Among the darkest aspects of Vedanta’s Lanjigarh project is the seeming subversion of the Law. A potent irony,
since Niyamgiri, which Vedanta plans to mine, means “Law mountain”, and the presiding deity of the area for Adivasis
and non-tribals alike is Niyam Raja - Upholder of the Law. So maybe it is fitting if the Lanjigarh case calls into question
how well the Law is being upheld.
The CEC (Central Empowered Committee - advisory body to India’s Supreme Court)
has written an extremely strong Report against the whole project. In its conclusions:
“The CEC is of the considered
view that the use of the forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like the Niyamgiri Hills should not be permitted.
casual approach, the lackadaisical manner and the haste with which the entire issue of forests and environmental clearance
for the alumina refinery project has been dealt with smacks of undue favour/leniency and does not inspire confidence with
regard to the willingness and resolve of both the State Government and the MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests] to deal
with such matters keeping in view the ultimate goal of national and public interest…
Keeping in view all the facts
and circumstances brought out in the
preceding paragraphs it is recommended that this Hon’ble Court may consider
revoking the environmental clearance dated 22.9.04 granted by the MoEF for setting up of the Alumina Refinery Plant by M/s
Vedanta and directing them to stop further work on the project…” (CEC Report 21st September 2004)
recommendation, the SC has repeatedly delayed judgement. This has allowed the refinery to be constructed nearly to completion,
under contract with the Australian firm Worley-Parsons, which is assumed to have has strict penalty clauses in the case of
delay. Are the commercial needs of foreign companies dictating the implementation of Indian Law?
And why is Vedanta so
confident that permission to clear the Forest on top of the ridge and mine there is only a matter of time?
A quick survey
of the company’s first Board of Directors suggests why. It included an ex-UK High Commissioner to India, and men who
had been or were about to become senior figures in the Indian Government, including P.Chidambaram, the present Finance Minister.
It seems that “Revolving Doors” between company and Government office guarantee that Vedanta has the highest backing.
It is strongly suspected that one of the three SC Judges on the Vedanta case, Arjit Pashayat, has virtually promised Vedanta
a favourable judgement. He is also known to have been pro-active in bringing archaic “contempt of court” against
anyone who dares to question the integrity of how the Supreme Court functions. But what if it functions badly, upholding vested
interests over and above the Law of the land?
Repeated delays to “allow Vedanta to comply with regulations”
imply such vested interests are at work For now, Vedanta is not mining bauxite from Niyamgiri’s summit: it is trucking
in a limited amount of bauxite from a new mine at Bodai-Daldali in western Chattisgarh, whose legality is also questionable,
since the company inherited this lease from Balco, now 51% owned by Vedanta. Balco was granted this lease on the grounds that
it was a Public Service Utility (PSU), but this status ceased when it was bought up by Sterlite/Vedanta in 2001.
state of the art bauxite conveyor belt up Niyamgiri’s side stands unfinished, waiting for forest clearance. In its last
order, the SC actually ignored the CEC report and called for a new study by the MoEF, thus rejecting the CEC’s arguments,
and ignoring its function as the nation’s watchdog on implementation of forestry protection legislation.
other side, the Govt. of Orissa (GoO) has drafted a critique of the CEC’s Report, casting doubt on its recommendation
against the project. The main points of this document and their refutation is as follows document:-
i) It asserts that
tribal people would benefit from the in-flow of funds into the
Lanjigarh area through two mechanisms - a 5% preferential
equity share in the company and a condition that 5% of the net profit be spent within 50 km. radius of the project.
the community of Lanjigarh’s tribals has already been split into those for and against the company. Funds in the company’s
control ensure a system where those currying favour with company officials thrive at the expense of those who do not “play
the game”. Studying the situation at Nalco’s Damanjodi refinery (Orissa’s one working refinery), shows that
promises of compensation and jobs have been systematically betrayed.
ii) The GoO asserts that people moved voluntarily
and happily from their villages on Vedanta’s refinery site, and that all 103 displaced families are either being given
jobs or shops or one time cash compensation as per their eligibility and their wishes. That all displaced persons were not
interested in availing compensatrory land for the land acquired by thye company, and that Vedanta has granted them a very
generous compensation package of cash and rehabilitation in the beautiful colony of Vedantanagar.
It may well be that within
officials’ hearing those displaced will only say what officials wish to hear. What the same people have said to human
rights researchers on many other occasions is quite different – namely that they are devastated by the loss of their
villages and land, above all because they can never grow their own food again, and that “even their gods were destroyed”
because the sacred stones were also bulldozed. They were not given the option of land for land. Displacement has made them
landless, and dependent on the Company’s goodwill to give them jobs, and it has started a process of destroying their
traditional culture and community.
iii) The GoO asserts that local Councils were properly consulted and gave their unequivocal
approval for the project (Gram Sabha, Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad).
This is at variance with what local people
say: basically that their village Councils were ignored when they did not support the project, and that in general they were
manipulated and pressurized into agreeing.
iv) Answering objections that the project violates the Samata Judgement of 1997,
which forbids the appropriation of indigenous land by non-tribal persons including private companies, the GoO’s sub-committee’s
decision is quoted not to allow this judgement’s validity in Orissa.
