Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Niyamgiri in West Bengal?

The dispute between dismally poor Adivasis of the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa and the powerful multinational Vedanta Resources is a hugely asymmetric conflict, particularly in view of the central and state governments’ eagerness to bend over backwards to help industrialists. Scrapping of the Vedanta aluminium mine has been a rare victory for the marginalised poor. Another David has tamed for now, though certainly not killed, a Goliath.

The reasons given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in support of their decision to scrap the project has put an official stamp of approval on the concerns of the people who oppose such projects, namely, destruction of forest dwellers and irretrievable damage to ecology. The ministry and its head, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, and a section of the Congress party including Mr. Rahul Gandhi deserve to be congratulated for this.

But the question that comes to the mind is: does this one swallow make a spring? Does this mean some day in the future, our policy makers will believe development means water, food and shelter for all, instead of more highways, glitzier malls and bigger airports in a country where half the children go to bed hungry? Does this mean industries that pollute and slow-poison people will be scrapped in other parts of the country too? Let’s discuss another case.

In West Midnapore, Burdwan, and Bankura districts of West Bengal, many sponge iron factories that have sprung up during the Left rule have been causing massive damage to the environment.

My senior friend and a retired teacher of economics of Calcutta University, Subhendu Dasgupta has given some startling information in an article published in a Bangla newspaper today: production of 100 tonnes of sponge iron requires 1.6 lakh tonnes of water, (an equivalent amount is consumed by 80 thousand humans per day). 100 tonnes of sponge iron also produces 180 to 200 tonnes of carbon-di-oxide, 26 to 30 tonnes of waste, and 100 tonnes of dust. The fields and grazing tracts around the sponge iron plants have turned black and water in tanks has been contaminated. Agricultural productivity has reduced: from 36 to 45 sackfuls of paddy per acre to 21 to 24 sackfuls. There is also black stain on the rice and the rice mill owners refuse to buy such paddy; Mangoes fall off before ripening, saal leaves are turning black, and even fish have developed black stains, and cannot be sold. Domestic animals too are harmed; cows give birth to stillborn calves. [Ekdin, 3 September, 2010, article by Shubhendu Dasgupta on edit page]

I checked with another friend, a chemical engineer by training, who currently works on industrial pollution. My friend confirms this is actually happening and one can see buildings and roads covered with black soot in wide areas around Durgapur and Asansol where there are about forty sponge iron factories.

The government of West Bengal has reacted to the crisis by arresting the people who have been protesting against this wanton destruction of Nature and her children. Members of Jhargram Block Environmental Pollution Resistance Committee, Hemanta Mahato and Upangshu Mahato were arrested and charged with waging war against the state. Naba Datta, of Citizens’ Forum, who has been studying the effects of industrial pollution by sponge iron factories, too was arrested. Twenty cases, including waging war against the state, have been slapped against him. [Ibid.] Perhaps even the worst criminal in the state would not have received such attention and honour from the government.

Will anything be done to protect the poor villagers affected by sponge iron plants in West Bengal and elsewhere?