ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Games Vedanta Plays

Why suspend production when bauxite is available outside Odisha?

Is there reason to cheer that the controversial Vedanta Aluminium Limited (VAL) plant in Lanjigarh, Odisha had to suspend operations earlier this month because of non-availability of raw material? Perhaps, at least half a cheer. Even this small hiccup in what at one time appeared to be a one-sided battle between a multinational giant backed by the state government and a small tribal community is a kind of victory. For the embattled Dongria Kondh, the primitive tribal group that has lived for thousands of years in the Niyamgiri Hills and who have fought hard to prevent bauxite mining in their fragile environment, this would appear as a glimmer of hope. But the final hurdle against mining in that region is yet to be cleared. The case filed by the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) challenging the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) decision to refuse clearance for the second phase of the bauxite mining project and to temporarily withdraw the clearance to the first phase is still pending in the Supreme Court. The decision in this case will have far-reaching repercussions beyond Odisha and Niyamgiri for it will determine whether the understanding of forest dwellers’ rights, as articulated in the path-breaking Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, is worth the paper on which it is written.

Whatever the outcome of the case, the almost decade-long tussle between environmentalists and the Dongria Kondh on one side and the Government of Odisha and VAL on the other illustrates the central challenges that anchor the future of industry in environmentally fragile and forested areas. These areas have come increasingly under pressure in many states as forested lands are also repositories of mineral deposits that industry claims are essential for development. The Odisha government signed a memorandum of understanding with VAL as far back as 1997 with the implicit understanding that the state-owned OMC would guarantee supply of bauxite for the plant. Odisha has an estimated 1.7 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, representing almost two-thirds of the total bauxite reserves in India. The fact that the VAL plant was built close to Niyamgiri clearly indicates that obtaining the mineral from this region was a given.

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