Land grab

The Battle for Indigenous Lands: Protesting Mining in Northeast India

by Thomas Crowley

A Lafarge mining project in Meghalaya, a small Northeast Indian state, has triggered resistance from local communities because of its ecological and social costs. In the heavy political climate of Northeastern India, the French multinational Lafarge is supported by local elites who are eager to push for the accelerated development of a historically remote region, where indigenous peoples are numerous.

This article was originally published on the dph website.

The northeastern corner of India has long been on the periphery, outside of the concerns and consciousness of the country’s mainstream. The region was tacked on to India by imperial Britain, which frequently drew arbitrary, self-serving boundaries within and around its colonies. Since Indian Independence in 1947, the Northeast has largely been considered (if considered at all) as a security threat. There have been several separatist movements in the region, which is home to many indigenous groups wary of any outside rule. However, the attitude towards the Northeast started to change in the 1990s, when India introduced broad reforms that embraced neo-liberalism and opened India’s economy. The Northeast holds an important strategic position between China and mainland India, and various groups have recognized the potential of “developing” the area.

In this neo-liberal context, Lafarge, an enormous French industrial concern, partnered with a Spanish cement company to begin limestone mining in the small Northeast state of Meghalaya. The mining project has sparked protests from the affected communities, who point to the ecological and social costs of the mining. After a long series of legal battles, the Supreme Court of India recently gave its final judgment allowing the mining to continue.

The Lafarge project is located in the Khasi Hills forest area of Meghalaya, which are inhabited by indigenous people from the Khasi tribe. The area is rich with limestone, a key ingredient in cement. From the Lafarge mining site in the Khasi hills, the limestone is transported by conveyor belt to nearby Bangladesh, where Lafarge has built a huge cement plant. The Khasi mines are the only source of limestone for the plant, so the mines and plant essentially function as one unit. The combination of Indian and Bangladeshi operations is one of the key selling points of this project, which is meant to illustrate the economic potential of the South Asian bloc. Instead, it has demonstrated the cavalier attitude of corporations operating in the region, as well as the collusion between local elites, government officials, financial institutions and global companies.

Questionable Beginnings

The Khasi people are recognized in the Indian constitution as an indigenous community (or, in the language of Indian officialdom, a “Scheduled Tribe”). This recognition gives them significant rights over their land and makes it very difficult for outside parties to acquire tribal land. To overcome this difficulty, Lafarge partnered with elite local interests. In 1997, when the project was in its infancy, Lafarge won the support of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, which was supposed to represent the will of the people, but instead green-lighted the project with little public consultation. (The Council was later sued by villagers living near the mine.) This move shows how indigenous communities are, in many cases, unable to exercise their constitutional rights due to both internal and external factors.

As they prepared for mining, Lafarge also won the support of a local politician, who set up his own company, Lum Mawshun Minerals Pvt Ltd (LMMPL), and, in 2002, persuaded villagers in his constituency to lease or sell him their land. The headman of Shella village, near the affected area, also played a role in this land grab, becoming a partial owner of LMMPL and allegedly granting land titles to villagers who did not actually own the land in question, only to buy or lease this land in the name of LMMPL. It was soon revealed that, in actuality, LMMPL was not a local company at all; Lafarge had a majority stake in it (74 percent!). In 2006, LMMPL transferred the land it had amassed to Lafarge Umian Mining Pvt Ltd (LUMPL), a 100% subsidiary of the cement company Lafarge established in Bangladesh. Thus, villagers selling or leasing land thought they were simply supporting local industry, whereas in fact they were contributing to a takeover of their land by a major international company. Villagers have since questioned the legality of this deal, especially given their constitutional rights as indigenous people.

Also arousing suspicion was the fact that, in 2005, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other financial institutions approved a loan for Lafarge on the basis of its landholdings in the Khasi hills before the transfer of the land was even approved by the Meghalaya government. From the start, the Lafarge project has had significant backing from international financial institutions, most prominently the ADB. As early as 1997, the ADB expressed support for this project, and in 2001, it gave an initial loan to Lafarge. The ADB has been one of the loudest voices advocating for South Asian economic cooperation, part of a larger dream of a borderless Asia. The Lafarge project was the first one sponsored by the ADB in Northeast India and thus had special significance for the bank. In its enthusiasm for the project, critics allege, the ADB rushed the loan process and brushed aside any technical and legal issues that stood in the way of the process. It ignored its own guidelines on involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples.

The environmental clearances granted for the project have been just as suspect as the land deals involved. In 2000, a divisional forest officer (DFO) issued a report saying that the area needed for the project was barren land. In 2001, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, continuing its dubious role, submitted a similar report claiming that the area was devoid of both forest and agricultural land, an assessment strenuously denied by opponents of the mine. On the basis of these reports, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) granted an environmental clearance for the project. In 2006, with the environmental clearances in place and the necessary land acquired or leased, the mining began.

