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03 October, 2011

Ganging up against pro-poor law

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India Inc has started flexing its muscles in a bid to force the Central government to back away from its plan to make the poor people living in the mineral-rich backward areas of the country, most of them members of dispossessed tribal communities, stakeholders in the development process.

On Friday, the Cabinet approved a Bill which will require mining companies other than those in the coal sector to deposit 26 per cent of their net profits in a fund which will be used to help project-affected people in the tribal areas. Coal firms will pay what they already pay as royalty.

The Bill is expected to come before Parliament during the winter session. In all likelihood, it will be referred to a committee, and at that stage those concerned will have the opportunity to state their objections. But corporate India’s powerful instruments like the Confederation of Indian Industry, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries have already come out against it.

They term the proposed measure unviable and say it will make mining unattractive to domestic and foreign investors. They argue it will also create difficulties for existing mines.

The stock market echoed the corporate sector’s sentiments. The public sector Coal India Limited’s shares fell by 5.11 per cent, and private companies registered declines ranging from 1.09 per cent to 4.61 per cent.

Currently the mining sector is governed by a weak law enacted 54 years ago. The new law provides for the creation of a regulatory authority, charged with tackling illegal mining.

As many as 20,000 cases of illegal mining have been reported from the different states during the past few months. One of the worst-affected is Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Karnataka, where the Lokayukta (ombudsman) estimated that illegal mining had cost the state more than Rs160 billion. Following his indictment, the then chief minister and two of his cabinet colleagues, both of whom had risen in politics using illegal gains from mining business, had to bow out of office.

Much of the country’s mineral wealth lies in inhospitable terrain where hapless tribal communities ended up as they retreated from the plains under pressure from later waves of migrants. Mining and other developmental activities are now threatening to force them out from there too.

India’s tribal population, estimated at eight per cent of the total, is spread unevenly across the country. In Kerala, it constitutes only one per cent but in the Lakshadweep group of islands, off the Kerala coast, it forms the overwhelming majority.

Several northeastern states have more than 90 per cent tribal population. In the heartland states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand tribesmen constitute about one-third of the population.

The Centre has been earmarking funds for the welfare of the tribal population separately in the annual plans but middlemen often gobble up the money.

Social and economic backwardness render the tribesmen easy prey to forest encroachers and business interests.

The threat posed by mining to the environment and to the people assumed diabolic proportions as the governments issued a large number of licences to domestic and foreign companies in the wake of economic liberalisation. From Goa on the west coast to Meghalaya in the eastern hills, in almost all states where mining is going on tribesmen have been fighting corporate intruders.

In Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur district, villagers are up against the South Korean giant POSCO which has a contract to build an integrated steel plant at a cost of $12 billion. Even children are participating in the struggle, leading to accusations that the POSCO Prathirodh Sangram Samiti, which spearheads the agitation, is using them as a shield against possible police action.

The PPSS says children have joined the agitation as they realise their future is at stake. An 11-year-old schoolboy asked a reporter, “If our parents lose their livelihood, who will protect us?”

The London-based Vedanta Resources is another big corporation that is facing the fury of Orissa’s tribesmen. The Church of England, which had a stake of 3.8 million pounds in the company, sold its shares apparently to distance itself from the company’s depredations in the tribal belt.

Tribes everywhere have been victims of ‘development’ in all history. The new law aims at making them beneficiaries of development. But business interests are determined not to make its passage easy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 3, 2011.

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