The road from Rayagada north to Bissamcuttack and the Kalahandi border is in a state of rampant disrepair. A smashed lorry lies overturned in a ditch — one of countless accidents in recent years. At least two policemen are among the last five years’ hundreds of fatalities, both run down by lorries serving Vedanta — an inspector in Lanjigarh, and a constable in Rayagada. Vedanta vehicles carrying bauxite, coal, oil and machinery to Lanjigarh have trashed this road so thoroughly that normal vehicles take long detours to avoid sections between Therubali and Bissamcuttack, and Bissamcuttack to Muniguda. Yet it has to be said, this road is as green as any in the country for the moment, winding through a maze of rice fields, mango groves, forests and hills, with long sections shaded by stately mango and other massive trees.
But never fear! World Bank to the rescue, with multi-billion loans for renovating key roads in Orissa that will facilitate the mining industry and its export of ore. The widening of dozens of roads has already led to the cutting of hundreds of ancient trees that lined them, and if it continues unchecked, will cause the death of thousands more. The north-south road from Rayagada to Ambadola is said to involve a loan of `122 crore. In each town it passes, houses and trees will go.
In Bissamcuttack alone, are several trees I’ve known and loved for a quarter of a century, including two vast boro gocho (banyan trees): one has blessed hundreds of marriages in women’s pujas; the other has been for many years a shrine of Brahma-Vishnu Mahadev, at which 24-hour bhajans (osto prohoro) are performed at frequent intervals throughout the year. To comprehend what’s happening here, we must take a hard look at the history of Orissa’s loans. Why is it among the most indebted states in India? To create an infrastructure for the mining industry: the state government has taken foreign loans to pay for mega-dams, coal mines, railways and roads. All have to be paid back with interest. This is what gave the World Bank leverage to force through the first electricity-privatisation of any state — a process involving huge, well-documented scams.
The same thing is happening in Jharkhand and other states. How do high growth rates fit with patterns of debt? Who’s really deciding the financial policy of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal? The agenda is already set by economists such as Jeff Sachs, adviser to the Planning Commission, who has defined India’s challenge as converting “a densely populated subcontinent of subsistence farmers into a modern and largely urban society” (Common Wealth p.219). Today’s missionaries are the developers, and their agenda is set in Washington and London. Neoliberal economics is ‘the most dangerous fundamentalism’ — a closed system of dogma backed by the banks. Critics have pointed out the contradictions: no ‘developed country’ ever got rich by opening up to the ‘free market’ — quite the reverse.
Wherever roads are widened, the timber and liquor mafias follow. Among the first users of roads into the Niyamgiri range, overseen by the Dongria Kondh Development Agency and funded by the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, was the timber mafia. First to die on the new road to Lanjigarh was Sukru Majhi, an activist against the refinery. Locals say it was no accident.
Residents in the Kalinganagar and Posco areas link new roads such as the Common Corridor being built for Tata and a new road towards Dhinkia with the invasion of liquor shops spreading alcoholism and debt. Damanjodi, cited as ‘good development’, has massive alcoholism in the town and surrounding villages, as well as over 500 sex workers. Closing illegal liquor shops has been a prime demand of adivasi activists.
As for liquor, mahua is a sacred drink for adivasis, and one of the world’s best when distilled properly. British administrators interfered with this, alternately making its manufacture illegal and placing a heavy tax on it. For over 100 years, liquor shops have spread indebtedness — among the prime mechanisms for the alienation of tribal lands, as shown in Gopinath Mohanty’s novels and countless other sources. In effect mahua is a ‘low-caste’ drink that respectable people in a town will not drink. With good reason, since you can’t get good quality in a town. In non-tribal dukaans, mahua is spiked with battery fluid or worse.
A irony here: indigenous drinks despised and misused, while fake ‘foreign liquor’ sells at over 10 times the price. But where’s the taste of nature in an Indian whisky or beer? Scottish distilleries are a source of pride and employment throughout remote parts of Scotland, giving a taste of malt and peat, and advertising factory tours to show off their high standards. Where’s this relationship with the grain gone in Indian brands? What grain? Grown where? Distilled how? By whom? The ‘taste of nature’ is still strong in rum and Maharashtran wine, where the source in sugarcane and grapes is there for the tasting. If the alcohol business in India were taken in hand, there are wonderful drinks that come fresh from nature. Their traditions are bound up with adivasi landscapes in the countryside. When the mafia controls them, quality goes.
The corporate invasion of adivasi landscapes involves corruption at every level, including culture and history. Ashoka’s Kalinga war killed 1,00,000, enslaved 1,50,000 and killed many through famine and disease. Today’s mining companies re-enact those atrocities. Historical irony cannot get blacker than calling a massive steel complex on tribal land Kalinganagar.