Lanjigarh (Odisha), Feb 15: People in this tiny village in Kalahandi district, one of India’s most impoverished regions, are crying foul as they have been deprived of their primary regular source of livelihood — and for reasons and events beyond their control.
The issue in question is right to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills for Vedanta’s 1 million tonne per annum aluminium factory, that is shut since December for want of this key feedstock.
What has angered the villagers more is that requests for sourcing bauxite from elsewhere also appear to have fallen on deaf years, as extant policies do not provide for adequate dis-incentives to prevent exports by states like Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra.
“The factory gave us a chance to earn our livelihood with regular income,” said Krishna Kar who worked as a bauxite loader when the plant was in operation. “But the government has snatched this away. Neither the state nor the central governments cares for us.”
Environment activists have a different perspective. Amnesty International, for example, had a study done which was published in July 2011. It claimed that Vedanta failed to conduct an environment and social impact assessment of its mining and refining operations.
On its part, a company report titled – “The Lanjigarh Development Project: Vedanta’s Perspective” – refuted Amnesty’s contention.
“Because of its dependence on EIAs as a source of information, Amnesty cannot know the full extent of the company’s engagement with the issues that concern it. Much of the material necessary for a balanced view of how the refinery has developed, has not previously been available,” it said.
But caught in between are people like Kar, who used to unload bauxite brought in by trains to nearby Ambodala railway station from other parts of the country and load this in trucks. For that he used to earn a steady income of Rs.5,000 a month.
Lanjigarh, which was otherwise just another sleepy village, started bustling after the aluminium plant opened in August 2007, with some 7,500 people, mostly from here and neighbouring places, working at the factory and benefiting directly.
A school, hospital and other social services were added incentives.
But as Raghumani Rana, who works as a housekeeping supervisor at the plant, says, their lives have turned topsy-turvy now. “I and 80 others in my department were told that we’ll get only 15 days’ pay due to lack of bauxite. How can we survive like this?”
Another resident, Janami Gaur, says their life has also been unsettled since her husband, Bharat Gaur, also lost his job as a bauxite loader and is now in faraway Kerala working in a match-making unit. “He sends Rs.1,000 a month for me and my three children.”
Trouble started brewing in August 2010 when the Union environment ministry scrapped the stage-II forest clearance for the Niyamgiri mine of the plant. The ministry had early cleared the Niyamagiri mining lease in April 2009.
This matter is sub-judice in courts. But Vedanta, as its chief operating officer, Mukesh Kumar said, has been seeking to run the factory with bauxite from other sources till the matter is resolved, but that is also not coming by.
“Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh — we haven’t left any state to source bauxite,” Kumar said. “Now, Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra have started exporting bauxite,” he added.
According to him, a request was made to ban the export of bauxite or to impose at least some export duty like for iron ore. “If only some export duty would have been imposed, our plant would have been saved,” Kumar added.
A fresh blow came a few months ago when an environment ministry circular said companies applying for renewal of mining leases should seek fresh environmental clearances. The Delhi High Court said the circular was illegal.
“Today five or six months have passed and they have done nothing,” Kumar lamented. “Had something been done, two-to-four mines in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh would have started. One of them of Balco (a group company) used to supply us 70,000 tonnes every month.”
(Aroonim Bhuyan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)