People in southern Orissa fighting against mining in the Niyamgiri hills have got a respite -- but it could be short-lived. On November 23, the Supreme Court of India refused to give permission to Vedanta Alumina Limited, an associate of Sterlite Industries of India Limited, to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills. The apex court, however, gave leave to Sterlite Industries, in which London-based Vedanta Resources Plc holds an 80 per cent stake, to approach the court, provided it met certain conditions.
"We are not inclined to grant approval to the said project," a bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice S H Kapadia ruled. It expressed doubts over the employment the project would generate for local people. The bench took into consideration the decision of the Norway government barring its pension fund from investing in Vedanta Resources and its Indian associates on ethical grounds (see box: Vedanta blacklisted). The bench noted that although news reports about the Norwegian government's decision could not be verified, it could not risk handing over a national asset--the mining site--to the company unless completely satisfied. "We welcome the court's verdict. It has done the right thing by ignoring the environment and forest ministry's clearance for the mining project," said Prafulla Samantray, president, Lok Shakti Abhiyan, an Orissa-based ngo fighting the Vedanta project.
The court ruled that the mining project could only be taken up by a special-purpose vehicle (spv) comprising the Orissa government, state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation and Sterlite Industries. It directed Sterlite to furnish to the supreme court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (cec) a list of local people, including those belonging to tribal communities, who would get permanent employment under the project. The list should include people who have lost land to the project and would get permanent employment. The court also directed that 5 per cent of the project's annual profits or Rs 10 crore, whichever is higher, must be given to the state government for the development of the scheduled area.
According to Sreedhar R, director of the Academy for Mountain Environics, Dehradun, the judgement seems to be pleasing both parties. "On the one hand, the apex court raises doubts about the credibility of Vedanta Alumina, while, on the other hand, it leaves a way out for the company to reapply by forming an spv," he says. The main concern, adds Sreedhar, "is that the supreme court did not rely on the ecological and social impact of the project in delivering its order, but based it on the issue of the company's credibility".
On several occasions in the past, cec had recommended revoking the environmental clearance given to the mining project citing irregularities (see 'Undermined', Down To Earth, July 15, 2007). But the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (m o ef) saw the project as beneficial. In its report filed on October 5, 2007, the ministry stopped short of saying that mining will benefit the ecology of Niyamgiri. The note, though not in the form of an affidavit, was the ministry's opinion on whether mining should be allowed in the Niyamgiri hills. moef claims that mining activity will enhance the recharge of groundwater in the region.
"Due to bauxite mining micro-cracks are likely to develop along the hill slopes, which will help seepage of water and augment groundwater recharge and consequently stream flow. Hence the streams originating from hill slopes will maintain their flow and will be benefited due to the mining operations in contrast to the pre-mining situation," the note states. It adds that once mining is over, loose lateritic soil will be refilled in the excavated space and allow greater percolation of water.
cec had stated exactly the opposite in its report filed in September 2005 and in subsequent reports. The 2005 report had contended that the bauxite deposits under the top soil in Niyamgiri were porous and helped water retention, giving rise to a number of streams in the area. "In the present case, the mining of bauxite deposits on the top of the Niyamgiri will mean the water capacity will be destroyed and the entire system of the perennial springs will be adversely affected," the cec report stated. Apart from bauxite mining, cec also objected to diverting forest land for an alumina refinery. In its latest report filed in February 2007, cec said, "Use of 660 hectares of the forest land for the project associated with the alumina refinery of Messrs Vedanta should not be considered for approval."
According to Felix Padel, a British anthropologist working with Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri for 25 years, the moef document has misrepresented facts to the extent that it appears to have been prepared by Vedanta itself. "The note refers to bauxite mining by National Aluminium Company in Koraput district of Orissa having brought economic prosperity to the area through direct and indirect employment and support services. This is a complete distortion of the facts--a Planning Commission report in 2003 showed Koraput as the 10th most backward district in a list of 447," Padel says.
A few days before the court verdict, seven members of the Dongria Kondh community campaigning in Delhi to garner support against the project, presented the Norwegian ambassador, Ann Ollestad, with a memorandum of gratitude. They also met tribal affairs minister P R Kyndiah. "We are content being agriculturists. Why does the government want to turn us into miners?" asked Jeetu Jatiska, a member of the delegation.