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Orissa's hatchery for crorepatis
For years, Joda and Barbil ignored their towering piles of iron ore fines, unaware of its value in the market. But a sudden demand for the unwanted heaps has changed the lives of people in these impoverished towns. There are already a few thousand crorepatis in a population of about one lakh and many now drive fancy SUVs, dine at big hotels, and buy gold.
Mining has become a bad word these days in most parts of India, what with the industry rampantly bending environment laws, heaping irreversible damage on the local ecology and displacing the very people who it is supposed to help the most. And there are few instances - be it Vedanta or Posco - where villagers living around mega projects have given it a thumbs up in unison. Two sleepy towns in Orissa's backward district Keonjhar, though, would beg to differ. If there are any places that jump at the mere mention of mining, they would have to be Joda and Barbil.
Ever since 2002, when a business group showed interest in buying iron ore fines (used in production of steel to make it stronger), hitherto considered a waste material and stacked in huge piles at Joda and Barbil, life in these mineral-rich towns has taken a different turn - and meaning.
It's quite common in these parts to hear people walking on the dusty streets throw around mining terms like 'raising', 'loading', 'fines', 'lumps' and 'size ores'. And the roads may still not be wide enough but you name an SUV and it zips past within minutes. Locals flaunt the latest mobile phone models, and putting the prefix 'crorepati' before an acquaintance's name is routine these days, just as the presence of leading banks, both nationalised and private, is.
The mining boom, coinciding with China importing and stocking huge quantities of iron ore and fines - residual dust generated after crushing big iron ore lumps into small sizes - has set off thousands of ragsto-riches stories. A truck helper-turneddriver is today one of the richest men in the area with bankers queuing up at his residence in Guali, a nondescript village on the outskirts of Joda, for deposits. Corporates pay 'tax' to a former sarpanch of Bamebari to transport mineral from the area, and a one-time grocery supplier now boasts of owning sponge iron and pelletisation units. The twin towns are breeding millionaires.
Keonjhar sits on perhaps the world's fifth largest deposit of iron ore, and, thanks to the mining industry, the district - a land infamous for acute poverty, chronic underdevelopment and thriving extremism - is now home to some of the highest income tax payers in the country.
But as with everything good that comes with development, this too has come at a steep cost. The overnight prosperity of the towns has led to mind-boggling corruption and an insidious network that has everyone, from politician to bureaucrat, businessman to criminal, in it. It's no wonder that agriculture has taken a back seat and few are bothered about high vegetable prices. Rampant mining in the area and subsequent urbanisation has also increased air pollution and there are hourlong traffic jams on roads leading to these mining hubs. Last year, 143 people died in accidents with iron ore-laden trucks on NH 215 that passes through Keonjhar.
"Overall, the socio-economic condition in the area has improved. Almost every household that took advantage of the market-created situation has benefited, " says Sushanta Bebarta, who in addition to running a provisions store has made a foray into the lucrative transport business ever since the boom started. "Not everybody, though, has earned through hard work. Many incomes have come through commissions and cuts. "
No one, therefore, really minds if minerals, especially iron ore and manganese ore, are being illegally transported within the country and even shipped to foreign lands. Some say thousands of crores worth of raw material have been squirrelled away like this.
That people have made money, by fair and unfair means, is amply evident not only from the circulation of easy cash in the region, but also the vulgar manner in which it has been demonstrated at every available opportunity. Open exhibition of firearms, loot and murder are a daily staple. During the 2009 elections to the Orissa legislative assembly, candidates who were contesting from the Champua seat (under which Joda and Barbil fall) spent over Rs 100 crore by conservative estimates - easily the most expensive campaigns in Orissa. Independent contestant Jitu Patnaik even air-lifted Bollywood stars Raveena Tandon and Suniel Shetty from Mumbai to canvass for him. "Lavish feasts, free flow of alcohol, open exhibition of money power and adequate supply of all things titillating marked the polls, " says an officer with a private bank that rates its branches in Joda and Barbil as the best in terms of getting deposits in India.
In fact, say insiders, it is the unabated rush of cash from the mining sector in Joda and Barbil that is partly responsible for skyrocketing property prices in Bhub-aneswar. Incredible stories of how a 'mining mafia' bought not one but an entire block of apartments in Bhubaneswar and how another one loads cash in SUVs and drives them round-the-clock to avoid detection by cops feed the myth that Joda and Barbil have come to symbolise for poor neighbours all around them.
The in-your-face prosperity of the two towns had Opposition parties gunning for chief minister Naveen Patnaik last year as he faced allegations that he kept quiet even as a mega-mining scam estimated to be worth more than Rs 3 lakh crore went on unabated right under his nose. The charges forced Patnaik to order an inquiry by the state vigilance wing that was intended to tighten screws on wrongdoers. Most of the 100-plus crushers in the region subsequently closed shop and the administration stopped operations of many mines. According to SP (Keonjhar) Ashis Singh, as many as 340 people connected with the booming business were arrested last year.
Many say that has mattered little to the wealthy men of Joda-Barbil. 'Mines' and 'fines' continue to rule the lives of people in poor Orissa's richest mofussils. In the happy towns, the common man is the happiest, soaking in a lifestyle he could have only seen in Bollywood films. "A lot of civil construction has been taking place. Posh residential buildings are seen even in the bylanes. Branded companies have built showrooms. Shopping malls and a number of plush hotels have come up too, " says Prakash Mohanty. "The locals go to places like Mauritius and Thailand for holidays. Some go only to European hotspots. "
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