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Who’s here for the tribals?
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Babulal Marandi

In recent times, the issue of coal block allocation has seen unprecedented discussions in the media, Parliament and legislative assemblies of various coal-bearing states. But amidst the heated political discussions, what has clearly been missed, is a serious effort or thinking in setting things right. While CAG’s revelation vis-a-vis allocation of coal blocks has given enough ammunition to various political parties to sling mud at each other, it’s the poor tribals who continue to lose out as ever before.

In the wake of recent economic developments, there is no denying the fact that natural resources like coal, iron ore, etc, need to be put to prudent use. Unfortunately, policymakers at various levels have inevitably failed to gauge the hopes and aspirations of the poor and marginalised tribals of the country.

In the last eight years itself, 138 coal blocks have been given away to the private sector almost free of cost in the name of captive usage. Often, a picture is painted that tribals are anti-development, but if any sane person would bother to analyse the conditions under which these coal blocks have been allocated, he would realise the apathy with which the poor tribals have been treated.

There are inherent flaws in the principles on which coal block allocations are made. For instance, the Punjab State Electricity Board, a public sector undertaking, was given a 3,000-acre coal block in Puchwara region of Jharkhand in 2006 for supporting the fuel requirement of the state’s power plants. Within days, PSEB gave away 74% equity in the project to a private company, EMTA. This JV company subsequently acquired the 3,000 acres at an average price of just about R1 lakh per acre, the highest price paid to any farmer being just R1.41 lakh per acre.

When a tribal is made to give away his roots for a throwaway price like this and then is made to realise that “his” land is a source of major prosperity to a private sector developer, will he not feel agitated? It needs to be understood that it’s practically impossible to put a concrete economic value to the land in a remote tribal area. For the tribal, it’s the only source of sustenance, and this should be the only factor in mind for policymakers when dealing with the issue of tribal land.

The question here is what is the right balance? The inherent problem here is that for private sector companies, the compensation paid to tribal land owners is the only fluctuation that can help the private entrepreneurs increase his margin in a project. Everything else except the cost of land is the same in every part of the country, be it the price of coal or be it the price of the end product such as power or steel.

Is it fair that since no other factor can fluctuate, the tribals be put through such exploitation? Industry, whether it be private sector or public sector, needs to address the aspirations of tribals for achieving sustainable development. There should be efforts to make tribals some kind of “partner in prosperity” that accrues from the land once held by them. There has been a proposal to make land-owners some 25% shareholders in profits registered by projects on their land. The industry should show a visionary approach and should proactively come out in support of such measures. The government, too, should not act merely on the whims and fancies of the industry, and should rather take efforts in convincing the industry of the larger good that such a reform would unleash.

In my opinion, a sheer shift to auction is also not a quick-fix solution to the whole problem. In fact, the various proposals that have come to discussion only suggest that the government is looking at an alternative without actually thinking through the root cause of the problem. Auction of coal blocks might bring huge financial gains to the government, but what do the tribals get? Government should not zero in on a policy without thoroughly deliberating upon the aspect of public good.

With auction also comes the fear of hoarding. An auction-based system will incentivise trading-oriented private companies with deep pockets to bid at unviable prices and hoard the natural resource, create scarcity, manipulate prices and then sell-off. So the net result is that we get rid of one evil, and give way to another. A well thought-out approach is needed. Many discussion papers have been floated, and views of prominent economists, private sector and political parties have been taken. But no decision-maker has taken the pains to incorporate the views of our marginalised tribals as well. We must not forget that whenever mining takes place on a certain stretch of land, it’s the tribal who loses the most.

Till the time a win-win formula is evolved, which takes good care of all stakeholders, it is advisable that ownership of coal-blocks remains with the public sector PSUs, such as CIL and CCL, and technologically efficient private sector partners are roped in to execute contracts. In the past too, this model has proven highly beneficial for the coal PSUs.

It is indeed a great paradox that the richest states of the country such as Jharkhand, are home to the poorest and the most marginalised inhabitants. Unless this great discrepancy is addressed, the country cannot achieve and sustain a high-growth rate. There is no short-cut to addressing this problem. It needs a holistic and firm political will, spreading across political lines.

The author was the first chief minister of Jharkhand, after it was carved out as a separate state in November 2012. He is the president of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, a prominent party in the state, and is a Lok Sabha MP from Kodarma.



[Courtesy: The Financial Express, December 22, 2012]

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