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Protesters in Eastern India Battle Against Mining Giant Arcelor Mittal

by Moushumi BasuSpecial to CorpWatch
March 2nd, 2010

Arcelor Mittal protest

In the rural, tribal lands of Eastern India, protesters are going head-to-head with world steel giant Arcelor Mittal. "We may give away our lives, but we will not part with an inch of our ancestral land," the villagers cry. "The forest, rivers and land are ours. We don't want factories, steel or iron. Arcelor Mittal Go Back."

Arcelor Mittal calls itself "the world's number one steel company," and had 2006 revenues of $88.6 billion. Operating in more than 60 countries, it "led the consolidation of the world steel industry and today ranks as the only truly global steelmaker," according to its website.

It is here in the mineral rich states of Jharkhand and Orissa that Arcelor Mittal is proposing to invest $201 billion to establish its "Indian presence" with two plants capable of producing 12 million tons/year each. But first, the family-based company needs to acquire land that has been the ancestral legacy of thousands of poor Indians.

A vociferous tribal activist, Dayamani Barla, is spearheading the Jharkhand movement under the banner of Adivasi Moolvaasi Asthitva Raksha Manch (AMARM, Forum for the Protection of Existence of Tribal and Native Population). She has pled her people's cause from the villages of rural India to the centers of European power. (See sidebar.)

Barla argues that the Indian Constitution protects Scheduled Tribes / adivasi (tribal) people in the affected areas by barring non-tribals and private parties from transfer or purchase of tribal lands and natural resources.

The two affected Jharkhand districts, Gumla and Khunti have a preponderance of Munda tribes, while Keonjhar in Orissa is dominated by Gond, Munda, Dehuri, and Saunti tribes.

“For any tribal community, land is not an asset to be sold, but it is their heritage,” says firebrand Barla. "They are neither masters nor its owners, but its protectors for future generations. The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but a symbol of our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture, for generations."

The stiff resistance the company has faced in the last five years from AMARM activists in Jharkhand may have produced results. The steel giant recently decided to settle for a new site in the Petarwar and Kasmar blocks of the Bokaro district in the state: “The new site is in the vicinity of the Bokaro Steel plant under the Steel Authority of India Limited, and we have had the first dialogue with the local villagers there and got positive vibes” said Vijay Bhatnagar, CEO, Arcelor Mittal, India and China.

The Firebrand

Dayamani Barla's journey is they stuff of legend. She began as a domestic worker in Ranchi washing used utensils. As a student, she spent nights in the local railway station, taking advantage of the platform lights to study for a master's degree in commerce. She became a tribal journalist chronicling her people's oppression and struggle and received the P Sainath, Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism in 2000.

Now, the portly 47-year-old woman is challenging a world steel giant and spearheading a movement that stretches from the rural backyards of India's Gumla district to Berlin and the European Social Forum.

This October Barla addressed a conference hosted by the Adivasi-Koordination in Germany (AKD), a lobby and human rights organization associated with the issues of indigenous Indians.

At a five-day workshop at the European Social Forum (ESF) in Malmo last September, she spoke on "Rights to Indigenous Life and Worldview" and "Indigenous Peoples and Planetarian Environmental Justice."

In 2004, she won the National Foundation for India Fellowship, and in 2008 she received the 2008 Chingaari (flame) Award for women against corporate crime in India for her leadership of the anti-Mittal struggle.

In addition to awards, her work has also inspired death threats and demands that she suspend her activism. But as convener of Adivasi Moolvaasi Asthitva Raksha Manch (AMARM) Barla remains resolute: “We will not part with an inch of our land, for the project," she says. "The precedent set for the tribals in the name of development, in the state, is very disheartening. Former land owners have been reduced to pilferers in their own land or being compelled to migrate. How long can they continue to be deceived and deprived repeatedly?" she asks.

Still in touch with her people and her roots, Barla earns her livelihood by running a tea shop, where she sits on the wooden bench, sipping tea with her comrades and discussing the latest strategies.

