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What compelled people to opt for NOTA this election

Date:May 24, 2014

In Uttar Pradesh’s Sambhal, the total NOTA votes exceeded the victory margin in the constituency


NOTA or none-of-the-above option introduced for the first time in this Lok Sabha election, has garnered 5.9 million or 1.1 per cent of country’s votes. Interestingly, this share is more than that managed by parties like the CPI and Janata Dal (United).

NOTA, often considered as a waste by election officials, came into force in 2013 with a campaign on right to express dissatisfaction with all candidates contesting from a particular constituency. In a few areas this dissatisfaction could also be attributed to the dismal state of development. According to an interesting study done by The Hindu group of publications on NOTA, on an average about 10,000 NOTA votes were cast in each constituency in the 16th Lok Sabha elections. “Over twice as many NOTA votes were cast in Scheduled Tribe (ST) constituencies than in ‘general’ constituencies,” the Hindu report says.

Green concerns stoke resentment
Nilgiris, a Scheduled Caste constituency in Tamil Nadu, has the highest number of NOTA votes (46,559) cast in a single constituency. 2G scam-tainted A Raja, the sitting MP from Nilgiris constituency lost this seat to AIADMK rival C Gopalakrishnan. According to environmental and tribal activist from Tamil Nadu, C R Bijoy, forest rights and land entitlement issues are affecting most of the people in this region.

In at least 24 out of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, the NOTA pulled more voters than candidates of some major parties and about 581,000 voters out of 62.1 million voters in the state used NOTA. According to statistics from the Election Commission of India, NOTA tally was highest in Samastipur (SC) seat with 29,211 votes. Samastipur was one of 38 districts of the state that were declared drought-hit in 2013. Sand mining is another issue the region grappled with.

But the most surprising case that of NOTA, the virtual candidate, getting more votes than any party candidate. In Uttar Pradesh’s Sambhal constituency, the total NOTA votes polled were 7,658, while the victory margin of the winner (Satyapal Saini of BJP) was 5,174 votes. In the state, 5,92,211 people in total had decided to refuse all the candidates and exercise NOTA. The Naxalite-affected seat of Robertsganj in the state saw 18,489 voters exercising the NOTA option, which came sixth in the parliamentary seat.
Incidentally, in Gujarat, according to an analysis done by environmental and social activists, Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah, areas casting high number of votes have environmental and forest-related issues. In Dahod, NOTA was at third position with over 32,000 votes.

In Bastar constituency in Chhatisgarh, NOTA occupied third position with 38,772 votes. Dinesh Kashyap of Bhartiya Janata Party won this seat by defeating slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma’s son, Deepak, by 120,000 votes. Considered as a Maoist hub, Bastar faces several environmental and developmental issues. However, in case of Meghalaya, according to anti-mining activist, Arwat Challam, people did not felt represented by any of the candidates so they chose NOTA.

In Punjab, NOTA put national parties like Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) and regional player like SAD (Amritsar) to shame. With  58,754 voters having chosen to reject all the candidates, these parties trailed behind NOTA in all 13 parliamentary constituencies of the state. Punjab is a state which activists say may lose an entire generation to drug abuse and has also been shadowed by increasing cancer deaths.

(With inputs from Vani Manocha)


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Shah Commission wound up before it could probe illegal mining in Chhattisgarh #WTFnews

Issue Date:

As environmental groups appeal against termination of commission, Supreme Court asks government to respond by November 18

Darbu along with other affected  
village residents made the rounds of Union Ministry of Mines; they want Shah  
Commission to probe mining in Bastar Darbu along with other affected residents of villages in Bastar made the rounds of Union Ministry of Mines last month; they want Shah Commission to probe mining in their region

It does not always happen that people approach the government for extending the tenure of a commission of inquiry. So, last month when Mehtu Ram Darbu from Antagarh village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region and three other village elders from the region travelled to Delhi to persuade the Union Ministry of Mines to extend the tenure of Justice M B Shah Commission, it spoke volumes about the damage caused by mining to the region.

The commission, which has exposed hundreds of cases of illegal mining of iron ore and manganese in Karnataka, Goa [2]  and Odisha since it was set up in 2010, was supposed to visit Chhattisgarh around the end of this year. Bastar residents allege that state-run mining companies are dumping iron ore fines (waste) in adjoining rivers and are damaging their agricultural land and forests. They had pinned their hope on the commission. But on October 16, the Centre refused to give an extension to the commission. Worse, it did not state a reason for doing so.

