Is This A New Dawn For Environmentalism In India? Lessons To Be Learnt From Niyamgiri

Posted on August 19, 2013 in Environment, Politics

By Harsh Vasani:

Come 19th August and a precedent of sorts will be set. After all how many times has a powerless populace of hardly 8000 people won over a ruthless and powerful corporate and a belligerent administration? On the 19th of August at Jarapa village in Rayagada district, Odisha, the last of the 12 Gram Sabha- or Palli Sabha as locally known- will he held, and going by the record of the 11 preceding Palli Sabha that unanimously rejected mining atop the Hills of Niyamgiri, this eventual Sabha too is expected to mirror the same sentiment.

So is this the end of the decade long struggle for the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, the indigenous tribes of Niyamgiri, against Sterlite Industries (India) Limited- a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources- and mining on the hills which not only is their source of livelihood but also holds cultural and religious significance? One would hope so; considering the Supreme Court has declared in no uncertain terms that the final decision on mining now lies with the result of the referendum. Questions are also being raised whether this referendum will pave way for greater decentralisation wherein the indigenous people will be empowered to decide on matters pertaining to their land and livelihood.


It is important to note that the Supreme Court has intervened in this matter and ordered this referendum after prolonged protests at all levels and intervention of international Human Rights organisations. All this while the state government sided with the corporate, ignoring the environmental damage and the displacement of the tribes this project will cause. It is telling that the apex court had to intervene to ensure justice to the vulnerable tribes. But are the tribes of Niyamgiri just a beneficiary of an exception? Should the indigenous people be expected to fight their way to ensure their rights are not violated?

Also worth mentioning is the expedience of the government which disingenuously decided to hold the Palli Sabha only in 12 villages out of 112 odd villages that were likely to be affected. The chicanery of the administration to coerce the 12 villages failed to work.
The government worked hand-in-glove with Vedanta Resources, now a decade later, it is evident that no one stands to win. The refinery at Lanjigarh has already affected the tribes by degrading the air quality and worsening of underground water.

An excerpt from the Saxena Committee report commissioned by the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) in July 2010:

“The Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) has recorded numerous instances of non-compliance with the pollution control norms at the refinery. They have recorded worsening quality of river and underground water in the vicinity of the refinery. The refinery is also responsible for the degrading the air quality in the valley. The particulate emission from the refinery boilers have at times been five times the upper limits set by the law. Even though OSPCB have issued show cause notices to the refinery authorities, the response has not generally been satisfactory.”

Now with the majority of the Sabhas deciding against mining on the Hills, the hope to extract ore is looking bleaker for Vedanta. It does raise a question however, was this tug of war avoidable? Had the government undertaken an intensive study of the effects of mining on the Hills and the environment and the livelihood of the habitats living in the vicinity, it was sure to understand the non-feasibility of the project. Would that have stopped the government from going ahead and signing the MoU is another question.

The scrapping of the project in Niyamgiri does not augur well for India’s already marred image as an investment destination. As Dinesh C Sharma observed in the Daily Mail:
“Are new projects in the future going to be decided by a vote of local villagers? Does billions of dollars worth of investment depend on what a handful of people think about their local deities and gods? Are grazing rights of tribals more important than the need for India to attract foreign direct investments? Shouldn’t the same kind of referendum be held in nuclear project sites of Kundankulam or Jaitapur?”

The emphasis here is also on the lucidity of letting the unlettered tribal populace decide on a multimillion dollar project. The best Sterlite Industries can do now is to continue importing ore from various states that it has been doing and refine it in their Lanjigarh refinery.

Lastly, it raises the never ending debate of Economy vs. Environment, and whether is there a way in between. Reflected very articulately in the Saxena Committee report:
After the onset of the neoliberal era in 1990s, the state-owned corporations have been joined by global mining companies in the extraction of these resources. Progressive laws like the FRA (Forests Rights Act) are pitted against the inexorable march of an economic outlook that holds the corporate mining to be indispensable to India’s economic prosperity. The tribal people and their practices are sometimes hailed for their exotic value. Even their role in preserving India’s forests is reluctantly conceded at times. But mostly they are seen as historic relics irrelevant in the ‘new and modern’ India. The fact that they sit atop some of the most precious sub-soil resources in India is seen as historic aberration that the modern India is advised to deal with the decisiveness of a country on its way to future glory.”

One favourable decision cannot possibly serve to supplant the ‘vital national self-interests’. Tribal groups and their supporters resisting corporate mining will do well to remember this.