‘I met my Indian mother
She was staggering through iron rain
She said The Earth turned into a monster
Eating everything we had all that’s left is pain
Now I believe that charity begins at home
And home in my case is Kent
But I was feeling generous so I took my week’s wages
And slipped her point five per cent.’
From ‘Sweet Point Fiver Per Cent’ by Adrian Mitchell
In the Eastern Indian State of Orissa Iron ore, Chromite, Manganese, Coal and Aluminium mines have displaced tens of thousands of poor villagers over the last 20 years. Multinational mining companies have wiped out forests, poisoned rivers, siphoned-off spectacular waterfalls, destroyed and degraded the quality of life for the local population and left behind a trail of terrible environmental and human devastation. Vedanta Alumina Ltd, a subsidiary of M/S Sterlite Industries India Ltd, is one such mining company. Vedanta plans to exploit the Bauxite reserve located on top of the Niyamgiri hills in the drought prone Kalahandi district of Orissa. After signing a joint lease with Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd (OMC) in October 2004, Vedanta plans to set up an Alumina Complex, Refinery Plant and captive power plant on top of the Niyamgiri hills using up around 1445 hectares of land, most of which is prime ‘ Reserve Forest ’ land. In April 2009, the Indian government granted permission to Vedanta and OMC to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills for the next 25 years.
This article aims to summarise Vedanta’s infamous track record in following environmental laws, insensitivity to the rights of indigenous communities and violation of basic Human Rights. Every crime has its benefits and a Cost-Benefit analysis is outlined below to help us decide whether Vedanta’s Aluminium mining activities will be beneficial or disastrous for the local population of the Niyamgiri hills, for the state of Orissa and for the Environment.
· Vedanta’s mining will have catastrophic effects on the fragile Ecological balance of the Niyamgiri hills and on the Ecosystem of the Kalahandi district of Orissa, one of the poorest districts of India . Evergreen forests, Grasslands and other priceless wildlife habitats will be lost forever.
· Hundreds of thousands of people fully depend on the mighty rivers, which originate from the Niyamgiri hills. Vedanta’s mining will lead to three vitally important rivers- Kolab, Nagabali and Vamsadhara- losing their water sources and being heavily polluted. Scores of perennial mountain-streams, on which the Dongria hill tribes are completely dependent, will be dried up.
· Bauxite, the mineral Vedanta is mining, is described as a “sponge” by Geologists because of its water-holding capacity. With the extraction of the Bauxite reserves in Niyamgiri the few poisoned rivers which remain will contain only a fraction of their current volumes of water.
· This loss and poisoning of these rivers and streams will be devastating in this extremely drought prone Indian district. The local hill population and hundreds of thousands of people downstream will lose their traditional livelihoods of farming, fishing, keeping livestock etc. For example the toxic waste dumped by Vedanta’s Lanjigarh Refinery into the mighty Vamshadhara River has evidently affected thousands of people who use this river water for household use, agriculture and for their domestic animals.
· Toxic Red Mud and Ash ponds have ruined fertile agricultural lands, contaminated drinking water sources and polluted the air around villages and forest hamlets. Toxic mud released into the Vamshadhara River has had severe health effects on the local people and wildlife. An alarming rise in skin diseases, asthma, gastro-enteritis, terminal illnesses, miscarriages and frequent nausea has been recorded in the region. Over 40 villages have been devastated by the ‘fly-ash’ pollution, which is causing lung-diseases, destroying crops and turning the once fertile agricultural land into a sterile waste-land.
· During Monsoon floods rivers are easily contaminated with the toxic red mud, which is created after the refining of Alumina and which contains a lethal cocktail of heavy metals and Caustic Soda. Even without a flood this red mud leaches into the ground and poisons the ground water or turns into dust and is easily spread around for hundreds of miles, rendering the land infertile and toxic and leading to horrible diseases including cancer.
· To put Vedanta’s water consumption in this drought prone region into context, 1 ton of Steel consumes 44 tons of water but 1 ton of Aluminium consumes 1378 tons of water!
· Endangered wildlife species will be affected. Vedanta’s activities along the Orissa coastline will disturb the precious Olive Ridley Turtles who lay their eggs on the shore. The Golden Gecko, an endangered lizard, lives in the Niyamgiri hills and may be lost forever. Rare varieties of deer, monkeys and hyenas will be made homeless.
