Monday, August 30, 2010

Q&A: Ravi Rebbapragada, forest rights activist

'Proposal for 26% share in profits may help'

Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi August 29, 2010, 0:15 IST

Ravi Rebbapragada, a forest rights activist, tells Sreelatha Menon the Vedanta logic should be applied to all areas where there is a conflict over land acquisition.

Is the environment ministry’s rejection of Vedanta’s application for bauxite mining in Niyamagiri a victory for the forest dwellers?

I am thrilled, but I would call it a real victory only when the approach of the NC Saxena committee, which upheld the right of forest dwellers to forests, according to the Forest Rights Act (FRA), is applied to all projects where FRA is being violated.

But even this is being projected as a victory of Rahul Gandhi rather than the rule of law. Does this mean FRA will be implemented only where Rahul Gandhi agrees to take up people’s cause?

It is true that our society is still in a rather feudal frame. It is more like an oligarchy rather than a democracy. When Rahul Gandhi first visited Lanjigarh, I asked him if he was moved by the tribal issue in Orissa because it was an opposition-ruled state and insensitive to the tribal issue in Andhra Pradesh as it was ruled by the Congress. I asked him to come to Andhra Pradesh to see the plight of the tribes being displaced by the Polavaram dam. It is our demand that he visit all conflict areas, including Polavaram. We have the largest tribal population in the world. He can’t ignore the injustice in Andhra where tribes, who form 90 per cent of the people, are being displaced in 300 villages that will be submerged by the dam.

So, you are admitting that FRA as well as the Samata ruling by the Supreme Court in response to your petition don’t work. Only individuals, or rather one individual, do?

Apart from law, there is social justice and common sense. These are missing. In spite of the law, Vedanta and the state government could do so much that was illegal. The Andhra Pradesh government has given affidavits in the Supreme Court in the Polavaram case saying the permission from the gram sabhas has been taken. It is a lie. Gram sabhas have not even been set up.

Would you still consider Vedanta a new beginning on the part of the Centre?

The government seems to be thinking that the development of tribes may remove Naxalism. It is mistaken.

Won’t tribal development remove Naxalism?

What do tribes want? They want peace. Naxalism is a political ideology while development is a need of the people and the duty of the government. The government has to deal with Naxalism in a political way, by demonstrating that democracy works. I was asked to leave tribal areas by Naxalites in 1997, soon after the Supreme Court gave the Samata judgement, which said tribal land could not be transfered. I asked them what was my fault. They said I was working with the system and I believed in the Constitution. This judgment would spread the feeling that the system was working. And if the system works, what will the ‘dadas’ do? That was their problem. The tibes may ask them that if they can go to the court, where is the need for violence?

How have states managed to transfer tribal land in spite of the Samata ruling?

In Andhra Pradesh, the government has given mining leases to the AP Mineral Development Corporation. In Orissa, the lease is with the Orissa Mining Corporation. They do this in every state. Samata ruling said states can set up projects but a private party can’t. So, the state, as a lease-holder, entered into an agreement with Anrak and Jindal South West Ltd in Andhra for bauxite mining, and Vedanta entered into an agreement with the Orissa Mining Corporation, and so on. In the Andhra bauxite project, our MP Kishore Chandra Deo has been arguing against it on our behalf. We have pointed out how the Guden Maripakala, the hills on which the mining is to be done, is a proposed biosphere reserve housing rare animal species like mouse deer and golden gecko and bisons.

Is there something wrong with FRA that the NC Saxena committee had to come to its rescue?

It is the way the states have understood and implemented it. They have looked at it as a patta-distribution exercise. Under FRA, forest rights committees have to be set up at the gram sabha level. In Andhra Pradesh, they have been set up at the panchayat level. They can have a maximum of 15 members, while the panchayats have over 50 gram sabhas. So, how can these be representative?

In Orissa, they have village-level forest rights committees. What went wrong with the gram sabhas in the Posco steel project? You were part of the panel set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to advise on the violations of law there.

When it comes to Posco and Polavaram, the states have chosen not to implement FRA as they want land. The law is an obstacle. In bauxite areas in Andhra Pradesh, forest rights committees have not been set up even at the panchayat level. On Posco, the Orissa government claims there are no eligible people, meaning other traditional forest dwellers who are covered by FRA. Our committee found that both other traditional forest dwellers and forest land existed and the former cultivated paan leaves on forest land. Besides, we found that the government had taken forest clearance after the gram sabha’s consent in neighbouring villages for a project of IndianOil. But when it came to Posco, they found these people ineligible. What does that mean?

Is clearance possible now in Posco?

We said FRA is incomplete. If they complete FRA, they may get a clearance.

What if gram sabhas say no? They are not going to say yes. No one will ever agree.

There is a saying that when you go to buy cattle, the seller puts the cow in water and shows you just the horns. Now, industry and the state are showing people only the horns. All information is not there. They are tricking us. The trend of development is very mean and cruel. If you tell the benefit to the people, they will agree. The proposal for a 26 per cent share in profits may help.

How can there be mining or power projects without conflict? If you go to gram sabhas for consent, no one will get an inch of land.

You have to rationalise mining. Don’t spread everywhere. Exhaust resources in one place. Go where there are less people.

So, what will all these companies do? Besides, there are people everywhere.

What is driving mining? It is pursuit of profit. If there are people, then include the people. Once miners start paying the environment costs, share profits, the number of players will fall. Profits are coming only from cheap resources. You get nothing for corn, but plenty if you sell corn flakes. So, you make profits from cheap resources. How can profits be infinite when resources are finite? Any development which leaves out people means trouble.

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