However the validity of this argument is negated
by legal experts, since the Samata Judgement was made by India’s Supreme Court, based on Schedule V of India’s
Constitution. The mining lobby has sought in various ways to dilute the application of Schedule V and the Samata Judgement.
This cannot be done without destroying the fundamental right of Adivasis: their inalienable right to remain the owners of
their land according to India’s Constitution.
v) With regard to impacts on biodiversity, the GoO alleges that the
CEC hasn't taken into account that only 20 hectares will be mined in any given year; that concurrent land reclamation will
take place through compensatory afforestation; that the mountain top has no streams within 50 meters of the plateau top; that
the bauxite bearing area is practically devoid of vegetation, and that Niyamgiri is a forest area with flora and fauna like
many other places in Orissa where mining has been allowed normally. The petition also attacks the Donagria Kondhs’ practice
of shifting cultivation and blames them for destroying the biodiversity of the whole Niyamgiri range. The report says that
there ARE no rare and endangered species in the forest area applied for diversion. It attacks the CEC's contention that mining
will affect the water regime. It takes the example of NALCO and says that water still flows from the hill ranges in the mining
site of NALCO and that ITS quality is as pristine as before. It also says that the bauxite mining site presents a bright example
of how dense forest can be created in a mined out area after excavating bauxite. The track record of NALCO is shown to be
excellent in maintaining the environmental quality of the mining area.
The distortions here are considerable:-
re-afforestation is no substitute for original primary forest such as exists in abundance in the mining lease area and around
it. Nalco’s attempts at afforestation in mined-out areas on Panchpat Mali are derisory.
2. Excellent streams start
from Niyamgiri’s flanks at around 50 metres from the top. It is well known that bauxite, where covered, as on Niyamgiri,
by abundant vegetation, has a porous quality which means it plays a vital role in holding water on the summit and releasing
it throughout the year, in the hot season also. Tribal people living all around Panchpat Mali assert that Nalco’s mining
operations have seriously disrupted and polluted these streams.
3. Vedanta representing its mining lease area as “practically
devoid of vegetation” is a most serious distortion, as is the criticism of the Dongrias. Dongria religion actually requires
them to refrain from cutting forest on the summit, because it creates a “magnetic force” which ensures their lands’
fertility, and is the abode of Niyam Raja. Their patches of shifting cultivation are on the hill-sides, never the summits.
This is why there is excellent Sal forest right on the summit Vedanta plans to mine.
All these points about the impacts
of mining Niyamgiri and about impacts on society could be cleared up by a proper, neutral survey of Nalco’s operations
at Panchpat Mali and Damanjodi.
vi) Last but not least the GoO document imputes that those resisting the project are working
for the interests of the international aluminium cartel who will be undercut by Orissa’s lowest cost production of aluminium.
argument can be shown to be spurious: when his company was Sterlite, Anil Agarwal was convicted of tax evasion by spiriting
profits out of India via his Mauritius-registered holding company, Twinstar. Vedanta Resources is a London-registered Company.
Its major shareholders include several leading European banks, such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank and ABN Amro. In other words,
whatever the status of the international aluminium cartel, Vedanta is part of it.
Producing aluminium cheaply in Orissa
involves extreme forms of exploitation for Orissa’s inhabitants through pollution, lack of proper compensation for those
displaced as well as those injured in work accidents. It involves heavy subsidies in the price of electricity, water, and
transport. The European Banks (Barclays, Deutsche Bank and ABN Amro) which are financing Vedanta’s projects in Orissa
and Chattisgarh ensure that the main profits will be made outside India, especially in London where the holding company Vedanta
Resources is registered on the London Stock Exchange. Anil Agarwal is in the latest Forbes list as number 245 among the world’s
billionaires, and he owns a multi-million pound home in London.
The dangers are proved by an appalling accident today
(3rd May 2006), when the dam burst which held the Vedanta’s ash pond for the coal-fired power station which supplies
its Chattisgarh refinery at Korba. The first rush of toxic waste is reported to have killed 35 workers and spread over 2 square
For Adivasis Mountains are spiritual entities, at the apex of the Natural Order that sustains them. Niyamgiri
represents Konds’ mythical origins and identity - in short, the continuity of everything they hold as sacred. Who is
to say they are wrong about the forest on Niyamgiri creating a “magnetic force” that ensures the land’s
well-being for miles around? A generation ago this might have been looked on as superstition, but advances in anthropology
as well as environmental awareness now reveal the accuracy and wisdom in this conception. Adivasis sustain themselves without
using up the natural resources around them. They understand better than any geologist or engineer that these Mountains give
Life to all the surrounding areas, through the streams which start from their sides. The Water which emerges out of these
Mountains is pure and rich in Minerals, especially in aluminium itself, and this accounts for Orissa's outstanding fertility
and Forest. Bauxite has a deep connection with abundant plant-life, and Bauxite-rich areas include most of the world’s
best tropical and sub-tropical Forests.
But what’s in a name? Advaita Vedanta is the non-dualistic philosophy which
inspired great thinkers in India from Vedic times to Gandhi. What kind of cynical mockery of India’s tradition uses
this name for a company which assaults the Mountain of Law?