Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) has appealed in the Supreme Court to reorganize the Gram Sabha in Niyamgiri so that it along with Vedanta Resources can mine the sacred Niyamagiri hills by getting the Dongria Kondhs on their side.
And there on ground zero the anti-mining activists are being branded as Naxalites and harassed in all possible manners. The most recent incident being arrest of Dasaru Kadakra of Bhaliapadar presenting him as a Naxal militia in the press conference the next day and forwarding him to the court.
The Dongrias on their part are bracing for another struggle. Hundreds of activists of Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti armed with their traditional weapons blocked the road demanding for release of innocent Dasaru.
On the other hand, little away from Niyamgiri, in Koraput the State government has given prospecting license to Sera Sterlite, an outfit of Vedanta group, for 150 hectors of bauxite reserve in Dangadeula hill in the name of laterite minining. Mass people have started opposing. OMC’s game plan and Vedanta’s quest for bauxite have started a new bauxite war in Niyamagiri.
In Lanjigarh, in the Kalahandi district of Odisha, a raw material-starved metal conglomerate and an embattled and threatened state government are fighting on the same side against a motley crew of activists and tribals. At stake are the continued operations of the alumina refinery at Lanjigarh which has been starved of bauxite- the chief raw material for the refinery.
As this battle draws to the finish line, the London-headquartered Vedanta Resources Plc and the Odisha government are conjuring up new ways and inventing new rules to achieve their goals. And that encompasses legal shenanigans and local goons in equal measure.
The strategy by these unlikely partners is two-pronged. On one hand, state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) has appealed to the Supreme Court of India this year to reconvene Gram Sabhas, the smallest units of local-level decision-making in the Indian political system. On the agenda is fresh bout of opinion seeking from them on mining in Niyamgiri. They had provided their first and rather unequivocal opinion in 2013. That exercise of seeking their opinion was the result of Supreme Court directions. Clearly, this time Vedanta and the Odisha government seem to be expecting a swing in public opinion in favour of mining in Niyamgiri.
There’s a subtle subterfuge in process over the last two years. At the heart of the matter is the environment clearances needed for the mining. To enable an easier environmental clearance there is a concerted effort at camouflaging the bauxite deposits as laterite deposits. This reclassification can completely change the stringency of the environmental clearance from the Union government.
For meeting Vedanta’s urgent bauxite requirements, the Odisha government had granted Sesa Sterlite, a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, the prospecting licence (PL) for laterite deposits in Dangadeula hills in September 2014. These licences given for 150 hectares of land on Dangdeula hillock are valid for two years. If laterite is discovered, then Sesa Sterlite will get lease for 20 years without any hassles as laterite is a minor mineral and comes under the control of the State government.
However, if high bauxite content is found then Sesa Sterlite will have to apply of bauxite mining lease. And in the present situation of bidding it might not be easy for Vedanta or Odisha Mining Corporation to get the lease.
Nurshinghs Panigrahi, a retired chief engineer says, “Dangdeula laterite mines area is close to Koraput town, in the immediate vicinity of the Upper Kolab reservoir. Bauxite extraction in Dangadeula will have an adverse environmental impact on the Koraput town, a group of around 10 nearby villages and the Kolab reservoir. It is expected that mining will only hasten the siltation of the reservoir that is responsible for providing potable water to the towns of Jaypore and Koraput, and supplies for irrigation and power production of the entire south western Odisha. Historical monuments like Kechela Jainpitha and religious places like Sri Jagannath Temple, Koraput and Hanuman Temple at Dumuriput are also expected to be affected due to dust pollution. The prime concern of the villagers around Dangdeula is that many perennial steams originating from this hillock will die a premature death, disrupting drinking water and irrigation of the villagers.”
Inhabitants of 10 nearby villages are therefore resisting the survey work by the OMC and Sesa Sterlite and have blocked access to the site for the survey teams. They have formed the Malimunda-Kanhai Hill Surakshya Samiti (MKHSS) as Dangdeula lies between Malimunda and Kanhai hills. Fourteen tribal organizations also have expressed solidarity to their struggle. And they have threatened a sit-in dharna if their demands are not met by the administration.
The prospecting licenses for laterite do not appear kosher for several reasons. Sometimes laterite deposits can yield 25-35% bauxite, but even if that were to be the case, it would only partially meet the large requirements of the refinery. Such a find will hardly address the serious raw material crisis for Vedanta. What is the solution that the Odisha government has in mind? Is it bauxite mining lease masquerading as a laterite mining lease?
Steel and Mines Minister Praffula Mallick said, “Now we have no plan for Dangadeula mining and the way people are complaining it is baseless. As per present policy any one will come for mining there will be auction policy.”
One can understand the desperation of Vedanta as a profit-seeking corporation to get the bauxite mines. But why is the state government going out of its way to adopt such nefarious means to ensure raw material supply to a private concern? Not just is this alacrity difficult to understand, but it is also difficult to digest.
Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery requires three million tonnes of bauxite as raw material every year to produce one million tonnes of alumina. It, however, does not have any captive bauxite mining lease or backward linkages for the ore. The refinery, therefore, is completely dependent on external supplies. Bereft of any proper arrangement to source bauxite from within the state, the refinery gets its bauxite supplies from states like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra etc. and also imports from New Guinea.
Vedanta’s original plan of mining Niyamgiri hills for bauxite came a cropper due to the resistance by tribal Dongria Kondhs. Niyamgiri is deemed to be the abode of their deity ‘Niyam Raja’. The Supreme Court of India in a landmark judgment directed the Gram Sabhas in the affected areas to take a call on the mining project by incorporating public opinion. All the 12 Gram Sabhas decided against the mining lease during July-August 2013, effectively sealing the fate of the ambitious project.
After denial by the Gram Sabhas, Vedanta applied for 33 (and still counting) alternative bauxite deposits, but in vain. It continues to face stiff resistance from local people and civil rights groups and environmental regulations also play the spoilsport.
The company has been mounting pressure on the State government by way indicating closure of the Lanjigarh unit operations. At stake are 10,000 jobs – 2000 of which are direct and 8000 are related to indirect employment. Such declarations are inevitably followed by protests and demonstrations by the employees of the refinery.
Vedanta first temporarily closed the unit on December 5, 2012 due to lack of supply of bauxite, but resumed production in July 2013. More recently it again threatened a gradual close down of alumina production in August, 2015. In a carefully worded statement, K.K. Dave, Chief Operating Officer, Vedanta said, “We ran this unit with all commitment for nearly a decade, despite heavy odds. But with the current market turmoil (of lower international prices) which is not likely to improve soon, and in the absence of access to bauxite from within the State, the plant is operating with a daily loss of Rs. 3 crore. Hence, we are forced to initiate the process of gradual closure.”
However, within a few weeks of this declaration, the company reposed its renewed faith in the State government for the supply of raw materials and stalled the closure process of its alumina refinery plant at Lanjigarh.