Legal landmine

Legal landmine

recently concluded session of the Orissa legislative assembly once again witnessed a furore over the Rs 4,500 crore alumina refinery project of Vedanta Alumina Limited (val), a subsidiary of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited (siil), in the poverty-stricken Kalahandi district. Four youths from the district disrupted the house’s proceedings by shouting slogans against the venture from the assembly’s visitors’ gallery. In an earlier session, chief minister Naveen Patnaik had got his leg fractured when members of the opposition Congress party created a pandemonium in the well of the house opposing the deal. Many environmentalists and the civil society also charge val with violating forest laws and human rights. Both the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) and the state government are accused of acting hand in glove with val, disregarding environmental concerns.

val had, on June 7, 2003, entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Orissa government to set up an alumina complex, comprising a one metric tonne per annum (mtpa) alumina refinery plant, a three mtpa bauxite mining facility and a 75 megawatt captive power plant at Lanjigarh. To feed its refinery, val signed a lease agreement with Orissa Mining Corporation Limited in October 2004 to jointly mine bauxite from Niyamgiri hills. Mining is to be conducted over a forest area of 672.018 hectares (ha) situated in Niyamgiri Reserve Forest of Kalahandi (South) Forest Division, Khambesi and Niyamgiri Proposed Reserve Forest and Jungle Block (Protected Forest) of Rayagada Forest Division. Orissa Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited has already acquired 313.8 ha land from six villages (Kinari, Borbhatta, Bandhaguda, Kothadwar, Bundle and Sindhabhal). The project would also cover over 26.1 ha of village forests.

Why the opposition? A study by Orissa-based forum Environment Protection Group (epg) points out that bauxite deposits are situated on the upper portion of hills as porous and permeable ‘caps’ that are good retainers of ground water. “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 explains. The Central Empowered Committee (cec), created by the Supreme Court (sc) to deal with a range of forest-related matters, affirms 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.” epg also seeks to underline that 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.

Niyamgiri Hill is also believed to be the only abode of one of most primitive tribes, the Dongria Kondh, of which there are only about 7,000 people left. The project will deprive them of their livelihood. The tribes of Orissa already suffer a lot because the state has not settled their land rights. They are at the mercy of the forest department, which treats them as encroachers. In this, cec has equally hurt them. cec has earlier expressed grave concern on Orissa forest department not owning and controlling forest, thereby disregarding the non-settlement of tribal rights.

MoEF’s a party
The val project comprises mining and refinery. While environmental clearance for mining is pending, moef worked overtime to clear the refinery project on September 22, 2004. This violated the environmental impact assessment (eia) rules , under which projects can’t be cleared in parts. There are charges that the refinery’s construction commenced before September 22. “It is a clear violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (fca) , as the area includes around 58 ha of forestland…The state machinery backed the scheme,” says Biswajit Mohanty, secretary, Wildlife Society of Orissa, an ngo.

The fact that the refinery would cover forestland was suppressed in the application for environmental clearance. Neither moef, nor the state government bothered to verify; otherwise, the project would have required clearance under fca, which would have delayed it and also necessitated payment of compensation. moef is also accused of violating its own circular that prohibits permission to projects requiring diversion of forestlands in Schedule V areas, which enjoy special constitutional protection to benefit tribal populations.

Also, as per fca guidelines, if parts of a project involve the use of forestland, construction work of even those parts which involve the use of non-forest land cannot begin unless complete clearance is acquired. moef, then, shouldn’t have permitted the company to start work on the refinery, even if the company claimed it did not involve the use of forestland. Even when legal proceedings, to which moef was a party, started in the cec , the ministry did not try to halt construction at the site, which still continues at a breakneck pace.

The state government too
The state government’s complicity is evident in that the district collector in his notice to acquire private lands had categorised some plots as “village forest lands”, annulling the possibility of private ownership. Eyebrows have also been raised over the way the state government and val treaded to get the scheme implemented. At the time of the October 2004 pact, neither of the two possessed even a single mine. “How can anybody enter into an agreement to deliver property which it does not own?” questions Mohanty.

In December 2004, three public interest litigations were filed in the sc against the state government: one by Mohanty, another by R Shreedar of ngo Mines, Minerals and People, and a third by Prafulla Samantra, a tribal rights activist. sc’s cec sent a two member fact-finding team to the site on December 19, 2004. The team submitted a report pointing out that an alumina refinery could damage the area’s rich biodiversity and affect the source of two major south Orissa rivers. val approached the sc in May 2005 to quash cec proceedings. But the court held that the proceedings would continue; it also directed moef to file its pending affidavit with the cec and asked cec to submit its final report by July 2005. cec chairperson and a member inspected the site again on June 14-15, 2005. Their report is awaited.

During the cec hearing, the petitioners alleged that moef and state government had acted in haste to help the company at any cost, due to several factors. While the incremental demand for alumina in 2004-2005 was estimated at 5.4 million tonnes, the supply was just 2.7 million tonnes. Also, metal analysts had predicted that metal prices would touch Rs 16,280 per tonne and further increase to Rs 19,360 per tonne in 2005. In addition, siil’s alumina refinery in Chhatisgarh was short in bauxite ore supply and siil had also embarked on a major expansion of its Korba refinery