Electoral bonds: At least 4 companies that gave over Rs 100 cr have history of violating green norms, tribal rights

We looked at four companies whose mining & infrastructure projects have been opposed by locals; cumulatively, they paid Rs 1,664 crore to political parties through electoral bonds

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Friday 15 March 2024
Photo: Archives

The Election Commission of India March 14, 2024 made public the details of electoral bonds purchased and encashed, on the order of the Supreme Court. The data, submitted to ECI by  The State Bank of India, was released in two tranches – one with the details of the purchasers and the other with the details of the political parties – that didn’t allow the link to be made between which party received money from which firm.

But the other list with the names of political parties that withdrew money makes it clear that Bharatiya Janata Party was the largest beneficiary, collecting more than Rs 6,000 crore since 2019. Trinamool Congress came second with over Rs 1,600 crore in electoral bond money. 

A quick analysis of the first list throws up names of some well-known industries, many of which made news for their projects that were met with local resistance because of their environmental impact.

We take a look at some of them:

1. Vedanta; Rs 400.65 crore: We begin with the Vedanta group whose mining project in Odisha led to the country’s first public referendum to decide the fate of a mining project. A subsidiary of the company operates an aluminum refinery at Lanjigarh in Odisha, at the base of Niyamgiri hills, which has been known to pollute the surrounding air and waterbodies and cause mysterious illnesses such as skin disease and rashes in the residents.

Watch: Locals talk about fly ash dumping by Vedanta in the Vansadhara River and sudden spurt in skin infections in their children, adults

The landmark case was against a bauxite mining project proposed by the company at the top of the hill. Studies showed that this open cast mine would cause immense ecological damage to the region.

Read more: A brief report on ecological and biodiversity importance of Niyamgiri Hill and implications of bauxite mining

Moreover, it would snatch away several rights of the Dongria Kondh tribal community that lives in the area and venerates the Niyamgiri hills. After a decade of suffering and protests, the rights of the indigenous people over the land were recognised by the Supreme Court, which stated that they would decide whether Vedanta could go ahead with the project or not. The 12 villages which were invited for the referendum unanimously voted against the 650-acre bauxite mining project.  

“This norm of obtaining free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous communities before introducing a project on their territories is a major shift from the earlier requirement of consultation or mere participation in decision-making,” according to an analysis carried in Down To Earth (DTE). “Free means there should be an absence of intimidation, coercion and manipulation while obtaining consent; prior means consent must precede any project activity; and informed ensures that all necessary and material information is shared transparently with the community for an informed choice.” 

Even the Lanjigarh alumina refinery by the company was met with opposition when it was proposed, following scientific reports that warned of the ecological degradation that would folllow.

A study by Orissa-based forum Environment Protection Group (EPG) pointed out that bauxite deposits are situated on the upper portion of hills as porous and permeable 'caps' that are good retainers of groundwater. “Located at great heights, these deposits effectively act as overhead aquifers, similar to the glaciers in the Himalayas, feeding rivers with water...Mining of bauxite will destroy the aquifers,” it explained. 

The Central Empowered Committee, created by the Supreme Court to deal with a range of forest-related matters, affirmed this in its report: “The hills form the origin of Vamsadhara river. The rivulets coming across these hills are sources of water for local communities. Any mining in this area is bound to destroy its biodiversity and affect the availability of water for local people."

Most of the 25 commonly found wildlife species in the area belong to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature list of endangered species, EPG had pointed out. 

In 2011, a red mud pond of the company’s aluminium refinery that contained mineral waste birst after a spell of heavy rainfall. Waste seeped into waterbodies nearby and killed fish populations “within 15 minutes of mixing with the dam water”, locals shared. 

Watch: Red mud pond bursts in Lanjigarh, Odisha 

Ironically, in 2009, the company was selected for the ‘Golden Peacock’ award for excellence in environmental management of its alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa by the World Environment Foundation. Activists stormed the award ceremony being held in Himachal Pradesh and accused the organisers of ‘greenwashing the environmental crimes’ of Vedanta. Following this, the group withdrew the award. 

Violence has never stopped in the area during protests against the refinery: 2 killed, 50 injured in clash at Vedanta’s refinery in Lanjigarh. 

In October 2020, Vedanta Group’s Hindustan Zinc Limited signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gujarat government to set up a smelter plant in the southern district of Tapi, estimated to be the subsidiary’s largest. 

In 2021, tribal communities protested saying the project was planned without their consultation. 

To assess the impact of the proposed zinc smelter on surrounding areas, a fact-finding team of 25 activists and residents from Tapi visited Rajasthan in June 2021 to inspect villages around HZL’s mine and smelting complexes in Rajsamand and Udaipur districts. They came across employees of Rajsamand plant who were diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood. 

