MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining remains uphill for Vedanta

Published by MAC on 2010-07-04
Source: The Hindu, Economic Times (2010-06-30)

There's been a lot of recent speculation that Vedanta's flagship bauxite mining project, at Nyamgiri in Orissa, is about to receive the clearance the company has been seeking for the past five years.

Its hopes were boosted recently when the Indian prime minister's office issued a statement saying the project should (with weak conditions) be allowed to proceed.

But, as an article in the Economic Times (June 30) explains, there's still some way to go before Anil Agarwal's potentially destructive venture gets a final go-ahead.

Three days earlier, another Indian correspondent had ably rehearsed the case against the mine and refinery.

And last Friday, the renowned TV comedian and world traveller, Michael Palin, set his own redoutable cap against the Nyamgiri project.

These are issues which Vedanta will ignore at its peril at its Annual General Meeting, to be held in London on July 28th.

Mining remains uphill for Vedanta

Economic Times

30 June 2010

NEW DELHI - THE Anil Agarwal promoted Vedanta Alumina's plans for sourcing bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills in the Kalahandi district of Orissa will have to wait. The environment ministry has set up a four-member committee headed by National Advisory Council member NC Saxena. The other three members of the committee are Dr S Parasuraman, director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences; retired IFS officer Promode Kant, and Amita Baviskar, associate professor at Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth.

In an order issued on Tuesday, the ministry made it clear that a final decision on the application for diversion of forest land cannot be taken without further examination.

With a deadline of July 29, the committee has to ascertain whether the Forest Rights Act has been properly implemented, and to determine the impact of the project on the livelihood, culture and material welfare of the Dongria Kondhs, a notified primitive tribal group, and on the local wildlife and biodiversity. The report will be submitted to director
general of forests P J Dilip Kumar and R H Khwaja, special secretary in the environment ministry.

This in effect means that the Saxena committee will revisit the issues that were studied by the three-member team appointed by the forest advisory committee in January. The environment ministry has been under considerable pressure to grant a final forest clearance to the project. Sources indicated that by appointing the Saxena committee to go over ground that has been already covered, the environment minister has sought to buy time to convince the PMO on the inadvisability of the project.

The pressure on the ministry was on account of a clean chit given to the project on violation of forest laws and its impact on wildlife given by a study team sent by the forest advisory committee in January. The team comprised three members, each responsible for studying for one aspect of the issue.

The report on violations of the Forest Conservation Act was prepared by the chief conservator of forests (central) J K Tewari. Former additional director general (wildlife) at the Wildlife Institute of India Vinod Rishi prepared the report on the project's impact on local wildlife.The study on the impact on the local population was conducted by Usha Ramanathan, an independent legal researcher.

The respective reports by Messrs Tewari and Rishi gave the project a clean chit. Ms Ramanathan was the only member of the team who argued against the project. She questioned the Orissa state government's claim that the Forest Rights Act had been fully implemented. Ms Ramanathan's report gave a clear warning that the project would destroy the local primitive tribal group, Dongria Kondh. According to her, this 7,000-odd strong tribal group would not be able to make the transition from a forest based lifestyle to the one that will be necessitated should the mining project take off.

While forest advisory committee accepted the reports, the ministry was not persuaded to completely accept the recommendations by Messrs Tewari and Rishi. It particularly had a problem with the manner in which Mr Rishi conducted the study. Interestingly,
despite reservations the environment ministry did not commission fresh studies on forest and wildlife issues. On the tribal front, it deftly passed the ball back to the Orissa government asking it to take the matter up with tribal affairs ministry.

However, what the environment ministry did was to hold a final clearance. The decision to withhold clearance was in line with the ministry's July 2009 circular, stating: "State/UT governments, where process of settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act is yet to begin, are required to enclose evidences supporting that settlement of rights under Forest Rights Act, 2006 will be initiated and completed before the final approval for the proposals."

This stance came under attack from the PMO and the company, who argued that the environment ministry's jurisdiction was limited to forest and wildlife matters. The project had been given an "in-principle" clearance in 2008, by Mr Jairam Ramesh's predecessor.

Mr Ramesh, who has been objecting to the concept of in-principle clearances, had told Parliament that "had the tribal act been in place, the chances are that this project (Vedanta) would not have been cleared in the first place." In the past, he has repeatedly stressed that the project would be given forest clearance only after all tribal rights have been settled.


A different kind of red terror

Mahim Pratap Singh

The Hindu

27 June 2010

An alumina refinery in Orissa blithely continues to pollute the surrounding villages, despite the recommendations of the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee that it be closed since it poses environmental and health hazards.

The road from Bhawanipatna to Lanjigrah in Orissa is a bumpy ride through the kodali ghati (banana valley), with stretches of parched forest land interspersed with patches of green. You know it's Vedanta territory when you see the road packed bumper-to-bumper with Vedanta's huge "Bulktainer" trucks carrying alumina from Lanjigarh to Jharsuguda and back.

This view is eventually broken by a large spread of shimmering white sand within a barbed-wire enclosure at Chattrapur village. This is the ash pond of the refinery that contains alumina ash leftover from the processing of bauxite at the refinery of Vedanta Aluminum Ltd (VAL).

