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Protest againts Vedanta for its operations in India.

Protest againts Vedanta for its operations in India.

It was a quest for survive that pushed Vedanta to find another, lucrative business. In fact its plan for more than $5.8 billion to increase the Aluminium production has been rejected by the government, due to mounting international pressure to protect the Adivasis in Niyamgiri Hills[1]. The repercussion of that failure is big enough to be the mover for the challenge against Ambani’s Reliance.

 Cairn main assets in India are in Rajastan, a huge field estimated in billions of dollars. That was the jackpot for a small venture like Cairn; But to compete with Reliance, you need to be much bigger and much linked to political power. Requirements that Vedanta matches. On the other hand, to exploit Vedanta’s economy of scale, Agarwal needed to grab any possibility on the market.

The Mannar Basin oil fields were ideal. Unfortunately the Sri Lankan civil war was a major obstacle, with the fierce LTTE ready to go all way for the cause of independence. The Sri Lankan government lacked the political will to annihilate the rebels.

A march of the Balck Tigers, the LTTE special forces for suicidal attacks.

A march of the Balck Tigers, the LTTE special forces for suicidal attacks.

In fact 20 years ago, when the Indian Peace Keepers intervened in the fight, Colombo incredibly re-armed the rebels, just to kick out New Delhi from the island[2]. In 2005 the parties were close to a peace treaty. But while Sri Lanka was ready to devolution, the LTTE wanted a clear path to secession. Meaning: conflict could last for another generation.

So the new President Rajapaksa changed the strategy[3]: now it was complete destruction of the rebels. Why this stance wasn’t adopted earlier? Two reasons: civilian casualties involved in chasing the guerrilla forces. And India. New Delhi never really approved the elimination of the LTTE (though responsible of the killing of Rajiv Gandhi). But in 2006, the Indian position changed. Suddenly New Delhi offered complete support: maritime patrol, electronic surveillance, military and political backing (the Tamil nationalist sentiment in Tamil Nadu were controlled by the then Chief Minister, Mr Karunanidhi, a hard-core supporter of LTTE, but involved in a personal scandal during that period[4]).

In 2009 80000 Tamil civilians have been massacred on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and in Mullivaikal.

In 2009 80000 Tamil civilians have been massacred on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and in Mullivaikal.

The rest is history: from the bloody shores of the Nandikadal lagoon, 280 000 Tamil civilian come out, leaving behind possibly more than 80000 dead. The fate of the Tamil population in their land now is the one of an occupied country. The military presence is strangling any activity.

But the Mannar Basin fields are blooming. In 2013 Sri Lanka launched another bidding round, this time everybody in the sector was queuing: Exxon, Total, Gazprom, Eni[5].

Clearly the news of Cairn-Vedanta success reached the big players of oil and gas.

The question now is: who could provoke a radical change in the Indian policy towards Sri Lanka? Cairn is out of the question.

Vedanta entered the game only in 2011, when the war was over since 2 years. If you believe in conspiracy, you could suspect that Vedanta chased the deal much earlier, convinced the Indian government to intervene in its favour and Cairn to spearhead the negotiation to avoid attention.

Of course this is just an exercise of speculation.

The signing ceremony of the agreement of petroleum resources between the Government of Sri Lanka and Cairn India (Pvt. Ltd) . President Mahinda Rajapaksa,  Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources A.H.M. Fowzie and Indrajith Benerjee, Chief Finance Officer and Ajay Gupta Head of Commercial and New Business of Cairn India . Photo Sudath Silva

The signing ceremony of the agreement of petroleum resources between the Government of Sri Lanka and Cairn India (Pvt. Ltd) . President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources A.H.M. Fowzie and Indrajith Benerjee, Chief Finance Officer and Ajay Gupta Head of Commercial and New Business of Cairn India .
Photo Sudath Silva

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agarwal ambani

Mr Agarwal, founder of Vedanta and Mr Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries

With the purchase of Cairn India, Mr Agarwal, boss of the mining powerhouse Vedanta resources, officially challenged the dominance of Reliance Industry, the Ambani’s giant in petrochemicals and refining[1][2]. Vedanta and Reliance were undisputed kings in their respective sectors: complementary and parallel. Both can count on mighty political clout and this feud showed their potential: in defence of Ambani’s Reliance went in Mr Sharma, chairman of the state-owned ONGC and Petroleum Secretary Mr Sundareshan. On the camp of Agarwal’s Vedanta, nobody less than UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron[3].

Mr Cameron pubblicly lobbied in favour of Vedanta with Mr Singh.

Mr Cameron pubblicly lobbied in favour of Vedanta with Mr Singh.

The bone of contention is simple: oil. In Sri Lanka[4]. Offshore of the Mannar Basin lie reserves up to a billion barrels. Reliance Industry was drilling on the Indian side of the Strait, but when the government of Sri Lanka offered the exploration rights in 2007, they Ambani’s group declined. Why?

Well there are always a lot of risks associated with oil extraction, first of all, there is no guarantee of discovery, second it could be not commercially viable to extract it.

