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A New Face for Utkal Alumina: Humanitarian Foundation Shall Improve upon the Company's Reputation

After years of bitter conflict with the project affected people in the State of Orissa, Utkal Alumina has now changed its strategy.  A new, humanitarian foundation shall improve upon the company's local reputation, through support of agricultural development and establishment of modern medical offices.  Ravi Pragada, of the Mines, Minerals & People network, is, however, very sceptical about the new foundation which is controlled by Utkal Alumina.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
After years of bitter conflict with the project affected people in the State of Orissa, Utkal Alumina has now changed its strategy.  A new, humanitarian foundation shall improve upon the company's local reputation, through support of agricultural development and establishment of modern medical offices.  Ravi Pragada, of the Mines, Minerals & People network, is, however, very sceptical about the new foundation which is controlled by Utkal Alumina.


By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
Norwatch

The foundation Utkal Rural Development Society (URDS) is the controversial Utkal Alumina's new outward face. The foundation that has been initiated by the mining company is in practice run by the mining company's people and shall work with developmental issues in the company's project area.

Originally, Norsk Hydro and the other partners in Utkal wanted the NGO Agragamee to participate in the establishment of URDS.  If Agragamee had participated in such a project, the Utkal project would have gotten a large, locally recognized network at their disposal, and could have gone through with the rehabilitation process that is necessary, together with an eventual implementation of their own plans.  But Agragamee never answered Utkal's request, and continued instead its work to stop the whole project.

Agragamee's director, Achyut Das, informed NorWatch that Agragamee would never be able to commit to such a collaboration without losing its credibility with the people the organization is working to help.  The relationship between the mining companies and Agragamee has in the meantime cooled down, and Agragamee has gotten into serious problems with the authorities because of its resistance towards the large industrial projects in the area.

NorWatch also knows that other informal overtures were made towards another NGO concerning different forms of cooperation, without this leading anywhere for Utkal Alumina.  In the autumn of 1998, URDS was founded solely on the initiative by the mining companies.  "The level of activity is lower than it would have been if Agragamee had joined us.  'Our people' have to do the job now," Thomas Knutzen of Hydro Aluminum says.  He also takes part in URDS' management committee.

Health, Farming and Education
URDS has by now been active for about a year, and according to Knutzen it is going well.

The establishment of an office with a full time medical doctor based in Tikiri is the most important of the activities URDS has initiated, according to Knutzen. "The office treated 1250 persons during the month of July alone. The demand is largest in the monsoon period, and now the office has been improved further.  The goal of the medical services is to cover the project area where the firm is active, in addition to helping those who visit the office.  The medical doctor will be equipped with a car, and will be able to help those who need it within a certain distance."

Knutzen said this is the first full-time staffed medical office in the project area.

Other URDS contributions that he pointed to are some agricultural programs that today include about 1000 farmers.  These programs work on better resource usage within the patches of ground that today are being cultivated, and consist, among other things, of the inexpensive distribution of seeds and new types of hybrid seeds.

Long term, the foundation will also be able to contribute with education programs and the forming of new infrastructure for the area.  As far as NorWatch understands, most of URDS' activities will be focused on the following three main areas:

- income generating efforts for the local population (agriculture, water treatment, forestry, food processing);

- health;

- education.

Democratic?
There are today clear guidelines for URDS, both when it comes to financing and to decision making.  As of today there are no economical contributors of any significance other than Utkal Alumina.

The daily management committee is chosen by URDS' board of representatives.  On top of the list of persons in URDS' board of representatives is, surprisingly, the name Grete Faremo.  Faremo is a former Minister of Foreign Aid, former Minister of Justice and former Minister of Oil & Energy of Norway.  She is now employed as a director of the insurance company Storebrand.  "I regret to inform that Faremo recently withdrew from URDS," Thomas Knutzen reported on the phone to NorWatch.  "She no longer had time to prioritize her position with us."

There is no-one from the local population represented in the decision-making bodies in URDS so far.  And if they should wish to participate, it is the management committee's responsibility to approve new members, both regular members of the foundation, and representatives to the decision-making bodies.  In the regulations of the foundation there is written, among other things, that the management committee can deny anybody admission to membership without giving a reason for the decision.  Also open for exclusion are members that show a "negative attitude", without specifying what that means.

The head of URDS' board of representatives shall, according to the regulations, always be identical with the CEO of Utkal Alumina.  "It is important to distinguish who has which responsibilities," said Thomas Knutzen.  The mining project is the company's own project.  Therefore, the company itself shall provide information about the mining.  The rehabilitation plan is part of Utkal Alumina, and the responsibility for this plan naturally lies with the company.

URDS' task is to contribute to local development initiatives.  Long term it will be natural for the foundation to detach more from the company.  "But URDS does not accept orders from Utkal Alumina and is an independent juridical unit," Knutzen said.

Practically, it might seem as if the overlap of persons in the company and the foundation is so excessive that it is difficult to think of them as separate units.

