Mining projects in democracies often make for PR disasters. In India, for example, the Union and state governments hesitate to grant licences for them. What adds to the problem is the fact that more mineral resource-rich regions are home to indigenous communities that have for long languished in poverty. The combination is tailor-made for whipping up sentiments against mining projects.
That is what Amnesty International, a human rights organization, has tried to do in its report Don’t Mine Us Out of Existence: Bauxite Mines and Refinery Devastate Lives in India. The report highlights alleged human rights violations in Lanjigarh in Orissa’s Kalahandi district, where Vedanta Aluminium operates an alumina refinery. Another sore point is the proposal to mine bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is extracted, from the nearby Niyamgiri hills.
There are three issues involved here. First, alleged violations of environmental laws by the company. Amnesty has highlighted instances of leakage of waste from the refinery into the nearby Vamsadhara river. These were documented by the Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB). Second is the issue of lack of consultation of the locals in the process of decision-making on the mining project. Finally, there is the matter of violations of what Amnesty calls human rights.
On all three counts, the organization skates on thin ice. If OSPCB knows about the violation of environmental laws, then it is for the state government to prosecute Vedanta. Amnesty is simply barking up the wrong tree.
The issue of consulting locals in projects is contentious. When Amnesty talks of consultation, it has in mind something close to acquiring permission of every local in the area. This is close to impossible. By now there is a thriving industry of anti-industry/technology activists in India. These individuals are well informed, well funded and are powered by an attitude that believes that industrialization short of absolute approval is evil. In the conditions that prevail in India, it is a sure recipe to kill industrialization.
Finally, consider human rights. The report extends these rights to air, water and other resources. Traditionally, arguments about human rights violations pertain to brutal regimes that arrest, detain and indulge in extra-judicial execution of citizens. Clearly, none of this has happened in Orissa.
Dissent and protest are two essential features of democracy. They certainly are a proud feature of our democracy. But democracy in the absence of economic growth rings hollow. Orissa is one of India’s poorest states. The state government needs resources to fuel growth. If mining projects allow it to get these resources, there is no harm in going ahead with them.
Has Vedanta violated human rights in Lanjigarh? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org