India's environmental activists are gloating after a UK-based mining company, Vedanta, was prohibited from extracting bauxite in the hills of Niyamgiri in the economically backward state of Orissa. Congress, the principal party in the ruling coalition at the national level, has sought to depict this decision as a great triumph for environmental concerns and tribal rights. Some commentators in the Indian press with a strong anti-corporate orientation, meanwhile, are also gleeful that the project has come to a halt.
Ostensibly, this delight stems from having stopped a greedy multinational corporation from ruthlessly exploiting the natural resources of a remote part of the country and the traditional homelands of some of India's adivasi (original), tribal population.
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Yet despite the delight of these disparate groups with the decision, a more sober and dispassionate analysis suggests that the ultimate losers may well be the hapless tribal population who are the inhabitants of this region.
Generations of governments, despite loud promises, have done woefully little to improve their lot. The region lacks adequate roads, has few public clinics, limited educational facilities and an appalling lack of employment opportunities. Consequently, the locals remain mired in harsh and abject poverty.
The mining investment might not have been a panacea for their many woes. However, it did offer the promise of new schools, better roads, the opening of hospitals and above all the prospects of better-paid work. With the seemingly sagacious decision, none of those possibilities will materialize despite the rather facile promise from a popular Congress member of parliament, Rahul Gandhi, that he would act as the ‘sipahi’ (guard) of their interests in New Delhi.
What is being portrayed as a great victory of environmentalism is sadly little more than a crass effort to win the votes of the tribal population in a desperately underdeveloped state. The Indian state that has long failed to protect and improve the plight of the country's tribal population needs to do far better than what transpired this week. More to the point, romantic environmentalists and their cheerleaders in the press should think about how they are becoming unwittingly complicit in the Congress' Party's feckless quest for votes.