Bibhuti Pati
Bhubaneswar, MAY 9, 2012

THE CENTRE has asked the Odisha government to furnish the physical verification report on diversion of forestland for the expansion of the Vedanta alumina project and its captive power plant at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. It was on this ground that the Centre had earlier stopped Vedanta’s 2 May public hearing in Lanjigarh.

On 17 April, the Centre had sent a letter to the Odisha government to ask for documents on diversion of forestland for the expansion of the alumina refinery from 1 mt per annum (mtpa) to six mtpa plant as it involved forestland. However, the state government is yet to submit all the documents.

On 26 April, the Centre sent a reminder to the Odisha government. In this, director, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), PL Ahujarai wrote, the plant area in Lanjigarh involves 28.943 hectare (ha) of village forest land. He adds, “The requirement of diversion of forest land under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, is yet to be resolved. The matter regarding access to the villagers has not been satisfactorily addressed.” The Centre has also made it clear that environmental clearance to the project, expansion of the alumina refinery plant and captive power plant from 75 mw to 285 mw would be accorded only after the issue on public hearing was resolved. A detailed report to this effect based on a joint field verification report by the revenue department and forest department was also sent to the chief conservator of forest on 25 October 2011, and it was also forwarded to the ministry of environment and forests. “Hence, there is no pending issue of gramya jungle jogya land,” the Vedanta official said. And for once, Vedanta voiced an opinion about the Odisha government’s role in all this. “Despite investment of nearly Rs 50,000 crore in Odisha, the company has not received any sort of help from the Odisha government,” Vedanta head Mukesh Kumar. “We have to procure raw materials (bauxite) from other states, which will not be viable in the long run,” he said.

Meanwhile, veteran social activists and environmentalist Prafulla Samantara said, “The letter of MOEF to keep abeyance of public hearing on Vedanta’s expansion contains only one objection ie, appropriation of 28 hectare of village forest. But it has ignored other objections with a motive to hide Vedanta’s gross violations of laws.”

The Centre had on 17 April asked for documents on diversion of forestland for the expansion of the alumina refinery

Further, Samantara added, “First, the existing 1 mt capacity for the alumina plant at Lanjigarh is illegal because it has been constructed without forest and mining clearance. Second, construction work for expansion to 6 mt is more than 50 percent complete without any environment and forest clearance. So criminal proceedings should have been taken against the company. The MOEF has directed the state government to take action on violation of forest protection law. But it has not been done.”

Samantara also points out, “In its EIA report, Vedanta has indicated that the nearest source of mining is the Niyamgiri hills. It is a fact that the MOEF had denied mining in Niyamgiri but now the same MOEF accepted mining in Niyamgiri for its expansion when it allowed a public hearing.”

This is why, he says, there should be a firm ban on expansion. As the Odisha government has gone to the Supreme Court against central government’s decision of stopping mining in Niyamgiri, now the same government of India can allow public hearing for expansion on the basis of mining in Niyamgiri. Vedanta got another jolt when its 6 mt capacity production plant expansion proposal congested and the proposed public hearing dated 2 May rejected by MOEF on 17 April. As per the comments of MOEF officials, “There are lots of legal problem and MOEF officials reviewed the whole matter. So it was not possible to give permission for the Vedanta’s 2 May proposed public hearing.”

Former minister, senior Congress leader and Kalahandi Lok Sabha, MP, said “I welcome the MOEF’s timely decision. Vedanta has violated all the forest and environment rules and there us huge violation of human rights. Vedanta almost asked for tough action. How can Vedanta apply in MOEF for expansion when there are so many irregularities?” That the controversies over Niyamgiri mines are still alive was highlighted by the tribal agitation against Vedanta. Recently, hundreds of Dongoria, Jharania and Kutia tribes gheraoed the local police station and went on dharna against Vedanta in Rengopali village.

The tribals alleged police atrocities in connivance with Vedanta officials. This was highlighted by the entire local media. After the massive tribal agitation, Vedanta’s red pond issue, this became a major impediment. The tribals suspect that Vedanta might find a back door as experts are speculating that Vedanta might come up with a joint venture project with L&T to mine Kutru Mali and Silji Mali near Kashipur to feed its Lanjigarh plant, apart from waiting for an opportune time to grab Niyamgiri with the help of both the Odisha government and the MOEF.

That is why the Dongarias and other people will continue fighting for their rights — any kind of complacency will bring doomsday not only for them and their democracy but also for the whole Earth, which holds life in all forms.

[email protected] ,  Tehelka