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Stepping on the mine fields

india Updated: Nov 16, 2007 20:48 IST

The very day — November 15 — Vedanta Resources Plc released its record interim profits, the dark side of these glitzy figures hit the headlines: the Norwegian Council on Ethics directed its Government Pension Fund–Global to sell shares of the metals and minerals major and not invest in the firm and its subsidiaries. The Council stated that the company seems to “lack interest in and willingness to do something about the serious and long-term damage that its operations inflict on people and the environment”. Since 2004, protests have been gathering pace against the company’s bauxite mining and refinery project in the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa’s Kalahandi district.

Reports have proved that the company provided wrong information to get clearances for the project. The Supreme Court-mandated Central Empowered Committee (CEC) said that forestland was given to the firm in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and recommended the revocation of the environmental clearance to the refinery. It criticised the Orissa government’s role in the case. Another report by the Wildlife Institute of India highlighted the significance of the area in terms of biodiversity, water and for the tribals. Yet, despite such stinging reports against the company, the SC till now has diverged from the recommendations of its own expert body. In fact, the bench had gone by Vedanta’s assurances that it would undertake mining in an eco-friendly manner. The final judgment is due this month.

This case is not the first of its kind nor will it be the last in India. We have had Kashipur, Kalinganagar protests and the ongoing Posco crisis. Land acquisition has been and will remain an emotive issue for those who depend on it. In Niyamgiri, tribals subsist on land and forest produce. And, therefore, they see very little benefit in these projects. In fact, they see them as detrimental to their livelihoods. But with the government’s to-be announced new mineral policy seeking to remove “bottlenecks in mining sector” in anticipation of an investment of Rs 1,00,000 crore in the next 10 years, it is crucial that these two opposing views are accommodated. The role of the environment ministry and the Orissa government should also be investigated. Instead of hydra-headed clearances for such projects, the government should set up one body. That will ensure that companies like Vedanta don’t exploit the loopholes in the law and withhold information.

The only way to avoid such crises is to rationalise mining. Experience has shown that nobody, at least here, follows the rules for mine closures or rehabilitation/compensation. Can the government ensure that companies do their bit? But what is absolutely crucial is an audit: mining vis-à-vis the people and environment. While the Geological Survey of India has identified the mineral deposits in the country, no such survey has been done by the Botanical Survey of India to measure flora and fauna resources. Only then we will know how much we are losing. And, once we know that, we will probably realise that we are losing much more than we are gaining.