Regional Media Briefing Workshop on Environment, Development and Livelihoods

Jharkhand, December 27-29, 2006

The three-day workshop was designed to focus on two specific – and different – issues which are of particular relevance to the region and which CSE has been keenly following:

  • The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA): Opportunities and Challenges
  • The Sponge Iron Industry: A Growing Menace

It was aimed at facilitating understanding and reportage on these issues, and to bring together mediapersons, policy experts, researchers and activists to explain the key topical areas.

The workshop examined the question of development in the context of two subjects of contemporary interest. While the NREGA as a tool for sustainable development and poverty alleviation is being regarded with intense interest, the sponge iron industry, one of the fastest growing sectors in the country, is drawing attention for the havoc it is wreaking on environment in the name of progress.

Despite having one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, India’s chronic poverty – especially in rural areas – is increasing. One of the key reasons for this is the ecological crisis which the nation is grappling with. In our biomass-based society, ecological degradation triggers poverty. The NREGA envisions regeneration of the rural economy by creating productive assets. The workshop will ask – and attempt to answer – whether the Act is really equipped to meet its ambitious objectives, or is it just ‘another wage-employment’ scheme.

On another scale of the development debate, the workshop looked at the menace behind the burgeoning sponge iron industry, growing at 27 per cent per annum in India. The states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa foresee the fulfillment of their ‘development’ dreams through this industry, and have therefore welcomed it with open arms. But sponge iron mining has enormous environmental and social impacts: the workshop examined this, as well as the failure of official regulatory mechanisms to control the menace.

The workshop was open to journalists and media professionals from eastern, north-eastern and northern parts of India. Out of 55 applications 17 participants were selected for the workshop.

The first day of the workshop began with the session on sponge iron industry. Chandra Bhushan, associate director, industry and environment unit, CSE gave an overview of the industry. He spoke about the process of manufacturing, the inputs required, the output and the waste generated. The presentation also highlighted the impact of the industry on land, agriculture, people’s health, cattle, and wildlife. The participants were also shown a documentary on the sponge iron industry in Chhattisgarh and how it exploited the resources without any benefits to the local populace especially in terms of land acquisition, waste disposal and following rules and regulations. The inaction of the regulatory authorities, the collusion of the government and the protests of the local people was the highlight of the film.

A panel discussion followed. S K Singh, member secretary of the Jharkhand Pollution Control Board and Umesh Nazir of BIRSA MMC were part of the panel. While S K Singh talked about lack of capacity and personnel within the JPCB and its efforts in closing down polluting units, Umesh Nazir focused on how the companies were displacing people and destroying the resources in the name of development. He also highlighted the protests that were taking place in Jharkhand.

The agenda for the second session on NREGA started with a presentation by Richard Mahapatra, Coordinator, Natural Resource Management and Livelihoods unit of CSE. He spoke about the NREGA and what it was and that it was a non starter in Jharkhand. The opportunities it presented in terms of wages for at least 100 days of a year, employment and a means to alleviate poverty. He also highlighted the challenges it faced due to corruption and absence of Panchayats in Jharkhand.

This was followed by a panel discussion which included Chandan Datta of Society for Participatory Research in Asia and Ramlal Prasad of Jan Sewa Parishad. Chandan Datta elaborated on the Panchayat as a tool for implementing NREGA and the problem in Jharkhand, where Panchayat elections had not been held. Ramlal Prasad talked about the situation on the ground – the lack of awareness, the red tapism, and corruption.

The next two days were scheduled for field visits to see the implementation of NREGA and the impact of sponge iron plants. The team visited the Govindpur village in Mandu block in Hazaribagh district. Most of the villagers were not aware of the exact process of demanding work under NREGA.

The Panchayat Sevak, a government employee, had taken applications from the villagers and given them job cards. But it was revealed that most people had paid Rs 10 for the cards and had provided the photographs. Under NREGA, photographs are to be taken by the government and there are no charges for the photo or the card. On inspecting the cards, the team found that most cards were incomplete and hence invalid. They did not have photographs, were not signed, their dates had been rewritten and the card numbers were incorrect. Moreover, the post office was asking for Rs 70 from each villager for opening the account, whereas it is the government’s duty to open the applicants account in the post office.
The villagers were unaware that they had the right to unemployment allowance if they were not provided work after 15 days of applying for it. They were also unaware that they had to apply for work again after the job cards had been issued. Obviously no work had been started in the block.

The team then went to the block office. Though the block development officer was away for a meeting in Hazaribagh, the local member of the legislative assembly, Khiro Mehto, had just arrived. The team presented some of the job cards to the MLA to bring the anomalies to his notice. Mehto said that the scheme was not starting here because the amount of work expected to be done in a day to get the wages was too high. He also expressed helplessness in doing anything about it since it was the block development officer’s responsibility. Some other members of the political parties also mentioned that though machines are not to be used for work under NREGA, work in Jharkhand had started with machines.

Post lunch the team visited villages Lasodh Bodara and Chichikalan. The situation was no different there. However, we found that some work had started at Chichikalan. A small nullah was being built to carry the water from upper areas to the pond in the low-lying areas. But the villagers alleged that the pond would fill up and overflow with normal rainfall so there was no logic for this work. They also informed that the pond belonged to an individual of a particular caste and villagers of other caste were not allowed to use the water from this pond.

The villagers also told us about the Panchayat Sevak having appointed a secretary and a president to overlook the work. On questioning this secretary, it was found that he had kept the job card with himself telling the villagers that the cards were with the bank for opening the accounts.  

The next day started with Kundariya village in Churchu block that was close to a sponge iron unit. The village located inside the forest complained of polluted water, breathing problem and inadequate working conditions inside the plant. The team went through the jungle till the factory. The jungle was covered with a layer of coal emissions from the plant and the solid waste dumped by the plant in the jungle. The team tried to get inside the plant but were refused.

We then went to village Majhla Chumba in the same block. The villagers told the team that their vegetable farming had been destroyed and that they got very low prices for their produce. They complained of air pollution and increase in breathing problems. They also told the team about dying cattle. On reaching the plant the team was allowed to see the plant on condition of not asking any questions and not taking any photographs. But that was not needed. The plant was just, with a thick layer of black coal dust lying all around the plant, outside the plant, roadside and in the neighbouring jungles. There was no ESP to reduce the emissions. The workers were working without any safety gear – helmets, masks, etc. There also seemed to be disputes between the people who had given their land on the agreement that they will be provided employment. The management refused to give any details about the production or waste generated by the plant.