If there is a single conclusion the Ministry of Environment and Forests can arrive at based on the report of the four-member committee led by Planning Commission member N.C. Saxena on the proposed open cast mining in Orissa's forested Niyamgiri hills, it is this: drop it. The violation of laws protecting the environment and the rights of tribals to facilitate the project proposed by Vedanta Resources is nothing short of scandalous. It is unconscionable that the Orissa government, in its eagerness to remove all obstacles to mining, has trampled over the rights of primitive tribal groups such as the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh residing in the areas proposed to be mined. The panel appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests makes it clear that due process was not followed to get the consent of the tribals for diversion of forest land. What is particularly egregious is the steamrolling of the people's opposition, ignoring the protection that Scheduled Tribes enjoy under Schedule V of the Constitution. The provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and the Environment (Protection) Act have been ignored by the district collectors of Rayagada and Kalahandi. The only proper course open to the MoEF, therefore, is to reject the proposal and ask the applicant to go back to the drawing board to explore alternatives.

It is natural that in a populous country such as India, alienation of land is bound to be contentious as people are sought to be displaced in favour of profit-oriented extractive industries with no long-term stakes in the environment. There is also the question of externalities. Perhaps the best-known example in this regard is the loss of ecology and devastating water pollution caused by mining in Kudremukh. The mines here silted dams and affected agriculture in surrounding areas before the activity was ended five years ago. It is welcome that the Saxena Committee has sounded a warning on the ecological fragility of Niyamgiri, and underscored the estimated losses from the proposed project. That includes a staggering 121,337 trees, innumerable ground flora, habitat of elephant and some rare fauna, not to speak of tribal livelihoods. Also, the mountain is sacred to the beleaguered Dongaria Kondh, who have become emblematic of global tribal struggles and even inspired comparisons with the fictional Na'vi people of James Cameron's Avatar. The MoEF and the Orissa government must now unsparingly investigate the reported violation of Environment Impact Assessment guidelines by Vedanta at its alumina plant and uphold the process of law in Niyamgiri and elsewhere.


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