For three days, Darbu and the other village elders tried to get past the corridors of power to reach the office of joint secretary of mines Naresh Kumar to understand the reason and submit their plea. While Kumar was not available, a ministry official informed that environmental and agricultural degradation due to mining did not fall under the purview of the commission. This is when the terms of reference of the M B Shah commission clearly stated that the commission would enquire into illegal acts of mining “in terms of destruction of forest wealth, damage to the environment, prejudice to livelihood and other rights of tribal people, forest dwellers and other persons in the mined areas”.

Government lie exposed

Upon enquiring about the reason, the Union minister for mines, Dinsha Patel, told Down To Earth that Chhattisgarh was the only major iron ore-producing state that remained to be probed by the Shah Commission. But more than 90 per cent of iron ore in the state comes from public sector undertakings and the presence of the private sector is negligible. State-controlled mining is not under the purview of the commission, he explained.

Patel’s claims, however, are belied by what is happening on ground in Chhattisgarh. In the memorandum submitted to the Ministry of Mines, Darbu and the other village elders have pointed out how the government-owned Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) is expanding its mining area, paving the way for private companies. For instance, on the one hand, BSP wants to open up mineral deposits in the Rowghat Hills in Bastar, claiming that it faces a shortage of iron ore.

But on the other hand, it is relinquishing its lease of the Kacche mines at Ari Dongri in neighbouring Kanker area to a private company, Godavari Ispat Limited, saying that the quality of ore in Kachhe is substandard and that the mine was unprofitable for BSP. This contradicts what the Indian Bureau of Mines’ (IBM) Regional Development Plan says. According to the plan document, the quality of ore in the Kacche mine is high grade hematite ore, which contains more than 65 per cent iron, and is compatible with BSP’s expansion requirement.

It seems the government is also promoting private miners in the state. Of the 21 iron ore prospecting licenses sanction by the government, 17 are for private companies, which include Tata, Essar, Sarda Energy and Godavari Power, according to the state’s Department of Mining.

Activists contest decision

Neither the state nor the Centre has been paying attention to rampant illegal mining in Chhattisgarh, says Alok Shukla, convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a non-profit working on the environment and human rights in the region.

On October 21, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, along with Samaj Parivartana Samuday of Karnataka and Goa Foundation moved the Supreme Court, seeking further extension of the commission. The Supreme Court has asked the Ministry of Mines and the Union Cabinet to respond to the petition by November 18.

Prashant Bhushan, legal counsel of the non-profits, says, “The decision not to grant extension to the Shah Commission is clearly malafide since it had become clear that the work of the commission was affecting the interests of big corporations and mining barons, as well as of the top politicians and ministers in the country.”

Shukla cites the example of the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), which is illegally dumping thousands of tonnes of iron ore fines into the Indravati, Shankhini and Dankini rivers in Bailadila area in Bastar. It is also releasing effluents into the rivers. “In 1990, the Centre’s science and technology cell (now the Department of Science and Technology) reported that mining activities of NMDC had damaged not only the rivers but also affected 35,000 ha of agricultural and forest land around Bailadila,” says Shukla.

At present, 18 leases have been sanctioned for mining iron ore from 8,758 ha in Chhattisgarh. Twelve of these mines are in Bastar. Dantewada (which is part of the Bastar region) is the top iron ore producing district in the state, accounting for 69 per cent of the total output, say officials of the Mining Department. “For these mines, tribals have been displaced from their land illegally, in contravention of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 and the Forest Rights Act of 2006,” says Shukla. According to the Forest Survey of India, 62 per cent of Bastar is under forest cover. About 79 per cent of the region’s population comprise tribals, shows the Census of 2011.

Industry pressure?

In 2010, when the commission came into existence, Justice Shah and his team were supposed to visit seven states—Karnataka, Goa, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. So far, it has submitted final reports for Karnataka and interim reports for Jharkhand, Goa and Odisha, according to minister Patel. The reports unearthed cases of illegal mining worth crores of rupees in these states.

Activists allege that the pressure from the mining industry had been immense on the Shah Commission. Consider this: on February 26, the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI) filed a lawsuit against the Commission in Delhi High Court, days before Justice Shah was to conclude his probe into illegal mining in Odisha. FIMI alleged that the commission was conducting its inquiry in an “arbitrary and whimsical manner and without the authority of law”.

The bone of contention here was that the mining industry was not given enough time to present its case before the commission. So, on March 14, a special hearing for mining companies was organised at the commission’s headquarters in Ahmedabad on the alleged violation of Rule-37 under the Mineral Concession Rules, 1960. A battery of eminent lawyers, including Ram Jethmalani, Gopal Subramaniam, A K Divan, U U Lalit and Pinaki Mishra, representing various mining companies put forth their arguments, following which Shah Commission included their representations in its report.

