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Niyamgiri: A temporary reprieve

The Dongria Kondh know that their battle against Vedanta and for the preservation of their sacred Niyamgiri is not over in a state where money matters, people and the environment don’t, reports Ranjan K Panda from Orissa

Present secured future uncertain

Caught red-handed in a green crime, the government of Orissa is in damage control mode.  It is making all-out efforts to not only please the mighty Vedanta but also divert public attention to other issues like the Polavaram controversy.  Or else its image of clean governance, despite the multi-crore mining scam and the killing of innocent tribals and poor who have been resisting its no-holds-barred industrial drive, will be shattered. 

On August 24, 2010, India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh put a stop to Vedanta’s plan to mine the sacred Niyamgiri, abode of Niyamraja, god of the Dongria Kondh tribals. The decision was celebrated all across the globe by environmentalists and tribal rights activists.

The 10,000-odd tribals, who have remained neglected by successive governments of Orissa as no basic amenities reached them even after six decades of independence, have got extraordinary support from environmental organisations and activists throughout their four-year struggle.  But they have got no support from the Naveen Patnaik government, which has stood by the billionaire Anil Agarwal, Vedanta’s (Vedanta Alumina Ltd) owner, against its own people. 

On August 22, the first farmer suicide case of this season, triggered by a truant monsoon, was reported in Orissa. Neither Patnaik nor any of his ministers or partymen took cognizance of it. However, a day before Ramesh’s rejection of forest clearance to Vedanta’s mining project was announced, Chief Minister Patnaik rushed to Delhi to lobby for Vedanta and POSCO. The CM tried everything to retain the $ 1.7 billion investment plan.  Money matters, people and the environment don’t. 

“There has been a very serious violation of the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act,” said Jairam Ramesh.  He blamed Vedanta, the Orissa Mining Corporation, and state officials for the violations. 

Earlier, in Vedanta’s deposition before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court, the company tried to delink the refinery project from mining, whereas during a hearing at the Supreme Court, it took a completely different stand and tried to justify its existence by citing how it had invested in the development of the region.  Interestingly, the company’s environment clearance application for the alumina refinery did not mention mining Niyamgiri.  The Supreme Court, in a controversial decision, had allowed the operation of the refinery in the foothills of Niyamgiri without taking into consideration the hidden agenda of Vedanta.  In fact, had the court taken prompt action on the petition filed against the Lanjigarh refinery with the CEC in November 2004, things could have been different.  The CEC, in September 2005, had recommended that the environment clearance for the refinery be revoked, but the SC took too long – till April 2007 -- to hear the matter.  In the meantime the refinery was already built and Vedanta, in connivance with the state government, successfully managed to market the investment already made as a valid reason for getting the nod to continue operations.  As a report in The Times of India puts it, “When the court passed its first order in November 2007, it declared that the refinery would be allowed to operate provided Sterlite, a subsidiary of Vedanta, adopted the rehabilitation package it had devised. But when Sterlite accordingly came forward with a fresh application, the court's final order of August 2008 said nothing about whether the environmental clearance given to the refinery was valid or not. Instead, the court granted forest clearance to the mining project on Niyamgiri, although it was an independent issue.” 

It is this controversial SC judgment that the Orissa government kept using as a weapon to justify the violations of forest and environment laws by Vedanta and its own machineries.  The environment and forest ministry’s rejection of forest clearance exposed the falsehood under cover of which Patnaik aggressively lobbied with the centre. Citing the Attorney-General’s opinion, Ramesh made clear that he was free to decide on the final clearance despite the SC ruling.  Things have changed since the August 2008 ruling of the SC and new developments have occurred which confirm that forest and environment laws have been violated, Ramesh further stated. Ramesh accepted the recommendation of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to withdraw the Stage I forest clearance granted in 2008, and rejected the Stage II clearance that the promoters had applied for.  In light of this, the environmental clearance will also become invalid. 

