Stolen for steel: Tata takes tribal lands in India

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Jug-ger-naut n [Hindi Jagannath, lit., lord of the world, title of Vishnu] 1: a massive inexorable force or object that crushes whatever is in its path.
-Webster’s Dictionary

Every year the festival of the Lord Jagannath swells the beach town of Puri, about 300 miles west of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The climax is a procession where hundreds of men pull giant statues of Hindu gods mounted on three 45-foot chariots through the streets. Once started, the momentum of their 16 enormous wheels makes the chariots difficult to stop. Orissa’s chief minister, UK-born Naveen Patnaik is an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath, and a passionate advocate of free-market industrialization.
On New Year’s Eve, he visited a temple in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, and prayed that nothing should bar the way of a different juggernaut: the state’s industrialization.
Barely two days later, an agitated band of tribal villagers did just that. Hundreds of Ho men, women, and children from the Kalinganagar Industrial Estate about 100 miles from Puri arrived at the site of Tata Steel’s proposed 6 million ton a year steel plant. They demanded that work stop until those already evicted by this and other projects in the area were adequately rehabilitated. Police retribution was swift and bloody: 37 injured and 13 dead, including 8 men, 3 women one 13-year old boy – all tribal – and one policeman.
Condemned as one of post-independence India’s worst incidents of state excess against indigenous peoples, the events of January 2 also trashed the image of Tata Steel and threatened its plans to help boost India’s projected annual steel consumption of 100 million tons by 2020. Tata Steel spokesperson Sanjay Choudhry downplayed violence as “A stray incident [that] should not derail a good thing.”
That “good thing,” according to Choudhry, is not only the Orissa plant, but India’s industrialization. With a 6.8 percent growth rate over 10 years, the Indian economy has posted impressive GDP expansion. GDP growth during 2003-2005 has hovered between 7 and 8 percent, thanks to industrial investments and increased manufacturing activity.
However, India’s claim to being the 4th largest economy is dulled by its low rank – around 127 of 177 countries – in the Human Development Index. The 53rd round of the National Sample Survey recently reported that the percentage of India’s rural poor increased from 35 percent in 1991 to 38.5 in 1997. While there is consensus regarding India’s poor performance in social and economic development indices, many, particularly those who work among the poor, are opposed to the government’s aggressive push to industrialize, even while agriculture – the largest rural employer – is neglected.
Tata Steel, one of the country’s largest firms has been in the forefront of India’s industrialization and an engine of growth. It is part of Tata Group, a prestigious, family-owned Indian multinational with 2005 revenues of $17.8 billion, the equivalent of about 2.8 per cent of India’s GDP. The company’s website claims that the Tata Group employs about 215,000 people, operates in 40 countries, and markets to 140 nations. About 66 percent of its equity is held by two family-run philanthropic trusts. One of them, the Dorabji Tata Trust is the largest grantmaker to NGOs in the country, surpassing even the mega-funder Ford Foundation. Ratan Tata, the chair of Tata Sons – the holding company – sits on the Ford Foundation’s board.
But those struggling for tribal rights in Kalinganagar and elsewhere remain unimpressed by the company’s size or philanthropic image. “Tatas are responsible for the slaughter of the Adivasis [indigenous people] in Kalinganagar. They knew the situation was tense and still insisted on going ahead with the construction using police force,” says Rajinder Sarangi, an activist with the indigenous people’s movement for land-rights in the Kalinganagar area.
Sarangi is quick to point out that the movement became an anti-Tata fight only after October 2004, when it became clear to local villagers that the government and industries were reneging on promises to rehabilitate displaced families. “The fight was against any take-over of land, not against any one company,” he says. “But Tata’s sought to overcome people’s will with police force.”
Within 24 hours of the killings, tribal youth armed with bows and arrows had blocked off the Daitari-Paradip Expressway used by trucks to transport iron ore and coal, and processed metals from local mines and Kalingangar industries to the port town of Paradip. Villagers took an oath over the cremation pyres of their martyrs to “not yield an inch of land to industries,” and to continue the blockade until their demands were met: an end to displacement, punishment of the guilty, compensation for the dead and injured, and rehabilitation of those already displaced.
