Bahar Dutt is a wildlife conservationist by training. She has worked for the last ten years on crucial wildlife conservation projects in India and abroad. In England she worked at the world famous Jersey Zoo set up by naturalist Gerald Durrell and was involved in assessing the conditions for release of endangered primate in the Amazon forests. . She has over 10 awards to her credit including the Ramnath Goenka Award in 2006 and the Wildscreen Award , UK and the Young Environment Journalist Award 2007. As an environment editor at CNN-IBN she has done a range of stories travelling to far and forgotten corners of this country to expose the nexus between the mining mafia, politicians and corporates. She has posed as a furniture maker to expose the illegal trade in banned timber in the Western Ghats, and the nexus between the police and a mining company in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa. One of her most dramatic exposés involved a cement company of global dimensions that had been operating illegally in the forests of Meghalaya on the India-Bangladesh border. More recently, she and the CNN-IBN team exposed the operations of a miner in Goa who had illegally devastated forest lands. Their story led to the shut down of the mine.
Kalahandi, once known for its starvation deaths, is today the epicentre of the environment vs development debate. For the last seven years a small tribal community has managed to take their fight from the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills to the high streets of London. But it was not until the Environment Ministry echoed the violations raised by the Dongriya Kondhs, did the issue take centrestage. While it may seem like victory for now for this green movement, those who are being made as the 'green heroes', may actually have done far greater damage by their 'display of solidarity'.
Perhaps the biggest damage to this people's movement is through Rahul Gandhi's visit last week of Niyamgiri. Rahul Gandhi has made a legitimate people's movement seem like a stage-managed show for his announcement as the messiah of the oppressed in the corridors of power in Delhi. At his press conference Jairam Ramesh kept asserting that 'there is no politics' in his decision to stop Vedanta and his orders were based purely on legal violation. Well, if that was indeed so, why did Rahul Gandhi visit Niyamgiri on the 26th, just two days after Ramesh's press conference? Does it mean that the Saxena report and for that matter the Forest Advisory Committee recommendation were all pre-dictated? Was it boldness on the part of Ramesh to issue orders against Vedanta or was he merely acting on the direction of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi? And what does this mean for the future of environmental decision-making by the Environment Ministry?
In 2007 when I visited the site to make a documentary on the Dongriya Kondhs waging a war against the mining magnate, the story had yet to hit New Delhi. One tribal after another spoke on camera about the atrocities by the police for daring to raise their voice against the project. In the village of Bandagudha, which today lies at the edge of the Vedanta refinery, local people accused the state agencies of forced evictions. In 2006, in order to build the refinery the police took over their community forestland by first taking the men of the village in custody for one night and then sending them to a temple in Puri to 'purify their souls'. On their return the people of Bandagudha found a wall had been built and their community forest had been taken over.
A year later when I interviewed the Sub-Inspector in charge of the Lanjigarh Police Station he declared with pride - 'we took them in buses to roam the beach and purify their soul'. For seven years no one asked why the state police took it upon themselves to take the tribals on a pilgrimage.
As we moved to different villages around Niyamgiri, you could feel the angst of the Dongriya Kondhs facing oppression at the hands of state agencies who were eager to hand over the land to Vedanta for mining. These would have stood their ground in a court of law. It was a story that needed telling, the violations were so glaring, and it seemed like a watertight case which any court of law would stop. Ironically, at that time it was the MoEF that submitted in Supreme Court that the project should get clearance.
Enter Jairam Ramesh in 2009. It was he who came up with the masterstroke. He decided to use the newly introduced Forest Rights Act to check if Vedanta had the consent of the tribals for mining. They didn't and it gave him the legal fodder to question Vedanta. But within 48 hours of his stopping the project, it was clear there were other factors at play. Rahul Gandhi used this golden opportunity to take his chopper ride into the hinterland of Kalahandi and, suddenly, it all seemed too well orchestrated to be dismissed as a happy chance. If Rahul Gandhi had not taken that trip, the Environment Minister was justified in taking the moral high ground. After all he was only implementing the law. But the ruling BJD was quick to cry foul - accusing the Environment Ministry of coming down on them for being a non-Congress state.
Since then, the state government has challenged the allegations made by the Saxena Committee and threatened to go back to the Supreme Court to get clearances. As this cat-and-mouse game now continues, it's the tribal movement that may suffer.
And not just the Congress, the BJD, too, doesn't have a clear stand. Before the project was stopped the Chief Minister made a visit to Delhi with two requests. One - that Posco and Vedanta should be put on fast track for clearances from the Central Government because 'Orissa needs development'. His second request was that the Polavaram Dam project should be scrapped, as 'tribal villages are getting submerged'. But should the development paradigm not apply across the board if the Chief Minister was in fact concerned about the tribals? Why was the state concerned about tribal villages getting submerged in the case of Polavaram Dam but not concerned about the Dongriya Kondhs losing their forest and land in the case of Vedanta or the cashew or betel nut farmers in the case of Posco. Why does the Chief Minister want mines but no dam, when they are both extensions of the same development paradigm? Naveen Patnaik seemed to see no contradiction while making these requests.
The role of the Environment Ministry too will come under scrutiny. The Minister will, for every project in future, have to explain if there are political interests backing his decision to say no, instead of just following the rule of law. This is a Minister who has grown into his role, who has re-energised a defunct Ministry.
The same minister who is being celebrated today as the lone green warrior in the Congress Party, who loves the mangroves more than airports, who had the courage to say no to BT Brinjal, and even sent a showcause notice to the Jindals for violating the green norms while setting up a steel plant in Chhattisgarh despite the fact that the owner is a member of his own party. This was a minister who was being recognised for his role as the watchdog.
But what will the Minister do in projects that come to him for clearance - where populist aspirations do not align with environmental goals? Navi Mumbai is a striking example. Everyone wants the airport, there aren't too many who care about the mangroves.
In belittling itself for a decision which appears as handcrafted for the young Gandhi's political career, it is this role of the Environment Ministry which will now be closely scrutinized. Is it acting on the basis of law and good faith, or because of pressures from the Gandhi family?
As for Niyamgiri perhaps the greatest service that Rahul Gandhi could have done for the Dongriya Kondhs could have been to work behind the scenes, as their soldier in Delhi and not the General who arrives with all pomp and show in a helicopter. But by reducing the MoEF as a rubber stamp to Rahul Gandhi's political aspirations, there's now some scepticism about this ministry.
(This post originally appeared in Hindustan Times edition of September 09, 2010). Dutt has made a documentary, 'Question of Land', on the fight of the Dongriya Kondhs to save Niyamgiri for CNN-IBN.)