· Ignoring all these unimaginable, unmeasured costs, let us just value the forests, which will be wiped out. Based on the handbook of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt of India, the Environmental Net Present Value of 1 hectare of fully stocked forest is Rupees 126.74 lakhs over 50 years. Vedanta will be clearing 660 hectares of prime forest land. Even assuming an extremely low density of forest cover the Net Present Value is Rupees 417 crores. Add to this the forest-cover in non-“ Reserved Forest ” land and the total cost of forests lost is Rupees 448 crores.
· Based on UK Govt figures on the cost of Carbon-dioxide emissions 1 ton of Co2 emitted costs between $56 and $223. Even if we used the minimum rate of $56 per ton of Co2 emitted, Vedanta’s Co2 emission cost will be 63 crores annually. So the Net Present Value of Vedanta’s Co2 emission over 23 years is 653 crores.
· So the total financially quantifiable cost is about Rupees 1100 crores, just based on the deforestation and the Carbon-dioxide emission. Keep in mind that this quantification is considerably underestimated. Also keep in mind that this quantification DOES NOT take into account the emission of Sulphur Dioxide and other poisonous gases. Nor does it take into account the water and fly-ash pollution costs, the destruction of crops and arable land, infliction of diseases and illness, the damage caused to a variety of rare wildlife species and the absolute annihilation of the ancient tribal culture, which has survived for centuries in these densely forested hills. Most of the devastation, inflicted by Vedanta, is financially non-quantifiable.
· Vedanta’s Bauxite mine will rip through the sacred hills of the Dongria Kondhs, belonging to an ancient tribal civilization, who have lived fully self-sufficient, ecologically sustainable lives in the Niyamgiri hills for centuries, in complete harmony with the mountains, the forests, the rivers.
· Vedanta’s so called ‘ Greenfield ’ Alumina Refinery in Lanjigarh has displaced several tribal villages and threatens to displace more people. Not only will the bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills wreck the traditional Dongria Kondh way of life, it will also literally destroy their Gods. The Niyam Dongar is their sacred mountain, source of fertility and Lord of Law. Niyam Dongar’s destruction in Orissa will be as horrendous a cultural atrocity as the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan .
· The Anthropological effects are cataclysmic. Tribal society will be violently split into those for and against the mining. Mutual trust and support among the villagers will be damaged with petty cash compensations, fraudulent business offers and false charges lodged by the police against those who are reluctant to be displaced. Villages will be bulldozed without basic rehabilitation facilities in place and the forcibly displaced population will be abandoned in inhumane conditions in shanty-town concentration camps, ironically called ‘Relief Centres’.
· The delicate social structure will be torn apart by displacement. Traditional economic systems and the Kinship system will collapse. Splits in long standing relationships will appear between those who accept the pittance paid as compensation and move on and those who resist. The Egalitarian power structure is fractured and religious values are irreversibly undermined with the pulverising of their sacred mountains and forests.
· Already the social costs of displacement and the invasion by an alien industry has led to a sharp increase in illegal liquor shops, domestic abuse, violence, drunkenness, wife beating and suicides. The Liquor mafias are proliferating even as the social structure is crumbling away and religious and cultural values are being desecrated.
· Construction of Vedanta’s smelter in Jharsaguda is displacing more villages. Vedanta’s “Gift to Orissa”- a Business School and University near Puri- will displace around 100,000 farmers from fertile farmland near the coast and create mass unemployment. Much of this arable land is owned by Puri’s famous Jagannath temple and much of its produce is currently used for the legendary Mahaprasad temple-manna.
· These social costs, like most of the environmental costs, CANNOT be financially quantifiable and so have NOT been included in the grossly underestimated figure of Rupees 1100 crores, which only represents the costs of deforestation and Carbon-dioxide emission!
‘...Overall the state (of Orissa) and the people will suffer the loss, only a small class of rich people will be created. Rich will become richer, poor poorer. Mining is a curse to the indigenous people and the environment’
CRIMES AND INFAMY
· Vedanta’s plans in Niyamgiri have been officially condemned. The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court of India has recommended that in their view “Use of forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like the Niyamgiri Hills should NOT be permitted.” The CEC point out that the land Vedanta is going to acquire is “an important wildlife habitat, part of elephant corridor, a proposed Wildlife Sanctuary, having dense virgin forest, residence of an endangered Dongaria Kandha tribe and source of many rivers and rivulets.”