The government had imposed an April 20 deadline for ending the blockade. “But it will be difficult, very difficult to break the movement,” says Sudhir Patnaik an activist and editor of Oriya fortnightly Samadrishti,. Well-organized tribal people are maintaining a round-the-clock vigil on their rock and log barricades, says Patnaik, and hundreds more can pour in at the first sign of trouble.
Wise to the World
Not so long ago, the gently rolling lands where the steel plant is planned had thick stands of forest interspersed with marginal farmland. When big industry first came in the early 1990s, it was welcomed. But soon the cultural, environmental, and economic costs became apparent. Stone quarries have eaten into hillocks, replaced forests, and devastated what little agriculture there was. Families that had lived for generations in a village were asked for deeds establishing their legal claims. “Those without title deeds were forgotten. More than 500 families have just vanished without a trace. They are probably in cities pulling rickshaws or living in the margins,” says Patnaik.
The Ho joined the large ranks of India’s indigenous and other marginalized peoples pushed aside in the name of economic growth. Though tribal people comprise only 8 percent of the population, they constitute at least 40 percent of those ousted from their homes to make way for industries, mines, and dams. Another 20 percent are dalits or “untouchables” occupying the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy.
The Ho have a history of resistance and remember with pride that in 1821, their warriors had successfully beaten back the British. Their October 2004 declaration not to yield more land to industries continued that legacy. Several times in subsequent months, local villagers collectively thwarted eviction attempts. In May 2005, Kalinganagar villagers braved a baton attack by the police and blocked the construction of a boundary wall by Maharashtra Seamless, another steel company that has been allotted land in Kalinganagar Industrial Estate. Before fleeing into surrounding forests, they knocked the teeth out of the local administrator who ordered the baton charge.
Tata Steel entered the fray in 2004 after the government handed it more than 2000 acres of “disputed” land for a steel plant. “The government said they will take care of everything. We were to pay [the Government] 335,000 rupees ($7,600) per acre, and they would do the rehabilitation,” says Choudhry. “The problem that the people have is largely with the government. They are okay with us. Negotiations have been ongoing on the matter of the rehabilitation package. We got a sense that most people are willing and will take the package.”
But local tribal groups distrusted not only the government, but Tata as well. As recently as November 30, 2005, Visthapan Virodhi Jan Manch (People’s Forum Against Displacement) issued an ultimatum that the Tata Steel and Maharashtra Seamless projects would not be allowed to proceed until the issue of rehabilitation was settled.
“If they’re a tribal friendly company, why should they come here despite knowing that the locals didn’t want to yield any more land,” asks Sarangi. According to him, Tata Steel had three meetings with the chief minister on December 26, 27, and 29. After the January 2 deaths, legislators sought details of these meetings to no avail. “Even these questions that were raised in the State Assembly have not been answered,” said Sangri.
Tata turns the blame squarely on the government. “The government had told us that work should commence and directed us to build the boundary wall. They were not expecting major trouble. Some cops were there,” Choudhry said.
In fact, some 300 armed riot police had been deployed, with another platoon ready to protect the top government brass present to oversee the boundary wall construction.
The tribals also came prepared for both negotiations and conflict; the men carried traditional bows and arrows, and staves. When the meeting broke down and the restive crowd moved in to prevent the construction, police opened fire with rubber bullets and lobbed teargas shells. In the melee, one policeman was hacked to death.
“After this, the men in uniform and gears ran amok, the officials present doing nothing to restrain them. They were baying for blood, seeking revenge, using the death of a colleague as an alibi. The people, frightened out of their wits, ran, as the police shot unrestrainedly from behind,” according to a fact-finding report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (Orissa). Five corpses returned after post-mortem were mutilated; enraged family members of the deceased said one woman’s breast was ripped off, and a young boy’s genitals mutilated, and all of them had their palms chopped off.
Tata’s senior management quickly distance itself. Tata Sons Director Jamshed J. Irani wrote to Financial Express that “No officer of Tata Steel was present, nor was there any other involvement from the company, which resulted in police firing.”
But Tata was unwilling to abandon the project. “We are not in a hurry,” said Choudhry. “The trauma is fresh. It was a tragic accident. We need to look forward and we’ll continue talking to them,” he adds. “We have a long history of working with tribal people.”
