The milestone read Nimalapedu 0. We had travelled through the forest regions of Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, to this tribal village, which we knew had stoutly resisted and tamed the might of the Birlas when the latter was given a lease to mine calcite in their backyard. This was the village whose battle led, in 1997, to a historic judgement of the Supreme Court that put a stop to the greed of private companies, eager to get their hands on a lease for land in tribal areas to mine or set up a factory. Named after the dynamic tribal rights organisation that took the case to the high court and thence to the Supreme Court on behalf of the villagers - Samata - the judgement today is the biggest thorn in the sides of those who have a vested interest in inviting private and foreign mining companies into such areas.
We walked to Nimalapedu. How had they persisted in a fight that took over 10 years? we asked a group of men. What we heard is amazing in its simplicity. "One day we found a few men wearing half pants, with chisels and hammers and magnifying glasses, in our village. This was around 1988. Then they came with drilling machines and started making wells. Nobody told us who they were and why they had come. But then, revenue officials came and asked a hamlet to leave. They offered Rs 5,000. More men came, tractors started leaving loads of stone here and there. Nobody spoke to us. But we heard that a road was to be built. Talk spread that we would all have to leave."
"We decided to fight. Nobody went for labour on the road. Then we heard that close by in the Borra caves, an organisation was helping to stop mining. We approached them. They said we should file a case in the high court. But we lost the case: our lawyer was paid off by the company. This was around 1995 and then Samata said that they would take the matter to the court in Delhi."
Did all the villages agree to oppose mining? The answers were less forthcoming. "Yes, it was difficult. Many of our neighbouring villagers had been promised money and jobs. They wanted the road. Government officials came to us to threaten us again and again. We said we would not succeed. But we did not give up." A pause. Then, sadly: "Even now they do not give us jobs as coolies. They say you opposed us then. We will do nothing to help you now."
So what happens now? I asked looking particularly at the young men. The answers dried up. As we left, my colleagues and I were asking ourselves two questions. How long would the village hold out in this way in the future? How long would it be before another mining company, another Birla, bamboozles its way in, with state protection?
This is the determining issue, not just for Nimalapedu, but the entire region. The region is phenomenally resource-rich. Bauxite, chromite, calcite, gemstones, locked up in a land of poor and powerless people. For instance, 90 per cent of all bauxite available in India is found in the largely tribal districts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The Samata judgement ruled that the state had no right to grant leases - even on government-owned forest land - to private companies in areas governed by the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution (tribal scheduled areas). The state government was directed to stop all private mining within scheduled areas. Only cooperative societies, comprising solely of scheduled tribes, could exploit mining operations in such areas, subject to the compliance of the forest conservation act and forest protection act, said the court.
But the government is hell-bent on changing this. Parliament is discussing an amendment to the Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Act that will overturn the Samata judgement. States are desperate. They need the cash and see private capital as their best bet. They see pure lucre in royalty they will earn by leasing lands. Last year Orissa, sidestepped the law, arguing that the judgement wasn't binding on them. For governments today, court restrictions and the various acts that protect resources such as forests are unnecessary obstacles that need to be removed as fast as possible.
For us, the issue is: What, then, are the options for Nimalapedu, and all the other villages in these mineral rich lands? How do they hold off miners, who will work closely and securely with governments? Can they build a future around mining? Can mining be regulated, so that they benefit? Or is there another way to development?
Which brings me to another question. It was March. I was expecting, while travelling, to see dry, destitute lands and empty homes, the men already migrated for work. But Nimalapedu was different. Rice crops glistened in carefully sculptured fields. It was the village's third crop of the year. Streams from the forest above the village irrigated the fields. I asked them who the huge amount of land on the sides of the village belonged to. "To us," was the answer. By all indicators they should be rich. But by all evidence they are poor. They do not have education, health services or cash for additional food and facilities. But they are also extremely rich in resources. It is just that they do not have the wherewithal to turn these into productive assets. That is where the tragedy really lies. But to correct this, we would have to redefine what we mean by poverty, and how wealth should be generated.
The piles of stones are still there, ready to become a road.
- Sunita Narain