But the Mannar Basin case was even riskier: it was the theatre of a civil war. The area was under the control of the LTTE, one the fiercest guerrilla army in the world. Surely if you buy, you want some guarantees that your will be able to access your property.

The LTTE navy, the Sea Tigers, guaranteed the security of sea lane supply for more than 30 years.

The LTTE navy, the Sea Tigers, guaranteed the security of sea lane supply for more than 30 years.

Now the company that was awarded the concession was Cairn, a small venture based in Edinburgh (with the bulk of their interests in India). What was the level of political leverage that Cairn could exercise to demand for assurance? Null. The management of Cairn, we are supposed to believe, bought the exploration rights with no further collateral for their purchase, no political promise that their property will be their hand soon.

But in 2011 Vedanta saved the “Scottish” company with their offer[5]. The operation was hardly contested by the Indian government; as we have seen, the move was an aggressive entrance in the landscape of Reliance and Ambani’s clan didn’t particularly welcome the new comer[6].

Agarwal acknowledged the leading role of Ambani: “They (Reliance) will continue to be the largest player. But, at the same time, there is enough water in the sea for other players to also do business.” [7]

If you are familiar with the Indian capitalism, you know very well that the big players are running monopolies supported by political protection. Competition is sacrilegious. So why Agarwal decided to challenge so directly Ambani?

Adivasis fighters.

Adivasis fighters.

Rumours go that he was concerned for his venture in Orissa[8]. Vedanta was involved in a billion mining project; they received of course all the authorization from the central government, but a small detail was blocking the operations: 80 million of Adivasis, the Indian Aborigines. The inconvenience was due to be quickly removed with mass evictions; this led the Adivasis to join the Maoist guerrilla, but Vedanta wasn’t worried: in fact the central government declared this insurgency (sometimes the Adivasis attacked with bows and arrows) as the nation’s main security threat: more than the archenemy, atomic-armed Pakistan. Operation Green Hunt was launched to eradicate the Maoist[9] and incidentally, any obstacle to Vedanta manoeuvres. Unfortunately for Vedanta, public and international outcry sprung in favour of Adivasis and suddenly the big deal, despite all the political support, was in peril[10]. The Orissa crisis urged Vedanta to look for alternative business[11]. Quickly.


Adivasis revolutionary fighters

Adivasis revolutionary fighters

What is the biggest threat to India’s security? You could think of further terrorist operations orchestrated by their arch-enemy Pakistan, the so called containment strategy of China with the String of Pearls, but no, you would be wrong. Surely the Indian armed forces and the RAW, the secret service are taking into account these issues as future menaces. But the current, biggest threat to internal security is the Maoist guerilla of the Naxalites, which count amongst its file indigenous warriors armed with bows and arrows. Members of the Adivasis, the indigenous ethnicity of India, more than 80 millions, are fighting back against the oppression by the central government and joined the Maoist militia in several states. The some of the Adivasis are tired of being discriminated and most of all expropriated of their land rights.

Adivasis's rally

Adivasis’s rally

And New Delhi, the biggest democracy of the world, the strong ally of the good Western government amongst the dodgy, authoritarian Asian states, responded with a responsible, measured, contained military operations, called Green Hunt. In collaboration with the regular forces there are also paramilitary troupes, funded by private stakeholders. These are the best practices exported by the USA during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and we should admire the consistency of India in aligning itself with the best Western policies.

Adivasis' protest against Vedanta

Adivasis’ protest against Vedanta

You may ask why the Indian government is so upset with indigenous populations, who lived for millennia in their forest, with unchanged habits and astonishingly sustainable behaviour, why they are fighting these groups rather than picking them up as global models? Easy to answer, it is the case that they live where there are enormous reserve of metals and minerals. And given the needs of the growing Indian economy and the worldwide prices, many companies are salivating at the idea of grabbing those mines. In particular the giant Vedanta secured vast concessions. And they want to exploit them, so they supported this massive campaign to evict the Adivasis from their property.

Sri Lanka Defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with alleged blood stains on his shirt.

Sri Lanka Defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with alleged blood stains on his shirt.

A generous offer of consulting about the matters arrived from Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president Mahinda and plenipotentiary minister of Defence, not to mention acclaimed leader of the army and potential war criminal for the massacres of 2009, offered his help1.

Mr Rajapaksa exposed his rationale: we have matured an extensive experience in counter-insurgency and we learned how to deal with fighters mingled with civilians. You have only to control the media and position yourself wisely in the international scenario, then you can do whatever you want. Seriously, you can slaughter hundreds of thousands (yes, around 3 times the victims in Sirya) of civilians and nobody will mind your business.

If you think that I’m exaggerating, many Indian commentators thoroughly studied the Rajapaksas’ strategy and compiled a brief guideline that is precisely mentioning control over the media, international relations and steel determination to achieve the goal, regardless of civilian casualties2.

