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Trouble brews over 'holy' hill as Vedanta applies for lease

June 17, 2008 01:50 IST

The bauxite-rich Gandhamardan hill in Orissa is likely to become the centre of an environmental and cultural controversy again after two decades.

In 1986, India's third-largest alumunium producer Balco had applied for a mining lease in the area when it was a government company. This year, the hill is being sought by Balco again, but this time as a private company owned by London-based commodities entrepreneur Anil Agarwal's Vedanta group.

When Balco tried to obtain a mining lease for Gandamardhan 22 years ago, veteran activists like Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment, Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Gandhamardan Yuva Surakshya Sena fought the company tooth and nail. The state government had given in to the activists' demands then.

Two decades on, the company is back and the Gandhamardan Surakshya Yuva Sena is also ready to strike.

The non-government organisation said it was alerted by a notice stuck at the tehsildar's office last week asking people to give their views on leasing out the hill to Vedanta for mining.

However, the date for submitting objections had expired almost a month before the notice was pasted, the activists said.

Vedanta official P K Panda denied that a notice was issued. "It is not possible. We are only one of the 20 applicants and we may not even get a mining lease. Our turn comes last. There is no question of a notice being given out now," he said.

He agreed that there were environmental reasons for Balco being refused mining rights to the hills before. "We are now Vedanta. And as for trying for a lease at Gandhamardan, it is but natural that mining companies will try to get a lease at a place where the mineral is available. We can't seek permission to mine a hill-top on which there is no bauxite," he added.

Vedanta is already facing opposition to mining in the Niyamagiri hills in the Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi district in Orissa. Gandhamardan is in the neighbouring Bargarh district.

In both cases the opposition centres on the fact that bauxite mining might endanger the river and streams that flow from the hills and feed the surrounding villages.

The destruction of local flora and fauna and the disruption of cultural life of the mostly tribal communities in the area are also cited as reasons for opposing these projects.

Another sensitive aspect of the opposition is the religious significance of the hill for both tribal communities in the area and Hindus.

The hill is mentioned in the epic Ramayana. According to legend, the mythological Hanuman plucked a portion of the hill to heal Lakshmana during the battles in Lanka.

The two sides of the slopes also have ancient temples that are significant to local faiths -- the Nrusingha Nath temple on the Bargarh side of the hill and the Harshankar temple on the Balangir side.

The hill is rich in herbal wealth and ayurveda colleges are situated on both sides, said environment activist in Orissa, Ranjan Panda.

Given the fact that the issues surrounding the opposition to the mining lease are unchanged since 1986, companies are keeping their fingers crossed. "It is our job to apply for permission," said Panda of Vedanta.

Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi
Source: source