A decade-long stand-off between Vedanta and the villagers of Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills has culminated in an outright rejection of the company’s plans to mine bauxite to feed its Rs 50,000-crore alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. Asked by the Supreme Court to take a call on the proposed mining, all 12 gram sabhas have asserted their community rights over Niyamgiri and said no to the state government’s move to hand over nearly 700 hectare of forest land to VAL (Vedanta Aluminium Ltd) for harvesting bauxite.
In April 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had cleared the mining project. Amid widespread protests, the Centre constituted a committee under NC Saxena that pointed out a number of irregularities. Subsequently, acting on the fresh recommendation of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) that had in 2007 approved the project, then Environment minister Jairam Ramesh ordered temporary withdrawal of clearance in August 2010.
In March 2011, the Odisha government moved the Supreme Court against the MoEF’s order. Once the ministry defended its stand as a safeguard against possible violation of cultural and religious rights of the local tribals, the SC on 18 April this year asked the state to seek the view of affected villagers.
What is at stake
Acting on the state government’s assurance of handing over a bauxite reserve lying within a stone’s throw, Vedanta has already invested Rs 50,000 crore in the project in building the refinery at Lanjigarh. It was considered one of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s early breakthroughs when he apparently convinced Anil Agarwal to invest in the backward districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada. That dream of injecting big money to a limping economy still hangs fire.
On the other hand, the Saxena committee report noted that the forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for a few thousand Dongaria Kondh, considered an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’
What went wrong
Almost everything. The company sought environment (2003) and forest (2004) clearances for its plant separately. The application for the environment clearance made no mention of the forest land required. The environment clearance was issued in 2004 on condition that the company would secure mining clearance before “operationalising” the refinery. The approval letter stated that “the project does not involve diversion of forest land.”
Once its bluff was called, the MoEF issued a stop-work notice in 2005 till clearance was given for the diversion of 58.9 hectare of forestland. The company promptly withdrew its application for forest clearance, saying it didn’t need the forest land. Inexplicably, the MoEF did not look into the rationale of this dubious claim and allowed construction of the refinery.
Following a strong recommendation by the Central Empowered Committee against mining, the SC in 2006 referred the case to the FAC which asked the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited (CMPDIL) to examine the project’s impact on wildlife, soil and water systems. While CMPDIL gave the project a clean chit in 2007, the WII report expressed a number of concerns over the impact of mining on the wildlife before settling for a Rs 42-crore mitigation plan. Based on these two reports, the FAC approved diversion of forest land for mining.
The MoEF is likely to convey to the SC the unanimous views of the gram sabhas against mining. The Odisha government and Vedanta are already looking beyond Niyamgiri for bauxite. Last week, BJD MP Pinaki Mishra said that one option was to tap a few unexploited mines with L&T, which has a joint venture with Vedanta. The other option, he said, was to harvest bauxite from Karlapat, 40 km west of Niyamgiri, but the reserve lies within 5 km of a sanctuary. Vedanta already sought clearance from the state government to explore the prospects of mining laterite, a bauxite substitute, in the state. But for now, the company will have to depend on bauxite from faraway Gujarat to keep its Lanjigarh refinery in operation.
Who says what
Linagaraj Azad, Samajwadi Jan Parishad: We expect the unanimity of the 12 gram sabhas will bring us immediate relief from the Supreme Court. But we do not think we can depend on the legal safeguards to stop future attempts to mine our hills. We have to be vigilant and the movement to save Niyamgiri will continue. Now we need to work for the economic and social development of our tribes. Also, we have held a few solidarity meetings with our tribal brothers and sisters of Khandualmali (Karlapat) where the government and the company are now planning to source bauxite from. We are together in this fight.
Pinaki Mishra, BJD MP: The government is very anxious… It is a large investment. Vedanta came and put up a plant in Kalahandi, which is one of the most backward regions, because the Chief Minister personally requested them to do so… It (Niyamgiri gram sabha verdict) means very little actually because we will give them (Vedanta) bauxite. We are committed. L&T has a joint venture with Vedanta. L&T is sitting on some very good mines which they have not yet exploited. So that’s already being looked at. Plus OMC has bauxite as well, so we will give Vedanta bauxite from OMC, there’s no problem.
VAL top brass: No comments on the matters between the court and the governments but we hope we will have sufficient supply of bauxite.