Two villages - Borbhata and Kinnari - and 120 families were displaced and resettled to make way for the alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. The irregularities in the displacement and resettlement process, as pointed out by the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee in 2005, is another story.

The more pressing problem at hand is the health and environmental hazards being faced by Rengopali, Banduguda and Chattrapur villages that fall at the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills.

Every morning, the villagers of Rengopalli village wake up to a stuffy smoke cloud enveloping their village. This is dust from the refinery which is located 500 metres from the village. The villagers of Chattrapur face the same problem from the ash pond located just outside the village, which contains the ash slurry generated from the plant.

Rengopalli is also at alarming proximity to the east and west cells of the Red Mud pond built for the refinery's alkaline waste disposal.

Red Mud, which is a mixture of sodium aluminates and un-dissolved bauxite residues containing iron, silicon, and titanium, is the final waste product in the process of extracting alumina from bauxite. In the currently operational west cell, a ton of toxic waste is dumped for every ton of alumina produced in the refinery.

Contested claim

Villagers of both Rengopalli and Banduguda complain of cattle dying and trees not bearing fruit due to water contamination in hand pumps and wells. The company, however, discards any concerns regarding groundwater contamination. "There is absolutely no contamination in ground water due to the red mud pond as enough precautions have been taken by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore while designing the pond and it is being regularly monitored by the State Pollution Control Board," says Dr. Mukesh Kumar, Chief Operations Officer of VAL.

According to the villagers, dust flowing in from the plant side has caused respiratory problems to a number of people and 14 villagers have died over the last two years due to Tuberculosis, a claim which VAL refutes on the ground that dust cannot fly towards the village off the alkaline slurry, as it is wet.

Based on its inspection of the site in December 2008 and February last year, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board directed the company to take measures to control the fugitive dust, improve the housekeeping of the ash pond, stop the seepage of caustic water from pipe lines and to stop the discharge of contaminated water from the refinery's clear water pond into the Vamsadhara among other things.

Another problem being faced by Rengopali is the submergence of a road to Basantpada due to extension of the red mud pond. The company, however, has offered to provide an alternative road from Rengopali to Basantpada, which the villagers have rejected.

They say that once this road is submerged they would have to go through the Niyamgiri hill top to reach the school, which they say would be inconvenient and dangerous for their children.

Another hazardous fallout of the refinery is the environmental damage it is causing to the Vamsadhara River which is the main source of water for the villagers and their cattle.

However, over the last one year, the villagers have been apprehensive of using the water of the river due to pollution. Some of the villagers from Rengopali also complained that during rains, chemical waste from the refinery flows directly into the river

According to the company, the river is absolutely unharmed as far as the dumping of effluents is concerned. "The recent inspection by SPCB on 03-04-03-2010 on the direction of Central Pollution Control Board has shown that there is no impact and surface water pH is below 7.5. Further, no case of death due to TB in last 8 years could be established as mentioned by villagers. Further, our plant is a Zero discharge plant and there is no question of discharge of any type of treated or untreated effluent from company to Vansdhara River," says Dr. Kumar.

Ignored recommendation

In 2004, the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee had deputed a fact-finding team consisting of S.C. Sharma, Former Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife), MoEF and S.K. Chadha, Assistant Inspector General of Forests (Wildlife), MoEF to carry out site visits in December, 2004. In its report submitted to the court in 2005, the CEC recommended closure of the project citing grave environmental and human rights concerns.

The CEC noted that "the Red Mud Pond and the Ash Pond are being established on the banks of river Vamsdhara with a part of the river actually covered by the red mud pond. A flash flood in the river can cause a breach in the pond resulting in a massive spill in the river of noxious and poisonous red mud which is a mix of highly toxic alkaline chemicals and heavy metals including radioactive element all of which could have disastrous consequences".

It also cautioned that dangerous heavy metals and chemicals may leach the ground water and destroy all the plant life that comes into contact with it. The report further said that the rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by VAL had "glossed over this aspect" and was not sufficient for a project of this magnitude and thus required a much larger, more comprehensive EIA.

Surprisingly, in a 2008 judgment, the Supreme Court ignored the findings of its own committee and allowed the construction of the refinery to proceed, albeit under the banner of Sterlite Industries India Ltd. (SIIL) instead of VAL, a distinction that is practically meaningless as SIIL is a subsidiary of VAL.

This led many to raise eyebrows, including Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, as it was the first incidence where the court had differed from the CEC recommendations.

 

Bulldozer threat to forest people


 

 

 

Letter to The Independent

1 July 2010

At least your Business section is commendably honest about claiming the moral low ground: "If you can stomach it, Vedanta is a good buy" (30 June).

I certainly couldn't stomach it. But then I've been to the Nyamgiri Hills in Orissa and seen the forces of money and power that Vedanta Resources have arrayed against a people who have occupied their land for thousands of years, who husband the forest sustainably and make no great demands on the state or the government. The tribe I visited simply want to carry on living in the villages that they and their ancestors have always lived in.

Vedanta shares will doubtless go up when and if permission is granted to bulldoze their sacred hills in order to extract bauxite. If you want to make some money out of that, as The Independent recommends, that's up to you. If, on the other hand, you have any reservations about destroying a way of life, you might wish to pause, think and read a little more about what's going on in the Nyamgiri Hills.

Michael Palin , London NW5 

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