A press note issued by the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan states that some of the commission members, including Justice M B Shah, have also indicated their frustrations in dealing with the Ministry of Mines. In three years, the commission perused thousands of papers from various state and Central departments. By its own admission, the Ministry of Mines while granting extensions to the commission twice stated that there were inordinate delays by various state governments in sharing papers related to the mining of iron ore and manganese. Yet, the one member commission has been questioned over and again in case of Goa, Karnataka and Odisha about its methodology to determine illegality of mining. The Shah Commission, however, meticulously brought the rot in the iron ore and manganese mining sector out in the open.

Be it state-sponsored mining or mining by private companies, the Shah Commission’s reports have wreaked havoc on illegal mining syndicates across the country. “The commission’s findings on Goa, Odisha and Karnataka has upset the applecart. By terminating the commission and not offering any rationale to do so, the government has shown that it doesn’t want some of the illegalities in mining to be exposed,” alleges  Xavier Dias, director of Bindrai Institute for Research Study & Action (Mines Monitoring Centre), Ranchi.

Probably, this is the reason the ministry did not specify reasons for terminating the commission. U V Singh, a retired forest official from Karnataka, who was the principal investigator with Shah Commission, had told Samantha Aggarwal of Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan that the Ministry of Mines granted two extensions, once on September 16, 2012 and then on July 16, 2013. Since the commission was yet to begin its investigation in Chhattisgarh, it was assumed that the ministry would give it further extension. Besides, Singh had informed that the termination of a commission of inquiry as per the Commissions of Inquiry Act (1952) can only be done if the ministry provides written reasons as to why the commission is no longer required. But neither the Union Cabinet nor the Ministry of Mines offered a sound reason to terminate the commission.


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#India – Cheyyur power project: people to move court against MoEF panel approval

Issue Date:

Activists say expert appraisal committee’s clearance to proposed ultra mega power project based on false information furnished in EIA report

In May this year, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests gave the go-ahead to the Cheyyur Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) in Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu. Local residents and environmentalists of Cheyyur who have been  opposing the 4,000 MW power project are planning to move court to stop the project proposed by the Coastal Tamil Nadu Power Ltd. (CTNPL)—a special purpose vehicle of public sector unit Power Finance Corporation Ltd for developing the project.

According to Shweta Narayan of advocacy group Community Environmental Monitoring Program, the project has been approved on the basis of “falsified and misrepresented information”. She says several facts and information in the project’s environment impact assessment (EIA) do not match ground reality. The residents of Cheyyur and  Community Environmental Monitoring group are planning to file a criminal complaint on the matter in the local magistrate’s court.

EIA, documents falsify reality 

The misrepresentations made by CTPNL have been brought out in a report—Science, Non-Science and the Dubious Role of ‘Experts’ in Environmental Due Diligence: A case study of Cheyyur UMPP—prepared by Community Environmental Monitoring Program. The highlights of the report relate to site selection, land requirement for the power plant and ash dyke, type of land appropriated for the project, ecological resources in the area, land cover of the area and livelihood loss.

The report says the project site that has been approved for development of the power project is different from the site that was inspected by the Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA) site selection committee. The site that was originally visited was near Cheyyur village of Cheyyur taluk, whereas the current site is near Vedal village of Cheyyur taluk, with the ash pond at Vilangadu village.

Narayan says though the project proponents have shown the study area as largely barren land, it is actually 80 per cent agricultural land which has significant cash crop production.

The report also notes the project EIA says that there is no sensitive ecosystem in the study area. In reality about 27.5 per cent of the study area is a waterbody. It has tidal mudflats, sea grass beds, mangroves, and sand dunes, all of which have been identified as eco-sensitive zones. The area required for the power plant and its ash dyke also remains a matter of controversy as various documents provide varying figures, varying between 415 and 489 hectares (ha).

The project proponents have also ignored the impact the project will have on livelihood of fisher folk in the study area as initially identified by the EAC. Later, following the committee’s direction the proponents provided information on fishing families and fish catch of the area. They further mentioned that no fishing families will be affected by the project.

However, such assurance is not enough for Marimuthu, a local fisher. “The project, particularly the captive coal jetty, is going to affect our access to the coast, which will definitely affect out fishing activity,” he says. He and six other fishers have filed a case against the project in the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal. The fishers have joined the local environmental advocacy group in pursuing their case further.

When contacted, the company spokesperson refused to comment on the project.

