Would you like to trek up, asked one of my colleagues. There was no way I was going to say no. It had taken me all of nine years to make it to the footsteps of the mighty Khandadhar waterfalls, one of the highest in Odisha. The sun was up and far into the distance one could see the waterfalls shimmering. The forests of the Khandadhar hills formed the perfect backdrop to the waterfalls. Both elements of nature were in perfect harmony.
As we approached the entrance to the tourist complex inviting us to visit the waterfalls, a dilapidated signboard read ‘Paudi Bhuiyan Tribal Welcome You’. It signalled to me that the Khandadhar hills, home to this Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), had perhaps already started their journey to oblivion along with the history of this community.
This part of the Khandadhar hills in Sundargarh district of Odisha has been in the news for the last several years not for its socio-ecological importance or its aesthetic presence but because the South Korean Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) and its Indian counterpart have been eying what lies beneath this forest. The red earth, over which the Khandadhar waterfalls drifted, littered with the leaves of the forest, is rich in iron ore.
I had imagined the area to be majestic with thriving forest-based livelihoods and a formidable geographic presence. Having written about the impacts of mining on the hills based on primary work by fellow researchers and long- distance conversations with people working in the area, Khandadhar was surely going to mystify me. It did, with pleasurable ease
But from the time I first gazed at the hill range and its spritely waterfalls, I kept drifting to the words, ‘prospecting licence’, ‘iron ore’, ‘forest rights’, ‘mining leases’, ‘court case’ and so on. I kept trying to concentrate on the forest and its history for some time. Yet, I was acutely distracted.
Was the presence of iron ore under the hill range its biggest disadvantage? Were the communities living in and around the area going to lose out to an unfair process and massive land use changes? Will it make any difference that the area now falls within the electoral constituency of the present Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram?
The prospect of this area opening up for mining continues to loom large. In early November, there were news reports that the Odisha government had requested the Union government to grant a prospecting licence for over 2,000 hectares in favour of POSCO India Pvt. Ltd. POSCO wants to mine iron ore in Khandadhar and use it partly for its proposed steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district as well as for export through a proposed captive port not far from the steel plant. For almost a decade now, the company has not been able to start operations in Jagatsinghpur due to an ongoing people’s resistance and legal battles that are pushing the company and the state government to follow due procedure.
The news in and around Khandadhar is that the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) has already begun issuing various notices to villages for acquiring land for mining processes. Many affected people are not clear for what purposes the notices are being issued to them. Conversations in the area and inputs from social activists in the state reveal that the notices are being issued by district authorities to call for palli sabhas (village assemblies) and set processes in motion at village level. Clarity still needs to emerge on whether these are being called to initiate land acquisition proceedings or for ‘completing’ the recognition of forest rights prior to the official diversion of forestland for non-forest use.
Meanwhile, end-December 2014 saw several affected tribal communities congregating under the banner of the Khandadhar Surakhya Sangram Samiti (a committee to fight and save Khandhadhar) and taking to the streets in massive numbers. They came together to submit a memorandum to the Sub Collector, addressed to the Prime Minister. Their plea to the PM and the Chief Minister of the state is not to go ahead with iron ore mining.
The disjointed priorities of governments and the project-affected people are resulting in an important social conflict. In the last few decades such conflicts have emerged in different parts of the country in all shapes and sizes. These are not just real stories of who wins and who loses and neither are they only battles between domination and assertion. In more ways than one, these struggles present an acute challenge for a democracy like India. Here governments and corporations are seeking to bypass principles of good governance to achieve an elusive goal called economic supremacy.
*The author is an independent researcher based in New Delhi