Gen. Bikram-Singh visits Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Gen. Bikram-Singh visits Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Finally Rajapaksa can offer an already integrated plan of action: Sri Lankan and Indian forces not only conducted joint operations in the past. During the IV Eelam war, military officer from the Indian forces were actually on the field, monitoring, observing, advising and cooperating with the Sri Lanka’s Army. New Delhi is perfectly aware of what happened in 2009 and the fate of the so called “brethren” Tamil. Tamil Nadu politics is based on the support to the Tamils on the other side of the Strait. At least this is the main characteristic of one of the most important politician, Mr Karunanidhi, who was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu during the final days of the war and who didn’t move a finger to safe his beloved bretheren because was involved in a massive scandal of corruption.

In a matter of days, India answered, that, yes, they are quite interested in the Sri Lankan offer to train them on counter-insurgency. Quoting Gen. Singh: “With significant experience on both sides, we have a lot to learn each other and we look forward to reinforcing our cooperation in the military domain further”3.

Sri Lanka granted exploration right to Cairn back in 2008

Sri Lanka granted exploration right to Cairn back in 2008

A final note: in the Mannar Basin, offshore from the coast controlled by the LTTE and scenario of the massive, brutal counter-offensive of the Sri Lankan army, in which almost 440 000 civilians have been chased like wild animals for months, it has been found oil.

And guess who is taking control of those oil field? You’ll never get it. It’s Vedanta again!

So Vedanta is conducting paramilitary operations in India to evict Adivasis, and then it turned to Sri Lanka to expropriate the Tamils because of the oil, using the ruthless Rajapaksa regime as (happy) executioner of the dirty job. If it was a Hollywood movie, you had say that the figure of the evil company exploiting natural resources and killing poor indigenous would have been too clichè to be true. As usual reality is more surprising than fiction, much more.

290 000 Tamil civilians come out from the last siege of the Sri Lankan army.

290 000 Tamil civilians come out from the last siege of the Sri Lankan army.

Tamil refugee woman from Sri Lanka waits for news of her son.
Photo: Kate Geraghty

The Tamil community was left in a state of shock and despondency after the massacres of the IV Eelam War. Grief for the brutal murders but also for the defeat of their fight were and are the dominant thoughts of many amongst the diaspora. The big question is about the other side of the strait: everybody considers India the motherland, protector and guarantor of the rights of the Tamils. How could New Delhi abandon his sons? Surely there are divisions and frictions between the North and the South, but the idea that Indian eyes could watch such a carnage and remains impassive is almost unbearable.

The mistake from the Tamil side resides in considering themselves closer to India, just because Tamil Nadu is a part in the whole of the country. The central power in India has an imperialistic attitude towards its peripheral parts. From the far perspective of New Delhi, Sri Lanka is satellite of its dominion and Sinhalese are equally distant from the centre as the Tamils are. In the eyes of the rulers, a Sinhalese and a Tamil are subjects in the same measure.

In 2002 thousands of Muslims have been attacked in Gujarat. Death toll ranges in the hundreds.
PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Alongside the same mistake, the Tamils on the island invoke the protection for the minority. But India itself has more than one concern about the importance that you can give to the minority. The most direct correspondence is with the Muslims. They are integral part of the day to day life and yet their feeling and condition is ideologically separated by the main stream of the Hindus. The presence of the arch-enemy Pakistan as a guarantor of the rights of the Muslims, plays, under some respects, a similar role of Tamil Nadu for Sri Lanka: a sanctuary, a stronghold but also an avenger and an accomplices.

Pakistan’s politicians don’t officially back violence and destabilization in India, but only a naïve could think that behind many episodes of terrorism, you won’t find the long arm of IRS. Though many politicians in Tamil Nadu openly supported the underground operations of the Tigers.

Gujarat Riots against the Muslims 2002

How could New Delhi endorse publicly such intrusive behaviour in Sri Lanka, when is victim of the same tactics?

Moreover the Indian sentiment towards the Muslims is probably closer to the Sinhalese rather than the Tamils: a barely tolerated presence, proxies of destabilization and intimately stranger to the mainstream of the state. It is indicative the case of Narendra Modi, the charismatic Chief Minister of Gujarat and one of the leader of the right-wing, nationalistic BJP. His popularity is growing, he is a modernizer, he could be the man to lead finally India along a glorious path. The only issue is that this glorious path is clearly Hindu.

Sri Lanka riots against the Tamils, 1983

The rational follows this line: divisions in the country are slowing down the progress of the nation; to achieve a full, modern development, India must regroup. Implicitly, excluding the Muslims. In 2002 communal riots against the Islamic community, provoked hundrends of deaths1.

The issue is still controversial, propaganda both pro and against made all the picture just more complicated. The role of BJP members is not clear in details, let alone the one of Narendra Modi2. But the moral responsibilities of the carnage should be taken in to account regardless of criminal liabilities. Mr Modi speaks of modernization and development, but communal riots and massacres of members of the minority, hardly fit with a progressive society, based on education and merit.

I’m reluctant to be more drastic, because the future balance of power looks quite opaque to me. I’m not sure that dirigistic, authoritarian regime could not be the normal governance of future development. Maybe human rights, tolerance and inclusion are relics of the collapsing Western societies. On thing is sure: if you are a minority, don’t look at India for protection.

Chhattisgarh Police with Lathi. Adivasis community lament abuses from police and officers in Chhattisgarh.
courtesy Reuters