The Significance of the Vedanta Decision

Campaign for Survival and Dignity

The rejection of Vedanta’s application for permission to mine in Niyamgiri, Orissa, is being hailed as a step forward and a change in the country’s policy discourse. It is indeed all that; but it is crucial to understand why.

The project’s main problem was that it violated the Forest Rights Act’s provisions requiring “recognition of habitat and community forest rights” and the consent of the gram sabha prior to taking forest land. This sounds like technical legalisms. But the basic point is that, under the law, the Dongria Kondhs have the power to protect and manage their forests and lands. Simple, but unprecedented; it has never happened before.

Contrary to much of the media coverage, this is not a reflection of the Environment Ministry or the forest bureaucracy suddenly becoming “pro-tribal”. Even as Vedanta stands rejected, many other equally illegal projects are going ahead; most recently, the Polavaram dam, which will affect literally hundreds of times more people, was given final forest clearance in total violation of the Forest Rights Act. Polavaram will also affect members of the so-called “Primitive Tribal Groups”, who were the centrepiece of the Environment Minister’s statement on Vedanta. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 hectares of forest land have been illegally given in principle or final diversion clearance in MP and Chhattisgarh alone since 2006. Meanwhile, the Ministry is promoting programmes that themselves do not respect democratic control and involve large-scale land grabbing.

So, then, why did it happen? Electoral compulsions of the Congress party, say some. Targeting of opposition-ruled States, howls the BJD. The Sonia touch, says the business media. All of which are truisms, but they miss the real point. Every ingredient of the Vedanta decision – the public sympathy; the Forest Rights Act itself; the govenment’s sudden sensitivity to adivasi issues; and, most importantly, the resistance of the Dongaria Kondh people – was a reflection of people’s struggles, in the area and elsewhere. Vedanta was not rejected because Rahul Gandhi or Jairam Ramesh decided on a strategy in their head. It was rejected because, steeped in betrayal, illegality and mercenary brutality, the state machinery and the ruling party was forced by its own need for people’s support to, just once, comply with the mandate of democracy and justice.

And this is the real victory of this decision. On its own letterhead, in its own words, a Central government agency has come out and said: we should not take resources without the consent of the people. We should not grab lands and minerals without respecting people’s collective mandates. Of course they are continuing to do so, as rapaciously as before. But they have exposed themselves, and shown through their own words that they no longer have even the fig leaf of law to hide their robbery. And they have in the process opened a new space; for now their future robberies will be counterposed, in law as in reality, against the decisions of people’s assemblies, a small step towards a real democratic collectivity and real social control over resources. Thus does the battle for democracy grow.

When the Forest Rights Act was passed, we described it as “a victory and a betrayal.” So too is the Vedanta decision – a victory for the heroic struggle of the Dongaria Kondhs and for the spirit of democracy; and a betrayal, because the government will not comply with its own words. The struggle goes on.

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