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The twist in the Kondh struggle

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Towards the end of 2009, the state government’s Lanjigarh Area Hospital, in the Lanjigarh block of Orissa’s Kalahandi district, was ‘contracted out’ to Vedanta Alumina Ltd (VAL). This was done under an agreement signed between the district health authorities and the refinery, which is a subsidiary of London-based metals giant Vedanta Resources, promoted by Anil Agarwal.

The handing over had been deferred for a year in 2008 due to local opposition – the hand-over meant withdrawal of government staff. But, the collector of Kalahandi had written to the director of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) in Bhubaneswar that “it is imperative for the welfare of the people in the area that the hospital should be provided adequate infrastructure and personnel.” A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the district health authorities and VAL in September last year.

Social responsibility
The MoU stated that the hospital would be managed and operated by VAL as a PPP (public-private partnership) under its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. VAL Chief Operating Officer Mukesh Kumar, who signed the MoU, told Business Standard the company had earmarked Rs 3 crore as capital expenditure from the Lanjigarh Project Area Development Foundation (LPADF). The refinery would bear the Rs 1.8 crore annual operating cost of the hospital. The day-to-day running has been handed over to an non-government organisation.

“Kalahandi is a terribly backward area, with rampant instances of malaria and tuberculosis (TB). Medical facilities are extremely poor in the region and we have been trying to change the situation ever since we started construction of the refinery here in 2004,” says Kumar. “Our CSR activities started immediately.”

The LPADF is the result of a Supreme Court order that requires VAL to spend 5 per cent of its profits, or at least Rs 10 crore, annually on the welfare of the local community.

The takeover of the hospital is part of the company’s strategy to have an overwhelming presence in Lanjigarh, where the 1 million tonne refinery has been operating since September 2007. Everything, from the hoardings in the nearest town of Bhawanipatna to the hundreds of trucks that ferry the alumina to the Jharsuguda block smelter to the roads to Lanjigarh, carries the stamp of Vedanta. As do the electric lamp-posts that line the roads and those in nearby villages. In Rengopally, close to the refinery, the anganwadi (government centres that look after the needs of children below six years), has Vedanta overwritten on it. A company spokesman says: “We are doing everything. Vedanta is looking after 30,000 under-privileged children through 43 Vedanta Child Care Centres in partnership with the government of Orissa. We will provide mid-day meals to 20,000 school children (this is again a government function mandated by the Supreme Court). We have taken electricity to 13 villages and safe drinking water to 53.”

According to figures provided by Kumar, VAL has spent Rs 28.93 crore on CSR activities from 2004-05 to November 2009. Additionally, it has contributed Rs 38.86 crore to the special purpose vehicle for tribal area development in the last three years, all of it aimed at, as a commercial says, “changing the face of Kalahandi”, a starvation-prone and disease-ridden district.

However, the ground realities in Lanjigarh, where the Kutia Kondh (Kondh of the plains) tribe lives, or in Niyamgiri, where the hill tribals or Dongria Kondh live, are not very pleasant.

Lingaraj Majhi, 35, of Rengopally, who lost 15 acres to the refinery, claims the red mud effluent ponds of the refinery have led to an increase in cases of TB in the village. “Barring some chloroquine tablets that are distributed by mobile vans of the company, we have not got any healthcare.”

Social workers have reported a high incidence of respiratory and skin ailments in the surrounding villages and residents claim it is due to fly ash contaminating their water and the air pollution from the refinery.

The company, for its part, denies any wrongdoing. Kumar says: “We are a zero-discharge refinery and there is no pollution at all by the refinery.” He maintains that all “initial leakages have been set right”.

Support from tribals
The company has some Kondhs on its side. Jitu Jakesika, a 22-year-old from the Sakota village in the hills, is an articulate, educated and charming Dongria Kondh. For five years, he was the face of resistance – here and abroad. “I was passionate, mad about Niyamgiri. I gave up my studies (he had just finished his school boards) to save my people, to save the mountain,” he says, tracing the course of the resistance and his disenchantment with politicians.

A year ago, the crusader had a change of heart. “I realised that I had been misguided about the ‘dangers’ of bauxite mining after the company took me to Damanjodi, where Nalco has its mine. Also, I want development for my people. What has anyone done for the Dongria Kondh in 60-70 years? There are no schools, hospitals, roads and we all die of malaria. Politicians don’t care about us at all.”

Funded by VAL, Jitu is doing an undergraduate course in business management from a private institute in Bhubaneswar, and he says he will work to convince his people that the mining will not destroy their lives. “A few of us, the educated boys of our community, have formed an association to support Vedanta. I am sure we can convince the others,” he says.

First Published: Fri, March 19 2010. 01:06 IST
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