Monday, November 2, 2015

Vivekananda Nemana - Bauxite mining threatens to bring back violence to the tribal hills of Andhra Pradesh

In July 2013, my friend Ramarao and I took a trip to Chintapalle, a hardscrabble town deep inside the tribal areas north of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The monsoon hadn’t yet started and the town was dusty and strange. Fresh garlands hung proudly from statues of Alluri Sitarama Raju, the revolutionary who had led a band of tribal warriors against the British, and loudspeakers relayed church sermons that echoed off the hills around town, so from every direction you heard it said that Jesus would set the adivasis free.

We borrowed a motorcycle from one of Ramarao’s colleagues at the Telugu news channel HMTV, and drove along a scarred dirt road to a lonely village called Jerrela, the site of a proposed and intensely controversial bauxite mine. We wanted to interview local tribal farmers about the mine, a vast project that would displace some 270 villages when completed. We expected anger but, naively, not suspicion.

Ramarao and I barely reached Jerrela when we were stopped by a group of young men and women at the entrance to the village, who reasoned that no outsider would come this far into the forest unless they worked for the mining company. They locked our motorcycle in a cattle shed so that we wouldn’t escape and flatly declared, “We would sooner die than give up our land.”

As an inquisitive crowd gathered, a spry, middle-aged man stepped forward, introducing himself as Iswarao. Dressed in a grey sweater and sporting a mass of curly hair, he could be taken for a college professor if not for the bidi in his fingers and his wary eyes. Iswarao demanded to know who had sent us. I explained that we were journalists who wanted to interview people from the village, but he didn’t buy it. He said that he had seen the likes of us before – referring more to me than to Ramarao, who is adivasi himself – when some city dwellers had come to Jerrela posing as NGO workers, and tried to make everyone sign English-language “petitions” that turned out to be statements consenting to land acquisition.

”You’ll need to stay here for a month or two until we figure out who you really are,” Iswarao said. He flicked the tip of his bidi. “Maybe then you’ll understand how much we get from our forest mother you want to destroy.”

The mine: The tawny hills around Chintapalle contain a fortune’s worth of bauxite, the main source of aluminum – 470 million high-quality tonnes in all, most of it buried beneath Jerrela. In 2005, the Andhra Pradesh government, then led by YS Rajasekhar Reddy of the Congress Party, signed over mining rights to a joint venture called AnRak. But it had to employ dubious legal gymnastics to bypass laws restricting the transfer of tribal land to outsiders.

The 1997 Samata Judgement of the Supreme Court prohibits private companies from mining tribal land, but the lease controversially circumvented it by fronting the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation, a nearly defunct public enterprise, as the mine’s legal owner. The APMDC would receive free mining equipment and logistical support from AnRak, and then sell the bauxite at cut-rate to the company.

The area has been in revolt ever since. There were tales of mining company helicopters being shot by arrows, of blockades and even assassinations. Huge crowds thwarted official visits to the mining site, while snarky graffiti covered colourful hoardings bearing the AnRak logo in Chintapalle. Locals pointed ominously to broad new roads that they claimed were only built to allow trucks, hundreds of which would venture up and down the mountain each day. The looming mine inspires a constant, slow-burning anger that is epicentred in Jerrela, which stands to lose the most.

In September 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that although the bauxite mines were initially valued at Rs 11,500 crore, the contracts for AnRak and Jindal Steel (company which won rights to a smaller bauxite deposit in Araku Valley) list their worth as just Rs 258 crore combined – a sharp undervaluation that would decimate not only the companies’ licence fees, but also the 20% share of profits they must invest on rehabilitating the 270 tribal villages the mine would displace. (Some groups, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), argue the real value of the bauxite is as high as one trillion rupees.)

Even though intense public opposition has kept excavators from unearthing even a teaspoon of bauxite in Andhra Pradesh so far, most people in Jerrela fear that it’s just a matter of time before the mining starts.

To further complicate matters, the Maoists have capitalised on this public anger, staging an unexpected abduction a month ago. On October 5, uniformed cadres captured three low-ranking members of the Telugu Desam Party in the village of Kottagudem, just an hour away from Chintapalle, and demanded that the AP government relinquish the mine.

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