Sunday, 10 April 2011

Gandhamardan: The Bauxite Battleground

At 58, Jambavati Birja of Dunguripali village near Paikmal in Bargarh district of Orissa has a reason to be upset. The news of big companies making their way to dig out bauxite from Gandhamardan hill range has turned into a nightmare for Jambavati and her husband Iswar who have lost almost everything in their fight to save the hill range that is the abode of their God Nrusinghanath.

Jambavati is believed to be one of the saviours of Gandhamardan because twenty five years back she stopped heavy earthmovers from mining the bauxite reserves in the belly of the hill by throwing her two sons before the wheels of the trucks and herself calling the heavy vehicles to ride over her. During her struggle to save Gandhamardan, Jambavati’s husband Iswar lost his job in a government department. They lost seven acres of their family land to the government for their involvement in the movement against BALCO that had come to extract the bauxite from Gandhamardan. But, they have no regrets over what they have lost because the efforts resulted in saving Gandhamardan.
Most people of Jambavati’s time living in and around Gandhamardan joined the movement against BALCO to save their God and the primary source of livelihood – Gandhamardan.

Everybody who participated in the movement to save Gandhamardan looked victorious till the silver jubilee of the movement against the mining of bauxite in Gandhmardan hill range was celebrated last year. The queue of companies vying to get a lease for mining bauxite in Gandhamardan has again threatened the hill and its unique biodiversity that is central to the life of the people living in the surrounding areas. With a thick green cover full of medicinal plants, a variety of orchids and other species, the hill provides livelihood to the people and plays a major role in balancing the local ecology.

Clad in dense vegetation which is rich in a variety of rare and useful species, Gandhmardan hill range is now in target of companies who have eyes on the 213 million tonnes of bauxite reserves in the hill. The green cover that provides livelihood to at least 20000 tribal and poor families hardly makes any sense for the government that is infatuated by the revenue possibilities that can come from the mining of the bauxite reserves. The possibility of mining poses a direct threat to Gandhamardan hill’s thick green cover and about 20 major fountains merging with two main rivers Ang and Suktel.

With the medicinal plants and herbs available in the Gandhamardan Mountain, an ayurvedic medicine research and application centre – Sri Sri Nrusinghnath Ayurveda College and Research Centres (SSNAC&RC) are run. The college produces medicines by collecting roots, stems and other materials from Gandhamardan and treats people from within and outside the area. The college has its own pharmacy which produces a variety of ayurvedic medicines and oils of a superior quality.

“As per a survey, there are over 360 varieties of medicinal plants available in Gandhamardan’s forest cover out of which about 25 are rare species. In our college we are using 233 species for our drugs required to serve the medical needs of local communities. Since the mining activities by BALCO in the 1980s, many of the species have become extinct. Now that we are coming across the news that many other companies are trying to come here for mining, we are afraid that this unique source of medicinal plants will turn into a desert leaving thousands of families jobless,” says Dr Sushil Kumar Mahapatra, Principal of the Ayurvedic College and Research Centre.

Gandhamardan is not only the source of medicinal plants for the Ayurvedic College, but is also the source of livelihood for local people who live on collecting and selling medicinal plants, their produces and extracts. For them, Gandhamardan is the only source of livelihood and they are going to lose everything if the hill is handed over for the mining of bauxite. Apart from medicinal plants, other forest products like firewood, broomsticks, fruits and orchids provide complete livelihood support to the communities living in hundreds of villages around the hill range. Over 20000 families are directly dependent on Gandhamardan for their livelihood.

Mining would cause large scale damage to the local agriculture and natural water supply system as the streams flowing downhill would dry up one after the other with the expansion of mining activities. This would result in severe water scarcity for the local people as well. Even though the government elected by the people has not yet been able to make a bridge over Ang River to improve the life of the people in the villages on its banks, people are happy because they are provided with a standard life by Gandhamardan that makes the river flow. They can’t think of life without this river.

