Mines of trouble

Print edition : December 07, 2007

A protest outside the Orissa Assembly by people of 150 villages, including their tribal residents, against the government`s authorisation to Vedanta Alumina for bauxite mining. A 2005 picture. - PHOTOGRAPHS: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Citing environmental reasons, the Norwegian government withdraws investments in Vedanta Aluminas parent company in the U.K.

A protest outside

At a function organised on June 14, 2000, to mark the completion of 100 days in government during his first term as the Chief Minister of Orissa, Naveen Patnaik announced that his priority would be the proper management of jami, jala and jangala (land, water and forest). Seven years down the line, Patnaik is drawing flak from various quarters for using these gifts of nature to serve the cause of big companies.

One of the companies that have been at the centre of controversy is Vedanta Alumina, which is setting up an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. Patnaik himself laid the foundation stone for the project in early 2004. The company has now run into a fresh controversy following the decision of the Norwegian government to withdraw investments in its parent company, Vedanta Resources Plc, in the United Kingdom.

The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global has excluded Vedanta Resources Plc because one of its arms was causing serious damage to people and the environment in India, the Norwegian government said in a statement. The investment of the Pension Fund in Vedanta was estimated to be more than nine million euros.

The Council on Ethics for the Fund, which recommended the exclusion of Vedanta Resources Plc, had examined four Vedanta subsidiaries operating in India. They are Sterlite Industries, Madras Aluminium Company, Bharat Aluminium Company and Vedanta Alumina.

The councils recommendation was based on surveys and investigations conducted or commissioned by Indian authorities, reports from national and international non-governmental organisations, articles in Indian and international newspapers, and letters and documentaries. Besides, the council had commissioned its own studies by external Norwegian, British and Indian consultants.

The decision has given a fresh impetus to the movement against Vedanta Aluminas refinery project at Lanjigarh. Those who have been opposing the project tooth and nail for the past several years are happy that their stand has been vindicated at the international level. However, they are unhappy that the State government has not paid heed to their demands to date.

Nobody in the government has given them a patient hearing on their opposition to the mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills. Opposition to the project surfaced about five years ago when the company started the process of acquiring land.

If a government organisation of a foreign country could decide not to put its money in a company that was damaging environment and affecting peoples livelihoods, is it not time for our own government to rethink? asked social scientist Sudhir Pattnaik.

Does it not speak about a breakdown of the fundamental institutions of Indian democracy, which had been designed with pain to protect the interests of its people? Why should a foreign government come to the rescue of our people when we claim to be the biggest democracy in the world? He said the Norwegian governments decision only showed that the people of Lanjigarh were right in opposing the establishment of the refinery project and the proposed mining of bauxite.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik`s thrust on industrialisation has drawn protests from various sections.-

Chief Minister Naveen

The Vedantas refinery project, like many other industrial ventures, has been facing stiff opposition. Chief Minister Patnaiks thrust on industries seems to have created more problems for the people than ensuring their well-being. At several places, people are up in arms over the setting up of mineral-based industries that could displace them and imperil their livelihoods.

Apart from being the point of origin for two major rivers, the Vanshadhara and the Nagabali, Niyamgiri is home to more than 6,000 Dongaria Kondh primitive tribal people. The Dongarias, whose population has shown a decline in recent decades, do not want to leave the land they have been living in for centuries.

The initial protests by the local people were followed by three separate petitions before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court. The petitioners pointed out a series of violations that were allegedly committed by the company with regard to forest and conservation laws.

The committee visited the site at least twice and submitted its reports to the apex court, pointing out the violations that the company had committed while implementing the refinery project. The matter is pending in the Supreme Court. However, except for the continuing opposition and the latest development in far-off Norway, everything else seems to be going in favour of the company.

The Patnaik government has all along turned a blind eye to the protests in the hope that the agitation would lose its strength with the passage of time. The government has been arguing that the opponents of the refinery are fewer than those supporting it. The powers-that-be have never taken seriously the argument that the industrial project would damage the environment and imperil livelihoods.

Said Prafulla Samantara, one of the petitioners before the CEC: Justice will be done to the Dongaria Kondhs if the apex court takes into consideration the observations and recommendations of its own expert committee along with the stand taken by the Norwegian agency. He expressed the hope that Niyamgiri would be saved from an environmental disaster.

Vedanta Alumina has already completed construction of the refinery with an investment of over Rs.2,200 crore. It has since commenced trial production by procuring bauxite from outside. The company is waiting for a favourable order from the Supreme Court as the project would be viable only if it was allowed to mine in Niyamgiri.

Whatever the outcome of the case, Vedanta Aluminas operations in Orissa seem to be heading for bigger trouble. Its proposed smelter plant project in Jharsuguda district is facing opposition from the farmers of western Orissa, who are against the State governments move to provide water to various industries from the Hirakud reservoir.

The agitating farmers have already created a Lakshman rekha, in the form of a wall, to prevent Vedanta Alumina from laying its pipeline to draw water from the reservoir for its smelter plant.

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