The activists see the move as spurred by a series of demonstrations and actions.In October, Mittal Pratirodh Mamch (MPM, Mittal Opposition Forum) staged a massive demonstration, replete with anti-Mittal banners and placards, in the Orissa district of Keonjhar. Activists asserted that apart from massive population displacement, Arcelor Mittal's proposed project would destroy forests, water sources, and ecosystems, thereby imperiling the environment and the subsistence economy of a tribal society that is rooted in agriculture and forest produce.

"For instance, the place of our worship or, Sarna Sthal, consists of groves of trees that we consider sacred, sasandari, and the site in our village that bears stones erected in memory of the ancestors of our clan," says Barla. "Is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate for such land?"

The district of Keonjhar is rich in deposits of iron ore and manganese, and holds 75 percent of the Orissa's iron ore deposits. “Nearly 10,000 people would be displaced and chunks of prime agricultural land taken away. …Why can’t the company instead go for waste lands without forest and agriculture which are available in the district?" asks Prafulla Samantra, an activist with MPM.

A company official had a ready answer: “These states are very well endowed with mineral reserves and thus industrialization is essential to usher growth and development here," he said on condition of anonymity. "In sharp contrast, the potential for agriculture is rather low here. The areas that were selected in both the states for the project were on the basis of technical considerations as soil texture, availability of water, possibilities of better road and rail connectivity, favorable for the plant."

The official said that villagers’ needs were being taken into account. "We cannot go ahead without making the local population partners to the company in terms of generation of opportunities for livelihood and growth, through direct and indirect employments." He said that the company was eager to educate and train youths through “tying up with various technical institutes in the state," and incorporating women in various financial activities, "through self help groups." Even the section of illiterate population involved in agricultural work can be given training in various unskilled work. The idea is to give a boost to the general economy of the region.”

Staking out the Territory

Arcelor Mittal chairman and CEO LN Mittal have had long-standing plans to expand steel production the country of his birth. In October 2005 Mittal Steel Company N.V. and the Jharkhand government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for setting up a 12 million tons/year steel plant, for an estimated $9.3 billion investment. In August 2006, Mittal Steel was acquired by its key rival Arcelor, and the new entity signed a similar MoU with Orissa a year later.

The two proposed steel projects would be set up in two phases capable of producing 6 million tons each, along with a captive power plant. The first phase is expected to be completed within 48 months from the date of agreement on the detailed project report, and the second phase 54 months after completion of the first phase.

The Jharkhand mega steel project will require 8,856 acres of land in the districts of Gumla and Khunti and encompass up to 16 villages, according to State Industry Department figures.

However, Barla along with the local villagers, assert that the above figures "may be regarded conservative just to make a beginning. But if the plant is actually set up the requirement of land would obviously go up manifolds, by way of growing infrastructure, township etc., in the process of which about 30 to 40 villages are likely to be displaced," and the land despoiled, "thereby imperiling the environment and the very source of sustenance of the local aborigines."

Arcelor Mittal's Orissa deal projects 7,800 acres, spanning more than 15 villages in the Patna block of Keonjhar District. It includes facilities for coke smelting and steel making, as well as rolling mills and a captive 750 megawatt power plant. In addition, the company will explore the feasibility of setting up a 2,500 megawatt capacity power plant in Jharkhand and set up townships and water supply infrastructure.

The central government has approved Arcelor Mittal's request to lease 202 hectares of Karampada Iron ore Mines, with reserves of 65 million tons, located in the reserve forest in the West Singbhum district of Jharkhand. The deposits are mineralized and of very good quality.

So far, the refusal by significant numbers of farmers and other villagers in Jharkand and Orissa to sell their lands essential to the projects has resulted in delays that are “unacceptable,” LN Mittal told the Financial Times (London) in October. People have to be “educated” into supporting gradual industrialization including the need to build new steel plants on agricultural land, said Mittal's CEO. “If we cannot make progress in these two sites we will have to abandon the idea of starting the projects there and look for other places in India for our expansion.”

