“Development” Aggression against the Indigenous in India


Kalinga Nagar

The death of twelve persons on January 2 in Kalinga Nagar of Jajpur district in Orissa, when the police fired on adivasis (adi = original, vasi = inhabitants) protesting against state-directed displacement and demanding adequate compensation, once again demonstrates the impact of escalating “development” aggression on India’s aboriginal communities.

According to the official version, the police fired only after “the mob,” armed with bows and arrows, “hacked a policeman to death.”  “Retaliation” (even accepting this disputed version of the events) by the police was unspeakably fierce and brutal.  Most of the bullets hit the injured villagers in the back, and five bodies were handed over with the hands chopped off at the wrists.

Although for a moment this latest and bloodiest confrontation received national attention, it reflects a longstanding struggle between the people, mostly adivasis, and the state over India’s minerals and metals industry.  Orissa has a long history of such bloody clashes.  In December 2000, three persons were killed in police firing at Maikanch, near Kashipur in Rayagada district while protesting against the establishment of a 40 billion Rupee (900 million U.S. Dollar) alumina project of Utkal Alumina International Ltd, a joint venture between Indal and Alcan.  Two persons were killed in a police action in 1997 during land acquisition for the now-shelved Tata Steel project at Gopalpur.  The same company had to back out of a prawn culture project at Chilka following protests by local fishermen in early 90s.  The Vedanta group which is setting up an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi faced tribal protest in 2004.

Orissa ranks first in the subcontinent for its reserves in bauxite, chromite, graphite, manganese ore, and other metals and minerals.  70 % of India’s bauxite reserves, 1.6 billion tons, are to be found in the mainly adivasi-inhabited uplands of Orissa.  Orissa accounts for about 35 % of India’s total iron ore production.  Of the 4,175 working mines throughout India reported by the Indian Bureau of Mines in 1991-92, approximately 3500 can safely be estimated to be in adivasi areas.  Orissa also supports one of the largest adivasi populations of India.  According to the 2001 census, about six million indigenous people accounted for over 22 % of Orissa’s total population (around 10 % of India’s total adivasi population).  Driven over centuries from fertile agricultural land into ever more remote hill districts with the poorest soils, the indigenous peoples now protest the seizure of the last lands permitted them.

But the series of protests has not been able to stop the rush of investors for mining and metal industries.  The state has granted a total of 126 iron ore leases, of which 94 are operational, and these yielded 41.8 million tons of ore in 2004-05.  In the last year, about 40 proposals poured in for setting up steel plants in the state.  They include a projected 44-million ton capacity build-up, at a massive investment of hundreds of billions of Rupees.  The Australian BHP-Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, has tied up with Korean steel major Posco to create a 10 million ton capacity steel plant.

The situation today has reached an alarming point with mines and factories multiplying overnight.  For example, the “scheduled district” [areas largely inhabited by adivasis where the Union government has special jurisdiction] of Sundargarh, one of the most affected regions, has a population of 1,830,673, of which tribals constitute 918,903 (50.19 %).  The tribals’ livelihood is based on agriculture and forest produce and they have maintained their traditional system of cultivation; rather they have been forced to maintain traditional cultivation by the absence of any assistance that would have enabled more advanced techniques.  The recent years, however, have seen an upsurge of unprecedented construction of dams, factories, and mining operations in the region causing dislocation of the tribal communities at all levels.

The Ib River Dam project, planned a long time back in Jharsuguda district, is likely to displace 50 villages with between 80,000 and 100,000 tribals from Subdega and Balisankra blocks where 85 to 90 % of the population is made up of tribals.

Of course, the authorities have in every instance made extensive promises of assistance, resettlement, and rehabilitation of the project-affected people.  These promises have not been kept.  In the cases of Rourkela Steel Plant, Nalco, and Hirakud, Indravati, and Rengali dam projects, the people who had lost their homes to the projects have yet to be settled.  The credibility of the authorities is totally destroyed.

According to a study, more than a lakh [hundred thousand] families have so far been displaced by different irrigation and hydro power projects in Orissa.  Judging from the ongoing development projects in the state, five lakh more people are expected to be affected during the first decade of this century.  And most of them are tribals.

Among recent examples of “rehabilitation” are Nilachal Ispat Nigam in Kalinga Nagar, where out of the 650 families displaced only 184 have got jobs; the Jindal Stainless project, where out of the 59 families displaced, only 24 have got jobs; and in case of Visa Industries, only a handful of the 23 families displaced have got jobs.

But everything goes on in the name of “industrialization” and “national development” and it seems there is no debate.  The World Bank, IMF, the central and all state governments are harping on the same path in the interest of TNCs and the biggest of Indian capitalists.  It is well accepted among Marxists that industrialization of a country is a progressive act.  But according to Engels, “industrial production nowadays means . . . machines that produce machinery* and not the establishment of extractive industries for the looting of raw materials and primary processing dependant on the exploitation of cheap labor and the environment.  Exports now account for over 60 % of India’s entire iron ore production.  Alcan’s president has been quoted as saying that “the Utkal project promises to be the world’s lowest cost alumina plant” (The Hindu, 30 April 1998).  The costs are minimised by an abundance of cheap labor and relaxed environmental management and regulations.

This sudden burst of giant projects in the extractive and primary processing industries combines the environmental errors of the pre-1991 development raj with the greed-worshipping anti-planning ethos of the foreign investment raj of today.  We know today that the industrialisation of a country cannot be accomplished on the base of a starved backward traditional agriculture, especially where 60 % of the Indian population is connected with agricultural activities.  Until the majority of the people of India have fought for and won a healthy living on the land on which they live, giant extractive “development” projects financed by foreign capital shall lead only to a nightmare of misery and environmental devastation.

In this landscape, the ongoing resistance struggle of adivasis with bows and arrows is a call to every decent person.  In essence, it is against the path taken by the Indian ruling classes — especially the big bourgeoisie with the help of imperialist forces.  The hypocritical “development” language of foreign capital, the IMF, the World Bank, Chidambaram & Co. is all that distinguishes them from their openly imperialist predecessors.  When faced with the desperate resistance of the impoverished adivasi of Kalinga Nagar, in practice the Orissa authorities and their imperialist masters in January 2006 spoke the same language as of a century ago:

“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

* Engels to Nikolai Danielson in St. Petersburg, September 22, 1892, Marx and Engels Correspondence, Vol. 49, pp-535, emphasis added.

Analytical Monthly Review is the Indian edition of Monthly Review published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, and edited by Subhas Aikat.  This essay was originally published as the February 2006 editorial of Analytical Monthly Review.