The environment ministry’s rejection of Vedanta Resources Plc’s plan to mine bauxite in Orissa seems, at first sight, to be more ammunition for the usually vitriolic development versus conservation debate. This is especially true because media reports on the four-year-old controversy have tended to focus on tribals who are located in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa. But the ministry’s judgement isn’t about choosing conservation over development. Instead, it sets a very interesting precedent. Its rejection of the project is because the company as well as the state government failed to follow the due process of law that governs such projects.
Indeed, the stage was set for the rejection of the proposal after the N.C. Saxena panel appointed by the ministry established that these violations had indeed taken place. It is to Vedanta’s dubious distinction that its bauxite project is the first to be rejected under the provisions of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, created to recognize the rights of tribals. One of the law’s provisions requires that tribals consent to any project on their land. Here the Saxena panel found serious violations, including falsification of consent certificates. The panel also found the company to be in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 as well as the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The panel also observed that the company had gone ahead with a capacity expansion plan without going in for an environment impact assessment as required under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
The ministry has done well to uphold the process of law. Rule-based regimes are the foundation of strong democracies— and sound market economies. And rule-breakers need to be punished and, more importantly, disincentivized.
The challenge is to ensure that these standards are strictly adhered to in future. This is important because the ministry is already under attack for allegedly playing favourites when it comes to dealing with environmental issues relating to projects located in states governed by the Congress, the dominant party in the United Progressive Alliance coalition. The chief ministers of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, both ruled by rivals of the Congress, have already gone on record to register their protest. The environment ministry has to move quickly to allay such fears by demonstrating through action that it is above reproach. Alternatively, the entire system is in fear of being undermined.
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