Mineral Production? Or Environmental Protection?

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The 1600 Km mountain range running along the north south of the west coast of India, called as ‘Western Ghats’ covers an area of 160,000 square kilometers. This area is one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots. It contains more than 30 % of all plant, fish and mammal species found in India. These lands are also inhabited by poor people, who are often excluded from the decision making processes of state or central government. In this rich diversified land, there are also mineral deposits. The minerals, whose precious nature, have caused deforestation, biodiversity erosion and habitat destruction.

Bauxite, an ore for alumina, is found in abundance in these greenest forests. When something is found in abundance, Multinational companies will for sure step in, getting the approval of state or national government, seizing the villager’s lands, destroying the environment and gifting the people with hazardous wastes and air pollution. The presence of mining giants will, of course, bring in lot of jobs, and exporting the ore will earn valuable foreign exchange to the country and royalty to the state government. Taking the socio-economic perception, most of the communities give in, favoring mineral production.

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The bauxite mining is an open cast type, which means that all the vegetation from the surface areas are either completely removed or damaged permanently. Blasting – one of the essential activities – brings in noise pollution and disturbs the tranquil lives of the wild animals. The topography of that particular area totally changes, causing an area, previously rich in rainfall to be totally eroded. The hazardous wastes are dumped in the rivers and the increase in labor forces around the mining areas causes more deforestation. People of Kohlapur district, in Maharashtra are suffering from all these bauxite mine troubles. The locals, who had agriculture as their traditional livelihood got displaced to Mumbai or other major Indian cities (majority of them are illiterates) to work in exhausting menial jobs.

In 2008, Ritwik Dutta, an environmental lawyer and leader of The Access Initiative (TAI) used ‘Right to Information Act’ to bring out the fraud committed by the Indian Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). He found out that the EIA for a bauxite mining project in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra was partly copied from a Russian EIA for Bauxite mine. The Indian EIA even copied the tree species list, which was only found in the regions of Alaska, Norway and Russia. Such assessment on environmental matters serves as the simple example of fraudulent practices in government decision-making processes.

The only great victory against the mining giants happened at the start of this year. In October 2004, the Orissa government signed an agreement with Vedanta Alumina, a subsidiary of Sterlite Industries to mine bauxite deposit from the Niyamgiri hills. The mining projects lands were planned to be built on the traditional lands of Dongria Kondh, an indigenous community. For a decade, the tribal people lived under the fear of losing their way of life and their sacred hill as well. The Niyamgiri hills are home to a number of vulnerable wild species and are also on the path of the migration corridor of elephants and come within the territory of the Bengal Tiger. However, ignoring all these socio-cultural and environmental aspects, the Orissa government made all-out efforts to bring resource-intensive mode of development. The other threatening fact is that, the government has reached an agreement with UK-based Vedanta, ranked as one of the most dangerous mining outfits in the world.

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In December 2008, India’s ministry of Environment and Forest approved the Niyamgiri hills mining project. Meanwhile, at the foot of Niyamgiri Mountain, refineries were built and expanded it six fold, so sure that they would gain permission to mine despite the local inhabitants’ dissent. Right from the start, the mining was met with local and international opposition. Protestors claimed that it threatens the very existence of the local Adivasi communities and their centuries old unique relationships with their lands. After ten years of determined stand (farmers and dalits also fought in this solidarity campaign), on January 11th (this year), the Ministry of Environment and Forests finally gave its assertion formally rejecting permission for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine. Sources estimate that the failure of Vedanta to mine Bauxite in Niyamgiri must have cost $10 billion. However, the manipulative efforts of mining giants will never stop. They will brood permanently over these rich mountains like hawks.

There is no doubt that mining brings in employment to lot of people. But, it is only temporary, as the eventual closure of mining operations will only leave out degraded environment. None of the mandatory restoration measures such as reclaiming, plantation etc, haven’t taken place in the terminated mine regions.

Vedanta's aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh, Odisha, seen from the Niyamgiri Hills

Vedanta’s aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh, Odisha, seen from the Niyamgiri Hills

Recently, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, on his Orissa campaign claimed that his party was a champion of the tribal people and had saved the Niyamgiri hills from the state government and corporate. He accused that a handful of mafia looted minerals resources of the state and became rich, while the poor and the tribal people did not get any benefit. It is one of those serious-mined Rahul Gandhi joke, as he and every Indian knows that the various central and state governments have never cared about the livelihood of tribal peoples.

 

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