Efforts of Vedanta Aluminium Limited (VAL), belonging to London-listed Vedanta Resources Plc, to mine bauxite ore in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha received a severe blow on Monday with the 12th palli (gram) sabha also voting against mining there.
This is the first time an environmental referendum is conducted on a directive by the Supreme Court to find out whether mining in Niyamgiri will tantamount to an infringement of the religious, community and individual rights of local forest-dwellers.
The gram sabha held here – a non-descript inaccessible village about 85 km from the district headquarters town of Rayagada district of Odisha – was the final one in a row of palli sabhas held so far in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts that rejected mining.
VAL has already set in motion the process to put pressure on the State government for allotment of alternative mining sites in nearby areas.
Niyamgiri hills — home to 8,000-odd Dongria Kondhs, a primitive tribal group, a few hundred Kutia Kondhs and other forest-dwellers — is considered sacred by the indigenous tribes and others as it is the abode of Niyamraja, their presiding deity.
After the unanimous resolution opposing mining was adopted, tribal people from neighbouring areas celebrated the ‘success’ of their decade-old agitation by dancing with traditional instruments.
District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra told The Hindu that all resolutions passed at the gram sabhas would be sent to the Ministry of Environment and Forests as per the court order.
“As all gram sabhas have unanimously rejected mining in the hills despite the sinister design by the Odisha government and ruffians engaged by Vedanta, it is time Vedanta gracefully respected public sentiment and packed off,” Lingaraj Azad, leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, told The Hindu.
Sterlite (now VAL) signed a MoU with the Orissa Mining Corporation for a joint venture to mine bauxite ore from Niyamgiri in 2003. VAL commissioned its alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, located at the foothills of Niyamgiri, in 2007, by investing Rs.4,500 crore with an initial capacity of one million tonne per annum. After shutting it down for eight months due to raw material scarcity, it was reopened in July and now runs at almost half its rated capacity.
A top official of Vedanta, before attending the AGM of Vedanta Resources in London, was quoted as asking where else one could run an alumina refinery if not in Odisha. Informed sources told The Hindu that 19 mining leases applied by VAL were pending before the State government. The sources said that even if chances to extract ore from Niyamgiri were bleak, there was scope for mining in Kurlapeta, Sanbarmalli, Boflamalli, Chandalgiri, Kotikidongar and other hills close to Niyamgiri.
Doors may close on Vedanta
Nitin Sethi reports from New Delhi:
The door could soon be shut on Vedanta’s mining plan in Niyamgiri. The Environment Ministry has decided that the claim of even one village council for cultural or religious rights over the hills provides the legal mandate to the Central government to reject the proposal under the Supreme Court orders.
Eleven villages have already claimed such rights but signals from the State had made the Centre wary of how the court orders were being interpreted.
But Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has made it clear that the Supreme Court orders in the case requires the government to protect the rights of the villagers.
In a letter to her Cabinet colleague V. Kishore Chandra Deo, Ms. Natarajan has said: “According to the Supreme Court’s judgment and the Forest Rights Act, rejection by even one palli sabha [village council] would require the project to be rejected.”
But she has expressed concerns about the reaction of the State government to the decisions of the village councils. “The State government may seek to turn its own agenda on its head and claim that the small number of villages [which voted] meant that the decision was influenced by ‘vested interests.’ This would then become a battle over perceptions and the State may take the issue back to court, prolonging the affair further.”