CSR support to the communities across Odisha is not equitable. The state should take policy initiative to drive CSR as per the developmental needs of the districts/communities and that the corporates should be more proactive in “going beyond the walls”. In terms of geographical coverage 6 districts (Malkangiri, Kandhamal, Nuapada, Boudh, Gajapati and Deogarh) with relatively lower human development index have been left out only because the companies do not operate in these areas. Whereas, Angul for example, a relatively developed district in the state, has alone received over 30% of the entire spending as it houses a good number of large industries. This regional disparity is because of the ‘project area mindset’ of the companies, and it does not serve the interest of Odisha.

The state through various mechanisms like the DMF, CAMPA is expected to supplement local body finances by providing them with appropriate fiscal leverage. These funds are meant to be used by the state to implement agro-forestry in non-forest land to compensate for felled forest or for the benefit of the mining affected people of the state. All the forest dwellers and mining affected people belong to the tribals and marginalised sections and hence prudent deployment of the resources would help in dramatic reduction of poverty in Koraput. But at present more than Rs 3,500 Cr (more than 80% of the fund) DMF collection lie unspent or caught in red tapism. the DMF collections in various districts in 2015-16 was Rs 395.38 crore, in 2016-17, Rs 2109.89 crore and in 2017-18, Rs 1,670.31 crore. But the expenditure was a meagre 389.27 crore over the period. The DMF lying unused in Koraput district exceeds Rs 400Cr.

If industry-wise contribution is considered then Steel, Iron & Ferro alloys sector tops the list with over 40% spending, followed by Mining (20%) and Aluminium (20%) sectors. Maximum numbers of industries are in these sectors and in Koraput.

It is all about humans:

A recent study to evaluate neonatal and under-five mortality at district level and state level in India, indicates that in Rayagada the mortality rate is 141.7, probably the highest in the country. My fear is not solely based on the findings of the report, which could be further analysed and debated upon. But I am concerned about the ground level situation in spite of the Ama Sankalpa initiative, a targeted intervention program for reducing Infant Mortality Rate(IMR) and Maternal Mortality Rate(MMR). The district had taken path breaking drives like a) creating 14 additional delivery points for facilitating institutional delivery. b) identification of poor performing sub-centres c) household level identification of pregnant women and ensuring institutional delivery by line listing them at higher facilities like the CHC d) setting up Maa Gruha, where the pregnant mothers, specifically among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group(PVTG) are housed for a week prior to the institutional delivery. Rayagada district is providing double fortified salt in the schools and anganwadi centres, containing iron and calcium to improve the nutritional status of adolescents, children and pregnant women. As one of the unique programs to tackle malnutrition, the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) under Sub-Divisional Hospital (SDH) at Gunupur has been upgraded from five bedded to ten bedded to accommodate severely acute malnourished children. The district has bike ambulance service available for ferrying pregnant women and critical patients from inaccessible areas like Kalyansinghpur block, Parsali under Niyamagiri Hill Range and Putasing where PVTGs like Dangaria Kandhas and Lanjia Sauras live, to hospitals. About 817 inaccessible pockets  in the district have been identified where due to lack of roads, 102 and 108 ambulances cannot reach the villages.

Rayagada has major concentration of large size metals and extraction  industries and hope and believe that this need and trend of  growing commitment to sustainability and responsibility will mean that more companies would step up to address challenges outside the company. More companies will step up to help tackle the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We’ll see more corporations mapping the UN SDGs to their operations and values. It will be even more vital for companies to work together with states and NGOs to create value for societies, and in turn business opportunities that drive long-term, scalable value creation.

Gram Sabha in Koraput:

The  mineral industry, specifically, depends on the indigenous rights and the development process, the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) derived from indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and their right to property through ownership or traditional use. How do the PVTGs in Koraput know what is good for them and not good before they take a decision? They should be informed and not mis-informed either by the industry or by the NGOs. At stake here is a reserve of 310 million tons, Panchpatmali mines, which is considered to be the world’s largest single-site bauxite deposit. How many discussions have been organised with the local communities on this? How many of us know about the global ramifications of this process?

It seems that for the expansion project of NALCO, gram sabhas are being organised by the district administration in Maliput, Pottangi, Nuagaon and Kotia villages. The villagers, while putting forth their demands, favourably and unfavourably, voiced parameters to support the company to carry out mining and developmental activities. But do the villagers know what to ask for and what is their need? Is there any NGO or organisation there, to assist them assess their needs?

For the existing Panchpatmali bauxite mines, the Nalco has been awarded the highest 5-Star Rating of Government of India for its sustainable mining practices and environment protection measures. Do the affected or involved villagers know what this rating means? What is their inclusion in the development process? Have they been at least taken on a trip to show around how and what the company has done to adopt reclamation and rehabilitation processes for ecological restoration of the mined-out area? Is the area being systematically backfilled with lateritic overburden to form benches, terraces and leave-depressed area at strategic places to form reservoirs/ rainwater harvesting structures to support vegetation and wildlife. None of the villagers are aware of the process or the ensuing benefits of the processes.

Before the Gram Sabha sits, the people of the villages should know whether mine void has been reclaimed and afforested with trees of native species, having capacity to endure water stress and climatic extremes. Nalco’s or any company’s genuine efforts for environment protection  also need to be disseminated amongst the direct affected people and not confined to the preserves of intellectual presentations in state capital and country capital.

This because Gram Sabha is where the action lies. It is the council holding the key to the development of the country. If Odisha is the gold mine and the global repository, Koraput is the vault, then Gram Sabha is the door to the treasure. More so, when we are discussing rental economy.

Nalco, with all its seemingly precautionary measures and pre-emptive steps to conserve nature and recharge water had to face opposition at the second Gram Sabha held at the panchayat office of Pottangi for the proposed bauxite mining. The locals feel that the local economy and household wellbeing of over 5,000 people of four panchayats depends on Serubandha hill and on minor forest produces. The local people use the stream water of the hills for agricultural activities. They are of the opinion that when mining starts, the streams will go dry and their economy will collapse. Who is there to spend time with Serubandha Surakhya Samiti (which is spearheading the anti-mining movement) and share legitimate data, information and case studies to sensitise them? Their reaction should be genuine, and fact based, not political. The civil society has been under-performed in deep dive, long standing community intensive work. Can you name NGOs which work sustained with the community, notwithstanding external funds support? Taking CSR contracts for limited projects is the business of development, not development. Development needs dedication and not mediation.

Gram Sabha is probably our last, coveted democratic tool, working bottoms up. It would play a decisive role in charting a course for the future development of India. Gram Sabha would allow;

  • Koraput and Odisha getting on to the fast lane of development
  • Koraput & Odisha discarding its poverty tag and take on the high growth, ‘smart’ development brand
  • The transition of natives from a forest-based dwelling to more mainstreaming, while maintaining equity and ecology
  • The trade-off between reckless expansion (in the name of development) and real development in lives

Our last bastion of aboriginal simplicity and naivety should not be corrupted with manipulative systems which would rob them off their soil. This whole fight for international wealth making is for their soil. Gram Sabha would script our future growth story.

Koraput can majorly contribute to make Odisha a $1 trillion economy by 2030. After Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu Odisha could be the third State, by then, to be a $1 trillion economy.

Our intention is to provide enabling environment to business and not create stumbling blocks. But in the same vein, not to be cuckold.

Let’s do true business.


Charudutta Panigrahi

Writer & Policy Expert

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