3 min read.Updated: 11 Jan 2014, 12:04 AM ISTNeha Sethi
Move comes after twelve villages in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha had unanimously rejected the controversial proposal in August 2013
New Delhi: The government has rejected UK mining company Vedanta Resources Plc’s proposal to develop a bauxite mine in a hill in Odisha that is sacred to tribals, reviving the environment versus development controversy in India.
Twelve villages in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha had unanimously rejected the controversial proposal in August 2013.
A senior government official said the letter of rejection from the environment ministry was issued on 8 January, adding, “After the rejection of the proposal by all the 12 gram sabhas (large village bodies), the ministry had no option other than rejecting the proposal."
Environment minister M. Veerappa Moily, in an interview published on Thursday in Mint, had said that he had recently approved an official file where all the local panchayats—a council of elected village representatives—said that “we don’t want this project".
Without naming the Vedanta project, Moily had said that he honoured the decision of the gram sabhas to reject the proposal.
The 12 villages were selected by the Odisha government from among more than 100 in the Niyamgiri hills after a Supreme Court ruling on 18 April 2013.
The Supreme Court, in its order, gave village councils in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts three months to prepare their reports on whether bauxite mining should be allowed and to what extent.
The government’s rejection is the latest development in a nearly decade-long battle that has pitted the tribals of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in Odisha against the London-listed mining company run by non-resident Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal.
A Vedanta spokesperson declined to comment.
The rejection by the environment ministry could further disrupt Vedanta’s plans in the mineral-rich state.
It has had to shut down a proposed alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district after failing to run it at full capacity—of one million tonnes per annum—due to a shortage of bauxite, a key mineral needed to produce alumina.
However, Giriraj Daga, senior research analyst at Nirmal Bang, an institutional brokerage firm, said that Vedanta will source bauxite from outside Odisha. “They have applied for smaller mines in the area, but that will also take time."
The proposed mine is a joint venture between Vedanta and state-owned Odisha Mining Corp. Ltd. The plan was to develop a bauxite mine in Niyamgiri hills and supply the material to Vedanta’s alumina refinery.
However, Vedanta’s proposal drew international criticism after the local Dongria Kondh and Kutia tribes said their deity Niyam Raja lives in the hills and that the proposed mine will violate their social, cultural and religious rights.
A Supreme Court bench headed by justice Aftab Alam then said the local 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.
“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," the court added.
The environment ministry had cancelled stage II forest clearance for using 660.75 hectares of forest land for the proposed mining in August 2010.
On Friday, rights activists hailed the environment ministry’s decision.
Tushar Dash, a researcher with Vasundhara, an Odisha-based not-for-profit organization working on forest rights and conservation, said that the decision had been expected ever since the gram sabhas’ rejection of the mining proposal. “It is a good development, but it is a little delayed. It has been pending for a long time. But better late than never," he said. “This will strengthen the democratic governance of natural resources and forest people."
Ritwick Dutta, a lawyer who represented Dongria Kondh tribals in the Supreme Court, agreed: “The decision was a delayed one since it was to be taken within three months, according to the order."
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, on a visit to Jagannathpur village in Odisha immediately after the environment ministry rejected forest clearance for the Vedanta project in 2010, had promised to take the case of the tribals to the Union government.
“I am your sipahi (soldier) in Delhi," he said. “Whenever you need me, I will be there for you."
Ruchira Singh in Mumbai contributed to this story.