By Rina Chandran
SONAKHAN, India, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The village of Sonakhan in the eastern Indian state of 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 the capital Raipur, could soon be enveloped by India's first private gold mine.
Residents of Sonakhan - 'sona' is gold in Hindi - sift for flecks of gold on the banks of the river Jonk during the monsoon rains. They voice fears 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?" said Rajesh Singh, who cultivates a small plot of land.
"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."
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 country 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 (2.35 sq miles), required extensive exploration.
Residents of Sonakhan said they first heard of the auction in the national newspapers. There were no visits by government officials to brief them, nor village council meetings to discuss the impact of the mine, they said.
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," said Devendra Baghel, an activist with Dalit Adivasi Manch, which lobbies for the rights of indigenous and lower-caste communities.
"Now they have to deal with a mine in their backyard. Their way of life will end," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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," said Bhupendra Kumar Chandrakar, a deputy director in the mines department.
"They have to first see if it is viable; then we will see about the land and other details," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Baghmara mine is the latest flashpoint in the resource-rich state, with past protests over coal and iron ore mines, and power plants that officials say are key to development.
Among India's least developed states, 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. Gold is a mainstay of the country's culture, and India buys about 800 tonnes of the yellow metal from abroad for weddings, festivals, religious offerings and as an investment.
The race for resources in Chhattisgarh has pitted some of its most vulnerable people against officials keen to tap its valuable resources to spur economic growth and generate jobs.
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.
Indigenous people and lower-caste 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," said Hemalata Yadav, the Sonakhan village chief.
"For us, that is more precious than any gold mine."
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.
Sonakhan has a legacy of protest.
A landlord, Veer Narayan Singh, was executed for leading a revolt against British rule in 1857.
The state has also witnessed a Maoist rebellion for more than three decades, with rebels accusing the government of plundering resources while ignoring the needs of villagers.
Villagers caught in the cross-fire between the rebels 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," said Singh in Sonakhan.
"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." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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