Sep 14 2007

Orissa Update

Mines and Communities Vedanta update

Vedanta Update

7th September 2007

It’s one of the longest-enduring conflicts over a mine project in recent times. Three years ago, the Indian Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) on forestry issues, condemned in no uncertain terms plans by UK-based Vedanta Resources plc to mine the Nyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite. It also found that Vedanta’s alumina refinery – deliberately located at Lanjigarh, next to the hills – was being constructed in violation of forest protection legislation, and that the company had lied on several occasions in its defence of the huge project.

It was thought that the Supreme Court (SC) would make a final judgment on Vedanta’s claim to Nyamgiri in 2006. That wasn’t to be – and it still may not occur before the end of this year. Last week, the SC postponed its decision again, calling for yet another report to be completed. At its earliest this will not be submitted for another month, especially as it is supposed to survey the impacts of mining on tribal peoples and the ecology throughout this bauxite-rich region: a huge task, let alone once which could be adequately performed in barely four weeks!

Ostensibly the SC’s mandate is laudable, but conflicting interests within the court itself, not to mention a raft of external pressures, may at best result in a woeful pretext of a study. At worst it could provide the opportunity for further interference in the judicial process by Vedanta and its supporters – of the kind alleged on several occasions since 2004.

On the ground – literally – the reality is that Vedanta is now close to opening its (still illegal) Lanjigarh refinery and has already shipped substantial amounts of alumina to its Korba smelter in Chhattisgarh. Even if alternative supplies of the raw material are available from other deposits in India (and the company has been stepping-up its bauxite extraction from existing mines in Chhattisgarh) most of these projects are still on the drawing board. Were they to substitute for the bauxite reserves on Nyamgiri, mining them would threaten yet more Indigenous communities and the environment, opening the way to further vociferous (and potentially bloody) resource conflicts.

At the heart of the current debate has been the contention that a choice has to be made between “environment and “development”. Yet many obsersers – not least many Indians themselves – challenge this as a false dichotomy. [see, for example an article we published on this site two years back: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press755.htm ]

However, placing faith in the Supreme Court to recognise this and act upon it, when it is confronted with the most aggressive minerals’ expansion the country has ever experienced, seems a decidedly blithe hope. [RM]

LATE (GOOD) NEWS: Last week the Supreme Court decided to confirm the role of the CEC, without time limit. The Ministry of the Environment and Forest (MoEF) had for some months sought to do away with this vital sub committee. This was not least because the CEC had criticised the MoEF’s own failure to confront the illegalities committed by Vedanta in 2003-2005.

See: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press755.htmedanta’s misdeeds in Orissa.

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Supreme Court refuses to grant bauxite mining rights to Vedanta

Indian Express

7th September 2007

The project is one of the largest in India and is located in one of the poorest but greenest districts of the country. In what is proving to be a development versus environment debate, aluminium giant Vedanta on Thursday failed to get clearance to mine bauxite, an essential raw material for its $400 million investment in Lanjigarh, Orissa. The Supreme Court asked the state to come up with a detailed report on the impact of all similar projects on tribes residing in these forests, the wildlife and the flora and fauna of the region.

“This will set a precedent for all projects in mineral-rich forest areas,” said Justice Arijit Pasayat, one of the judges in the three member bench headed by the Chief Justice.

The Vedanta project in Orissa comprises three units: an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalhandi district of Orissa, a bauxite mine located two km away and a smelter a few hundred miles away. The Lanjigarh refinery is already on a test run after being completed this year in February. The smelter is under construction. It is the bauxite buried under 630 hectares of forests that has been awaiting clearance. The reserves are situated on a hill called Niyamgiri, the slopes of which are covered with dense forests, home to the nomadic Dongaria Kond tribe.

The court has been hearing the case for more than a year and has sought the opinion of several experts. The last hearing several months ago ended with the court asking for alternative sites to be found for mining bauxite.

The state Government got back to the court saying all the known reserves of bauxite had been leased away and there was none available in the vicinity to be given to Vedanta.

Vedanta’s counsel K K Venugopal on Thursday made an emotional plea. He contended that the area was the poorest in the country, had the lowest literacy rates, people were forced to eat roots and leaves to survive and there were no opportunities for employment. He said the locals would welcome the project with “open arms”.

The company offered to plant 16 lakh trees in lieu of the 50,000 it would cut. It said it would train and educate locals, offer them jobs and even part with a part of profits (once the profit is more than Rs 10 crore per year).

“You may be fine planting so many trees but what about the others attracted to the rich mineral wealth of Orissa?” asked the judges. There are already four large companies which have been allotted permission to mine in Kalahandi and Koraput districts.

Earlier, it was the rich flora and fauna of the hill that prompted the Central Empowered Committee to say “clearance may not be granted” in its report. Two rivers originate from the forests of Niyamgiri.

The CEC had pointed out a whole range of issues with Vedanta starting with the fact that the company was asking for an ecologically rich area for mining. In addition, the company had been changing its stance in court. In the last hearing it actually argued that now that the plant had been cleared, it should be given the mine too as fate accompli.

The detailed CEC report based on field visits found that contrary to what was being argued in court, the hills supported an entire eco-system. The hill was proposed to be notified as the South Orissa Elephant Reserve. A number of other endangered species under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act can be found in the dense sal forests.

The project area has 1,21,337 trees out of which at least 50,000 will have to be felled to enable mining. The bauxite deposits help retain water, which in turn gives rise to perennial streams.

The CEC had gone to the extent of calling the environmental clearance “invalid”. It said the “alumina refinery has sprung up by subterfuge, subreption and misrepresentation of facts”.

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