Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has acted boldly and impartially by relying on scientific expertise and rejecting the application from Vedanta Resources for forest clearance to start bauxite mining in Orissa's Niyamgiri hills. In doing so, he has laudably upheld due process, human rights, and environmental laws. The transparent manner in which the Ministry went about assessing environmental concerns and the impact the project would have on tribal groups in the proposed mining area before arriving at a decision is particularly noteworthy. Evidence collected by the Saxena Committee of the MoEF clearly warrants rejection of the proposal. The 72 million tonnes of bauxite ore deposits estimated to be available in Niyamgiri hills can feed the aluminium refinery of Vedanta Alumina Limited in Lanjigarh only for about four years at the expanded capacity being created. To sacrifice the rich ecology of the area for such a purpose would be unconscionable. There is little doubt that the mine would destroy the 7 sq km of forests that await inclusion in the Niyamgiri Wildlife Sanctuary, and deal a devastating blow to the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribal folk, who sustain themselves largely with forest produce.
Beyond the rejection of the forest clearance for the mining project, the Vedanta case is turning out to be an example of the forces eating into the environmental vitals of the country. If the violation of key laws such as the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Environment (Protection) Act, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act by the mining company and its subsidiaries is brazen, the enabling role played by the Orissa government is deplorable. The State government has an interest in the project through a joint venture involving the Orissa Mining Corporation. Rather than adopt the legal process, it chose to file false certificates on forest rights claims of tribals to speed up MoEF clearance, and did little to stop illegal occupation of forest lands by the private mining company. Equally disturbing is the fact that the Vedanta refinery has expanded its capacity six-fold without environmental clearance. Against such a backdrop, Minister Jairam Ramesh deserves the nation's commendation for stopping the activity in its tracks. He should now launch investigations into violations by other mining leaseholders across the country, applying environmental laws with full force. The Vedanta case should also persuade the Supreme Court, which gave some approvals to the proponents, to rely on scientific data and reports in deciding appeals from extractive industries.