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Trouble brews for Utkal alumina project as locals raise new demands

Hrusikesh Mohanty & Dillip Satapathy  |  Bhubaneswar 

Even after 20 years and investments of over Rs 5,000 crore, the 1.5-million-tonne alumina refinery project of Utkal Alumina International Ltd (UAIL), a subsidiary of the Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Hindalco, is yet to see the light of the day.

As the company gears up to give a final push to complete the refinery work by the first quarter of 2013, renewed call of the project opponents to intensify their stir against the projects signals fresh troubles ahead for the company.

The war cry was given on Sunday, when several tribal people gathered at Maikanch, near the UAIL’s project site in Rayagada to pay tribute to the three persons killed in police firing on agitators protesting against land acquisition for the plant 12 years ago.

Utkal Alumina was conceived in 1992 to tap huge deposits of bauxite in the area and produce alumina. The project, however, was in the line of fire of the environmentalists and project affected people, for which it was languishing for last two decades. The actual work on the project could only be taken up in 2008.

Enthused by the Union government's closure of Vedanta refinery on environmental grounds, the project opponents vow to renew their second phase of agitation, with the target now shifting to excavation of bauxite at Baphilimali. This was the captive mine allotted to the company near the plant site. “We are opposed to bauxite mining in the area. Once the mining starts, we will lose our livelihood,” said Bhagaban Majhi, president of Prakutika Sampada Surakhya Parishad (PSSP), the organisation spearheading the anti-mining agitation. The group demanded infrastructure development of the affected villages before starting of the mining activity.

The protest comes at a bad time, as almost 90 per cent construction work of the 1.5-million-tonne-per-annum (tpa) capacity green field project at Doragurah, with a total estimated cost of Rs 7,500 crore, has already been completed.

“The pre-commissioning trial is expected in February, with the trial production scheduled from April 1, 2013,” said senior vice-president of Utkal Alumina, Ramesh Kumar. Unlike the Niyamgiri deposits of Vedanta Aluminium’s Lanjigarh refinery in Kalahandi, UAIL’s mining proposal does not face any environment hurdles. But, the opposition of local tribals is expected to thwart the company’s plant to start bauxite mining in near future.

“Of course, there are some problems. But, we are here to solve those,” quipped a company official. “We have no problem for bauxite mining, as we have got all the clearances in Baphilimali in 2000,” he said.

Utkal Alumina got clearance for the mining of 8.5 million tonnes of bauxite at Baphilimali and Podingamali in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, respectively. The bauxite reserves in these mines are estimated to be around 200 million tonnes. The company initially plans to raise 4.5 million tonnes of bauxite annually for its 1.5 mtpa plant.

Prafulla Samantara, a social activist who was involved in anti-mining agitation by the tribals in Lanjigarh and Kashipur, raised questions over the renewal of mining lease of UAIL. “The mining lease of UAIL expired during 2004-05, and the company could not start mining by that time. Without public hearing how can it be granted fresh lease?’’ he asked.

Worried over the delay in implementation of the project, the two original joint venture partners, Tata Sons and Norsk Hydro, had earlier pulled out of the project, while another foreign partner, Alcan, had sold off its stake to Hindalco in 2007.

Hindlaco plans to send the alumina produced by Utkal Alumina to two of its upcoming smelter plants at Lapanga in Orissa’s Sambalpur district and Mahan aluminium project in Madhya Pradesh.

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First Published: Wed, December 19 2012. 00:40 IST