The Cost of Consent: Amid Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Alcan Inc. Project Faces Fierce Resistance from India's Indigenous Communities

Article excerpt

"The people here are the unluckiest people in the world," our guide commented, as we drove through the winding back roads to avoid the many police outposts scattered throughout the mountains. We were all well aware that underneath the vast beauty surrounding us lay the source of a major conflict: the Kashipur region of the eastern Indian state of Orissa sits above one of the world's largest bauxite reserves. While this may be good news for the major aluminum multinationals, like Canada's Alcan Inc., it is a curse, not a blessing, for many of the local inhabitants.

The communities we were visiting in Kashipur are waging a ten-year campaign against a proposed bauxite mine and alumina plant. The project, spearheaded by Utkal Alumina International Ltd. (UAIL), a joint venture of Alcan and India's Hindalco, will lead to the displacement of 24 villages and could affect up to 22,000 people. "The company," as UAIL is known throughout the region, claims to have the consent of all but one of the affected villages. Local adivasi (indigenous) and dalit (lower-caste) communities, however, maintain that years of corruption, bribery and police repression must lead one to question the meaning of consent. Umashankar Majhi, from the village of Kucheipadar, echoes the sentiment of many villagers when he demands "without bribery, money or corruption, let the government show us who are the real supporters of this company." To local activist and retired lecturer Professor B. Rath, the answer is clear: "If the majority of people support [the mine], why would police be in the area in such large numbers? Common sense tells us that they are there for coercion purposes."

Since December, 2004, the conflict in Kashipur has intensified. On December 1, residents of the village of Kucheipadar blocked the construction of a police outpost at the junction leading to the proposed mine site. The villagers asserted that the outpost was being built to clamp down on the anti-mining movement. Community members claim that when the people refused to disperse, police responded with threats of rape, tear gas and a lathi (baton) charge; 16 people were injured and several were arrested. Anik Michaud, director of media relations for Alcan, maintains that the company's "understanding is that the police, after being taunted by the protesters and asking them to submit their grievances in writing, dispersed the crowd using a minimum of force."

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Since December 1, the village of Kucheipadar and other Kashipur communities claim to have been subjected to increased police harassment, arbitrary arrests and regular surveillance. Fifteen people are still in prison without access to bail on what many consider to be false charges. In one striking example, a person arrested on an unbailable warrant for allegedly stealing a chicken could face seven to ten years in jail.

The police have not denied charges that they were ordered to protect the interests of UAIL. In February, 2005, Officer-in-Charge Kishore Mund told an independent human-rights fact-finding mission that the company is financing the new outpost. Ravi Shankar, an activist with the Prakrutik Sampada Surakshya Parishad (PSSP), a people's organization opposed to the mine, condemned the construction. "When we are begging for food, a teacher, a doctor, [the government] is not coming to our village. But when the company is coming, it arrives with platoons of police."

The company has been widely accused of using local politicians and police to push the project forward. At a press conference called by a coalition of progressive political parties, it was calculated that a mere U.S. $260 million of the estimated $65 billion value of the bauxite reserve to be mined by UAIL would go to the state of Orissa. With subsidies and the cost of infrastructure, the state would be investing more than it would gain.

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This year's crisis was not the first wave of tension in Kashipur. …