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Sterlite mining project in Niyamgiri is illegal: Panel

Last updated on: August 17, 2010 12:41 IST

Sterlite mining project in Niyamgiri is illegal: Panel

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BS Reporters in New Delhi/Bhubaneswar


After one stop-work order on the Rs 54,000-crore (Rs 540 billion) Posco project, a four-member panel appointed by the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has dealt a body blow to yet another big-ticket investor in Orissa, the London-based Vedanta Resources Ltd.

The committee, chaired by N C Saxena, who is also member of the powerful National Advisory Council, has told MoEF it would be illegal to allow Vedanta-owned Sterlite Industries to conduct bauxite mining operations on the Niyamgiri hills at Kalahandi district in Orissa.

The company says the mining is crucial for its Rs 6,000-crore (Rs 60 billion) alumina refinery project at the foothills, at Lanjigarh; the panel has said the existing clearance for the refinery should also be cancelled.

The report was given to the ministry on Monday. The latter will decide in about a week. Apart from Saxena, the other panel members were S Parasuraman, Promode Kant and Amita Baviskar.

Saxena said the ministry's Forest Advisory Committee would give its recommendations based on this report and a final decision would then be taken by the ministry.

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Photographs: Reuters
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The committee gives two main reasons. One, that permitting bauxite mining would deprive two primitive tribal groups, Dongria and Kutia Kondh, of their rights over the proposed mining site in order to benefit a private company and shake the faith of the tribals in the laws of the land.

Two, that Vedanta/Sterlite has consistently violated the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), Forest Rights Act (FRA), Environment Protection Act (EPA) and the Orissa Forest Act, in active collusion with state officials.

Jairam will decide on 'totality'

"The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) will consider the report on the lines of the FRA and the FCA, but my decision will be based on the totality of the economic decisions. The FAC will consider the report on August 20 and make its recommendations to me. The immediate action will be on stage-two clearances and it will take six-seven days for the final decision," said environment minister Jairam Ramesh, while announcing the findings of the report.

The refinery was accorded clearance under the EPA on the condition that no forest land would be used. However, it has been established that the company has occupied 26.1 ha of village forest land within the refinery boundary, said the report.

On the finding that the company had, without waiting for all clearances, been expanding the refinery capacity since 2007, Ramesh said, "I'm surprised to know that expansion has happened and if this is the case, then it is the most blatant violation."

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Image: Vedanta chairman Anil Agarwal.

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Asked if there was any political influence in the decision, given that Orissa was ruled by a non-Congress state, the minister denied it.

"Even if it had been a Congress-ruled state, it would've made no difference. Congress doesn't have many states. Navi Mumbai (airport) is in a Congress-ruled state," he added, referring to the blocking of the project on ecological grounds.

"We will comply with all the guidelines; not a blade of grass has been removed so far. We can only start when we have clearance. The government has to take a call on what is the best for the country," said Anil Agarwal, executive chairman, Vedanta Plc.

When asked by Business Standard, Mukesh Kumar, chief operating officer, Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, said, "The company has got the nod of the Supreme Court for the refinery project and this report has even challenged the order of the apex court."

'Systematic violation of law'

On the basis of oral and documentary evidence, the committee has said the Dongria and Kutia Kondh have had traditional, customary and often formalised access to the surrounding thick forests on the slope to collect various types of forest produce.

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Photographs: Reuters
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Their rights would be extinguished if the area is transferred for mining.

Also, that MoEF cannot grant clearance to use of forest land for non-forest purposes because the legal conditions for this clearance, as laid down in its circular of August 3, 2009, have yet to be met.

The Forest Rights Act, it notes, came into being more than two years ago. As holders of these rights, the communities residing there are empowered to ensure their habitat is preserved from any destruction of their cultural and ecological heritage.

The state government cannot take any action that appropriates a part of their habitat without following the due process of law, it notes.

The report has pointed out that the process of recognition of rights under the Forest Rights Act has not been completed, the consent of the communities concerned has neither been sought nor obtained and the gram sabhas of the area concerned have not certified on both points, as the law requires.

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The report has stated that mining will severely degrade the Niyamgiri hills ecosystem, which is a rich wildlife habitat, endanger the Dongria Kondh's self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods and lead to the extinction of their culture over a period of time.

And, that these losses should be weighed against the fact that the 72-million tonne ore deposit here would last only about four years for the refinery's expanded capacity.

It has also, for good measure, said the Orissa government's record on the issue shows it is not likely to implement the Forest Rights Act in a fair manner. It has recommended that MEF engage a professional authority to assist the people in filing their claims under the community clause.



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