People's victory

Print edition : September 24, 2010

Vedanta will not be able to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite, and for the Dongria Kondhs the MoEF decision is a major victory.

in Lanjigarh

RAHUL GANDHI WITH Dongria Kondhs in Lanjigarh after the MoEF decision barring Vedanta from mining in the Niyamgiri hills.-AP

THE August 24 decision of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) refusing to allow mining in the Niyamgiri hills jointly by the Orissa Mining Corporation and Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, a Vedanta Group company, has given a boost to the movements against displacement of people and illegal mining and land acquisition for various mineral-based industries in violation of land acquisition rules, mining laws, laws pertaining to protection of the environment, conservation of forests, safeguarding of wildlife and the rights of tribal and non-tribal populations living on forest land. Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, where Vedanta Aluminium Limited has established an alumina refinery, has been the nerve point of these struggles. The Ministry withdrew the stage-II clearance it had granted for mining in the Niyamgiri hills.

Thousands of primitive Dongria Kondh tribal men and women living in and around the Niyamgiri hills in Lanjigarh are happy that the Vedanta group will not now mine the hills, which they worship as their living god, for bauxite. They are also determined to oppose any further attempt by the State government to help the company source bauxite from any other hills nearby to run its alumina refinery. They are demanding that the refinery be closed down to protect the area from environmental pollution.

The agitation by the Kondh tribal people started in 2003 after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik laid the foundation stone for Vedanta's one-million-tonne-capacity refinery at Lanjigarh. Organisations such as the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and the Green Kalahandi kept on questioning the blatant violation of laws by the company when it went ahead with the construction of its refinery. The construction of a conveyor belt from the refinery up to the hills at a time when no clearance for mining had been obtained was strongly opposed by the people and the organisations. The matter was also taken to court. However, the State government refused to lend an ear to the agitators.

Vedanta claimed it had not violated the Forest Conservation Act, the Environment Protection Act or the Forest Rights Act. The State government endorsed its stand whenever the matter was raised by Opposition parties or people's organisations. The company spent lavishly to sustain its campaign with the slogan that it was in Orissa to mine happiness for the people. Even when committees set up by the MoEF or the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court pointed out irregularities and violations of laws, the company managed to keep up its own campaign. However, the decision of Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, gave a severe jolt to its plans.

Incidentally, the State government had approved Vedanta's refinery expansion plans (from a capacity of one million tonnes per annum to six million tonnes) days before the MoEF decision, and that too when the company was yet to get clearances for mining bauxite for its refinery in the State and was running its plant with bauxite ore sourced from Jharkhand and other States.

Mining and politics

The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has come out strongly in support of the company and denounced the MoEF decision as being anti-Orissa. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi's visit to Lanjigarh two days after the MoEF decision has made the BJD angrier still.

Rahul Gandhi described the decision as a victory for the tribal people, in his address to a rally organised by the Orissa Pradesh Youth Congress to celebrate the day as Adivasi Adhikar Divas (tribal rights day) at Jagannathpur village in the foothills of Niyamgiri. Asserting that he was not against industries, he said that genuine voices of the common people should not go unheard. His Lanjigarh trip may have been a part of his party's larger strategy to reclaim the tribal vote bank, but it was certainly a big hit with the Dongria Kondhs. Indeed, during his visit to Lanjigarh in 2008, he had told the tribal people that he would be their sepoy in Delhi. This time he promised them that his work as their sepoy had just begun.

As Rahul Gandhi addressed the Dongria Kondhs in Lanjigarh, the BJD's youth wing staged a demonstration in Bhubaneswar alleging that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre was creating hurdles in the path of Orissa's industrialisation. The party also announced plans for a rally in Lanjigarh on September 3. Indeed, the MoEF decision on Vedanta is not the only cause of worry for the BJD and its government. The MoEF has also questioned the violation of the Forest Rights Act in the area earmarked for the proposed 12-million-tonne-capacity steel plant of Posco India Private Limited, the Indian arm of the Korean steel-maker Posco.

Members of Parliament of the BJD staged a demonstration in New Delhi alleging that the MoEF was out to show a favour to the Andhra Pradesh government in implementing the Polavaram (Indira Sagar) irrigation project on the Godavari. Although Jairam Ramesh had written to Naveen Patnaik stating that the clearance for diversion of forest land was subject to compliance of several conditions by the Andhra Pradesh government, several BJD MPs joined a demonstration organised by Oriya students in New Delhi against the Centre's anti-Orissa stance.

Why is the BJD so angry with the Centre? Apparently because Naveen Patnaik's government has been caught on the wrong foot, what with the violation of various laws by Vedanta and Posco India Private Limited and the growing opposition to many industrial projects in the State. After the MoEF's order against Vedanta, hundreds came out to oppose the State government's plans to hand over the Khandadhar mines in Sundargarh and Keonjhar districts to Posco. While Niyamgiri is the source of the Vanshadhara and Nagabali rivers, Khandadhar is the source for the majestic Brahmani.

Tribal and other populations opposing displacement have announced plans to challenge the alleged violation of various laws by projects such as the Tata steel project in Kalinganagar and the Posco project in Jagatsinghpur. Conservationists have come forward demanding action against government officials, particularly those in the Departments of Forest, Mines, and Revenue, who have been allegedly protecting the interests of various companies.

Orissa's industrialisation has run into trouble primarily because the State has not been equipped to cope with the large number of investment proposals in sectors such as alumina, steel, thermal power, ports and education. The proposed Vedanta University of the Anil Agarwal Foundation, promoted by Anil Agarwal, chairman of the Vedanta Group based in the United Kingdom, has faced stiff opposition from local residents near Puri. The foundation has been given the go-ahead to establish a world-class university over 3,200 hectares of land. A law to facilitate the university project has been passed in the State Assembly.

Land acquisition has become a major issue with the State government signing memoranda of understanding with various companies without consulting the people who will be displaced to make space for the proposed industries. The poor rehabilitation of the thousands of families displaced by both private and government-run industries in the past decades has added to the fears of those facing displacement.

The use of force to suppress anti-industry agitation and the branding of agitators as Maoists has also been a cause of concern for those trying to protect their land and homes. An attempt by the police to brand Lado Sikaka, a leader of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, as a suspected Maoist in the wake of Rahul Gandhi's visit to Lanjigarh faced criticism from various quarters.

The State government's backing of plans for diversion of huge volumes of water from the State's rivers to run privately owned industries is facing opposition, too. There are not many takers for the Chief Minister's assurance that not a drop of water meant for agriculture will be diverted to industries. In the 10 years that Naveen Patnaik has been in power, his government has signed MoUs for 49 steel plants, 27 thermal power plants and several others for ports, alumina refineries and other industries. Those opposing displacement and violation of environment laws and the Forest Rights Act have demanded that the government set up a panel of experts to review the ongoing industrialisation process.

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