Alco, Balco, Nalco, Malco, jaa! Review of “Out of This Earth”

December 3, 2013

Amit Basole

Review of “Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel” by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, Orient Blackswan, 2010, 742 pages.

1. Introduction
Among the many haunting images you will come across in Out of this Earth, is a symbol of a successful struggle against bauxite mining in India. Beautiful trees are growing amidst the ruins of an abandoned workers’ housing colony constructed by the Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco), at the base of the Gandhamardan mountains in Odisha. A broad coalition of local adivasi, dalit, and upper-caste groups successfully stopped Balco from mining this sacred mountain.

This book, over its 600 pages of carefully documented text (plus a hundred pages of notes, appendices, and references), covers many such struggles. In the process it also touches upon every conceivable aspect of the global aluminium industry. The subtitle of the book notwithstanding, it is about much more than the impact of the aluminium industry on the adivasis in eastern India. It is nothing less than a comprehensive critical study of the industry that makes Aluminium, its links with local and national governments as well as international institutions, and the social, ecological, health, economic, and cultural effects of the production and consumption of the metal.

2. The “Aluminium Age”
Padel and Das refer several times to the present epoch as the “Aluminium Age,” and after reading the book I think you will be convinced that this is appropriate. The metal is only a century and half old, but it is a key component of cars, planes, utensils, electrical wires, packaging of all kinds, and significantly, weapons (guns, missiles, and bombs). One entire chapter in the book is devoted to Aluminium’s link to the global war industry and the military-industrial complex (“Aluminium Wars”). In this chapter readers will encounter a significant but not readily available document from 1951 called “Aluminium for Defense and Prosperity.” The author Dewey Anderson, a US government official, notes:

Aluminium has become the most important single bulk material of modern warfare. No fighting is possible, and no war can be carried to a successful conclusion today, without using and destroying vast quantities of aluminium.(p. 276)

Indeed, when an American general said that Vietnam had been bombed into the Stone Age, the Vietcong quipped that in fact they had been bombed into the Age of Aluminium.

The vital connection between military and civilian use is, as always, that production is heavily subsidized by the State for military use, as the result of which the metal is available for cheap for non-military purposes. Gutka foils and Tetra-Pack fruit juice are common in India’s landscape now. Aluminium is a crucial component of both. In India, until 1989, 49% of aluminium output was reserved for electricity cables for rural electrification. This control was lifted in 1989 and the neoliberal period has seen a rapid increase in aluminium use in a variety of consumer goods. But per person aluminium consumption in India is still low, 0.65 kg a year, compared to 10-12 kg per person per year in other developing countries and a world average of 25 kg per person per year.

The section of the book titled “Consuming Al” analyzes the changing uses of the metal, the limits to recycling and the health hazards associated with its use. With regard to recycling the most important point made by the authors is that even the Aluminium lobby, which portrays Aluminium as a “green metal” due to the proportion recycled worldwide, does not claim that recycling reduces amount of bauxite mined. Recycling has become a word with magical properties, absolving consumers of all guilt associated with consumption externalities (such as waste accumulation and its associated health and ecological impacts). However several recent critical studies reveal that recycling is often a sham. Even more importantly, it does nothing to stem the increase of material throughput, and if anything may increase it (for example see Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers).

But its not only aluminium’s preponderance and ubiquity that makes our age the Aluminium Age; the industry that produces the metal is an important player in shaping the world economy and world politics. It is not a coincidence that Andrew Carnegie went from being head of Alcoa (Aluminium Company of America) to the United States Treasury Secretary in the earlier part of the 20th century, while Paul O’Neill made exactly the same transition 80 years later. Closer home, one of Vedanta’s directors, P. Chidambaram has been India’s Finance Minister (the equivalent post to Treasury Secretary in India) and then Home Minister.

The chapter titled “The World-Wide Web” offers a fascinating history of geopolitics and aluminium. One gets to learn about many lesser known stories such as that of Guyana’s first PM, Cheddi Jagan, a socialist who attempted to nationalize the aluminium industry and was removed from power by the British colonial masters after only 133 days in office. We also learn about the ecological impacts of bauxite mining in Jamaica and of the way Aluminium companies do business with Third World governments. For example, Volta Aluminium Company (Valco), a subsidiary of Kaiser, an American firm, forced through an agreement with the Nkrumah government in Ghana wherein it paid 11 US cents per kilowatt hour of electricity generated by the Akosombo dam on the Volta. This amount represented a mere 17% of the cost of generating the electricity. Other stories emerge from Australia (where too indigenous peoples bore the brunt) and Brazil (ditto). In Vietnam, we learn that General Giap, the anti-colonial hero who passed away recently, also spoke out against bauxite mining. The chapter on the “World Bank Cartel” connects the global aluminium industry to the foreign aid industry and exposes the World Bank’s record in financing some of the most destructive projects in developing countries, over the course of three decades.

3. Aluminium Production in India
Before we go further, an account of the aluminium production process would be useful. There are three important steps in going from dirt or earth to the metal. In the first step, bauxite or aluminium ore is mined from the earth. In Odisha’s mountains, such as Niyamgiri (in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts), bauxite forms a layer around 30-100 feet thick, about 3 to 15 feet below the surface. Mining it requires blasting open the mountain. In the second step bauxite is refined into alumina (Al2O3) in a refinery (such as Vedanta’s refinery in Lanjigarh which was supposed to received bauxite from Niyamgiri). This process requires high temperature and the specialty of Odisha’s bauxite is that it has a low silicon content allowing it to refined at lower than usual temperature. This is an important attraction of this ore. In the final step aluminium is extracted from its oxide in a process called smelting (the Lanjigarh refinery was supposed to send its alumina to Vedanta’s smelter at Jharsuguda). Thus the production of aluminium requires the setting up of mines, refineries, and smelters. Not all these need to be in the same place, though, a captive mine will greatly increase the attractiveness of setting up a refinery. But in principle, mines can send their ore anywhere, and refineries as well as smelters can obtain bauxite and alumina, respectively, from anywhere in the world. The Jharsuguda smelter uses imported alumina since the Lanjigarh refinery does not produce enough due to the inability to mine Niyamgiri.

As of 2009, the book reports, there were six refineries and six smelters operating in India (since we love comparisons with China so much, compare that to China’s 138 smelters as of 2002). The public-sector Nalco’s mine, refinery, and smelter are one integrated operation in Odisha. This accounts for half of India’s aluminium output. Operating on the basis of bauxite mined from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are Birla group’s Hindalco’s refinery and smelter in UP and Indal’s refinery and smelter in Odisha. Another refinery by Hindalco is being built in Kashipur (Odisha) under its Utkal Alumina subsidiary. This refinery and its accompanying smelter in North Odisha are based on plans to mine mountains in Odisha. Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta controls the Malco refinery-smelter and mines in Tamil Nadu as also the Balco complex of mines in Chhattisgarh, with a refinery at Lanjigarh and smelter at Jharsuguda (Odisha).

The chapter on “Aluminium India” gives an overview of the Indian aluminium companies as well as the institutions that work closely with companies to facilitate their operation. These include Tata AIG (Indian partner of the American Insurance Group) who is the author of an environmental impact assessment of Niyamgiri that claimed there was no proper forest in the Niyamgiri lease area. The main lobby group is the Aluminium Association of India (AAI).

4. The link between big dams and aluminium production
“The histories of aluminium and dam construction go hand in glove; linked from birth.” (p. 72) This is one of the most important lessons I learned from the book. Both refining and smelting processes require enormous quantities of water and electricity. While a ton of steel requires 44 tons of water to produce, a ton of aluminium requires 1378 tons of water. And electricity accounts for 21-30 per cent of total costs. This connects aluminium production with the construction of big dams from Europe and North America in the early 20th century to India and Iceland today. Through various examples from India as well as other countries such as Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Brazil, Iceland, Norway, Egypt, and Ghana, the authors show how mega dams are often constructed with the aim of supplying water and electricity to refineries and smelters. Ghana’s Akosombo dam, which displaced 80,000 people and Brazil’s Tucurui (30,000 people) were intended to supply electricity to smelters while other well-known dams such as the Aswan in Egypt (where the resulting Lake Nasser displaced 100,000 Nubian people) and the Three Gorges in China are crucial in the functioning of the aluminium industry.

