Vedanta’s ‘Gold Rush’ in Chhattisgarh Doesn’t Bode Well for Locals

Vedanta’s plan to develop India’s first private gold mine in Chhattisgarh worries the residents of Sonakhan. 

Published11 May 2017, 03:39 PM IST
India
4 min read

The village of Sonakhan in Chhattisgarh hardly looks like the site of a gold rush. There are no gun-toting ruffians nor squalid camps of desperate fortune seekers. The dusty village with its distinct reddish soil is a collection of modest brick homes and small patches of cultivated land amid scraggly forest.

But the village, a two-hour drive from Raipur, could soon be enveloped by India's first private gold mine. Residents of Sonakhan sift for flecks of gold on the banks of the river Jonk during the monsoon rains. They voice fears that the mine will up-end their lives.

When they dig for the mine, they will cut down trees and damage the forest. They will make the water dirty. Where will we go? This land is sacred for us. We do not want to give it up to a big company that will destroy our homes and our livelihoods.
Rajesh Singh, Farmer

Who Asked the Locals?

Vedanta, a unit of London-listed Vedanta Resources, last year won India's first auction of a gold mine, as the government opened up the sector to private companies.

The Baghmara mine has potential reserves of about 2.7 tonnes of gold, and officials have said mining will begin in two years. Vedanta said at the time that the mining block, measuring 6.08 sq km, required extensive exploration.

Residents of Sonakhan said they first heard of the auction in the newspapers. There were no visits by government officials to brief them, nor panchayat meetings to discuss the impact of the mine, they said.

A shrine in Sonakhan, which may have to make way for the country’s first private gold mine. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)
A shrine in Sonakhan, which may have to make way for the country’s first private gold mine. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)

Vedanta Resources did not respond to a request for comment. Activists say mining activity will affect at least 24 villages in a range of 40-50 km.

These people have been living here for generations, earning a living from the land and the forests. Now they have to deal with a mine in their backyard. Their way of life will end.
Devendra Baghel, Dalit activist

Flashpoint

Villagers have held rallies and made representations to state officials. They plan to keep protesting until they get more details on the mine's environmental impact and assurances they will not be displaced.

Officials say their concern is misplaced – and premature.

Vedanta is still surveying the land for gold. If they find gold worth digging for, then we will proceed. They have to first see if it is viable; then we will see about the land and other details.
Bhupendra Kumar Chandrakar, deputy director, mines department
The Baghmara mine is the latest flashpoint in the resource-rich state, with past protests over coal and iron ore mines, and power plants. Chhattisgarh accounts for about 16 percent of the total value of minerals produced in the country. Gold could be its next big money spinner. 

India is one of the world’s biggest gold importers behind China. It buys about 800 tonnes of the yellow metal from abroad.

Hemalata Yadav outside her home in Sonakhan village. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)
Hemalata Yadav outside her home in Sonakhan village. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)

Threatened Forests

The race for resources in Chhattisgarh has pitted some of its most vulnerable people against officials keen to tap its valuable resources.

There are 25 conflicts around coal and iron ore mines, power projects and steel plants in the state, affecting nearly 70,000 people, according to research firm Land Conflict Watch.

Adivasis and Dalits, who make up more than 40 percent of the state's population, face displacement and loss of livelihood as forests are cleared for industry.

We would rather they give us our community forest rights, so we can be certain we won’t lose our access to the forests. For us, that is more precious than any gold mine.
Hemalata Yadav, Sonakhan sarpanch 
A field in Sonakhan village. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)
A field in Sonakhan village. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran)
The Forest Rights Act of 2006, giving traditional forest dwellers access to forest products, has been poorly implemented, with Chhattisgarh among laggards in granting rights, according to research by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which advocates for indigenous and local communities.

A Legacy of Protest

Sonakhan has a legacy of protest.

A landlord, Veer Narayan Singh, was executed for leading a revolt against British rule in 1857. Then there is also the Naxal rebellion in the state. Villagers caught in the cross-fire between the Maoists and security forces say they only want to hold on to their land.

It’s not that we don’t want jobs and development, but this is our land. We should get to decide. We don’t see any benefit from the mine. They can take all the gold they want as long as they leave us our land.
Rajesh Singh 

(This article has been published in arrangement with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.)

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