Effluents from the pond have leached into fields and destroyed crops. We saw stunted maize plants; farmers say the yield has reduced to four sacks per beegha (0.25 ha) from seven sacks,” Pramila Gamit of Chapaldhara village, also a member of the fact-finding team, was cited in a Down To Earth article.

“Water from hand pumps and wells within the 10 km radius of the plant has turned to the colour of tea. It is no longer potable and animals have died after drinking it,” she told DTE

Now, local villagers of Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Odisha have expressed fear of environmental degradation and loss of livelihood due to the proposed Sijimali Bauxite Mines by Vendanta Ltd.

The concerns were raised by the locals during the public hearing for the proposed mining area of 1,549 hectares on October 18, 2023. 

2. Utkal Alumina; Rs 145 crore: Another mining company that met with massive protests from villagers in Odisha is Utkal Alumina International Limited. The locals were resisting the setting up of an alumina refinery plant by the company near Bagrijhola village in Kashipur block, Rayagada district of Odisha. "On December 16, 2004, nearly 10,000 villagers, mostly tribals, vowed to intensify their protest against the project. It was the fourth death anniversary of the three tribals killed in police firing in Kashipur while protesting bauxite-mining activities in the area," reported DTE. They claimed that the Naveen Patnaik government is in a hurry to make the Rs 4,000 crore project, of Utkal Alumina International Limited, operational.

In 2009, the company received environmental clearance for carrying out mining in Baphlimali hill, located on the border of the bauxite-rich Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. But it was later contested that the company supressed the fact that the project has been planned over forest land. 

The petition stated that the mining lease measuring 1,388 hectares also included 233 hectares of forest land. “Both, the mining and refinery unit of UAIL are operating since 2013. The environmental clearance for mining for a capacity of 8.5 million tonne per annum was granted on February 19, 2009 and the same has been obtained by supressing the fact that forest land is involved in the project,” the lawyer, Shankar Pani told Down To Earth.

In 2016, NGT sent notices to the Odisha government for issuing the environmental clearance to the company. 

Robert goodland, an environmental scientist, released a report on Canadian mining giant Alcan's involvement with the Utkal Alumina and bauxite project in Kashipur. The report reveals series of human rights abuses on adivasis protesting the project, DTE wrote. The scientist's investigation confirmed reports of brutality, atrocities and massacre of adivasis by police trying to accelerate the project.

"Under sustained public pressure, Canadian company Alcan has finally agreed to release documents pertaining to the likely environmental impact of its controversial bauxite mining project as well as its proposed aluminium plant in Kashipur village of Orissa's Rayagada district," DTE reported in May 2004. 

Despite these problems, the company proposed an expansion of the refinery from 1 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to 3 MTPA; increasing the power generation capacity of the captive power plant from 50 MW to 90 MW; and for expanding the mine output of the captive bauxite mining from 3 MTPA to 8.5 MTPA. But an analysis of the environment impact assessment reports are the expansion showed several glaring problems, both legal and environmental. "

The EIA report has completely missed out on addressing the issue of cumulative impact on the Indravati River Basin and its resultant impact on people and habitat dependent on this river." There is no analysis on the reduction in flow of Indravati River due to disappearance of streams originating in Baphlimali hills or the loss of catchment area for setting of the plant.

"Indravati River is the lifeline of Bastar and Dantewar district and forms an important link within the conservation areas in the vast forest belt extending into Chhattaisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. For instance, Indravati Tiger Reserve is highly dependent on the Indravati river. In such a scenario, the impact of this project will not only be local but will be regional. This impact has not been captured in the entire EIA report."

The EIA report has completely failed to address the issue of increase in siltation in the Upper Indravati Reservoir. This reservoir supplies water to the water-scarce Kalahandi district of Orissa, the analysts noted. 

3. Jindal Group, Rs 153 crore: Several mining projects by the Jindal group have been idenified as polluting and in violation of human rights. In 2020, NGT slapped a fine of Rs 160 crore on the company for damaging the environment in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district. The project was opposed by the local communities

The villagers in Bhadres, Barmer also staged protests in 2008 against land acquisition for Jindal group's power plant and lignite mine coming up in the area. 

Read more: Jindal power plant risk to alphonsos in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri

In 2021, NGT ordered Jindal Steel to pay Rs 2 crore for ‘destroying’ Odisha nullah.

4. Megha Engineering; Rs 966 crore: Our last candidate is actually the biggest donor to political parties through electoral bonds, as revealed by the SBI data. The Hyderabad-based company grew in stature over the last few years and received many civic infrastructure tenders across the country. Notably, the company was pulled up by courts for its Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project on allegations of environmental violations. In 2022,  the Supreme Court ordered status quo on the project after it was told Telangana government was increasing the capacity of the project without any environmental clearances, DTE reported. 

Its other major work includes the ongoing Zojila tunnel that will provide all-weather connectivity to Ladakh and is the longest of its kind in Asia. 

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