India, Don’t Let Women’s Rights Be Forgotten

October 18, 2011

A woman in Kendugudha village, Vedanta alumina refinery can be seen in the distance, Orissa, India, March 2009. ©Amnesty International

By: James Mutti, India Country Specialist, Amnesty USA

Major industrial development projects frequently promise bountiful improvements to people’s lives – reliable electricity, better jobs, plentiful irrigation, more money, color TVs, cars, all the wonders of modernity! Sometimes these materialize, but when they do it is often at the expense of people who are already poor and marginalized. Worse, the women in these affected communities typically feel the negative affects most of all.

As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, India is home to its fair share of major economic development projects – mines, power plants, massive refineries, dams, and expanded transport infrastructure. One of the biggest such projects underway in India today is a bauxite ore mine in Orissa’s Niyamgiri Hills and a nearby alumina refinery, both operated by British mining company Vedanta. The existing refinery threatens the lives and livelihoods of mostly impoverished and marginalized Dalit (untouchable) and Adivasi (indigenous) villagers, including the 8,000 member Dongria Kondh Adivasi group who hold the Niyamgiri Hills sacred.  Yet, in spite of this, Vedanta is petitioning to expand its refinery six-fold! Thankfully, the Indian government has denied Vedanta’s initial request, but the company is appealing the decision.

Beyond the environmental degradation and trampling of locals’ rights that all residents face, the women of these communities are subject to even more threats. And, the Indian government and Vedanta have failed to consider in assessments of the project. What are these threats? Massive projects such as Vedanta’s inevitably require land to be acquired, which displaces local residents. Holding legal titles to land in rural areas populated by Adivasi populations is rare. It is even rarer for women to hold any legal title to land. As a result, women do not benefit from resettlement packages which require proof of land ownership to be compensated, and they lose access to privately or commonly owned lands that are often crucial to their economic and social status, health and security. Compensatory payment nearly always goes to men, increasing women’s social marginalization and economic dependence. This disempowerment within their own communities is usually accompanied by an influx of male workers, which has been linked to increased crime and violence against women. Prostitution, trafficking, sexual harassment and the resulting curtailing of women’s public movement have all been documented at Vedanta’s facilities in Orissa.

It is past time for the Indian government to ensure that women’s rights and safety are not ignored when development projects are being considered and built. Act now to demand that impact assessments specifically address women’s rights and to request that all clearances and licenses for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine and Lanjigarh refinery be suspended until all human rights concerns, including women’s, are addressed.  India must ensure that women’s rights are not forgotten!