Regulatory bodies under cloud

People aggrieved by the project say that besides environmental and social impacts of the project, they will also challenge the basis of  regulatory approvals in court. Though the matter has been deliberated in various meetings of the EAC from January 2010 onwards, Narayan expressed dissatisfaction with the way the committee has dealt with the case. “It seems that the expert appraisal committee has not applied its mind while deciding on the project as they have overlooked significant shortcomings in the EIA report.” She informed that the Coastal Regulation Zone clearance granted to the project in November 2012, is already being challenged in the southern bench of NGT. Now the decision of the EAC, which is unacceptable for the community, will be challenged.



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#India – Where is POSCO headed?

Issue Date:

Odisha government has completed land acquisition for plant site but proposed mining in Khandadhar hills might stir up another struggle

A file photo from 2011  
shows women and children holding ground in Gobindapur village preventing  
government officers from acquiring land (photo: Sayantan Bera)A file photo from 2011 shows women and children holding ground in Gobindapur village preventing government officers from acquiring land (photo: Sayantan Bera)

After an eight-year-long wait, South Korean steel giant Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) made some headway this year in its plans for a $12 billion integrated steel project in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha. The state government completed the land acquisition in the first week of July after POSCO scaled down its land requirement from 4,004 acres to 2,700 acres (one acre equals 0.4 ha) because of protracted resistance put up by the people of Dhinkia panchayat, the epicentre of protests. POSCO downsized its capacity by a third, from 12 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to eight MTPA, for the first phase of the project.

The land acquisition, contrary to the claims made by the state government, was far from peaceful. The police resorted to lathi charge several times as residents of Gobindapur panchayat refused to part with their betel vines, their primary means of livelihood. Thirty families from the village have refused to take compensation for the demolished betel vines, informed Prakash Jena of the local resistance group. “The state police has been camping inside the village for the past seven months to create a climate of fear,” he said.

On August 17, addressing a Congress rally in Kendrapara in Odisha, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh slammed the state government for delaying the project and “making a mess of it”. People who are losing out land and livelihood because of the project do have genuine grievances with regard to the rehabilitation and resettlement, he said.

Officially, land acquisition might be over for the steel plant site, but there is precious little on ground except some container shacks serving as a site office. More importantly, India’s largest foreign direct investment is yet to have its environment clearance revalidated by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

In March 2012, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed MoEF to review the project afresh. It specifically suspended the final order or the conditional clearance to POSCO accorded in January 2011 [2], but did not cancel the original environmental clearance (EC) granted in 2007. After a five year period, the EC expired in July 2012. Ironically, the EC was granted on the basis of a rapid environment impact assessment meant for a four MTPA plant, even though POSCO’s land, power and port requirements are commensurate to that of a 12 MTPA capacity plant that has now been reduced to eight MPTA for the first phase.
A few days back, on August 23, MoEF contended before the NGT that POSCO is yet to provide certain information regarding its port project for which the EC revalidation is held up.

“Despite the stay order from the green tribunal, the state administration has been illegally felling trees in the project area,” contends Prafulla Samantara of non-profit Lok Shakti Abhiyan who petitioned NGT and obtained the stay order against POSCO. Samantara has further challenged before NGT the forest clearance given to the project without settling the villagers rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The hearing is due on August 29.

The Odisha government, despite finishing the land acquisition is yet to renew its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with POSCO signed in 2005. The MoU expired way back in June 2010.

Mining in Khandadhar

A breather to the project, however, came through a Supreme Court judgement. In May this year, the apex court set aside an earlier judgement of the Odisha High Court which quashed the state government’s recommendation for prospecting licence (PL) to POSCO.

The company applied for 2,500 ha spread across the lush Khandadhar hills in Sundargarh district for its captive iron ore mine. The whopping 600 million tonnes of iron ore bounty remains the crucial factor behind the company’s decision to set up an integrated steel plant in Odisha. The Central government, according to the apex court ruling, will have to take a final call if POSCO will be granted mining lease in Khandadhar.

The Prime Minister’s office has been pushing the big ticket FDI project but granting mining lease to POSCO might take time as it requires hearing out other applicants to the mines. There are 226 pending applications for mining in the Khandadhar hills.
The mining issue might turn into another long struggle as the Khandadhar hills are home to primitive tribal groups like the Paudi Bhuiyan. “The unanimous rejection of mining proposal by village councils in Niyamiri hills [3]  will have a bearing on Khandahar,” says Leo Saldanha of the Bengaluru-based non-profit, Environment Support Group, and co-author of a comprehensive report on the POSCO project—Tearing though the water landscape.

Sundargarh is a scheduled district and, therefore, requires the consent of gram sabha (village councils) for mining projects. If people are allowed to have their say, like in the Vedanta’s proposed mining in Niyamgiri hills, POSCO’s hopes might well be dashed.


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