So, what had started on February 28, 2005 as a joint venture between the British mining company Vedanta Resources and the Orissa state government to convert 660.749 hectares of pristine land into a giant bauxite mine for the refinery at the foothills of the mountains, was declared null and void on August 24, 2010 with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) formally rejecting the proposal of clearing forests for mining in Niyamgiri. 

This is not all. The N C Saxena Committee has raised several other important and pertinent issues based on which the MoEF has, in its order, said that it will investigate allegations that bauxite for Vedanta’s Orissa refinery is being sourced from 14 Jharkhand mines, of which at least 11 do not have a valid environmental clearance.  He also informed that MoEF will be issuing a show-cause notice threatening cancellation of the license given to the refinery itself, which has illegally grabbed village forest lands and carried out a six-fold expansion without permission.  The N C Saxena Committee, based on whose recommendations the NAC advised the MoEF to take the final decision, castigated the company for flouting all possible laws including the Forests Right Act, Forest Conservation Act, Environment Protection Act and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. 

Vedanta is doing all it can to refute the charges and see that it is not out of business in the state.  It continues to maintain that the mines it sources bauxite from are all legal and that it has paid royalty and transport duty for each kilogram of bauxite sourced and transported from all the mines.  

Lada - a leader of the agitation - was beaten up by police

The tribals know their Niyamgiri is safe for now.  But they also know that the battle is not over, especially in a state where the government sides with corporations. They know they are being victimised in the name of anti-Maoist operations.  On August 9, Lada Sikaka Majhi, a leader of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Parishad (NSP), was picked up by about 15 plainclothes policemen with machine guns and held in the Rayagada police station where he was beaten up without any reason for four days.  They called him a Maoist and kept him for four days before freeing him with wounds that clearly show how tribals are being stripped of dignity by state machinery at the behest of profit-making corporations.  Later, Lada was released and even though there is no case registered against him, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an opposition party in the Orissa state assembly, is making a big issue of how a Dongria Kondh tribal who is an alleged “Maoist” shared the stage with Rahul Gandhi when he visited Niyamgiri to show his support for the tribal cause. Some media houses too are playing up this alleged “Maoist” angle. 

Reporting on the last AGM of Vedanta shareholders, Peter Popham wrote that Mukesh Kumar, Vedanta’s top officer at the Lanjigarh Refinery, caught on the wrong foot by shareholders increasingly doubting Vedanta’s corporate ethics, went to the extent of claiming that the tribe no longer worships the mountain and welcomes the mine!  The Vedanta official was disconcerted when an activist present at the AGM asked him a simple question: By what name do the Dongria Kondh refer to Niyamgiri, their holy mountain?  “The silence was deafening – until filled by the boos and catcalls of the activist-shareholders at the meeting, which from that point onwards went downhill,” reported Popham.  

Knowing that a company will do everything it can to earn profits, Lada and his tribesmen refuse to be complacent at the MoEF’s verdict.  Barely a month before this verdict, one of their fellow tribals and anti-Vedanta campaigner Adasi Majhi, who had deposed before the N C Saxena Committee, was found murdered.  Everyone in the state of Orissa knows that no real investigation will follow. With the opposition party singing the ruling party’s tune, the Kondhs have a long battle on their hands.  As the Hindustan Times reported, Kumti Majhi, President of NSP, says, “Our mountain has been saved, but the rakshas (Vedanta factory) too has to go. The dust from the factory is spreading, killing our cows and goats."

Vedanta is now asking the government of Orissa to give it bauxite from other mines.  “Preferably from a 30-40 km range including Karlapat,” as Mukesh Kumar said in an interview to a local TV channel.  This might mean that the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary could be the next battlefield.  And the Gandhamardan sacred hills may well be the next target as well.  The tribes there have successfully fought BALCO two-and-a-half decades ago and are preparing another phase of battle.  This time however they have to be more solid and strategic as the Orissa government is completely on the other side!  The battle is on. 

(Ranjan K Panda is an environmentalist and freelance journalist based out of Orissa) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2010