London tycoon caught up in Indian jungle mine warPublished by MAC on 2006-06-04
London tycoon caught up in Indian jungle mine war
Dean Nelson, Lanjigarh and Michael Gillard, Sunday Times (London)
4th June 2006
A COMPANY belonging to one of Britain's richest men is embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with tribesmen trying to block a new mine in a remote Indian jungle.
Vedanta Resources, owned by the billionaire Anil Agarwal, denies it is linked to the deaths of three people protesting against its £424m bauxite mine, which is being constructed on a sacred mountain in the state of Orissa.
The mountain, Niyamgiri, is worshipped by local tribes, who fear that their forest livelihoods will be destroyed by the project. The tribesmen say their land was confiscated without compensation.
Agarwal, 53, is ranked 28th in The Sunday Times Rich List with a fortune of £1.68 billion. A former scrap metal dealer, he lives in a £20m mansion in Mayfair and is set to spend £530m on building Vedanta University, an "Indian Harvard", in Orissa.
The state government is grateful for his investment, which will bring jobs and money to an area where the indigenous people have traditionally lived off the forest producing lentils, castor oil and mango paste.
Many tribespeople oppose the mining and processing scheme, however, and have clashed repeatedly with police and security guards. In the past 14 months three tribesmen, including two leaders of the campaign against the mine, have been found dead in apparently suspicious circumstances.
Sukra Majhi, a farmer from Konsari village, was run over in March last year as he was drumming up support for a rally. His widow Kadodei, 35, blames the company.
"I don't believe his death was an accident," she said. "The company told the police that he was the leader and was organising all the villagers."
Dungriya Harizan, another leading protester, died by the road last October after he had threatened to sue the company for compensation. "Someone beat him severely," his son Ravi said.
In January this year Gutu Majhi, a casual labourer at Vedanta, died after sustaining leg wounds just outside the plant. He was involved in the protest movement.
The local police chief, VSCS Rao, rejected suggestions that the three men were murdered, however. "I do not think someone has intentionally killed them," he said.
Denying that Sukra Majhi had been killed in a hit- and-run incident, Sumanth Cidambi, a director of Vedanta, said none of the men who died was known to the company as campaigners. Guards had been warned to treat the tribespeople with sensitivity, he said.
Cidambi also denied any human rights abuses and said Vedanta's compensation payments were "the best package offered by any company so far".
Vedanta had built a new housing colony, a school and health centre, Cidambi said, and of 260 families affected by the project, only 103 had been displaced. One person from each had been offered jobs, he added.
An Indian Supreme Court committee called last September for an independent inquiry into allegations of abuse by Vedanta's guards. It found that the company had misled local officials to gain permission to clear the land and it recommended that the Niyamgiri mine should be scrapped.
"Serious allegations have been made about the use of force for evacuating the tribal people from their land," the committee's report said.