Australia’s recent decision to give up uranium mining on aboriginal land in Koongarra stands in sharp contrast to the Manmohan Singh government’s dithering and double-speak on the forceful acquisition of tribal lands. This also highlights Indian officialdom’s shallow and insensitive understanding of the land and life of tribal communities. The 12.5 sq km patch of land in Koongarra is one of three uranium-rich pockets within the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. Though the park was legally protected and even inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981 for its archaeological and ethnological qualities, Koongarra remained excluded to facilitate commercial exploitation of uranium. The aboriginal communities opposed this and resisted moves to grant a mining lease to private companies. They knew that the operations would destroy their life, which is inextricably linked to the land, and the cultural landscape that nourishes them. Deferring to their wishes and foregoing a lucrative commercial deal, the Labour government in Australia recently passed legislation to protect the Koongarra land and include it in the national park. The UPA government too may claim that its decision to prevent bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa reflects similar sensitivity. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In the Vedanta mining case, the government, through its recently filed affidavit, told the Supreme Court that it has prohibited mining in Niyamgiri hills since it would affect the Dongria Khondh tribal’s right to worship. Behind this apparently benign reasoning lurks the crushing truth. The government has reduced the complex relationship between tribal communities and their land to that of religious beliefs, ignoring important livelihood and other cultural connections. This clever dilution will slowly pave the way for easy acquisition of other tribal lands. The government also betrayed its true intentions when it stated in the same affidavit that barring exceptional cases, it would go ahead with the forceful acquisition of forest land without the consent of gram sabhas as mandated by the rules of the Forest Rights Act. The tribal communities have been among the most vulnerable and exploited groups in India. More than 40 per cent of total land acquired so far for mining and development projects belongs to them. When the adivasis and landless poor took out a mammoth procession last year demanding an end to forcible acquisition, the government promised to implement a people-friendly policy. However, its recent actions are far from reassuring. It is time to show genuine concern for the embattled tribal communities and strengthen legal measures to protect their habitat.