Closer home we learn about the Rihand dam in Uttar Pradesh was built for Hindalco’s refinery-smelter complex at Renukoot. This dam and its associated reservoir (the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar) displaced 200,000 people on the UP-MP (now Chhattisgarh) border. These were mostly adivasis who were given no warning or compensation when their lands were flooded in 1961. While on a visit to neighboring Singrauli district in MP last year, I spoke to people whose families had been originally displaced by the Rihand dam and been settled there. Subsequently they had been displaced a second time by NTPC’s coalmines in Singrauli. When I met them in 2012, coal mining had encroached next to their village and this they themselves were demanding to be resettled elsewhere (see this article for a history of Singrauli’s “development”). Padel and Das also comment on other such cases of multiply displaced populations. Balaram and Mukund Saonta are Kondh brothers displaced first by the Kolab dam, then by HAL, and at time of writing facing a third displacement due to mining. The song that they sang for the authors, in the Kui language:

Should we start here?
How painful was our past
Our family scattered all over the place,
Losing everything
Thinking about it tears come to my eyes

On my dear brother
Don’t forget this experience
Of how we had to leave our Motherland
Each time the developers came.
This is our song.

The book offers a detailed look at what the authors call “Odisha’s first and clearest dam-smelter complex” (p. 79), viz. Hirakud and Indal (then the Aluminium Company of India, a subsidiary of Alcan, the Canadian company). Many other cases are discussed, Nalco and the Kolab Dam (constructed 1976-1992, displaced 14,000 people), Balco, Lower Suktel Dam and the movement to save the Gandhamardan Mountain etc. Thus, it emerges clearly that from the point of view of dispossession of peoples, livelihoods and cultures the aluminium industry is guilty twice over, once due to mega dams and then due to mines and refineries. Below are a few of Odisha’s big dams and the displacement they have caused (reproduced from Padel and Das).

ProjectVillages displacesFamilies displaced
Hirakud Dam28522,144
Regali Dam plus irrigation28711,725
Upper Indravati Dam995,301
Balimela Dam912,000
3 Subarnarekha Dams755,214

As a final point it should be noted that electricity produced from mega-dams is offered at highly subsidized rates to aluminium companies. For example, authors note that in the early 1960s Rammanohar Lohia had raised the question in Parliament about Hindalco being asked to pay Rs.1.99 paise per unit for 25 years when the going rate of electricity was Rs. 40 paise per unit. (p. 218) Other uses, such as irrigation and electricity for mass consumption, may be secondary considerations even though they figure prominently in making a public case for the construction of a dam.

5. “Public Private Partnerships”
“Only one foot of the soil is yours, the rest is owned by the government” (p. 148)

The book abounds with shining examples of “public-private partnerships” or in other words, open collaboration between state and local government machinery on the one hand, and various company officials or NGOs on the other hand to crush resistance, acquire land, spread propaganda, etc. While many activists and participants of movements will be all too familiar with the tactics of saam, daam, dand, bhed employed by company officials and local district administration, the detailed chronicling of the book is nevertheless important. This is both because all these events should be a matter of historical record, and also because those struggling in other part of the country (or indeed the world) can draw inspiration and lessons from techniques of resistance of the people.

In various places in Odisha, such as Gopalpur, Kashipur, Lanjigarh and POSCO, close collaboration between company officials and local district administration (such as the DM and the SP) is the norm. For example, an adivasi from the Lanjigarh area observes that Sterlite-Vedanta is “flooding us out with money.” He notes that the DM told the villagers: “I will pay you money for your land, which is owned by the government. Only one foot of soil is yours, the rest is owned by the government.” (p. 148) Several instances of murder of activists are documented, as are infamous incidents of police firing live ammunition into crowds. Among the more devious examples are Utkal Alumina company officials posing as auxiliary nurses and midwives to enquire about the statistics of the village population, starting free health check-ups, seed donation camps etc. to gain confidence among the villagers. Also documented are several modes of “soft power” exercised by companies like Vedanta which funds the Jagannath Yatra in Puri and has also set up a university, the Vedanta University, all in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility.

The chapter on Kashipur gives a detailed account of the company known as Utkal Alumina, which is now wholly owned by Hindalco, but in the past has been composed variously of Norsk (Norway), Indal, Tata, and Alcan (Canada). It also describes the defining moments of the people’s struggle against the construction of an alumina refinery, such as the police killings at Maikanch in December 2000. The inquiry commission set up to investigate the firing of live rounds into a peaceful protest, overstepped its brief and opined on “development” saying “…the state cannot afford to remain backward for the sake of so-called environmental protection.” (p. 127) As of writing, the authors report that construction work on the refinery is under-way on a vast scale though work often stops due to protests, and half of the land needed for the refinery has still not been acquired.

The illegal practice of beginning work on a project without clearances or without complete acquisitions is blatantly obvious in the case of Sterlite-Vedanta and bauxite mining in Niyamgiri. In this case, the company built the alumina refinery in Lanjigarh before the captive mine at Niyamgiri had been acquired or indeed the required clearance for mining obtained. While Vedanta has been deliberately unclear as to whether mining bauxite on Niyamgiri is essential to the operation of the Lanjigarh refinery, it seems that the refinery was constructed in a hurry so as to make the case for mining locally, stronger. The Dongria Kondhs’ struggle to save their sacred mountain, the home of Niyam Raja, has gripped the imagination of many across the country. And support has come for the struggle from outside the area too. A local Congress MP and one-time central minister, Bhaktacharan Das was re-elected on an anti-mining ticket but has since winning the election been looking for alternative bauxite sources for Vedanta (see interview of activist Lingaraj Azad in November-December issue of Samayik Varta). Recently, after the writing of this book, the adivasi’s have succeeded in stopping moves to mine their sacred mountain. On its part Vedanta has complained that its Lanjigarh refinery is operating at 50% of capacity due to the inability to mine Niyamgiri thus incurring a loss of half a crore rupees every day (p. 223). And Anil Agarwal recently complained that he “regretted choosing India over an acquisition in the US for the investment.”

The book also makes it clear that it is not only company and government officials who are engaged in breaking the peoples’ resistance. NGOs play an important role, albeit in less obvious ways. An excellent and nuanced chapter on “NGOs and the Culture of Appropriation” critically examines the role of NGOs in resistance movements. As the author’s observe, NGOs are Janus-faced, “one face is set towards a welfare role of serving the poor, the other towards pleasing donors.” (p. 508) Critiquing the role of the international NGOs such as Save the Children and Survival International, Padel and Das observe that these NGOs reduce each tribal situation to a formula, removing all context and complexity. Local NGOs involved in the struggles in Odisha are also analyzed for their actions. After all else has failed to convince them, the Dongria Kondhs are being targeted for microcredit by the Dongria Kondh Development Agency (DKDA) presumably in the hope that enmeshing them in credit markets will succeed where other techniques have failed.

The chapter titled “Under Mining Law” is a close analysis of the 2006 National Mineral Policy (NMP) and of the implications of the fifth schedule of the Indian Constitutions (PESA) as well the related 1997 Supreme Court judgment known as the Samatha Judgment, for acquiring land in tribal areas. It also provides a study of the Ministry of Environment and Forests practices in granting environmental clearance and overlooking shoddy or incomplete work on Environmental Impact Assessments (such as one EIA which has parts copied and pasted from a Siberian project and discussed impact of birch and spruce trees in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra!). It is an often heard complaint that Indian laws and bureaucracy hold up FDI and hence “development.” As Rio Tinto’s Director of Finance say about diamond mining, in a meeting of the India-UK Business Leaders’ Forum “…the Indian mining code stands in the way of progress, as we have made comprehensive submissions, but have to wait for the right licenses and permits to be granted. As you would expect these delays do not encourage foreign direct investment…” (p. 198) In contrast Padel and Das note that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has granted clearance to 881 mining leases (covering 60,476 hectares of forest) in the period from 1997-2005 (p. 194).

Regarding the NMP, authors note:

“What the NMP leaves out is even more significant than what it says. No mention of transparency and right to information, or the government’s duty to disclose information about mining projects, no mention of externality: how mining companies externalize their costs or the subsidies for electricity, transport and infrastructure.” (p. 197)

It also allows 100% foreign ownership.

Sterlite signed the MoU for Niyamgiri with the Odisha government in 1997. Sterlite (the predecessor of Vedanta) became an aluminium company after buying Malco and Balco. The story of how Balco (Bharat Aluminium Company), a public sector, profitable company, was sold for a tenth of its market value to Sterlite, under Arun Shourie’s disinvestment ministry supervision, is also recounted in this book. Along the way, readers will find a good description of the evolving structure of India’s aluminium cartel (currently: Hidanlco-Indal 51%, Nalco 23%, Sterlite 15%) and even Harshad Mehta, the stock-broker, makes an appearance in this story.

6. Resistance
Kashipur, Niyamgiri, and Lanjigarh are famous names in India now, due to robust people’s movements against bauxite mining and alumina refinery construction. The authors provide a very rich and detailed account of these struggle in chapters titled “Kashipur’s ‘Development’” and “Lanjigarh: Vedanta’s Assault on the Mountain of Law.” A very instructive chapter (“Andolan”) compares the successful movement to stop mining of the Gandhamardan mountain range with the unsuccessful movement to stop Utkal’s refinery in Kashipur. Among the factors identified by the authors (Table 15) are that there was a broad coalition of local Adivasis and Dalits as well as Hindu priests and pilgrims who wanted to protected the temples in the Gandhamardan area. This movement also attracted middle-class support, which the Kashipur movement did not. Intriguingly, the Gandhamardan movement had no involvement of NGOs or documentaries made on it, while Kashipur was awash with NGOs and documentaries, “apoliticizing the movement.”

An interview of Lingaraj Azad, a local activist and member of the Samajvadi Jan Parishad (SJP), was recently published in the Hindi journal Samayik Varta (November-December 2013). In this interview Azad, who has participated in the Gandhamardan, Kashipur, and Niyamgiri struggles, also makes illuminating comparisons between the struggles. He notes, as Padel and Das also do (see above) that the Gandhamardan struggle was successful because the wider Hindu community considered the region to the sacred due to the presence of Narsinghnath and Harishankar temples. Lingaraj argues that the Niyamgiri struggle is more challenging because only the Dongria Kondhs consider the mountain to be sacred. Support from others had to be won on the basis of other arguments. Kishen Pattanayak was instrumental in this in the early days. As a result, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti consisted not only of local adivasi activists but also SJP activists from other districts as well as CPI-ML (New Democracy) activists. Lingaraj also talks about his experiences as a Dalit organizing among adivasis.

The voices of resistance come through loud and clear in the book due to authors’ decision to quote extensively from local activists, singers, and ordinary villagers. Bhagaban Majhi a leader and spokesperson of the movement in Kucheipadar village of Rayagada district to oppose the Utkal Alumina refinery sings a song that has become a symbol of the movement. The song is composed by Rato Majhi.

Hawa, hawa, Company Hawa
Wind, Wind, Company Wind
Blowing all over Odisha
Let us stand together for Justice.
We will save our mother Earth
And redeem ourselves.

Don’t just watch us and wait,
Don’t you see the danger?
What we are facing today,
You will face tomorrow.

Hey Company and Government!
We are aware!
Don’t try to cheat us anymore!
Listen! In our own village we are the Government.
In our village we’ll be the judge.
Our Land, our Water cannot be sold.
This Earth is ours.

Lest we are slow to take the hint from the above, Bhim Majhi, a founding member of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti, makes the link between mining and the climate explicit:

They asked, ‘Why are you opposing Sterlite company? Is it taking your village?’ I replied, ‘We are resisting for our motherland, for our mountain. So we oppose Sterlite. We oppose the government. The summer is very hot already, it will get worse if Sterlite comes. You won’t get rain then. The summer is so hard for us already, so we want them to stop.’ Then they say, ‘You are opposing us, can you compete?’ We reply, ‘It is not about winning or losing. We will resist, for our mountain.’ Then they ridicule us and say, ‘What are you Konds up to? What do you know about these things.’

The ultimate attack, as always, is to try and portray the adivasis as ignorant or lacking in the knowledge necessary to appreciate the value of the project, despite the clear connection being made between the project and climate change.

In a chapter titled “Corporate Takeover” Padel and Das start with various experiences of rapidly imposed industrialization across the world before coming to Odisha’s experience. The Kalinganagar movement against Tata Steel, which resulted in another tragic firing incident where 13 adivasis died in police firing, is carefully documented here. All the struggles recounted in the book are full of heroic resistance and heavy price paid by adivasis for daring to resist. For example, after a sham public hearing in 2003, presided over by Kalahandi DM Saswat Mishra, opposition to the Sterlite (later Vedanta) project picked up and many adivasi activists were intimidated and beaten. Lingaraj Azad was taken to Lanjigarh Police Station. When villagers went there to demand his release, Sterlite-funded youth club members beat them up. Seventeen people were injured and an old man, Maya Nayak, died from his injuries, two months later.

Finally, its also worth mentioning that, in addition to many important adivasi activists and leaders, the book also acquaints the reader with one of Odisha’s most important socialist thinker, Kishen Pattanayak of the SJP, and his role in opposing the mining interests in that state. The authors acknowledge Pattanayak to be their guru and end the book with his words, vikalpaheen nahi hai duniya.

The chapter on “Andolan” also analyzes the different ideologies that resistance movements draw from, including Gandhian, Lohiate, and Maoist streams. The authors’ view is that “As a critic of capitalism, Marx is excellent, and as an ideal communism has a lot to offer. But it we follow his tradition, we need to keep the same openness he had, to observe clearly what is happening around us.” (p. 572) In particular the authors seem to dissent from what they see to be Marx’s social evolutionism (stages of development) and his (understandable) disregard of the massive assault on ecology that industrialization sets in motion. In focusing attention of the industrial order as such, they quote Native American activist Russell Means who refers to Marxism as “the same old song” as capitalism in its tendency to desacralize nature, i.e. to treat it as purely material.

7. The ecological costs of production and consumption
Among the many unique features of the book are extensive testimonies from local people, on the social, ecological and economic effects of dams, mine, refineries, and smelters. For example, Santosh Telang, a farmer living near Hirakud:

“All the vegetation around this smelter is sick because of the fluoride emission…The health and agriculture department know al this…This is nothing compared to the way they truck in and dump fly ash in our area. Go and see how they carry it in trucks and you can see dust flying everywhere…”

The author’s note that economist JC Kumarappa’s characterization of the modern industrial economy as parasitic, is most clearly understood by observing the workings of extractive industries such as Aluminium.

In addition to official subsidies such as that for electricity (and land, transportations etc.), a second even more important reason that we don’t have to pay for the true cost of aluminium is the massive externalization of ecological costs. In economics an “externality” is an effect produced on a third party that is not part of the market exchange process. For many years economics textbooks treated externalities as an afterthought. At the end of the more serious discussion of the benefits of market exchange, one chapter, often ignored by professors, would be assigned to discussing externalities.

In reality externalities are profoundly important to understanding the full social and ecological impact of a market transaction. For example, aluminium production destroys forests and mountains, dries up rivers, pollutes water bodies, and throws tens of thousands off their lands. In particular the connection between bauxite mining and rivers is important. Bauxite in the soil is crucial to holding conserving monsoon water and releasing it throughout the year, feeding rivers in the process. Removing it from the soil makes rivers run dry. Further, bauxite contains (in addition to aluminium) iron, silica, titanium, gallium, and uranium. These are in a destabilized, “heavy metal” state making them toxic and radioactive. Refineries dump these in a “red mud” form, forming “lakes” near the plant (earlier refineries on the coast dumped them in the sea). The heavy metals then leach into the groundwater over a large area. If one adds up all the costs involved, the true cost of aluminium may be $2000 per ton above its explicit cost of production. To sum up the author note: “aluminium economics does not make economic sense- it is uneconomic” (p. 294)

Further, even though cost externalization is now recognized in environmental economics as being important, Padel and Das ask an unanswerable question which should not be forgotten: “who can put a price on the displacement and break-up of long-established communities of people cultivating the earth and living sustainably on it?” (p. 332) But in classic Orwellian fashion, it is Anil Agarwal of Vedanta who has been awarded the Golden Peacock award for “sustainable development.”

8. Politics of Lokavidya
“We will have to start a process of learning from tribal people if we are to survive as a species.” (p. 592)

In direct contrast with the quote from Padel and Das above, the author of a book written in preparation for Nalco’s project in Damanjodi writes, “it is well-known that the tribal culture and ways of living have no future orientation.” (p. 359) The massive irony of this statement was presumably lost on its writer. A representative of a “way of living” that is busily destroying the very capital whose interest it lives (killing the hen that lays the golden egg, as Lingaraj Azad puts it), does not have a future orientation or economic sense, and yet feels that those living sustainably are the ones without future orientation.

However, that was decades ago. More recently “indigenous knowledge” has become a “hot topic” in development policy circles. The International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) of the UN notes in its appraisal of the Kashipur project, that it was flawed by a complete lack of knowledge about tribal systems of knowledge. Noting that “their know-how has been developed and refined over centuries” the report says that adivasis are unlikely to be favorable towards schemes that they can see have been devised with no knowledge of local conditions.

So far so good. But do adivasis only have “local knowledge” and “indigenous knowledge” or can we grant that they have knowledge without any adjectives and qualifications? Or God forbid, can we say they have scientific knowledge and philosophy? At several point in the book the authors make references to tribal philosophy, drawing on interviews with Indian adivasis, as well as on writings from indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, noting in one place that “tribal values are the direct opposite of mainstream values, and challenge everything we think we know.” (p. 66) I think this statement should be taken very literally and deserves deep thought. As it stands, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” have dutifully been rendered meaningless as with so many others before them (inclusive development, democracy…). In corporate lingo, the authors note, “sustainable” has been reduced to mean profitable over 20 years or so. “What about the next 2000?” (p. 69)

However, “It is still fashionable in India, as in the West,” Padel and Das observe, “to dismiss respect for tribal peoples’ culture and lifestyle as ‘primitive romanticism.’ This dismissal comes as much from the Left as the Right.” (p. 69) Indeed, claims of tribal wisdom are likely to be met with polite nods everywhere, but how many would grant that our way of living is inferior? The authors note that

“the reason Niyamgiri is the best-forested of Odisha’s bauxite Malis [mountains] is that it is the only mountain with its own special tribe, the Dongria Kondh, who live only in the Niyamgiri range, and have preserved the forest on the mountain summits as sacred to Niyam Raja, Lord of Law.” (p. 64)

Can this view have a legitimate place in the landscape of struggles? Or can the Kondh’s belief only be understood instrumentally as a convenient one for protecting Niyamgiri? Padel and Das would clearly like to push Marxists in particular to reflect on this issue. For those who are already engaged in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles, solidarity with the struggles of the Dongria Kondh is the easy part. But what about the “pre-modern” worldview that considers nature sacred? Should the adivasis really be in cities where they can learn to see the world in material and de-sacralized ways like other urban dwellers? Thus leaving Niyamgiri empty to be mined in an ecologically conscious manner? What about lokavidya of the adivasis? Is it good only for opposing ecological destruction or also for building a new world?

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