INDIA: Indigenous Groups Step Up Protests Over Mining Project

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press News Service (IPS)

BHUBASNEWAR, India, Feb 23 (IPS) - When 5,000 indigenous Dongria Kondhs
trekked Sunday to Niyam Dongar hill, the abode of their presiding deity
Niyam Raja, and designated it as inviolate, it meant they were stepping
up their resistance to a controversial alumina refinery and bauxite
mine project here.

They carried out religious rituals to Niyam
Raja - the sacred dispenser of law, and then put up a totem pole in the
area located in Niyamgiri hills in their homeland Lanjigarh, a
bauxite-rich hilly area in Kalahandi of Orissa state in eastern India.

This was the latest act of defiance here against the backdrop
of unrest since 1997 among communities, environmental and rights
activists over the 2.13 billon U.S. dollar mining project by Vedanta
Aluminium Ltd, the Indian arm of London-based Vedanta Resources Plc.

The alumina refinery, capable of producing one million tonnes
of alumina from bauxite per annum, has been operating for over a year
now at the foothills of Niyamgiri. Alumina is used in the production of
aluminium metal.

Since 2007, Vedanta has been seeking clearance for a six-fold
expansion of its refinery and 721-hectare bauxite mining project. The
bauxite project however has been stalled by a forest law.

The mining operations would affect some 8,000 Dongria, Kutia
and Jharania Kondh in 112 tribal and dalit villages in Kalahandi and
adjacent Rayagada district, two of the most underdeveloped areas in

For the forest-dwelling locals, Vedanta's mining project
would result in the demolition of the Dongria's centuries-old sacred
grove on Niyamgiri, threatening their ancient way of life, right to
water, food, livelihood and cultural identity.

"These villages never had basic amenities like medical
facilities, drinking water and properly functioning schools. The mining
project will now take away even the sources of livelihood from them,"
explained Dadhi Pusika, leader of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samity (Nayamgiri
Protection Committee) that was formed by members of affected villages.

"Life is so hard. Old women and children are dying. They are
living like dogs," said 45-year-old Ladha Sikaka of Lakpaddar village,
referring to the impact of the alumna refinery.

Six people from Rengopalli and villages near the refinery and
its huge red mud pond - a receptacle of wastewater that is a mix of
highly toxic alkaline chemicals and heavy metals - have died over the
past year from undiagnosed respiratory ailments.

The Orissa State Pollution Control Board has issued several
warnings to Vedanta since its refinery trial started in 2006, calling
its attention to the shoddy protective lining of the red mud pond that
leeches wastewater into Vamsadhara river flowing next to it. Villagers
use that water for drinking.

Skin rashes and sores are common among residents. Some 40,000
truckloads of bauxite are transported to the refinery from outside
Orissa per year, creating colossal air pollution from dirt roads, says
Bhubaneswar-based environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty.

"If the mountain remains, our children remain, rains come,
winter comes, the wind blows - the mountain will bring all the water,
crops will grow. If they take away the rocks, water will dry, we will
die," said Ladha. "The mountain is our soul, we will lose our soul."

"We cannot allow mining even if we are beheaded," he added.

The Dongria's Sunday protest comes on the heels of Amnesty
International's recent report on the Vedanta project, called 'Don't
Mine Us Out of Existence'. The report alleges that 12
pollution-affected villages have never received direct information on
the refinery.

Green activists say the gravest concern pertains to water.
Hilltop mining will dry up perennial water sources, while possible poor
management of refinery wastewater could degrade surface water and
pollute groundwater too. There is also concern about the huge
quantities of water that the expanded refinery will consume daily.

An expansion of the current Vedanta project would mean its
bauxite requirement would jump from three to 18 million tonnes per
annum, resulting in not just one but possibly several open-cast mines
on Niyamgiri.

But Vedanta clarifies that its mineralisation area of three
million tonne per annum is mere 3.5 percent of 250 square-kilometre
hill range, and that its 30-metre deep excavations would not disturb
the water table 78 metres below ground level.

Three rivers, Vamsadhara, Sakota and Nagavalli, flow four,
7.5 and 13 km respectively from the mine's buffer zone, as do perennial
streams. The larger rivers provide drinking water and irrigation to
hundreds of thousands in Kalahandi, Rayagada and the neighbouring state
of Andhra Pradesh. Watchdog groups point out that excavation will
destroy the hills' water recharging capacity because the porousness of
the bauxite layer increases water retention. This will eventually kill
the rivers, make the habitat drier and affect agriculture, wild
vegetation and pasture, they add.

Pavan Kaushik, head of corporate communications for Vedanta
group, countered this in earlier letter to journalists. "Bauxite
extraction... removes a hard rocky layer called laterite which will allow
rain water to percolate deep... increasing afforestation post-mining."

Flash floods, which are common here, will be aggravated by
hilltop deforestation. A flash flood in Vamsadhara can breach the red
mud pond, causing disastrous wastewater spills into the river.

Three-quarters of the targeted hill have thick forests. The
300 species of plants in them include 50 species of medicinal plants
and trees, six of which are in the International Union for Conservation
of Nature Red List of threatened species. An elephant reserve, the
forests are home to tigers, leopards, barking deer.

A tribal woman from Sindhabahal said, "The forest gives
leaves, bamboo, roots, medicinal herbs, fruits, juice from the giant
palm trees (to make liquor). These we sell or use for food. Hill
slopes, known as 'dongar', are our cultivation fields."

Local will have nothing less than the cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri mining lease.

They want the India Forest Rights Act of 2006, which gives
forest-dwelling communities rights to land and other resources,
implemented. They have demanded an irrigation dam from perennial hill
streams, schools in each and one hospital for every 10 large villages,
assured daily wage work under government schemes and support prices for
forest products.

"The government is largely satisfied with its (Vedanta)
pollution control measures at this time," said a senior official of the
Orissa government, Vedanta's stake-holding partner, who spoke to IPS on
condition of anonymity because "Vedanta has become a political issue".

But "Vedanta's corporate social responsibility however needs to shape up," he underscored.

In an email reply to IPS, Mukesh Kumar, Vedanta's chief
operating officer at Lanjigarh, says that his company believes in
sustainable development. "It is providing livelihood to tribal people
through vegetable cultivation, pisciculture, poultry and goatery.
Nutrition to children, health check-ups and malaria control are other
programmes. Direct and indirect employment has been given to 20,000
people while 13 villages now have electricity," he added.

Meantime, the London-listed mining major Vedanta Resources
Plc has been seeing international investors sell their stakes in it due
to ethical concerns over the Orissa project. Britain's Joseph Rowntree
Charitable Trust is the latest to leave, after the Church of England,
the Norwegian government and Martin Currie Investment Management.

Said woman tribal leader Kulunji Sikhola: "It is our land; we
will sit - the Dongria people - and decide directly". (END/2010)

AMP Section Name:none