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Lives for aluminium anyone?

When the pollution report says that the existing plant is polluting, why this tearing hurry to increase capacity four-fold? KumKum Dasgupta reports.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2008 20:55 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

It ain’t over till it’s over. This seems to be the guiding spirit of the Dongria Kondhs who are fighting hard to save their ‘sacred’ Niyamgiri mountains from the UK-based mining giant, Vedanta Resources Plc.

While a four-year-old case for mining the bauxite-rich mountain is in its last stage in the Supreme Court, the Dongria Kondhs, with the help of civil society groups, have taken the fight right to Vedanta’s doorstep. Last year, ActionAid, an NGO, had protested against the company’s plans at its annual general meeting.

This year, it managed something more dramatic: on Thursday, it put in an application to the London authorities requesting the “demolition” of the city landmark, St Paul’s Cathedral. The point? Just as Londoners won’t allow the demolition of St Paul’s to make a quick buck, the Kondhs too won’t allow their treasured mountain and forests to be destroyed.

Vedanta’s subsidiary, Sterlite, is currently awaiting permission from the Supreme Court to mine bauxite, the raw material for aluminium, from the Niyamgiri mountain.

But what has surprised many is what went on inside the court room on July 25, when the SC reserved its final judgement. The discussion was mainly around “financial profit and loss”, with Vedanta, the Orissa Mining Corporation, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the Orissa government all arguing in one voice for the project. While all this is important in the overall perspective of the case, there were a few equally, if not more, contentious issues that failed to elicit any clarification from the judges.

* No clarification was given on the Supreme Court-mandated Central Empowered Committee’s 2007 report that stated that mining the Niyamgiris would lead to deforestation, destruction of ecosystems and dry up water sources.

* An Orissa Pollution Control Board report had observed that already there is clear indication of groundwater contamination thanks to the seepage from waste ponds. This, it added, is expected to further deteriorate when the plant goes into full production. The capacity of the existing Vedanta plant has now been increased four-fold even as the company fights a legal battle. When the pollution report says that the existing plant is polluting, why this tearing hurry to scale up? If mining is permitted here, according to lawyers fighting against mining operations, two Constitutional guarantees will be overturned: the right to life and human dignity (Article 21), and the right to religious practices and beliefs (Article 25).

* A strange link is being drawn between education and mining. On July 29, Vedanta’s lawyer painted a picture of a welfare-oriented education project rather than a large-scale mining operation. He stated that India needs this project because it will lead to the education of the people of Niyamgiri. Education is a fundamental human right and the government is duty-bound to deliver it. Is loosing your home, land, livelihood and religion the price of education? Since when did education get caught in an either/or barter?

* Experts point out that bauxite is a strategic reserve and this project makes no economic sense for India. Existing ‘brown field’ (already mined) bauxite deposits are well able to meet India’s projected aluminium needs.

In the end, Vedanta’s mining project in the Niyamgiris and the questionable decision-making process will only give development a rotten name.