Pemagatshel may be a backward dzongkhag, economically, but when it comes to expressing their rights, they are not far behind.
The villagers of Nangkhor stopped a private mining company from digging below their village. When villagers were consulted about the mine, not many agreed to the idea. A vote was called for and only six villagers gave it the green light. The remaining 53 were adamant that mining was no good for them, even if they understood it would benefit the country’s economy.
We can cheat a yokel once, but not over and over again. And Nangkhor villagers have learnt their lesson well. The dzongkhag is rich in minerals and still has a couple in operation. But the benefit, it seems, didn’t trickle down to the villagers. They were very outspoken about who benefited from the mines. The villagers didn’t, for sure.
According to villagers, they were promised economic benefits when mining first started in the dzongkhag about three decades ago. Apart from the transportation provided by the trucks transporting gypsum to Samdrupjongkhar, not much filtered down to the community. Rather, for many years, villagers had been complaining of pollution that damaged both food and cash crops.
Many villagers depend on orange for cash income. Stories of dust from the mines spoiling orchards are not new. Apparently not much was done to help them. That’s why they abhor the sight of a mine, let alone letting some more open in their dzongkhag.
Mining recently has become a thorny issue, with communities complaining of its impact, or trying to stop it at the proposal stage. This is a good development, but only if it for genuine reasons, like harm to health and wealth of communities. With power vested in the local community to give the go ahead, communities can stop a mining proposal in their area.
What we have to be careful of is to ensure that they are doing it for the right reasons. Sometimes, a few influential members of the community, with a vested interest, can stop a mining activity. This will hamper economic development. But if communities feel it is for the general good that they are stopping, we should respect their rights and decision. After all, democracy is about respecting rights.
Communities are becoming aware of legislations and rights. They cannot be bulldozed, even if the economic prospects are huge. In a democracy, political parties can do that to achieve their promises and pledges. If only a few individuals are benefitting from national wealth, that too at the cost of the community, it should be stopped.
At the same time, a proper and honest feasibility study should be carried out, including the impact on the community around the mines. Involving villagers in decision making right from the beginning is a good idea.
Displacing villagers or hampering their livelihood for the benefit of a few individuals will be a disaster in planning. There will be no trust in governance.