· For years Vedanta and other mining multinationals have been lobbying and pressurising the Indian Government to NOT implement the Forest Rights Act. The Forest Rights Act favours the indigenous population of the forests who have been living on the land for millenniums in a civilization, which is more ancient than Hinduism and the Pharaohs. With this Act incapacitated priceless dense forest land has been seized for mining activities in the districts of Koraput, Kalahandi and Bolangir.
· Vedanta invested large sums of money in the election campaigns of certain politicians for the State Assembly and recent General Elections. Outrageous leniency has been shown by the Government and Courts in response to Vedanta’s shameless repeated violations of the law, for example their blatant disregard for the law in setting up and opening an Aluminium Smelter in Jharsuguda in spite of not receiving the statutory Environmental Clearance. A Supreme Court Judge went on record to say “Vedanta must be a good company. Why I myself have shares in Vedanta!”
· To date several hundred people have been killed in working accidents in Vedanta’s Lanjigarh Refinery because of Vedanta’s criminal negligence in Health & Safety precautions. The displaced local population, who have lost their traditional livelihoods, are made to beg for temporary contract jobs and in many cases contract labourers were paid after agonising delays or not paid the wages they were promised and on occasions they were not paid at all. Vedanta has brutally crushed any unrest among workers and in December 2000 the notorious Maikanch police firing killed 3 innocent villagers.
· Because the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) is a party to the lease Vedanta has managed to acquire and clear prime official ‘ Reserve Forest ’ land. They have also illegally occupied village land and have criminally built a wall in the ‘ Reserve Forest ’ demarcating the land they have captured. Rampant deforestation of this area continues despite valiant efforts by the villagers to protect their forest.
· Vedanta has violated a number of Pollution Guidelines as laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Govt of India. The CEC committee of the Supreme Court had recommended that Vedanta stopped its illegal construction of a Refinery in Lanjigarh. In spite of not receiving the mandatory Environmental Clearance and being condemned by the CEC Vedanta has brazenly gone ahead with its construction and mining work.
· The Orissa State Pollution Control Board has issued more than 3 notices to Vedanta for violating pollution norms at its Lanjigarh Refinery. Inspection documents reveal leakages from the ‘Storage Pond’ into the Vamshadhara River , which is the lifeline for tens of thousands of people.
· Instead of trying to rectify these criminal failings Vedanta boasts of being a “Zero Discharge Refinery”. This is an obscene lie as the term ‘Zero Discharge’ implies that no pollutants are discharged and all the wastes are recycled. But there is indisputable documented proof that Vedanta is discharging some of the most toxic industrial wastes in the subcontinent, including sulphides, caustic soda and acids.
· Another absurd lie comes from Mukesh Kumar, head of Vedanta’s mining operations in Lanjigarh, who told the BBC that “Far from drying up streams, (removal of bauxite) will in fact lead to an increase in the ground water level.” This perversely illogical statement has been vehemently dismissed by geologists, farmers and just about anyone with any common sense.
· Vedanta’s parent company Sterlite has been charged with ‘Conscious Lack of Pollution Control’ in their Copper Smelter plant in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. The charges against them include illegal construction, Ash and Gypsum dumping and Air and Water pollution. Furthermore their factory complex had NO license to be constructed and they did NOT have ‘Consent to Establish’ under the ‘Water and Air Acts’.
· Vedanta’s subsidiary company Madras Aluminium Company (MALCO) was forced to suspend its illegal mining operations in the Kolli Hills of Tamil Nadu in November 2008 following a petition filed in Madras High Court, which presented evidence that its bauxite mines were NOT permitted under Environmental laws.
‘The mining that is taking place in the forest areas is threatening the livelihood and survival of many tribes...Let it not be said by future generations that the Indian Republic has been built on the destruction of the green earth and the innocent tribal people who have been living there for centuries.’
From President of India’s speech on Republic Day 2001
· Vedanta is an enthusiastic patron of Orissa Dance and Music festivals! It’s “gift to Orissa” includes a hospital, a University and a Business School . Many observers perceive these investments by Vedanta as a cunning Business Strategy while it seeks access to the Niyamgiri Bauxite reserves.
· Because of the crucial lease with the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) Vedanta will be obtaining Bauxite at only 16% of the actual market value! This results in Vedanta receiving a subsidy from India , on the free market price of Bauxite, in the region of 6132 crores!
