The official record of the public hearing on the Vedanta Aluminium’s plan to expand its refinery in the foothills of Orissa’s Niyamgiri Hills seems to contradict itself. While the people said “no” to the project, the officials recording their statements concluded with a “yes”.
The public hearing, held on April 25, 2009, contributed to the decision of several high-profile British investors to dump their Vedanta shares earlier this month.
Excerpts from statements
The following are excerpts from the statements, as summarised by the additional district magistrate and a pollution control board officer.
“They gave motherland to VAL [Vedanta Aluminium Limited] but till date they have not got anything from VAL … Whenever they raise the objection they are booked on false cases … The unit is polluting the surrounding. They will stage Andolan if the VAL treats villagers as in prior to expansion …VAL forgot all the promises it has made … The hill is their mother as they are depending on the hill for the livelihood. Even if all accepts the Niyamgiri project, but the villagers will never agree on that.”
At the end of this six-page litany of passionate opposition, the government’s presiding officers stated their bland conclusion in a single line: “The overall opinion of the public about the project was favourable, provided the proponent takes care of their issues.”
“There were more police than public at that hearing,” says Sitaram Kuliseka, who attended the hearing. The venue was a tent with an entry through Vedanta property, say activists. The official record says the hearing was held opposite the Vedanta switch yard, with about 400 people present. However, only 117 signed the attendance sheet and 27 people spoke.
“Vedanta had put many of their own people inside, and many of us were left outside in the sun. We shouted slogans and held banners opposing the expansion, and when we spoke, all of us spoke against it. After all that, how could they then say we are in favour and allow it,”? Kumti Majhi, a member of the local Kutia Kondh tribal community, said.
Vedanta’s management sticks to their line. “There is no opposition. We have the support of the local people. Only some 10-12 people came from the hillsides under the banner of Action Aid to cause trouble,” says Mukesh Kumar, chief operating officer.
The official record itself bucks his claim. Of the 27 statements, only one is wholeheartedly in favour of the project. Nine say that they would like to welcome Vedanta, but it has not kept its promises of employment or compensation, and only caused pollution and harm. Seventeen people opposed the project completely.
Others had no chance to speak, as the hearing ended with a scuffle that villagers say was provoked by a “goon” hired by Vedanta.
The official record says “there was some anticipation of law and order situation and hence the hearing was declared as concluded.”
Villagers, with the help of NGOs, have submitted a complaint to district authorities.
While activists say the official record used to be available on the Orissa Pollution Control Board website, it is still available on the Internet, along with video footage of the hearing.