Anthropologist Felix Padel, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, is one of the authors of Out of this Earth, the seminal book which exposes the unchecked tragedies that have visited the tribals of Odisha who have unwittingly come in the way of the aluminium industry. In a free-wheeling interaction with Robin Shukla, he revealed some shocking truths:
How many months or years of research and writing did it take to put this book together?
Basically eight years. As a joint effort, basically Samarendra Das, noted Odia writer, filmmaker and activist, guided the research and I did the writing
Has any government body from centre or state got in touch with you after the book was released?
No institution, but many individual contacts and appreciations
Do the companies operating out of Odisha have any CSR activity in place in the areas where they have their mines or manufacturing plants?
Yes, and we devote most of a chapter to these CSR activities (chapter 19), showing how faulty these are, basically because: (a) No proper independent verification at all (though the big four accountancy firms of London have ‘verified’ on a very superficial basis, the same firms are paid by the companies, so it cannot be counted as neutral), (b) CSR activities are totally top-down, NOT under any form of democratic control, with zero transparency
Have they initiated any such schemes or programs covering health, education, welfare in the wake of your book?
No, many such schemes exist, but not in wake of our book, and as mentioned above, those that exist are completely top-down and non-verified, and therefore the corruption is vast - i.e. large sums have been paid for building health centres, etc, but the main people profiting are the building contractors and the countless middle men. The money spent serves as PR for the companies.
Are the starvation deaths continuing even now? What is being done at the state level?
Starvation deaths are occurring at a huge level, but again, with only top-down schemes, and since exploitation, dispossesion and corruption are main causes, the more money poured into famine relief, etc, the less the effect on the ground. Adivasis say “we are being flooded out with money” - the more money comes into their area, the more extreme their dispossession and disempowerement; as P.Sainath shows in “Evereybody loves a good drought’, famine relief operates as a ‘3rd harvest’, and the money goes to middle men. Among the first 2 or 3 persons to bring national attention to starvation deaths in Kalahandi-Koraput area was our main mentor and guide in writing this book, Kishen Pattnaik - in Lok Sabha in 1960s & 1980s. He was appalled at the lack of response even then. The aluminium companies actually use starvation death issue to advertise their development work, but in practice, where there has been mining-based development work - e.g. in Damanjodi area of Koraput, and Kashipur area of Rayagada, and in Kalahandi also, you have an intensification of poverty and starvation, since farmed land is given over to industry, and job promises are never kept. The book “Rich Lands, Poor people” from Centre for Science & Environment, Delhi (2008) shows that the poorest district in India is Koraput, despite 30 years of aluminium-based development by Nalco around Damanjodi.
What could be the approximate number of displaced persons still awaiting resettlement and rehabilitation?
Of approx 3 million displaced by industry in Orissa over last 60 years (and 60 million all-India) barely 1 per cent have improved their living standard. The vast majority’s living standard has fallen drastically. Both GoI & World Bank figures show this.
What is being done by NGOs there to rescue or help tribals?
Many hundreds of projects & schemes are there. Some are good doing real work serving the people, but they are nearly all top down, and there is no democratic accountability or transparency, and corruption in NGO sector in tribal areas is huge and notorious.
Has the book generated the kind of awareness you wished it would?
Yes, we are very happy with reception of the book. It seems to be creating some awareness both among the most upright people among government servants and many others, spectrum from hard left to hard right, meaning among ML groups to corporates, the book seems to be making a lot more people a lot more aware of main issues. Above all, what we are trying to promote is holistic thinking about industrialisation and tribal/dalit/rural issues. We wrote this book without any funding primarily to bring out vital facts before the public and to stimulate debate, and hope our work will help inspire many more such works.