· Because of the ‘Purchase Clause’ in this lease with the OMC, Vedanta pays Orissa a ridiculously underpriced Royalty instead of the market price of Alumina. If the Niyamgiri Bauxite was sold in the open market it would have fetched an income of around 7300 crores but because of this appalling lease Orissa will be paid a Royalty and Cess with a Net Present Value of 193 crores only!
· Vedanta plans to employ 300 employees leading to salaries of 160 crores over 25 years. So the Total benefits for the local population and the state is around 353 crores.
· Of course Vedanta is very keen to portray itself as being very popular with the local community. Children of families displaced by the Lanjigarh Refinery are taught to sing propagandist songs whenever journalists or investigative teams visit. The lyrics of one such song goes- “This country, this earth, is our mother. We will sacrifice ourselves in service of it, And make our nation proud of us.”
COSTS AND BENEFITS
· From a purely financial perspective and just considering the grossly underestimated costs of deforestation and Carbon-dioxide emission the costs come to 1100 crores compared to the benefit of 353 crores, Vedanta is promising. So just these significantly underestimated quantifiable costs are more than 3 times higher than the optimistic benefits, which Vedanta has been boasting about.
· As explained above this comparison does NOT take into account the social costs, the loss of rare species and bio diversity, death of rivers and streams, pollution of soil and air, opportunity cost of destroying the Niyamgiri hills and not preserving these natural resources for future generations instead of monstrously exploiting them. For example the value of the 30,000 cum of water, which is lifted out of the Tel river each day for Vedanta’s Refinery, has NOT been financially measured. Also the actual Market Value of Bauxite has NOT been considered. What percentage of this 353 crores benefit will trickle through to the local population is highly questionable.
· In May 2007, Vedanta’s lawyers at the Indian Supreme Court began offering free meals and jobs to the displaced people as compensation. These legal promises were not honoured afterwards. Vedanta carefully publicises its ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ in 60 glossily illustrated pages in its Annual General Report 2006. However like in other parts of India (e.g. Chhatisgarh) the large population made unemployed by displacement and the devastation of the Ecosystem may lead to most tribal people being hired as contract workers with virtually no workers’ rights, inhumane working conditions and ridiculously low salaries. So the rhetorical benefits of falsely promised free meals and jobs need to be compared with the destitution and poverty of people who were fully self sufficient farmers before their traditional food security and way of life was destroyed.
· Since Aluminium is used in Defence for manufacturing Weapons, Bombs etc, we could mention “The National Interest” and the “Greater Common Good”. However Vedanta will be exporting most of its Aluminium to other countries and most of its major shareholders are multinationals outside India . Vedanta’s track record of returning profits to its mining enclaves is very poor.
· So will the quality of life for the local population really improve or are they being “sacrificed for the Greater Common Good”? If they are then is such a sacrifice really an acceptable cost? And is such a callous Environmental catastrophe acceptable for 20-25 years worth of royalties for the State Government? Should we try to figure out answers to these questions and ask other questions? Should we give a damn?
‘We are tribal farmers. We are earthworms. Like fishes that die when taken out of water, a cultivator dies when his land is taken away from him...Is it development to displace people? The people for whom development is meant, should reap benefits. After them, the succeeding generations should reap benefits. That is development. It should not be merely to cater to the greed of a few officials. To destroy the millions of year old mountains is not development.’
from Bhagavan Majhi’s interview in ‘Matiro Poko, Company Loko’ Documentary by Amarendra and Samarendra Das,2005.
· Vedanta is a Global Polluter and has been charged with ‘Environmental Negligence’ in its Copper Mines in Zambia .
· The sale of BALCO to Sterlite met stiff resistance from Workers’ Unions with allegations that BALCO’s assets had been sold for an illegally underpriced amount due to corruption and alleged payoffs into Swiss Bank Accounts. Workers would be losing their jobs and a police probe into the sale was demanded by Workers’ Union and by Members of Parliament.
· Vedanta’s mining in Korba in Chhatisgarh has violated similar environmental and human rights laws. In Koraput in Orissa, tribal villagers displaced and dispossessed by mining are in the middle of a violent battle for reclaiming their lands.
· Aluminium mining is an extremely polluting and damaging industry usually practiced in “Developing Countries” with bauxite reserves, cheap natural resources and corrupt Regulatory bodies. Mining enclaves in which the local community is struggling against Aluminium companies include places in Vietnam , Jamaica , Guinea , Ghana and Guyana .
· In Western Australia health hazards of ALCOA’s pollution have led to the famous Environment lawyer Erin Brockovich representing the local community in their legal suit against the company.
