• Charudutta Panigrahi & Gadadhar Parida

The hope of Gram Sabha & endangered Koraput

Hoga Lok Sabha, Hoga Rajya Sabha, Par Sabse Upar Gram Sabha

source: Biswajit Sahani

The indigenous communities of Koraput are misled by all – the scheming activists who spread negative information against mining, the local authorities who are painfully indifferent and we the civil society which is completely aloof and exploitative. COVID has stopped everything in the world, but mining at Kodinagamali continues unstopped and in an overdrive. Gram Sabha is our last and legitimate hope to draw in people to directly decide their future. We believe that “Hoga Lok Sabha, Hoga Rajya Sabha, Par Sabse Upar Gram Sabha'. It is meant to be that. The entire development process should start from the consent of the villagers in a formal congregation with decision making powers.

Undivided Koraput district is the Wonderland. 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 shown no belongingness to the place. These NGOs are working in Rayagada, Nawarangpur, Jeypore, and other areas since the last many decades and yet things have not improved in the districts. The per capita income of Koraput should be one of the highest in India, but sadly always figures in the list of ‘aspirational districts” of NitiAyog. 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 the poverty line.

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. There are many low-income backward areas where the gram sabhas have held sway over the decisions to allow investors in industry or mining companies and others to enter the geographies. The villagers have to decide about their own future and here comes the ‘capacity of villagers’ syndrome. In the name of building capacities many ‘outside agencies/NGOs’ try to influence the villagers negatively or with motivated interests. The compass of the villagers can be expanded legitimately and with positive reinforcement through a Master trainer/Champion program. A group of locals to take charge of preparing the rest of their co-villagers to take decisions for the good of the village. Gram Sabha, the parliament of the village needs to maintain a quorum - at least 1/3rd shall be women and the number of SC/ST participants shall bear the same proportion to the quorum as the population of SCs / STs bears to the total population of the Village Panchayat. From 500 to 1000 population of a village panchayat the quorum ranges from 50 to 300. The provisions made for the Gram Sabha in India is effective, practical and potent. Record keeping of the Gram Sabha is mandatory which includes attendance and proceedings. Keeping audio visual record is mandatory for the conduct of Grama Sabhas. The Grama Sabha as a forum is expected to conduct Social Audit of all schemes pre and post implementation in the villages. Truly laying development in the hands of people. The onus is on the people to maintain the dignity, power and influence of the Gram Sabha. Odisha as a leading state of India in mineral industrialisation has had a remarkably strong growth of Gram Sabhas in different districts and more in tribal areas. If power does not flow to the last mile, last house and last person, power holds no meaning. It becomes a bundle of waste not handled properly by a fistful of people with the perennial scare like that of a radioactive substance, which doesn’t differentiate between people and creation. Decentralization through Gram Sabha is a strategy to empower the remotely placed, underprivileged people of Koraput to control their own destinies and to be specific fiscal measures. This signals that citizen collectives can come together to make decisions of allocation and expenditure of public resources. ‘Democratic decentralization’, as practised in India, is where this power is devolved to elected local governments—this was the spirit of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992-93.

source: FIDR

People of around 24 villages in Laxmipur, Dasmantpur and Kashipur blocks are scared and continue to oppose exploration of minerals at Kodingamali bauxite mines. There is no attempt by us, the civil society to interact with them, listen to them. These mines have been leased out by OMC to an Andhra Pradesh based company, Mythri Infra. Kodingamali Surakshya Mancha is the David pitted against the powerful Goliaths, the industry backed strongmen (nothing short of mercenaries). The state venture is yet to come up at Kansariguda, even after about ten months of its announcement. While Kansariguda project lies in cold storage, mining at Kodingamali runs unabated. Even COVID has not stopped the mining. The locals have been demanding a ‘pallisabha’ (a subset of Gram Sabha for village or hamlet inside a gram or cluster of hamlets), appointment of locals in the mines and shifting of bauxite dumping yards from Kakrigumma area. 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 for them 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?

So far the role of civil society has been queasy and limited. We are aware that investment-friendly policies, good governance, robust infrastructure, mineral resources and agriculture resources and access to the market are essential to make Odisha a complete development destination. But it all starts with the opening of the lock at the community. Only a Gram Sabha reminds us of the rights of the people to decide about themselves. But who works towards sensitising the communities, who constitute the Gram Sabha? Where are the civil society organisations, the NGOs? On one hand, we have activists promoting their ISMs in the name of being pro-poor and on the other hand we have CSR programs of industries engaged in tokenism in the name of development. Gram Sabha is the only key to development, bottoms up.

For the expansion project of NALCO, gram sabhas were 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? No. Usually, in such cases there are only aggressive strategies in place by companies to ‘influence’ the Gram Sabhas and they are treated like ‘combats with the communities’ replete with manoeuvres, ploys, and horse-trading. One of the major deliverables of the CSR is winning Gram Sabha nod. Is this what CSR is meant for? It is common knowledge that a profitable and decorated PSU like NALCO implemented Rehabilitation & Resettlement with different yardsticks for Angul and Koraput. In Angul the communities were accorded more people-friendly compensations and advances, whereas in Koraput the local administration had to make vain attempts at bringing equal conditions for the indigenous communities.

What is the inclusion of the indigenous people in the development process? Have they been at least taken on a trip to show around how and what the companies have done or propose 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 directly affected people and not confined to the preserves of intellectual presentations in state capital and country capital.

At the Pottangi bauxite mining areas, the people even today feel that the local economy and household well-being of over 5,000 people of four panchayats depend on Serubandha hill and minor forest produces. The communities use the stream water of the hills for agricultural activities. They are convinced 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. Can you name NGOs that work sustained with the community, notwithstanding external funds support? Taking CSR contracts is business of development, not development.

Our last bastion of aboriginal simplicity and naivety should not be corrupted with manipulative systems that would rob them off their soil. This whole fight for international wealth making is for their soil.

Let’s all develop. Let’s all prosper. We want industrialisation but ‘responsible industrialisation”. Legitimate.

Gram Sabha would script our future growth story. Nurture, empower & respect it.

Article by

Gadadhar Parida, IAS, Director Tribal Museum, Koraput (Left)

Charudutta Panigrahi, Author & Futurist (Right)

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