Vedanta's theology spells end of the world for Orissa's tribals

The mining firm has been playing foul with both the law and the environment in Orissa


Prasanna Mohanty | May 10, 2010

A Kutia Kondh girl in Kendubarali village in Lanjigarh of Kalahandi district
A Kutia Kondh girl in Kendubarali village in Lanjigarh of Kalahandi district

Vedanta Aluminum, part of the London-headquartered Vedanta group, has been hitting headlines for its plans to mine Niyamgiri hills in Orissa's Kalahandi district and opposition to it from the primitive tribes living there for centuries who consider the hills sacred. Quite apart from the questions raised by the controversy – whether the tribals have a right on their environment – are the questions raised by the firm's operations in the region. The company has violated the law as well as polluted the pristine forests.

Vedanta Aluminum established one-million tonne capacity alumina plant in Lanjigarh of Orissa in 2004. The plant sources the raw material, bauxite, from outside the state; from Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. In 2005, the company applied for mining the bauxite deposits from the Niyamgiri hills. The ministry of environment and forests gave its “in-principle” clearance, which is not the final clearance but the first step towards it, in December 2008.

But without waiting for the final clearance, the company started erecting its conveyor belt (proposed to be 4.8-km-long) and building a mine access road (which would be 12-km-long) to the mining spot on the hilltop. A visit to the spot reveals tell-tale signs of its illegal activities. Several metres of the conveyor belt and nearly 200 metres of the Niyamgiri’s foothill have been dug up. It was stopped some months ago not by the watchful officials but by the villagers of Kendubarali, who picketed and sat on dharna for nearly six months to protect their land which came in the way.

When complaints reached the ministry, three members of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) were sent for enquiry. The committee, in its report submitted in March, said Vedanta had erected 47 pillars for the conveyor belt in the non-forest land. This was a clear violation of
the ministry’s guidelines which say that when a project involves both non-forest and forest land, construction in the non-forest land should not begin without clearance for activity in the forest land itself.

About the mine access road, the report was more scathing in its indictment. It said the road cuts through 50 metre of village forest land. “This is a case of violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act and also of the guidelines (Para 4.4) issued by the ministry of
environment and forests.”

It also found another serious anomaly. In the area where the conveyor belt and the access roads are being built, it found a gaping gulf of about 75 metre between the boundary of the revenue land and the forest land – a kind of no-man’s land, which shouldn’t be there.

Vedanta, however, has a different story to tell. Mukesh Kumar, the chief operating officer of the Lanjigarh plant, told Governance Now that all construction activities were limited to 2,018 acre land originally allotted to the plant that came up in 2004 and that it was not related to the mining lease.

He said construction activities were stopped in mid-2009 “when it was discovered that the land ahead was marked in the revenue records as the forest land, though there was no mention of it in the forest records”.

“This land was to be transferred to the forest department after which the forest department’s clearance was to be sought. But the transfer has not happened yet”, he said.

Vedanta wants to add 6 million tonne to the plant capacity by mining the Niyamgiri. But the final clearance is subject to compliance of the Forest Rights Act.

Vedanta has also run foul with the local people, mainly the Kutia Kondhs, a primitive tribe, by causing severe damage to their environment. Hundreds of truckloads of bauxite roar into Lanjigarh every day, disturbing the idyllic environment in which they have lived. To add to the woe, it has set up ash pond and red-mud pond extremely close to their settlements. In one case, a red-mud pond is located right on the edge of the village Rengopalli. Environment pollution is so disconcerting that not only the Kondhs even district collector R S Gopalan has written to the government suggesting that at least two villages, Rengopalli and Bandhaguda, be shifted away from the plant.

The case of Rengopalli is worse. Red-mud ponds are the dumping ground of wastes that are generated after bauxite is processed to extract alumina. The collector has described these ponds as “caustic in nature”, causing “irritation in the eyes” in his report after he inspected the
area in October 2009.

“I wrote to the state pollution control board also but they are not doing anything”, Gopalan  told the Governance Now. The villagers complain that these ponds (there are two of them now), cause various health problems and believe these to be the cause of several deaths, of people and cattle, in the recent past.

Air pollution is high and above the acceptable level. The state’s pollution control board has repeatedly shown this. The officials point out that they have been monitoring the situation very closely and have been issuing necessary instructions. As far as the collector’s report goes, they say are yet to read it.

Mukesh Kumar dismisses the charges. He says the kind of technology being used to run the red-mud pond here posses no risk to the environment in any way. “Actually, the villagers having seen the benefits given to the rehabilitated people want to be displaced so that they get similar benefits.” He, however, assures that if the expansion plans were permitted he would give priority to shift these two villages.



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