What type of formal right to be consulted on the processes within URDS do those who are included in the rehabilitation plan have?

"Firstly, they have influence through the cooperation with the village committees.  In the future we will be able to expand the foundation's management committee with local representatives," Knutzen said.  He admitted that the locals are not formally well represented, as seems to be the case today.  Knutzen's point was that the beneficiaries will influence the projects' direction, as shown by the mentioned cooperation with the village committees.

Has URDS much scope to ammend details in the last rehabilitation plan?

"The rehabilitation plan is rough and simple.  URDS will have much responsibility in agricultural questions, for instance.  The answer to your question is yes, URDS has much scope, but only upwards.  The rehabilitation plan is a minimum of action, and we often do even better than what is stated there.

Communication
When it comes to use of language, Utkal Alumina has earlier on been criticized for not making vital information available in the relevant languages, and for not presenting the information in a correct way.  With regard to this matter, Kuntzen said that Utkal Alumina is now communicating with the affected parts in the local languages Kui and Telegu, in addition to the part-state language Orya.  Much of the information is presented orally where the affected populations are illiterate.

But even though the language problems seem to have been solved over the company's eight years of operations, (the project was launched in 1991), the communication problems are still not solved.  PSSP is the body that organizes local resistance to the Utkal project.  PSSP has, on several occasions, held demonstrations and taken action against Utkal Alumina; the relationship between the organization and the mining companies has never been good.

Has the communication with PSSP improved after URDS was established?

"I would say the communication with PSSP is unchanged.  We have never communicated much with them, and we still do not," Knutzen said.

He is, however, quick to add that the contact with the local people in general has improved lately, and he said the situation locally is less tense today than a year ago.  In the beginning of August, Utkal Alumina arranged a two-day meeting in Rayagada, the regional capital.  There, amongst others, participated a couple of delegates from the village Kucheipadar, where PSSP has its main office.  Knutzen emphasized that even PSSP has not been interested in a dialogue with the company.  The desire for lack of contact seems to be mutual.

Criticising URDS
Ravi Pragada coordinates the Mines, Minerals & People (MM&P) network.  MM&P is a national, Indian alliance made up of local communities and NGOs that are working against mining projects that contribute to violation of human rights and large environmental destruction.  Pragada is not merciful when criticizing Utkal and the new foundation URDS. He emphasizes that URDS and Utkal Alumina must be seen in connection with each other.  "By giving the local population some hazy and unclear welfare, URDS can not make up for the violation of human rights that in this case is done in the 'name of development'", Pragada said.  "The experiences from societies affected by large industries in India, has shown that the companies' rehabilitation plans are not very convincing and rather frightening.  Local developmental projects have been a failure and the people affected have not received much from these "sustainable developmental packages".  Likewise, the publicized description of the URDS developmental programs is vastly different from the actual implementation in the field.

When it comes to the agricultural programs of URDS, Pragada has been in contact with PSSP.  Together they have a common statement: "On the face of it, distributing seeds to farmers by the URDS looks a benevolent gesture.  But the irony is, of what use would the seeds be to the farmers when they would have to vacate their lands and villages.  Secondly, by distributing them in villages not affected by the project, URDS is fuelling divisions and unrest within the same communities or between tribal and non-tribals from the same area.  Thirdly, most of these seeds are being sold to the local traders by the URDS staff themselves (which reflects a lot on the transparency and integrity of corporate development)"

Pragada and PSSP in addition reported that a supposed mistake that has been made.

" A road  and check dam were laid in Bhilamal village which promptly got washed away in the first rains this year.  The benefit of this activity only goes to the contractors.  Even the daily wages which were due to the poor tribal labourers went unpaid.."

Pragada finally accused URDS of communicating less with the major group of people, the tribals, than the other groups.  And he referred to the meeting that Knutzen mentioned in Rayagada as a collection of local traders not representative of the people in the area.

On August 22, there was a meeting held in Tikiri under the direction of Kalinga Yuva Parishad, a local youth organization that is sponsored by URDS.  NorWatch received this information from the leader of Agragamee, Achyut Das.  According to Das, the meeting was dominated by a contingent of protestors from the village Kucheipadar, who wished to stop the mining project.

On August 27, URDS and Utkal Alumina shall again have been met by a demonstration, this time in the city Kashipur.  Young unemployed protested there against the company for giving them promises of work that never became a reality.  "The people of Kashipur town put a banner showing UAIL and URDS GO BACK fully opposing their movement," Achyut Das wrote.

"The level of activity is lower than it would have been if Agragamee had joined us.  'Our people' must now do the job."
Thomas Knutzen,  Director of Information in Hydro Aluminium, member of URDS' management committee.
 
"A road and a little dam was built in the village Bhiamal.  Both were washed away by the first heavy showers this year.  The only one profiting from this activity was the contractor.  The daily wages to poor Adivasis working on the project were never paid."
Ravi Pragada, national coordinator in the Mines, Minerals & People network, concerning the activities of URDS.

Norwatch Newsletter 14/99