After Vedanta closed its aluminum refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Odisha today, citing paucity of bauxite, the primary raw material to refine aluminium, all eyes are now on the Supreme Court, which will hear a petition against the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) tomorrow. The MoEF had refused to give permission to a joint venture between Vedanta and the Odisha government to mine at Niyamgiri.
The suit was filed by Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) after the MoEF withdrew the Stage-II forest clearance for mining bauxite in August 2010 from the Niyamgiri hills, considered sacred by the local tribal population. The MoEF also temporarily withdrew an earlier clearance to the mines after the N C Saxena panel recommended that mining in Niyamgiri would severely impact the ecology, as well the primitive tribals living in the area.
According to legal experts, the Supreme Court’s decision would not only decide the fate of Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project and the Lanjigarh refinery, but also impact the fate of other projects in the region such as Posco’s steel project in Odisha and the Steel Authority of India’s Chiria mine project in Jharkhand, as the MoEF has expanded the definition of the Forest Rights Act. Two sets of people are protected under the new definition of FRA — the scheduled tribes traditionally living in forests, and “other forest dwellers” who for at least three generations prior to December 5, 2005 have been residing in the forests or depending on forest land for their livelihood.
|TO MINE OR NOT TO MINE?|
The MoEF says the protected people cannot be displaced unless they are in critical areas of national parks or sanctuaries. The projects will have to take permission from gram sabhas and they will decide on community rights. As Niyamgiri falls under forest land, the MoEF’s stance has virtually sealed the fate of the project. This will also impact mining projects across India, as most projects are set up near forest areas. The ministry also withdrew the nod given to Vedanta to expand its aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh from 1 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) to 6 mtpa.
When contacted, OMC’s Chairman-cum-Managing Director Saswat Mishra refused to comment, saying the case was pending before the Supreme Court. A call to Rohinton F Nariman, solicitor-general pleading the case on behalf of MoEF in the Supreme Court was not returned.
Meanwhile, an Odisha government official said that the FRA has been complied in Niyamgiri where gram sabhas were held in February-March 2008 to register the forest right claims of the local tribals. Moreover, the Supreme Court order granting forest clearance had come in August 2008, well after the FRA came into force in January the same year. So, the issues surrounding the FRA, has been addressed in the apex court’s August 2008 order, he pointed out.
The official added that since there was no human habitat at the hill top where the mining is planned, FRA benefits cannot be claimed by individuals at the proposed site.
However, green activists do not agree with this argument. According to them, people living in the nearby villages use the hill top to graze their livestock. Therefore, there is a need to settle the community FRA claims of the villagers for which gram sabhas need to be convened.