Protests and Lawsuits

Villagers from nearby Shella have documented the ill effects of Lafarge mining. Intensive blasting has caused adverse environmental impacts in the area. For instance, the blasting has created cracks in the ground that have drained water sources. Further, nearly all the animals in the area - bears, deer, leopards, and birds – have disappeared, and it has become more difficult to raise domesticated animals. Aquatic life has also been threatened; two rivers near the affected area are no longer reliable food sources for the villagers. In addition, since agricultural land was taken for the project, many villagers experienced loss of livelihood. The mining activity has also degraded the quality of the soil in the surrounding areas, with soil erosion becoming more prevalent.

A more complicated issue is the effect of Lafarge on native mining efforts. Villagers from Shella have long practiced small-scale, sustainable mining, which generates income while respecting the local environment. With the huge Lafarge operations, this is now impossible, and Shella villagers doubt there will be anything left to mine after Lafarge has finished its exploitative project. Some people from the neighboring Nongtarai village, who have benefited financially from Lafarge, are now accusing the Shella villagers of illegally mining in the area. This accusation has made it all the way to the Indian Supreme Court, which has ordered a more thorough investigation. However, this seems like a distraction from the larger issue of who should control indigenous lands: the communities themselves, or international corporations who are able to build a base of support through strategic handouts?

It is clear that Lafarge’s mining strategies, as compared to those of locals, are extremely intensive and environmentally destructive. In 2006, after work at the site had begun, Meghalaya’s Chief Conservator of Forests visited and found that there had been massive destruction of forested land around the site, which was strewn with tree trunks, while the non-mining areas in the immediate vicinity were filled with thick forests. In 2007, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), whose own DFO had rubber-stamped the site, visited the mines and came to similar conclusions. The Ministry ordered that action be taken against the DFO, while also imposing a temporary ban on mining until the matter could be addressed more thoroughly. However, several months later, the Supreme Court lifted this ban, and mining resumed. The Court urged Lafarge to “ensure livelihood and maximum economic development of the people of Meghalaya,” thus echoing the promises of the neo-liberal regime while ignoring the actual voices of the people. Further, the Court lifted the ban not because Lafarge had addressed all relevant legal issues, but rather because a prolonged ban would hurt the joint India-Bangladesh project.

In 2010, the case came before the Supreme Court again, and this time the court ruled against Lafarge, imposing the ban that it had once lifted. The Court found major problems with the clearances given to Lafarge and demanded that new clearances, along with extensive ecological studies, be obtained. Later that year, Lafarge did indeed get a new clearance from MoEF, but the Supreme Court kept the ban, arguing that the revised clearance was still based on insufficient evidence and hasty environmental assessments. Finally, in July 2011, the court decided to lift the ban, arguing that sufficient data had been gathered and that Lafarge had met its environmental and social obligations.

The avenues open to the villagers for protest are limited, especially given the larger political climate in the Northeast. Many parts of the region, including Meghalaya, have long been under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This law allows military personnel to arrest without warrants and use “necessary” force in areas deemed “disturbed.” Such laws, supposedly meant to combat violent separatism, are instead often used to intimidate peaceful protestors. In this climate, there have not been major protests or rallies condemning the Lafarge mines. However, the Shella Village Action Committee has taken repeated legal action against the mines. Due to one successful lawsuit, Lafarge is no longer able to take out fresh loans based on acquired tribal land; this is likely to have a chilling effect on other corporations looking to engage in similar land deals. Other lawsuits are pending.

On the other side of the fight, the international financial institutions involved in this project did all they could to get the project back on track. In May 2010, four of the institutions involved issued a letter stressing the “compelling economic and social benefits to remote and less developed regions of both countries [India and Bangladesh].” However, local residents have made it clear that they do not want their region to be “developed” in a way that only benefits certain villagers to the detriment of tribal rights and environmental protection.

The Bigger Picture

The Lafarge case takes place in the larger context of a South Asia trying to prove itself economically and politically. Defenders of the project have invoked the “strategic interests” of India, especially the potential of building a stronger relationship with Bangladesh. The government in Delhi, led by the Congress party, is developing strong ties with the Sheik Hasina-led Bangladeshi government. The relationship has seen notable successes, at least in the eyes of the Indian government. In 2009, one of the leaders of a Northeastern separatist group, who had been in hiding in Bangladesh, was apprehended by Bangladeshi police and quietly handed over to Indian officials at the Meghalaya border. In defending Lafarge, the Indian government has repeatedly argued that delays to the project will hurt the budding relationship between the two neighbor states.

It seems, then, that the forests and the indigenous people of Shella are being asked to suffer for the sake of India’s “strategic interests,” in this case, the building of a strong alliance between the ruling governments in Delhi and Dhaka. This is hardly the first case of India putting its “strategic interests” ahead of environmental and social concerns. For example, the hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi put great strains on the city – financial, ecological and social – and yet the Games were enthusiastically promoted as a way of improving India’s international prestige. The Supreme Court’s recent judgment on Lafarge is a worrying sign that, at the highest levels, “strategic interests” are overriding all other concerns.