The Odisha government, through its mining arm Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), has moved the Supreme Court for conduct of fresh gram sabhas for the jinxed Niyamgiri bauxite deposits, which is linked to Vedanta's Rs 50,000-crore investment in the alumina/aluminium sectors in the state.
"We have filed an interlocutory application in the Supreme Court seeking conduct of fresh gram sabhas for the Niyamgiri deposits," said an official of the state law department. "The application is yet to be listed for hearing," he added.
While the Niyamgiri lease stands in the name of OMC, Vedanta is the major beneficiary of the mining operation there. Vedanta has built a five million tonnes per annum (mtpa) alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, and a 1.6-mtpa aluminium smelter and a 1,200-Mw captive power complex at Jharsuguda, on the assurance of bauxite supply from this deposit by the state government.
The bauxite mining project had suffered a jolt two years ago, after all 12 gram sabhas held in and around the Niyamgiri hill range voted unanimously against it. The referendum was conducted between July 19 and August 20, 2013, complying with a Supreme Court directive to ascertain whether mining in Niyamgiri would affect the religious, community and individual rights of local forest dwellers, who mostly comprised Dongaria Kondhs, a particularly vulnerable tribal group.
In its application seeking conduct of fresh gram sabhas at Niyamgiri, the state government has argued when the earlier gram sabhas were held, the mining was proposed to be done through a joint venture project between OMC and Vedanta.
As the state has since cancelled the joint venture agreement and decided that mining will be done by only OMC, the original lessee of the deposit, it should be treated as a new proposal, requiring conduct of fresh gram sabhas for forest and environment clearances.
Officials say there is scope to overturn the decision on Niyamgiri based on the resolutions at gram sabhas on technical grounds. The sabhas had turned out to be a referendum on Vedanta's alumina plant at Lanjigarh, on the foothills of Niyamgiri. According to them, the Supreme Court mandate on holding of the sabhas was meant to protect the religious rights of the tribals over the Niyam Raja shrine located 10 km from the mining site, and ensure implementation of the tribal rights Act in the area.
Before moving the apex court, the state government had written to the Union ministry of environment and forests, proposing that gram sabhas in the area be again polled for approval. But, the ministry, which had cancelled the forest and environment clearance of the mining project, had asked the state government to file a fresh proposal for forest and environment clearances.
Meanwhile, in the absence of local bauxite supply, Vedanta is trying to keep its Lanjigarh alumina refinery afloat by procuring raw material from other states and abroad. With the operations becoming costlier due to added transport cost and the falling prices of aluminium/alumina in the international market, Vedanta has curtailed production by half and laid off some work force.
With production at the alumina refinery, aluminium production at Jharsuguda smelter has also suffered down the value chain.