In India, local tribe battles UK giant Vedanta over bauxite mining
The Dongria Kondh tribe aims to defend its 'sacred' Niaymgiri hills in India from the bauxite mining bid of UK giant Vedanta. The conflict highlights India’s growing dilemma: how to balance badly needed industrial growth with residents’ connection to the land.
Members of the Dongria Kondh, one of India’s indigenous tribes, would not normally climb to the top of the lush, green Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, eastern India, because they consider the mountains sacred.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But desperate times call for desperate measures. In late February, thousands of tribesmen and women made the 4,300-ft. ascent to pray, and leave an inscribed stone tablet that read: “Niyamgiri is ours. Vedanta beware. We are the Dongria Kondh.”
Vedanta Resources Plc, a metals company based in Britain that is listed on the FTSE-100 index of the London stock exchange, is awaiting the Indian government’s final clearance to start mining the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite – an ore from which aluminium is produced – which it needs for its alumina refinery close by. Its subsidiary, Sterlite Industries, which is co-owned by the Orissa government, will operate the mine.
A rising tide of protest – by tribal people and activists from around the world – has threatened the project, which has been repeatedly delayed since 2005. In March, in a further setback for the company, a government panel sent to the area submitted three reports saying Vedanta had begun work before receiving the final clearances.
The project has underscored a question of mounting importance in India: How the country should balance vital economic growth with the needs of local populations that are closely tied to the land.
Even remote areas of densely populated India are inhabited by unskilled, impoverished people who cannot easily diversify away from farming or forest-dwelling. But India’s 1-billion-plus population – around 40 percent of whom live in poverty, according to the World Bank – needs the economic growth that only industrial growth will bring.
Tribal people are among India’s poorest, scoring lowest on all economic and social indicators from income to literacy.
Tribal people’s rights
Earlier this month, commenting on the government panel’s findings, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said Vedanta may have violated rights of the 8,000-member Dongria Kondh. "The letter and spirit of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has not been implemented by Vedanta," he told journalists, referring to the law that governs rights of tribes on forest lands they inhabit.
Mukesh Kumar, chief operating officer of the project, denies that Vedanta has violated any rights. “This thing will not affect anything,” he says, referring to the government report. “We expect the government to give us permission to start operations any day now.”
He adds that no tribal people lived in the 721-hectare area covered by the mining lease. “Where there is bauxite it is totally barren; there will only be mining,” he says.
But nongovernmental organizations and activists who oppose the mine say the project could have catastrophic effects on the local environment. It is feared the mine could dry up dozens of perennial streams and two rivers that run through the hills, while pollution could damage fruit orchards and plants said to possess medicinal properties.