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Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

January 14, 2014 09:42 IST

Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

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BS Bureau

The precedent set by the Niyamgiri cancellation is problematic. Several principles of justice have been violated. 

The government of Odisha is likely to appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision by the central government in New Delhi to halt the bauxite mining project being undertaken by Vedanta Resources in the Niyamgiri area of the state. 

Vedanta has long claimed that without the ample supply of bauxite in the Niyamgiri area, its Rs 50,000-crore (Rs 500 billion) aluminium refinery close by would not be profitable.

The Odisha government has finally woken up to the need to avoid playing politics with the state’s investment climate. The Union ministry of environment and forests, or MoEF, has perhaps chosen to be more cavalier.

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Image: Demonstrators, dressed as characters from the film Avatar, protest against British mining company Vedanta Resources.
Photographs: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

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Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

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BS Bureau

Under the new leadership of Veerappa Moily, it has cleared many major projects - but the Niyamgiri mines, about which Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi made a widely reported speech to locals declaring he was “their soldier in Delhi”, are not one of those.

This absence is noteworthy, and questionable.

It is also irresponsible. It is nobody’s case that mining in India is generally carried out with sufficient respect for existing laws, or for the rights of those most affected by it.

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Image: Anil Agarwal.
Photographs: Courteys, Vedanta

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Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

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But the answer to that is not to swing to the other extreme and to allow veto power to those who do not even live on the land in question over any and all mining projects. Sadly, that is what has happened in Odisha.

The MoEF will no doubt defend itself by saying that the Supreme Court had directed that the opinion of the gram sabhas, or village assemblies, of the villages some kilometres from the oposed project be taken into account.

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Image: Workers walk in front of the Vedanta Aluminium factory in Lanjigarh in Orissa.
Photographs: Reuters

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Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

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All 12 such assemblies voted against the project. This is not surprising - if only because the company was prohibited from discussing the project’s possible benefits and kept out of the meetings, while activist non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from all over India and abroad were given free rein to make the argument on the other side.

And even if the merits of the NGOs’ case had outweighed the company’s assurances in a fair, rather than slanted, fight, it is not necessary for the MoEF to reject Vedanta’s application, as it reportedly did last week.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Why cancellation of Vedanta's Niyamgiri project is worrying

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The court’s order was merely that the MoEF took into account the village assemblies’ decision on whether they felt their rights were being violated. The final decision, the court had said, was still the ministry’s to make.

If the MoEF shuts down the project, it can hide behind neither the Supreme Court nor the village assemblies.

The precedent set by the Niyamgiri cancellation is problematic. Several principles of justice have been violated. First of all, underground resources are always property of all the people.

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Image: Aluminium smelter at Jharsuguda
Photographs: Courtesy, Vedanta

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Second, those who live in villages more than half a dozen kilometres away from the proposed project site cannot claim property or communal rights over land that they do not customarily use.

Finally, in a secular country, to bow down to religious sentiment – for that is what it is in this case – is always something that should cause concern.

The Congress, which attacks the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party for being insufficiently secular, is the one imposing religious values in this case. It is to be hoped that the Odisha government prosecutes its case with zeal so that these worrying precedents do not take hold.  


Image: An aerial view of the Balco plant at Korba.
Photographs: Courtesy, Vedanta

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