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.
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.
“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.
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.