“Gandhamardan is our god. It makes rain here. It provides water throughout the year for irrigation and drinking. If it is sacrificed for mining, the whole area will be deserted. Their 10-15 years of mining would take away everything from our future generations,” says Subhas Bhoi of Mundhela village. People living beside the Ang River are in no mood to hand over Gandhamardan for any price.
The reasons behind the people’s opposition to mining are not just hypothetical but based upon their experience with the small time mining activities pursued by BALCO in the 1980s. The experience of test blasting by BALCO was terrifying to many like Jambavati. “Our kitchen utensils fell down when the blasting took place in the hill top. We were terrified to think about the results of continuous mining when the impacts of blasting were so powerful. So we all came out to force out the companies that had come here for mining on our hill god,” says Jambavati. People still shiver when the memories of the blasting 27 years back come to mind.

The check dam at Manabhanga bears the harsh memories of the mining attempted 27 years back by BALCO. In the name of supporting irrigation in the fields of the villagers, the check dam was then created over an orchard that provided livelihood to people living in three adjoining villages. The stumps in the water still exist as remnants of the orchard which remind people of the severity of mining activities in Gandhamardan. The test blasting for mining by BALCO drove many plants to extinction and many fountains also died. Signs of dead streams on the mountains still exist as a testimony to this fact.

Apart from these harsh experiences, the emotional bondage and religious links also inspire people to oppose any destructive operation in and around Gandhamardan that is believed to be a god because it is the abode of lord Nrusinghanath and Harishankar. Thousands of devotees from neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh drop in everyday to worship the deities. Nrusinghanath temple has both historical and archaeological importance whereas the fountain just beside it is believed to be the Gupta Ganga (Secret Ganga) which is as important to these people as River Ganges is to the people in the rest of the country.

Overlooking all these aspects and specialities of Gandhamardan Hill range, companies like Vedanta, NALCO and a few others have cast their eyes upon the hill’s bauxite reserves. The governments at the state and Central levels are also greatly lured by the 213 million tonnes of bauxite reserves in the hill.

After mining in Niyamgiri was stopped by the Ministry of Environment and forests, Vedanta seems to be very interested in the Gandhmardan hill range for the mining of bauxite. In order to feed its refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi with bauxite, Vedanta Alumina has requested Orissa Mining Corporation for a lease to carry out mining activities in the Gandhamardan Hill range. Apart from Vedanta, other companies like NALCO and government leasing bodies have also applied for mines in Gandhamardan.

While Gandhamardan Suraksha Yuva Parishad - the pioneer organisation that led the first movement for protection of the Gandhamardan hill and the biodiversity it offers – has rigorously started its campaign to bring the veterans of the movement and the local youth together to fight out the corporate houses who have eyes on Gandhamardan for mining of bauxite, the corporate houses and the government in the state are trying their best to elbow their way to the hill range and extract the mineral reserves in it. As a part of its efforts to suppress the movement, the state police has allegedly killed two active members of Gandhamardan Suraksha Yuva Parishad in an alleged fake encounter. One of them Madhav Singh Thakur was a BJP worker in Paikmal Block and the other, Ramesh Sahu was a local businessman and both were involved in the movement to save Gandhamardan. While local people believe it to be an organised encounter to curb the movement that intends to stop companies from mining, National Human Rights Commission has ordered a probe into the matter. However, after the alleged fake encounter, the leaders of the movement apprehend more repressive actions such as this from the government. “We may have to lose our lives and everything but will never allow anybody to destroy the dense and diverse vegetation and the streams for mining of bauxite. Let the government decide if it becomes the people’s government or a corporate sympathiser,” says Dhiren Mohanty, the Convenor of Gandhamardan Suraksha Yuva Parishad.

At this point, nobody knows what will happen and who will emerge the ultimate winner – whether it is the allure of 213 million tonnes of bauxite or the livelihood source of at least 20000 families that plays a vital role in balancing the local ecology.

A node for mining will definitely be disastrous for the people living on Gandhamardan and the dense forest cover that plays a vital role in controlling environment, providing direct livelihood to more than 20000 families and over one lakh indirectly, making it the source of water for a larger population apart from offering a unique bio-diversity  to mankind.

The report was first published in the April 2011 issue of the Eastern Panorama.