Its a combination that often occurs when big business is trying to make a profit at the expense of the environment, and the people that live in it.
Imagine what would happen if a company said that there was bauxite to be found under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and they wished to extract it using opencast mining techniques. There would be an uproar, of course, and then the whole ridiculous venture would be quashed completely, never to be mentioned again.
Now transpose that to another country, India, and try it again. There is bauxite enough in India. They have reserves for 350 years at the present rate of consumption. Some of this bauxite is located in Orissa, at the top of a mountain called Niyam Dongar. The value of this deposit is estimated at $2 billion. Unfortunately, the hill in question is the home of the Deity of the local tribespeople – not just a church or a cathedral. Furthermore, the bauxite is essential to the ecology of the area. Bauxite is a porous rock with great water retention capacity. The rock’s water conserving properties makes it absorb the precipitation in the rainy season and slowly emit it during the whole year. Many perennial streams have their springs in the Niyamgiri Hills, constituting a permanent water source for a large area.
The company involved in this dispute is Vedanta Resources, via two of its subsidiaries – Vedanta Aluminium Limited and Sterlite Industries (India) Limited. The people that would be affected by a mining operation are the Dongria Kondh.
The trigger that got me started on this task, was a page on the Guardian website:-
“Indian tribe’s Avatar-like battle against mining firm reaches supreme court”
Vedanta, which wants the bauxite for an alumina refinery it has built near the hills, requires clearance under the country’s forest and environmental laws. But though it had obtained provisional permission, it failed to satisfy laws protecting the forests and granting rights to local tribal groups.
A government report accused the firm of violations of forest conservation, tribal rights and environmental protection laws in Orissa, a charge subsequently repeated by a panel of forestry experts. An excerpt from this report (Saxena_Vedanta.pdf) is as follows:-
“If mining is permitted on this site it will not only be illegal but it will also:
• Destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups
• Destroy more than seven square kilometers of sacred, undisturbed forest land on top of the mountain that has been protected by the Dongaria Kondh for centuries as sacred to Niyam Raja and as essential to preserving the region’s fertility.
• Endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods of these Primitive Tribal Groups
• Seriously harm the livelihood of hundreds of Dalit families who indirectly depend upon these lands through their economic relationship with these Primitive Tribe Groups,
• Build roads through the Dongaria Kondh’s territories, making the area easily accessible to poachers of wildlife and timber smugglers threatening the rich biodiversity of the hills
Violation of Forest Conservation Act
• The company is in illegal occupation of 26.123 ha of village forest lands enclosed within the factory premises. The claim by the company that they have only followed the state government orders and enclosed the forest lands within their factory premises to protect these lands and that they provide access to the tribal and other villagers to their village forest lands is completely false. This is an act of total contempt for the law on the part of the company and an apalling degree of collusion on the part of the concerned officials.
• For the construction of a road running parallel to the conveyor corridor, the company has illegally occupied plot number 157(P) measuring 1.0 acre and plot number 133 measuring 0.11 acres of village forest lands. This act is also similar to the above although the land involved is much smaller in extent.
Violation of the Environment Protection Act (EPA)
• The company M/s Vedanta Alumina Limited has already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per provisions of EIA Notification, 2006 under the EPA. This amounts to a serious violation of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act. This expansion, its extensive scale and advanced nature, is in complete violation of the EPA and is an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land.
Violation of conditions of Clearance under EPA granted to Refinery
• The refinery was accorded clearance under the EPA on the condition that no forest land would be used for the establishment of the refinery. But now it is clearly established that the company has occupied 26.123 ha of village forest lands within the refinery boundary with the active collusion of concerned officials. Hence, the environmental clearance given to the company for setting up the refinery is legally invalid and has to be set aside.
Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, decided that Vedanta would not be allowed to mine the bauxite because “laws were being violated”.
Meanwhile, Survival International referred the matter to the OECD, who had this to say in their Final Statement (43884129.pdf) :-
62. Vedanta also does not appear to have a concrete human rights policy or to have in place a mechanism for assessing the impact of its operations on human rights (and indigenous rights) in spite of its published commitments:
“[Our people and community policies, which are applied across all of our group companies, are to:
] Strive to actively enter into dialogue and engagement with our stakeholders […]
Manage our businesses in a fair and equitable manner, meeting all our social responsibilities as a direct and indirect employer and respect the human rights of all of our stakeholders […]
Align our activities with the principles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child of the United Nations and Convention 138 of the International Labour Organisation”
Survival International also made the rounds of investors holding shares in Vedanta, and was successful in getting many to sell their stock. The response from Norway was particularly interesting. This was the report of the Council on Ethics, with regard to the Government Pension Fund – Global. The report (Recommendation_Vedanta.pdf) was exhaustive, and I will just give the conclusions here:-
In this case the Council has assessed the risk of the Fund contributing to both severe environmental damage and human rights violations by maintaining its investment in
Vedanta Resources. In this respect the Council has investigated four of Vedanta’s subsidiaries and found the accusations against the company of severe environmental damage and involvement in violations and forced dislocation of tribal peoples to be substantiated. In the Council’s opinion, the company seems to lack interest in and willingness to do something about the serious and long-term damage that its operations inflict on people and the environment. The norm breaches that have been brought to light with regard to the environment and human rights, have taken place at all the investigated subsidiaries, repeatedly and over several years. In the Council’s opinion, this indicates a pattern of behaviour where such violations are accepted and have become an integral part of corporate practice. This pattern represents an unacceptable risk that the company’s unethical practice will continue in the future.
The Council will, after the assessment of the substance of the accusations against Vedanta Resources Ltd., in light of point 4.4 of the Ethical Guidelines, recommend that Vedanta Resources Ltd, as well as its subsidiaries Sterlite Industries Ltd. and Madras Aluminium Company Ltd. be excluded from the investment universe of the Government Pension Fund – Global due to an unacceptable risk of complicity in current and future severe environmental damage and systematic human rights violations.
Vedanta is now appealing the supreme court decision.
A supreme court decision on the appeal was expected on the 9th of April, but that has now been delayed, and a new date has not yet been given
For the last 5 years or so, Survival International has mounted an awesome campaign on behalf of the Dongria Kondh, and it would be wonderful to see it crowned with the success it deserves. Vedanta has deliberately tried to exploit a sensitive area of the Indian legal system:- the Regional authorities, (in this case, Orissa), do not always follow the wishes of the national government. Don’t let them get away with this!
The current Minister for Environment and Forests is the Honorable Mrs. Jayanthi Natrajan.
She can be reached via an on-line form (100 words max) at http://www.india.gov.in/outerwin.php?id=http://envfor.nic.in/
She has an email address also – firstname.lastname@example.org
Please contact her, and ask her to support the Dongria Kondh. We can still save a little bit of our planet!
Vedanta was founded by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, who owns more than half the shares. I wonder what makes this man tick?