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Vedanta's Niyamgiri plan stuck as last gram sabha gives thumbs down

Quick step by govt to provide alternate source only hope for Lanjigarh refinery

Jayajit Dash  |  Jarapa (Rayagada) 

The 12-0 drubbing in gram sabhas held to seek a referendum on bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills has pushed into uncertainty the fate of Rs 5,000 crore one million tonne refinery of Vedanta Aluminium (VAL) at Lanjigarh, which is struggling to stay in operation by sourcing bauxite from different places outside Odisha.

The Dongaria tribes of Jarapa village in Rayagada district, like their ilk of 11 other villages, today rejected the Niyamgiri mining plan, which was conceived to secure raw material for VAL’s refinery on the foothills.

“The unit cannot run for long depending on bauxite supplies from outside the state, which is unreliable and bleeds the company by way of additional logistic cost of Rs 600 crore per annum,” says a senior official of VAL.

The company is now running the Lanjigarh refinery at only 60 per cent capacity by procuring bauxite from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra after keeping it shut for seven months since December last year.

“We had built the refinery on the state government’s assurance to provide us bauxite from Niyamgiri. That not happening, the only hope of keeping the refinery afloat hinges on providing us an alternate source,” the official said and added, “We do not have any Plan B except for waiting for waiting for the state government to act.”

The company’s 26 applications seeking alternative bauxite sources are still pending with the state government. “Vedanta’s applications for alternate mines are still at various stages of processing. Nothing has moved ahead. We have only recommended to the Centre for reserving the Karlapat bauxite deposits for Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC),” said director of mines Deepak Mohanty.

Sources said, OMC, if allotted the Karlapat mine, can enter into a fresh tie up with VAL for supply of bauxite to Lanjigarh plant. For the time being, OMC, which is the leaseholder for Niyamgiri bauxite deposits, said it will have no choice but to obey the MoEF decision to grant forest clearance for the mining project. MoEF, as per the Supreme Court order, will take a call on the issue on the basis of gram sabha resolution.

“If the MoEF refuses to provide forest clearance for Niyamgiri, then we will have no choice but to oblige the decision. We do not have any more option left,” said Saswat Mishra, chairman-cum-managing director of OMC.

Today, at Jarapa, 12 out of 16 eligible voters attended the meeting and unanimously voted against the mining project. The mood, ambience and outcome at this village meeting was an encore of previous 11 gram sabhas held on Niyamgiri slopes straddling across two districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada.

The writing on the wall was easy to spot at the maiden gram sabha itself, held at Serkapadi nearly a month back, when all tribal voters unanimously trumped the mining plan.

The tone was set by the Supreme Court order on the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project dated April 18. The apex court left it to the indigenous tribals to take a call on whether mining impacted their community and religious rights, especially the right to worship their Niyam raja.

Then, the state government, through its reading of the apex court order, selected 12 hill slope villages for the council meetings- seven in Rayagada district – Serkapadi, Kesarpadi, Khambesi, Jarapa, Batudi, Lamba and Lakhpadar and five in Kalahandi – Tadijhola, Palberi, Phuldumer, Ijurupa and Kunakuda. In all, 985 tribals were destined to decide the fate of Vedanta’s alumina refinery.

Hundaljali, or the abode of the Niyam raja being located a convenient 10 km from Niyam Danger or the site of mining, many within Vedanta and its joint venture partner OMC, drew comfort that voting could be in favour of the project.

But the shocker came when all the Dongarias spoke in unison against the mining plan, claiming community and religious rights over the entire hill range.

“The tribals never quite understood the implications of the project. They had apprehensions that they might be displaced. Their poverty has been exploited by the NGOs. Also, they have been extensively tutored by such NGOs to vote against the mining plan,” admitted a senior government official on condition of anonymity. “We were shocked to note hundreds of people belonging to NGOs (non-government organization) and Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) surrounding the palli sabha spot. This, prima facie appears to be against the spirit of the Supreme Court judgement as then the hearing neither becomes fair nor free from fear,” said Shridhar Pesnia, president of Lanjigarh Vikash Parishad (LVP), a pro-mining outfit of Kalahandi region.

“In the last 10 years, the tribals have been protesting against the mining project. The unanimous voting by all the Dongarias is only the logical end to their protest. The verdict at the 12 people’s courts is a victory of indigenous rights over company interests. There is no question of any influence since neither NSS nor any NGO or any political party had control over the sentiments of the tribals,” said NSS advisor Bhala Chandra Sarangi.

First Published: Mon, August 19 2013. 23:52 IST