Today, he is known as a champion of tribal rights and a leader in the fight against Vedanta’s proposal to mine bauxite in Niyamgiri. But 14 years ago, Bhakta Charan Das, Congress MP from Kalahandi sang a different tune. “The Government of India and the Orissa government should take keen interest to set up at least a large alumina plant because we have got a heavy deposit of bauxite in Niyamgiri and Sijimalli of the Kalahandi district,” he had said during a November 1996 debate in the Lok Sabha on the drought situation in Orissa. “If there is an alumina plant, then a minimum of 40,000 people can sustain out of the different kinds of earnings from that.”
When asked about his statements on Thursday, Mr. Das initially insisted that he had only recommended mining in Sijimalli and not Niyamgiri. When faced with the Lok Sabha record, the MP, also the founder of the Green Kalahandi movement, admitted that he had learnt a lot since that day one-and-a-half decades ago.
“I had not visited Niyamgiri then. I did not know of the Dongria Kondh links to that place then. At that point, I did not know it was a densely forested area,” he said, speaking to The-Hindu over telephone immediately after the mass rally was held by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the Niyamgiri area.
“Of course, the Kalahandi district needs more industries, but it should not be development at the cost of the people, at the cost of the forests,” Mr. Das said, adding that the Vedanta project had failed to generate sufficient local jobs, or provide health and education facilities. “I will still be happy to support an industry that takes into account the views of the local people, that will ensure the future of all stakeholders, that follows all the laws…There can be other mines, but why don’t they go and find an abandoned mountain, instead of Niyamgiri?”