· Filmmaker Samarendra Das, Anthropologist Felix Padel and many other committed activists, Anti-mining organisations, intellectuals and professionals have been campaigning against Vedanta for many years now. Their work both within and outside India is resonant with the courageous grassroots struggle of the affected multitudes in Niyamgiri.
· On July 9, 2009 Amnesty International recommended that “The Indian Government should immediately withdraw the clearance granted to a massive mining project (Vedanta Aluminium Limited) that threatens the lives and livelihoods of a protected indigenous community living there.”
· Vedanta has been blacklisted by the ‘Ethics Council’ of the Norwegian Govt Pension Fund, with its pension fund investments divested in 2007 citing “serious malpractice and contraventions of environment norms and ethics by the Vedanta management in the past wherever they operate” and “human rights violation” and specifically cited procedural violations in procurement of environment and forest clearance for mining in the Niyamgiri hills.
· In July 2008, Martin Currie Scottish Trust Fund of Scotland also withdrew their £2.37m investment in Vedanta on grounds of “environmental and human rights violation” by Vedanta.
· The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of Supreme Court has submitted several reports highlighting irregularities and corruption of Vedanta and recommending that permission should NOT be give. These reports have been cited by the Norwegian Council of Ethics to explain why it recommended withdrawing its investments from Vedanta.
· Worldwide uproar followed Vedanta being awarded the ‘Golden Peacock Award’ by the World Environmental Foundation (WEF) in 2009. This same award was awarded to Satyam Computers in September 2008 before being withdrawn in January 2009 after senior management and the founder chairman were arrested for fraud. Coca Cola had also received this award despite severe protests on its over-extraction of ground water.
· Various concerned citizens wrote a letter to the jurors of this ‘Golden Peacock Award’ voicing their concerns and exposing Vedanta’s activities. In reply the jurors dissociated themselves from Vedanta and said that the prize decision was made beforehand by one Mr Mehra. Mr Mehra is a highly dubious London based corporate guru of whom ‘The Observer’ released an article in May 2003 called ‘The Contradictions of Madhav Mehra’!
· Over 150 organisations wrote to the jury of the ‘The Golden Peacock Award’ and demonstrations were held at the Award ceremony in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Such was the public anger that even the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh and other Government officials refused to participate in this Award ceremony.
· In early 2009, in a breathtakingly beautiful non-violent protest over 10,000 villagers and concerned citizens held hands to form a 17 kilometre human chain around the Niyamgiri hills!
· Thousands of indigenous people representing over 150 anti-displacement unions, solidarity groups and villages have been protesting non-violently against Vedanta. They have submitted petitions to the District Collector, demanded a fair implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and have been demanding the immediate cancellation of Vedanta’s mining lease.
· The famous Environmental activist Prafulla Samantara addressed a rally on World Environment Day in which villagers demanded an end to deforestation, the pollution of rivers and fertile land, the protection of the fertile top soil layer and the promotion of small scale food processing units in the region supporting the cultivation of fruits like pineapple, orange and lemon in the region.
· The indigenous population including people from so-called ‘Untouchable’ tribes have been protesting against the beggarly petty cash compensation they were paid before their villages were bulldozed. They have demanded to speak with the CEOs of the mining companies with no success. Agitation has stopped work in many instances for example in 2008 in the Utkal Aluminium plant in the Rayagada district work was stopped for 107 days due to protests.
· Families who helped Vedanta in the village-land acquisition are now opposing them and protests were launched, public hearings held and petitions submitted against Vedanta’s illegal construction of a smelter in Jharsuguda.
· Since 24 April 2009 villagers around Lanjigarh have been protesting in large numbers against Vedanta’s polluting refinery. Such were the emotions and anger against Vedanta that the public hearing was officially adjourned because of protests. Thousands of residents have submitted affidavits to the Indian Supreme Court opposing Vedanta’s Project.
‘All people are like my children, take care of their well being, especially people living in the remote areas, the tribal people.’
Rock edict of Emperor Ashoka, 273-236 B.C.
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We won’t leave our land
So many police my friend
Taking us to jails
Better to mingle with our Mother Earth
Who will speak for us?
They are coming
With marching legs and arms!
They are coming to take our mountain
And use it all up in 25 years
Very clever, dear friend
Oh dear frogs and fishes of my river
Will we ever be able to blink at each other again?
We are tired of this struggle
song of a Dongria Kondh blind folk singer