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.
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“The Dongria Kondhi’s identity and very existence is dependent on the hills around them,” says Sarah Webster, an expert on tribal and indigenous people for the International Labor Organization, part of the United Nations.Skip to next paragraph
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Tribes like the Dongria Kondhi, which are listed by India’s government as “highly endangered,” have a special status under Indian law, which also protects their land.
Around 8 percent of India’s population are tribal people, also known as adivasi. Traditionally forest-dwelling, they follow an animist religion rooted in nature, and their languages have no written form.
“The Fifth Schedule [of India’s Constitution] which covers tribal areas in 10 states in India, supposedly guarantees prevention of land transfers in the form of mining leases to private companies,” says Ms. Webster. “Yet such transfers to private and international mining companies continue unabated.”
Giving back to the community
Vedanta argues that the tribal people opposing the mine are a minority. In a recent press statement, it said that the “vast majority of the local community in Orissa has welcomed and supported Vedanta.”
It also said the project would “bring significant benefits to the local and national community by promoting growth in Orissa, developing local education, medical and other social infrastructure and furthering India’s global economic competitiveness.”
The state government has given its backing to Vedanta’s plans, as has the central government, pending final environmental clearances. In 2008, the Supreme Court approved the project, after it asked Sterlite, Vedanta’s subsidiary, to plow 5 percent of profits from its mines across India into developing the area.
In recent years, several big companies have faced serious – sometimes violent – opposition to attempts to buy land for industrial projects that they have claimed will provide local employment and opportunity.
Protest spreads abroad
The controversy over Vedanta’s mine plans hit headlines worldwide last month when the Church of England and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust sold off their $5.7 million and $2.85 million investments in the firm, on moral grounds.
The company was dealt a further blow the same month when Amnesty International said Vedanta’s alumina refinery – for which Niyamgiri’s bauxite is destined – was causing air and water pollution and threatening the health of 5,000 people.
"Residents told Amnesty International that since mid-2007, when the refinery began operating, they have been suffering from a range of health problems," said the report.
"These include skin conditions like blisters and boils after bathing in the river, and respiratory discomfort, including coughing and breathlessness, which they believe are linked to inhaling of dust and other emissions from the refinery."
Vedanta plans to expand that refinery sixfold – but it cannot do so until it is mining bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills.