Kolkata: A mix of religious belief of local adivasis and the local people’s preference for a public sector undertaking they have known for years appear to be behind the prevailing discontent at Deposit 13 project for iron ore at the Bailadila Range of Dantewada district in the Bastar area of Chhattisgarh.
The immediate trigger for the discontent, which resulted in a temporary suspension of iron ore mining activity in the area, are: first, local adivasis are aggrieved that work on Deposit 13 will have within its command area the hill (Nandaraj Parvat) which they believe is the abode of tribal goddess Pittor Meta Devi. They have complained to the project authorities ( it is a 51: 49 joint venture of the NMDC (erstwhile National Mineral Development Corporation) and Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation) that “illegal” felling of trees has been taking place for quite some time.
Second, the local people are of the firm view that the Gram Sabha conducted in the course of 2014 for obtaining their consent for the project was far from genuine. Since the Bailadila Range is a part of Schedule V of the Constitution, it is governed by the provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, which makes Gram Sabha content mandatory for all development activity.
Third, although NMDC’s association with the area is 60 years old and it has been actively engaged in iron ore mining for 50 years, it, as also the Chhattisgarh government-owned public sector undertaking, “veered round to the view” that given the commitments they have already made, the joint venture – NCL – won’t be able to undertake the Deposit 13 project with an envisaged capacity of 10 million tonnes per annum on its own. They, therefore, opted for the mine developer and operator (MDO) route.
There were 10 bidders in response to a global tender, out of whom four qualified for the techno-commercial bidding. Enter, Adani Enterprises Ltd (AEL) of the Gautam Adani Group of Gujarat, as its bid was the lowest. AEL appeared on the scene in December 2018, days after the regime change in Raipur (after 15 years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule with Raman Singh as Chief Minister, the state now has a Congress government with Bhupesh Baghel as Chief Minister). Thus, while the controversial Gram Sabha was organised during Raman Singh’s regime, the Adanis’ association began after the BJP had been dethroned.
However, it deserves mention that as the NMDC, the 51% partner in the JV, is a PSU under the administrative control of the Union government, Baghel’s role could at best be recommendatory and the final selection of the MDO was in the domain of the Centre.
In passing it may be mentioned that this did not deter the state’s first Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, who later left the Congress and formed his own outfit, to write to Congress president Rahul Gandhi alleging a nexus between Baghel and the Adani Group. He cited the Deposit 13 and a coal project in his letter.
Seeing the urgency of venting their grievances, on June 7, more than 7,000 adivasis from some 200 villages in Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma districts – all of them in the news from time to time for Naxal attacks and encounters – collected under the aegis of the Sanjukt Panchayat Jan Sangharsh Samiti at the mining town of Kirandul and held sit-ins.
Sensing escalation if prompt action was not taken, the Chhattisgarh government intervened and persuaded the agitators to allow them a 15-day window to look into the issues raised. The Congress MP of Bastar, Deepak Baij, and the local MLA led a delegation on June 11 to the Chief Minister and sought an early resolution. The samiti called off the agitation and mining in the area resumed at the Bailadila Range after six days on June 13. This, however, excludes the new Deposit 13 project for which pre-mining activity will remain hold.
The Chhattisgarh government has formed a committee headed by the local Sub-Divisional Magistrate to look into the issue of “fake” Gram Sabha. A second committee comprising forest department officials will look into felling of trees. On top of this, the state government will urge the Centre to revisit its decision to engage AEL as the MDO contractor.
The local people do not like the idea of a private sector company being associated with the Deposit 13 project. Their contention is the NMDC is associated with the Bailadlia Range for six decades; it has developed several deposits and has been regularly discharging its corporate social responsibility. They have full trust in the NMDC. They will be happy if the NMDC associates itself with the implementation of the venture through the JV. They do not buy the argument that the PSU giant cannot mobilise resources. With its record financial performance, including payment of dividend, it can easily raise resources from banks and FIs, they argue.
The local people apprehend that ultimately the MDO may become the owner of Deposit 13. However, this fear has been allayed by the NCL. It has been pointed out the original lease holder was NMDC. After the formation of the JV, the lease was transferred to the NCL, which is the owner of Deposit 13. The land acquisition will be in the name of the NCL, which will have the selling rights for the iron ore produced from Deposit 13. The MDO will be bound by the cost-plus formula.
The recognised unions affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress and Indian National Trade Union Congress, which operate in the area, are strongly against the involvement of a private sector entity when they are fully satisfied with the functioning of the NMDC which, they reckon, is a brand name in the Bailadila Range.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata