State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: 'This land is our land' - mining, conflict and India's Adivasis

By Satbir Singh

Numbering 85 million, India's 600 Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis ('original people') are kaleidoscopically diverse and make up nearly a quarter of the world's indigenous peoples. Concentrated in an area of central and eastern India that stretches from Maharashtra to West Bengal, many tribal groups share their homelands with some of the most significant mineral deposits in the world – resources which have attracted increasing interest in recent years, precipitating mass displacement, worsening poverty and fuelling one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Adivasis are by far the most vulnerable and marginalized socio-economic group in India; gaps in poverty, literacy and mortality between tribal and non-tribal groups are widening, despite the economic changes sweeping India. These challenges have been compounded in recent years by the arrival of global mining giants, for whom governments have used the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to forcibly displace millions from their ancestral lands. This deepening poverty and alienation have fuelled the decades-old Maoist-Naxalite insurgency, with the 100,000-strong militia consolidating its grip in areas of weak government, high malnutrition and mass displacement. The government's security response has in turn brought an influx of personnel and weapons into the region. With poor accountability and an often blurred boundary between the counter-insurgency mandate and broader economic imperatives, civilian populations are often caught in the crossfire and fall victim to atrocities on both sides of the conflict.

Child soldiers are routinely recruited on both sides of the conflict. In addition to the 50,000-strong security force deployed under 'Operation Green Hunt', up to 7,000 youths – many Adivasis themselves – have been armed by the Chhattisgarh state government as 'Special Police Officers' with the Salwa Judum or 'purification hunt'. In July 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the Chhattisgarh state government to dismantle the Salwa Judum and investigate all allegations of human rights violations, including the recruitment of child soldiers. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh responded that his government is not inclined to disarm its Special Police Officers and has not yet taken any steps toward investigating atrocities.

In January 2011, in the state of Odisha, the central Ministry of Environment and Forests gave final clearance to Korean steel giant POSCO for a US$ 12 billion refinery and captive port. A number of panchayats (village councils) who have expressed their opposition to the acquisition of their lands have seen their constitutional right to consultation undermined by the deployment of state security forces. In the village of Dhinkia, state officials described the panchayat leaders as 'encroachers', calling in state troopers and threatening to 'use force if necessary'. Abhay Sahu, leader of the anti-POSCO movement in Odisha, was arrested in November and journalists, activists and academics are now unable to enter the proposed displacement zone.

Elsewhere in India, opposition to mining-related displacement continued to be a dangerous undertaking throughout 2011. In August, 38-year-old activist Shehla Masood was shot dead after calling for an investigation into allegations of illegal mining by Rio Tinto. In Chhattisgarh, Soni Sori was arrested for alleged involvement in a Maoist protection racket. The Adivasi schoolteacher and human rights activist was stripped, beaten, repeatedly raped and electrocuted, and remains in custody despite demands from domestic and international human rights groups for her release. No investigation has been initiated and the Dantewada police chief Ankit Garg, an officer named by Sori as being involved in her torture, was awarded a medal for gallantry by the President of India in January 2012.

Such disregard for serious allegations is commonplace and, along with the intimidation, disappearance and persecution of opposing voices, it has contributed to a culture of impunity within the security forces in the region. Political and mining interests have become fused through a complex web of campaign financing and corruption, which has led to security forces frequently straying from their mandates. Some individual units of both state and rebel forces have independently formed relations with private bodies. In 2011, a general manager of Indian multinational Essar Group was arrested for paying Maoist rebels to secure 267 km of pipeline through Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

For their part, mining giants responded to growing hostility in 2011 with aggressive public relations campaigns. Vedanta Resources launched a short film, 'Creating Happiness', broadcast daily across television networks. It trumpets the philanthropic efforts of the company, whose bauxite projects in Odisha have attracted international condemnation for destroying the sacred Niyamgiri hills and driving the Dongria Kondh tribe to near-extinction. Tata Steel similarly launched an advertising campaign highlighting the employment generated by mining. Their new tag-line, 'Values stronger than steel' does little for the 12 Adivasis shot dead in 2006 by police in Kalinganagar for protesting against the construction of the Tata steel plant.

Though they do not provide redress, these campaigns are proving remarkably successful in shifting public opinion outside the region in favour of big mining and driving a wedge between tribal and non-tribal communities. In this state of exception, corporate criminals become 'national champions', displacement becomes 'creating a good investment environment' and any opposition to the violation of domestic and international law becomes an act of terrorism, never to be spoken of out loud.

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