Ten men and six women — members of the gram sabha in Jarpa in Odisha’s Rayagada district — recently voted against Vedanta Aluminium’s proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hills. Eleven other village councils had turned down the proposal in an exercise touted as India’s first ever public referendum on an industrial project. The referendum was organized in response to a judgment by the Supreme Court that decreed that the mining of Niyamgiri hills — held sacred by the Dongria Kondh community— cannot be allowed if it undermined the religious and cultural rights of the tribal people. The vote in Jarpa — supervised by a district and sessions judge — ended this innovative electoral exercise that had started on July 18.
Can a public referendum be adopted as a model to settle similar disputes between the State, industry and tribal people elsewhere in India? Such a proposal has to take into consideration two important aspects. An overwhelming verdict — every gram sabha voted against Vedanta in this case — is not necessarily a testimony of the democratic character of a referendum. In 2010, on a visit to Phuldumer, a Dongria Kondh village located on the slopes of Niyamgiri, I had met several residents who seemed enthusiastic about Vedanta’s corporate social responsibility programmes. The failure of the State’s welfare programmes had intensified their dependence on the money obtained through CSR projects. A disposable income had given them better access to healthcare and education. Whispers of Vedanta shifting its operations — now a distinct possibility after the unambiguous verdict — had disturbed Phuldumer’s tribal people greatly then as they feared that this would lead to their exclusion from the development debate.
It would be instructive to examine whether these dissenting voices were accommodated in the referendum and whether the State would be able to devise a way to integrate their demands that lie in conflict with those in the majority. In this difficult task lies the hope of resolving the contradictions inherent to India’s development process in a truly democratic manner.
The other caveat concerns the creation of conducive conditions to ensure freedom of choice. Divisions within the tribal voice — manifest through the opposing demands of a solitary village as opposed to 12 gram sabhas, for instance — are often the result of sinister attempts to appropriate opinion not only by the State but also by competing agencies, including investors. (A leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal had accused the local Congress MP of influencing the village council votes.) It is imperative to keep a referendum free of such dubious interventions, but given the entrenched interests and the fierce competition, this may not always be possible. Moreover, State institutions and the media find it convenient to imagine voices of marginalized communities — tribal people, Muslims, Dalits — to be shorn of complicated contradictions because this makes the task of formulating policy or shaping opinion easier. The skewed nature of development in India has led to unequal, and uneasy, contact with the hallmarks of modernity among tribal populations, polarizing their opinions sharply. Recognizing and engaging with these splintered voices within tribal communities are essential to honour their inclusion in the development debate.
The public referendum model carries in it important lessons though. It places the gram sabha at the centre of the battle to decentralize local governance. It also underlines the need on the part of the State and industry to respect the mandate of apolitical gram sabhas and include them in the search to reconcile the difficult demands of ecology, culture and profit.