An Oxymoron in the Heart of Hills

It was a visit to an area that reveals interesting details on how progress and pitfalls exist side by side.

Updated: Jun 28, 2010, 17:53 PM IST

D N Singh

It was a visit to an area that reveals interesting details on how progress and pitfalls exist side by side. A surprising collage that depicts the disturbing elements of chronic poverty dotted with dust capped luxuries, the mines & the minerals, showcasing an exuberance that floats high above the gloom below. Vanishing forests and the balding hills leave the footprints of a past on which many success stories of fortune have been scripted. The existing hamlets are the tragic remains of the villages that no more exist.

We are talking about a place little known outside Orissa. Yet, it is a place difficult to be ignored because underneath, it hides an economy that is rich, diverse & international. But there is a litany of tales of neglect -- these are of course local, so are not that important!

Sukinda Valley, in the Jajpur district of Orissa, once a vibrant mix of spruces, now sports the stunted stumps. Vast expanses of tribal hamlets on the foothills have almost disappeared and the inhabitants are away from their moorings, the forests. The gurgling springs and dales of yesteryears have dried, and whatever remain are plagued by a perennial load of toxics from the mines & washing plants. The water has changed colour and turned yellow and muddy, thereby becoming a slow killer.

More than eleven major mines operate here and what is notable is that, Sukinda harbours the sub-continent’s largest Chromite deposits besides iron, manganese and nickel. Many corporate houses are drawn here by the magnet of minerals and no one is here for any obvious charity. Each one of them want their pound of flesh - the mines. The booted out locals who once looked up at these smart miners with expectations, now stare at them with askance.

Time has changed and the once speech-shy aborigines are leaning to speak and shout, which has become loud and clear for the corporate honchos who normally sit thousands of kilometres from here. What could not happen in the last 60 years of mineral (chromite) trading by the Tatas in Sukinda, is beginning to happen now. But, for that some of the locals had to take the police bullets on their chests and give up their lives.

We were heading from Sukinda’s core mining area towards the industrial hub in Kalinganagar, the blood-splashed mute witness of an uprise four years back. Somewhere, wounds are yet green and in some places balmed by the touches of rehabilitation & reconstruction. On the way from Sukinda, on the left one stumbles across a place called Trijanga, which from a certain distance appears like a stroke of colour on the red soil that dominates the area. Reassuring communications, social audit, customized rehabilitation & resettlement are the terms that could be heard there. Modest concrete houses top the landscape where the over-head electric wires glitter under the setting sun. People do not use lanterns at night anymore.

Small walk-ways flanked by bricks run all through the colony wearing the green blanket of trees in the entire area. Men and women here are no more media shy and some have learnt to conduct themselves before outsiders and seem moved by any embarrassing reminder of their past. They refuse to be scared by uncertainties surrounding projects for not only one member from each family displaced but each major member of the core house is assured of jobs in the plants to come up - a step which seems to be ahead of the government’s R&R policy.

Development here cannot be downplayed as each colony has the minimum amenities like a dispensary or a community centre & facility for education. Women have taken up trades to support the family income besides the monthly family allowances from the company. Besides, there is a grass-root level RTI awareness initiative to make the people here friendly about their rights to assert.

All said and done, this glitter was an over-due and overriding obligation of the company, perhaps, that is slowly taking shape. But, yet a bigger question mark lurks on the faces of many companies. We talked about some who had been displaced leaving behind their home-stead lands. They have been given handsome compensation but what about the ones who lost their shanty homes with nothing left behind to seek any compensation worth the name!