Monday, September 6, 2010

Activists Ask Vedanta To Shut Refinery

NEW DELHI—Local activists campaigning against Vedanta Resources PLC's mining project in eastern India said they want the company to shut its existing alumina refinery in the area to ensure that a range of hills considered sacred by tribal people is never mined.

Their demand comes after India's federal government Tuesday rejected Vedanta's proposal to mine the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa state for bauxite, saying the project had violated forest laws and its proponents displayed "blatant disregard" to the rights of tribal people in the area.

The project had garnered global criticism, especially in the U.K. where Vedanta is headquartered. Activist groups such as the Survival International and Amnesty International had said mining in the area could endanger the survival of the 8,000-odd Dongria Kondh tribal people who worship the Niyamgiri Hills and live in and around the area.

People belonging to the Dongria Kondh tribe have also said mining could affect their hunting and farming lifestyle as it would pollute and dry up streams and rivers and destroy fruit trees and medicinal plants on which they depend for their sustenance and health.

"The tribals are feeling good about the decision to not allow mining in Niyamgiri," said Kumti Majhi, a member of Dongria Kondh tribe. "But our hills and people on it can't survive if the refinery remains functional on the foothills of the sacred mountains."

Dust and other pollution from the refinery are affecting the lives of local people, Mr. Majhi said. "Our cows are dying. Trees bearing mango and berries are drying up. That's our livelihood."

Besides rejecting its mining proposal, the ministry also said it has issued a show cause notice to Vedanta, asking why environmental clearances for the 1.0 million-ton-a-year refinery shouldn't be withdrawn. The ministry has also suspended the appraisal process for the London-listed company's plans to increase the capacity of this refinery by six times.

The refinery, Vedanta's only one in India, is key to the company's plans for rapidly expanding its aluminum output to meet rising domestic demand.

"Tuesday's verdict is a partial victory for us, not total victory," said Lingaraj Nayak, an activist of the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Committee).

"As long as Vedanta's factory is present, there's always a chance that some other minister may come along and allow mining in Niyamgiri Hills," Nayak said. "The refinery needs to go to ensure the hills remain untouched."

Bhakta Charan Das, a lawmaker representing Kalahandi where the planned mining site and the refinery are located, said Vedanta could choose to extract bauxite from other places which don't have tribal people and where the ecosystem is not as diverse as that in the Niyamgiri Hills.

There are at least three mining sites in Kalahandi district which the company can use without causing much damage to tribes or ecology, Mr. Das added.

The Dongria Kondh tribals could never survive outside the hills, he said. "They will die in the cities."

Bratindi Jena, who works in the area as an activist of Action Aid, said Vedanta now has no justification for operating its refinery on the foothills of Niyamgiri since it can't mine the hills.

"Ash floating out from the refinery is covering the trees and plants in Niyamgiri Hills and discharge from the factory is forming toxic red mud ponds in the area," she said. "How can people survive in this environment."

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