New Delhi: Seven out of 12 village councils have now rejected Vedanta Resources Plc.’s proposal to mine for bauxite in Orissa’s Niyamgiri hills, potentially ending the decade-long struggle between local residents and the London-based miner that wanted to source the ore crucial for its alumina refinery.
The Supreme Court in April said a ban on Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri hills would remain until local gram sabhas conducted a study and filed a report on whether it could be allowed to mine in the area.
The Orissa government identified 12 villages to prepare the reports.
In its order, the apex court gave gram sabhas in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts three months to prepare their reports on whether bauxite mining can be allowed and to what extent.
All seven villages where gram sabha meetings have been conducted for the purpose till now—the latest was on Monday—have rejected Vedanta’s proposal to mine in the area, said Sidharth Nayak of Green Kalahandi, an Orissa-based not-for-profit body.
“This village (Phuldumer) repeated what the previous villages have said against the mining. This was a unanimous no. But this village is more significant than the others because it is a village where Vedanta was doing development work to convince the villagers for the mining,” Nayak said.
P.K. Nayak, block development officer of Lanjigarh, under which Phuldumer village falls, said over the phone that the villagers were “not ready for mining in Niyamgiri”.
Ijirupa, another village in Lanjigarh block, will hold a meeting on Tuesday to give its opinion on bauxite mining in the hills, he said.
The latest gram sabha decision means a majority of the 12 villages that are being officially consulted by the Orissa authorities have rejected the proposal, Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Today’s vote surely means the end of Vedanta’s plans to mine the Niyamgiri Hills—a project that would violate the community’s economic, social and cultural rights and almost certainly their rights as indigenous peoples,” Ramesh Gopalakrishnan of Amnesty International said in the statement. “After struggling for a decade against the threat to their way of life, the Dongria Kondh have now finally been able to assert their right not to consent to the mine.”
Mukesh Kumar, president and chief operating officer (COO), Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, Lanjigarh, declined to comment. “It’s a matter between government of Orissa and government of India,” he said over the phone from London. “I would be able to comment on the development once I return to India.” Kumar was attending a meeting ahead of Vedanta Resources’ annual general meeting on 1 August.
Vedanta’s one million tonne per annum alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, about 600 km from Bhubaneswar, could never operate at full capacity due to a shortage of bauxite, a key raw material to produce alumina, and is now closed.
Vedanta has a joint venture with state-owned Odisha Mining Corp. Ltd (OMC) to develop a bauxite mine in Niyamgiri hills and supply the material to Vedanta’s alumina refinery. The apex court’s ruling in April came in a case pitting OMC against the environment ministry.
In its order, a bench headed by justice Aftab Alam said the gram sabhas should consider whether scheduled tribes and traditional forest dwellers in the area had any religious rights or rights of worship over the Niyamgiri hills, and to examine if the proposed mining area would affect the abode of the local deity.
“The gram sabha is also free to consider all the community, individual as well as cultural and religious claims, over and above the claims which have already been received from Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Any such fresh claims be filed before the gram sabha within six weeks from the date of this judgement,” the bench said.
“On the conclusion of the proceeding before the gram sabha determining the claims submitted before it, the MoEF (environment ministry) shall take a final decision on the grant of stage II clearance for the bauxite mining project in the light of the decisions of the gram sabha within two months thereafter,” it added.
The environment ministry had cancelled stage II forest clearance granted to Vedanta’s bauxite project in August 2010.
Bhavesh Chauhan, an analyst at Angel Broking Ltd, said it wasn’t a surprise that the villages had rejected Vedanta’s mining plan. “Orissa government may give an alternate bauxite source to the company, but that may take years. The company’s aluminium production is anyway in trouble and this does not help,” he said.
Ruchira Singh in Mumbai contributed to this report.