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Rowghat Mining Project: searing a people to fire up the country

Deepak Sharma | Updated on: 23 June 2015, 17:55 IST

The project

  • Bhilai Steel Plant\'s iron ore mines are in Maoist-dominated Bastar.
  • The mines hold 500 million tonnes of ore. The plan is to extract 14 million tonnes a year.
  • New railway line to transport the ore.

The cost

  • In monetary terms, about $600 million.
  • Eviction of hundreds of tribal families.
  • Destruction of an entire community\'s way of life.
  • Damage to a rich, fragile ecological system.

The struggle

  • Tribals and activists have built up a movement.
  • State has cracked down on dissent, sent in the paramilitary.
  • The government has blocked information about the project.

Set in the bowels of the Bastar region, straddling Kanker and Narayanpur districts, the rugged Rowghat mountains have long been considered a citadel of the Maoists.

But the gunpowder residue that fouled the air Wednesday didn't come from a Maoist bombing. It rose from a succession of 17 blasts set off to announce the economic transformation of the region, or the claim of it.

The blasts tore through a mountain to clear the way for the Bhilai Steel Plant to mine Rowghat's iron ore deposits, said to be the second largest in Chhattisgarh.

"We will send vehicles to the mining site as soon as the road is cleared. It is a very important part of the project," said S K Saha, Executive Director, Bhilai Steel Plant, who witnessed the mountain's smashing with a battery of the company top officials.

Saha's urgency has a reason. The Government of India is worried that the Bhilai Steel Plant, the largest and most profitable enterprise of the Steel Authority of India Limited, is running out of iron ore supplies.

So, it has proposed to lay a railway line between Dalli-Rajhara and Jagdalpur, the first phase of which will connect Rowghat with Dalli-Rajhara, likely soon. Dalli-Rajhara is home to Bhilai Steel Plant's iron ore captive mines and processing plant. These mines are feared to run out by 2015.

Hence, the push towards Rowgarh.

The mining area allotted to SAIL here is spread over 2,028.79 hectare and is estimated to hold 511 million tonnes of iron ore, enough to keep Bhilai Steel Plant's kilns running for decades.

SAIL plans to develop, in phases, a 14 million tonne-a-year mine in Rowghat. It will cost $600 million.

The high-grade Rowghat ore - containing 67 % iron - is also crucial to the Bhilai Steel Plant's plan to increase its steel output from the current 4.6 million tonnes per annum to 7.5 Mtpa.

Their iron heel

Mineral extraction projects like the one being blasted through Rowghat are seen as vital for India's economic growth and development. For local communities, predominantly tribal, they are - for the most part - a curse.

Dantewada is one of India's most mineral-rich regions, yet it ranks 7th among the 150 most backward districts.

In Dalli-Rajhara, which currently feeds the bulk of Bhilai Steel Plant's production, nearly every other villager suffers from respiratory diseases and anaemia.

Could it be any different in Rowghat? No, say local activists. Already, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan has highlighted gross violations of forest rights and conservation laws.

Even the official Environment Impact Assessment has recorded direct displacement of villages - there are 35 around the Rowghat mines - by mining operations.

Anjrel village, according to the EIA, has to be displaced entirely to set up the Explosives Magazine, while Phulpur village has to be cleared for the Rowghat Railway Station.

Land acquisition for the rail line between Dalli-Rajhara and Rowgarh, according to news reports, has evicted 115 families. And since they don't have land ownership records, they won't be compensated with land or jobs.

"The impact of mining activities in this area can't be seen in isolation. It would mean establishment of townships and other related infrastructure," says Shalini Gera, a member of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, an NGO working in the area.

Photo: Abhinav Gupta

Yet, there is no plan, at least not one that is publicly available, to rehabilitate the displaced people.

But if Subir Daripa, of the Bhilai Steel Plant's PR department, is to be believed, the damage at Rowghat would be 'minimal'.

"Locals are waiting for the project to come. As far as the compensation, it is between the Railways, the forest department and them," Daripa said.

Then there is the issue of recognition of the villagers' rights, as mandated by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

This law lays down that consent of the Gram Sabhas is necessary for any commercial activity in these areas. In Rowghat, there is little evidence the Gram Sabhas were even consulted.

"When this case went to the National Green Tribunal, the government produced documents showing 25 Gram Sabhas had given consent," said Abhinav Gupta, also of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.

"But these documents were not duly signed by Gram Sabha members as required by the law," Gupta added. "On the contrary, 10 villages in Antagarh area have passed resolutions stating they won't forfeit their forest rights."

If this wasn't enough, Gupta lamented, the government has blocked information on the project's clearance. "There has been no response to our RTI applications. Even forest clearance documents are not on any government website," he said.

In bad faith

Central to Rowghat tribals' way of life is the deity of Raja Rao, housed in a temple near the Rao Dongri block of the mines.

The focal point of the belief systems of the Nurudi, Dugea and Gond tribes, Raja Rao is deemed the protector of the region. Every year around April, people from 300-400 villages flock to Rao Dongri to pay obeisance to Raja Rao.

The mining project endangers the Raja Rao temple, and the ancient tradition of the annual gathering of tribes as well.

In effect, the tribals' way of life would be severely damaged.

Yet, this issue is ignored in all the regulatory processes related to forest diversion. The government, in fact, denies the very existence of the site.

Ecological disaster

The forest land cleared for mining in Rowghat is just about 0.26% of Chhattisgarh's total forest area. But it is home to almost 13% of its flora, including a variety of medicinal plants.

The area is also part of an important wildlife corridor that stretches from southeastern Maharashtra to northwestern Odisha.

It's surrounded by several tiger reserves - Tadoba Andhari to the northwest, Kawal to the west, Indravati and Udanti-Sitanadi to the northeast - and forms part of the tiger's migratory route to the Eastern Ghats.

"Many species of animals scheduled under the Wildlife Protection Act are found here. Many tiger cubs have also been spotted. But all this has been overlooked in the EIA," said Gupta.

Pushing back

Contractors and officials have repeatedly complained that a strong Maoist presence has delayed the project, escalating the cost.

The state's response: establish more and more paramilitary camps, paid for by the Bhilai Steel Plant.

In fact, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh recently assured that all assistance required to start work would be provided, meaning, effectively, ever more deployment of security personnel.

Still, tribals and activists have built a movement against the project. It was spearheaded by the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti until last year, when the police cracked down.

The Samiti's leader Badri Gawde was accused of being a Maoist and thrown into jail. He was bailed out recently.

"Even the sarpanchs opposing the project were jailed. Now the movement is largely spontaneous," says Shalini Gera.

The state has defended its actions as necessary for growth and development.

Whose growth and development?

- with inputs from Rajasthan Patrika

Edited by Mehraj D Lone

First published: 23 June 2015, 17:46 IST
Deepak Sharma @catch_deepak

Is a Delhi-based journalist whose heart still resides in his native mountains of Himachal. After almost a decade-long career in television news, he's made the switch to digital. When not working, he likes to venture into the world of theatre, music and literature. Obscure places are where he meets his element.