But within a day of this threat the steel magnate issued a softer statement from his New Delhi office: "ArcelorMittal has no plans to quit India. India is an important country for steel demand growth and is an important part of Arcelor Mittal's long-term strategic plans. The company continues to work on its two Greenfield projects in Jharkhand and Orissa. However, in the event that land acquisition continues to prove difficult, we will start to search for alternate sites in India."

Legal standing
Popular opposition to Arcelor Mittal's plans is grounded in the Fifth Schedule, article 244 of the Indian Constitution. Taking effect in 1950, it guaranteed indigenous people the right to administer and control their lands in nine states: Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, and Rajasthan.

Indigenous rights were further strengthened by the passage of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act in 1996. It gave traditional tribal communities control over their local natural resources; acknowledged customary law, social, religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources; and granted wide-ranging powers to village assemblies (Gaon Sabhas).

In 1997, the historic Samata judgment of the Supreme Court upheld the cause of tribal ownership of native lands. Samata, an NGO working in the scheduled areas of Andhra Pradesh had filed a case against the state government for leasing tribal lands to private mining companies in the scheduled areas. The SLP (Special Leave Petition) filed in the Supreme court led to a landmark judgment in July 1997 declaring that government is also a "person" and that all lands leased to private mining companies in the scheduled areas are null and void.

These guarantees are extensions of the Chhotnagpur Tenancy Act 1908 (CNTA), enacted by the British in Jharkhand where Munda tribals are predominant. The act, which acknowledges traditional rights over land, forest, and water bodies provides special status and tenancy right to villages. Section 46 of CNT Act clearly states that land bearing natural resources, common village land are community-owned, and can not be touched without the consent of the Gaon Sabhas. According to this act, no non-tribal or outsider can purchase land belonging to tribals in these regions.

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik described Mittal's warning as unexpected. "I have no such information from the company," he told an Indian news agency. "I believe that land acquisition for that company's project is on. We have been trying our best to facilitate the project [and] want to get over the land acquisition problem in a peaceful manner and to mutual satisfaction, with the villagers."

Secretary to the government of Orissa, Dr. AMR Dalwai, said that while no land has so far been allotted to the company, the process is underway. The company has been meeting with Gaon Sabhas (Village Assemblies) in eight villages, and the remaining seven villages would also be covered soon. These assemblies are legally tasked with safeguarding and preserving the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources, and the customary mode of dispute resolution.

Jharkhand officials reacted differently. Governor K. Sankaranarayanan advocated dialogue between the company and the villagers "who own the land, first have to agree to part with it," he stressed. "If the company decides to shift [to another location], how can I help it? The state will not lose; others are ready to step in."

However, in a recent development, CEO Vijay Bhatnagar, along with group management board member Sudhir Maheshwari and Vice President MP Singh, met the new government of Jharkhand, led by the Chief-Minister Shibu Soren. “We came to reaffirm our commitment, that we are determined to carry out the project in the state for which support of the state government is required. The chief minister has pledged all support to the project," said Bhatnagar.

Meanwhile activists with AMARM in Jharkhand are fighting the project tooth and nail. In October, undeterred by a heavy downpour, thousands of men and women assembled at district headquarters in the proposed site in Gumla. They were armed with the traditional bow and arrow and carried brooms, sickles, grain threshers and tangi (machetes). The placards and banners they held aloft read “Mittal Go Back.”

The villagers were protesting the sale of 1,025 acres of alleged “government” land for which the company paid the district administration 80 percent of cost (Rs.12.39 crores or $2.8 million). The villagers called for the immediate abrogation of the deeds, arguing that the land included community-owned natural resources such as rivers, streams, forests, and hills covering 10 villages in the district.

Despite the odds, the locals are holding out hope of retaining their ancestral lands. “Keeping in mind the protests of the villagers," said head of Gumla administration Rahul Sharma, "the issue is pending with the divisional commissioner [and] no land has so far been given to the company."