Bhubaneswar: Tension over demand for jobs by local villagers in the Baphlimali bauxite mines in the Kashipur block of Rayagada district, reached a flashpoint last Friday with police arresting 35 women and seven young children who are now lodged in Rayagada jail.
The mines are being operated by Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), a subsidiary of Aditya Birla Group owned Hindalco industries. Bauxite from the mines feeds the company’s 1.5 million tonne alumina refinery at Doragurah, about 60 kms from the district headquarter town of Rayagada and 12 kms from the mining site.
Rayagada MLA, Makaranda Muduli, who had called for a Kashipur bandh on January 5 to express solidarity with the agitating people, a majority of whom are Scheduled Caste and belong to a village on the periphery of the mines, said that three of the arrested women were pregnant and the children were too small to be kept in jail.
“They can be called babies. It is unfair to keep them in jail,” he said.
All the arrested women belong to Paika Kupakhal, the epicentre of the movement for jobs for locals in mines and the plant run by the company. Men of the village have allegedly been running from pillar to post for their bail.
Talking to this correspondent over phone, Kuldhar Bag, whose two sisters-in-law have been arrested and jailed, said the company and the administration had promised them jobs in the mines but no jobs have materialised in the last two months. “The women protested because they cannot wait forever. Now they have been put in jail along with small children. We are angry and our patience is running out,” said Bag.
Sources said that the women got bail and were released from jail at 9 pm on Tuesday.
Another villager, Chital Bag said the women had resorted to road block in the mines area because the company had not kept its promise of jobs to them. “What pains us even more is the arrest of our women. This looks like retaliatory action,” he complained.
Rayagada superintendent of police, Dr. Saravana Vivek M. confirmed the arrest of women but he sought to defend the action saying that police was left with no other option. He said that trouble in the area began in May with local residents organising road blocks over demand for jobs in the mines.
Saravana claimed that meetings between police, villagers and the administration had been organised to sort out the matter. Even the divisional labour commissioner was called and he opined that the company had given enough jobs to the people. “The company said they would try to employ women through CSR activities like looking after nurseries. People agreed but they again started obstructing the passage of company vehicles. In the past seven months, eight cases have been lodged in this connection. The company went to court and obtained an injunction,” he said
“The court said there should be no road blocks. Since women were involved we tried to persuade them repeatedly. But on January 3 they blocked the road and pelted stones and even tried to enter the mines. We had no option but to arrest them. However, I am confident that better sense will prevail and peace will be established in the area,” the officer added.
On its part, the company has come out with a press release stating:
“The present disturbance in our mines operations resulted due to the road block and agitation of different groups of women from Paikakupakhal village. The people who were staging dharna were neither landlosers nor displaced persons. Still as a responsible corporate we are providing them job on temporary basis. But their demand for permanent jobs is baseless.”
It also claimed that the company had gone out of its way to provide livelihood opportunities and infrastructure to the affected villages and it has spent significantly in two villages, Dwimundi and Paika Kupakhal, which are in close proximity of its plant and mines through its CSR programmes.
Local people and public representatives like Rayagada MLA Makaranda Muduli, however, do not agree that company has done enough for the people. “Mining activities cause a lot of pollution which affects 12 to 14 villages including Paika Kupakhal. Continuous movement of vehicles, too, is a problem. Who will compensate the people for all this?” asked Muduli who has been campaigning over issues like environmental degradation caused by mining.
The area has a troubled history. In December 2000, conflict over mining of bauxite in the Kashipur belt took a violent form with armed police opening fire at Maikanch village and claiming the lives of three tribals. Eight others had sustained serious injuries in the incident.
The UAIL refinery project itself was delayed because of people’s resistance to mining. After a long struggle it became operational in 2013 with trial production commencing. The current agitation over jobs by the local residents is a warning bell for the company which has to find ways of addressing people’s grievances to ensure the smooth operation of its mines and refinery.