Beginning 18 July and running to the end of the month, government-monitored council meetings in a dozen villages—gram sabha, or palli sabha in Orissa—will be held in the area around the Niyamgiri hills in that state’s Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, to decide whether residents approve the mining of bauxite at Niyamgiri to feed Vedanta Resources Plc’s alumina refinery in the nearby village of Lanjigarh. This comes in the wake of a Supreme Court order in April to follow such due process to once and for all set to rest the dispute to mine, or not.

Concerns have already been raised about whether the Orissa government’s decision to conduct such meetings in only 12 villages inhabited by the Dongria Kondh tribe, which worships the bauxite-laden range as the residence of Niyam Raja, perceived as an all-providing God, would be representative. The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, or the committee to protect Niyamgiri, claims residents of more than 160 villages across Kalahandi and adjacent Rayagada districts depend on the forested range for livelihood and divine intervention.

Other watchdogs wonder if the government of Orissa will permit neutral meetings. In any case the irate Dongria Kondh have decided to conduct their own palli sabha in villages beyond the dozen identified by Orissa’s government.

My take is: it’s a done deal.

Free, prior and informed consent by communities for projects cannot be enforced by order or admonition. Primarily, because businesses and even governments that back them by default operate on earnings, not ethics.

Ethics continue to be largely perceived as an involuntary necessity when public pressure builds up—as it did spectacularly against Vedanta in 2009, when activists Bianca Jagger and Arundhati Roy arrived with verbal venom and tribals from Lanjigarh in tow at the venue of Vedanta’s annual general meeting in London. They accused a Vedanta subsidiary and its partner, state-run Orissa Mining Corp. Ltd (OMCL), of ignoring local sentiment to mine bauxite from Niyamgiri. Eventually some European pension funds offloaded Vedanta stock, citing human rights concerns.

I expect Vedanta to maintain the role of corporate martyr—it dramatically stopped operations at its Lanjigarh refinery in December 2012 citing lack of raw material it had for several years sourced from adjacent states, only to resume last week. (Vedanta had to resort to such sourcing as its assumption of access to Niyamgiri’s bauxite didn’t come through on account of an intervention by a committee of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). In a 2010 report, it criticized the mining project for violating several parameters of zoning and community engagement. That year the ministry banned mining of Niyamgiri, and prevented the expansion of Vedanta’s refinery.)

Altogether, this is play-acting at its highest calling.

It is unlikely that a business is simply going to walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars of invested funds in an alumina refinery—as Vedanta has in Lanjigarh—and among the richest bauxite deposits in the world a few hundred metres away. (Expectedly, OMCL, Vedanta’s partner, went to the Supreme Court to protest against the ministry’s decision to ban mining of bauxite.)

In its 2013 annual report, which acknowledges the April 2013 Supreme Court order and the consequent decision by the government of Orissa to conduct village council meetings to decide the fate of its project, Vedanta Resources has this to say about future activities at Lanjigarh, and about Niyamgiri:

“Management expects that the mining approvals for mining and the statutory approvals for the expansion project would be received as per the timelines mentioned below:

Restart of the existing plant: 13 July (2013)

Approval for refinery expansion: January 2014 with project to commence from October 2014.

Mining operations at Niyamgiri: Mining approval by September 2013 with production expected to commence in September 2015."

There is a caveat: “However, the above timelines are not in control of the Company."

Then why offer such guidance?

As for the government of Orissa, it has for the past decade displayed a remorseless tendency to use every aspect of government, from local administration to local police, as an extension of corporate will. Legitimate protests against land acquisition have been ground down with bullets and bluster as in its showcase Kalinganagar Industrial Complex; it counts among its residents Tata Steel Ltd and Jindal Stainless Ltd.

Pohang Iron and Steel Co., or Posco, is fresh from a triumph over completion of the initial land acquisition process by Orissa government agencies for its mammoth proposed steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district. A process that has included police-led violence and intimidation of residents for several years.

Niyamgiri will reinforce this tradition of lawless law.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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