Business As Usual?
That history may be more impediment than advantage. A series of incidents has tarnished Tata’s image with tribal groups.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when it was still called Tata Iron and Steel Company, TISC’s largely tribal workers fought pitched battles with the European or Parsi management. Work conditions and the right to organize were important rallying issues, and over the years, the company developed a reputation for union-busting, often by violent means.
In 2000, TISCO allegedly bulldozed a spring that was the only source of water for women from Agaria Tola and neighboring hamlets on the periphery of Tata’s coal mines in Eastern India.
Currently, in the Sukhinda Valley, not far from Kalinganagar, Tata Steel and several smaller companies operate chromite mines. According to Choudhry, Tata’s presence in Sukhinda testifies to the company’s contribution to the local economy and its tribal-friendly credentials.
Sukhinda, though, was singled out as a highly polluted area by the comptroller auditor general, and locals at Kalinganagar shudder at the thought of a Sukhinda-like existence.
“For forty years, we have seen people queuing up to work the mines with 100 grams of rice and one potato. This is not development, but destitution,” says Sarangi, who was part of a cycle rally along with Sukhinda tribals in the immediate aftermath of the Kalinganagar killings.
The Domsala River and 30 streams that run through the valley are contaminated with dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium leaching from overburden dumps. Made famous by Hollywood’s story of Erin Brokovich, hexavalent chromium causes irritation of the respiratory tract, nasal septum ulcers, and irritant dermatitis rhinitis, bronchospasm, and pneumonia.
One study funded by the Norwegian Government under the Orissa Environment Program found that almost 25 percent of people living less than 1 km from the sites suffered pollution-induced diseases.
Tata’s attempts to expand its extractive business in Orissa have repeatedly met with opposition from indigenous peoples. About a decade ago, protests forced Tatas to withdraw from UAIL — a joint venture with Norsk Hydro, and Alcoa–to mine bauxite in the neighboring Rayagada district. In 2000, three tribal youth were shot dead during a peaceful rally near the proposed mine site. [See “Norsk Hydro: Global Compact Violator” ] Between 1995 and 2000, the company struggled to set up a steel plant in Gopalpur-on-Sea, a coastal town in Orissa. Tata’s clout is such that the then prime minister laid the foundation stone. “The project was to displace 20,000 people from 25 villages. Two villages were forcefully displaced. However, the project finally failed because the government was unable to come through with basic infrastructure such as water, rail link, etc” says Prafulla Samantara, an environmental and tribal rights activist with Lok Shakti Abhiyan, an Orissa-based voluntary organisation. The Gopalpur project was abandoned only after bloodshed. In August 1997, after police opened fire at a protest rally in Sindhigaon, two women were crushed to death in the ensuing pandemonium.
In the late 1990s, a Tata Group proposal to convert large portions of Lake Chilika – a brackish water wetland of international prominence – into an aquaculture farm hit rough weather. This project too was quickly shelved after protests by the 120,000 fisherfolk who depended on the lake for a livelihood.
Tata’s Choudhry insists that his company is a good corporate citizen. “We seriously believe that industrialisation – responsible industrialisation — is the best way to bring better quality of life for these people.”
In the case of Gopalpur, Tata states that nearly 10,000 people who were evicted to make way for the proposed steel plant are now accommodated in a state-of-the-art rehabilitation colony, complete with electricity, medical facilities and a technical training institute to retrain community members and facilitate their shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Before more people could be evicted, the proposal was shelved due to public opposition.
Samantara puts the number of people evicted and rehabilitated at around 5000. “In their original place, the people farmed, sharecropped and lived off khevda (a fragrant wild flower used as a base by the perfume industry). They were not rich, but were making do. Now, they have been kicked off their land, and rehabilitated perhaps, but with no industry and no agriculture, they have electric lines but no money to pay the bills,” he says.
While critics deprecate Tata’s claims to responsibility as PR posturing, Tata admits that its social commitment is tempered by the realities of globalisation. The executive director of Tata Sons, R. Gopalakrishnan, posed the dilemma in an interview with a British magazine: “How to be an international company and, at the same time, maintain its soul.”
Best ask how to stop a juggernaut.

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