Friday, September 14, 2007

Orissa:The Fist on Dissent

The Orissa government continues to crack down on voices against exploitation of the state's natural resources, reports Nilanjana Biswas

No matter whatever be the place
be it in the vast desert of the Thar
or in any snow-covered city,
my hunger will sprout legs
and hands on its own.
Even if you put it inside four concrete walls
or within a fence of barbed wire;
my hunger will move around undaunted,
playing the flute of its bones
and singing aloud its own song.

These lines, translated from Oriya, are from the poem The Song of Hunger by a young Oriya poet, Saroj Mohanty, recently released on bail after weeks spent in Rayagada Central Prison in south Orissa.

On July 14, 2007, Mohanty was picked up by the local police at Rayagada railway station on allegedly trumped-up charges that include dacoity, house trespass and even attempt to murder. Several nation-wide campaigns were launched to secure Mohanty's release. Amnesty International intervened. A petition submitted to Naveen Patnaik, the Orissa chief minister, reminded him of his duty to see to it that the voices of people like Saroj Mohanty "are heard and not condemned". Poet and literary editor, Mohanty is also a committed activist of the Prakrutik Suraksha Sampada Parishad, an organisation supporting the struggles of the people of Kashipur, who for the past 13 years have steadfastly opposed the entry of large bauxite mining companies in the region. It is this involvement that attracted the establishment's ire.

Mohanty's arrest is being seen as a sign of the extreme desperation of the Orissa state government. For the government, the continuing resistance to the Utkal Alumina consortium's bauxite mining project in Kashipur has been a thorn in the flesh, a setback to foreign direct investment in the state. After all, a decade-long delay in project implementation is hardly reassuring news for potential investors.

The struggle, no less a David to the consortium's Goliath, has sent several aluminium companies packing. In the face of growing resistance, the Tatas sold out in 1999, Norsk Hydro in 2000, and this year, the Canadian giant, Alcan, divested from the project, presumably following an international impact assessment study's findings of grave project illegality and human rights violations. The consortium is now down to a 100 percent venture of Hindalco, an Aditya Birla Group subsidiary.

For Hindalco, the world's second largest aluminium company, hoping to mine the 195 million tonnes of bauxite deposits in Kashipur over a 25 year period, the stakes are enormous. Utkal's investment in Kashipur was Rs 45 billion in 2000. Based on current world market rates, sources say, it stands to make as much as Rs. 2.88 trillion in profits — a 6,300 percent return on investment.

The spanner in the works, the party pooper if you will, are the people, who quite reasonably feel that being thrown out of their homes and lands is an unfair price to pay for someone else's profits. And so, they have continued to resist — democratically, steadfastly and never resorting to violence. What violence has occurred has come from the State.

On December 16, 2000, security personnel opened fire at unarmed villagers in Maikanch village in Kashipur, killing three adivasis. Throughout 2005 and 2006, people were picked up from fields, forests, homes and villages on false charges and imprisoned for months. A plethora of voices, of democratic rights organisations, women's groups, NGOs, eminent citizens' panels and, more recently, a people's tribunal headed by the retired Justice SN Bhargava, condemned the State repression and called for a moratorium on mining.

Activists allege that the Orissa government, having failed to break the peaceful resistance of people through violent means, is now miring the protestors in litigation. The Utkal offi-cials have filed 40 cases against the people of Kashipur, with about 700 people on warrant lists. Mohanty was one such person. His only crime, they say, is that he took a stand and spoke out against a capital-, water- and energy-intensive project that will displace hundreds; a project that lacks environmental clearance; a project that is coming up, unconstitutionally, on Fifth Schedule areas — zones designated as protected for adivasi populations.

Mohanty's arrest is not an isolated case. All of Orissa is in fact on the boil. Fifty people from Kashipur have been similarly arrested since 2004. Killings and arrests are being reported from across the state — Kalinganagar, Lanjigarh, Sundergarh — wherever people are resisting multinationals. Elsewhere too, wherever foreign investment is being wooed, arbitrary arrests of objectors are rife, a case in point being the incarceration under draconian laws of Dr Binayak Sen, barefoot doctor, human rights' activist, and a recipient of his alma mater's —CMC Vellore's — Paul Harrison Award for his outstanding contribution to society.

There are hundreds of others similarly imprisoned whom the world does not know about. Having no class advantage, they remain anonymous; in prison or facing the threat of arrest merely for doing what every citizen ought to do — exercising their democratic right to protest against a model of development that benefits the elite and pushes the majority of the population to the brink of poverty. State governments are today bent upon clearing the path for foreign investment, no matter what it takes. If Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has gone on record to state that the government is willing "to tolerate long as it does not come in the way of eight percent growth", Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik goes a step further by stating that no one will be allowed to come in the way of development in Orissa — statements that would have caused a furore just 20 years ago. Just how sustainable is development that is ushered in with batons, bullets and gags on democratic dissent? This is a question that urgently needs answering.


1 comment:

sangeetha said...

hey this is real story..with a voice...hope the right people are listening to it....see that it gets posted in many there is more awareness on the issue. this kind of issues set sideline ...on the broadly constructed reality of economic development.this story should not remain trapped beneath the rubbles of development.