|Tribals at a protest against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills. File picture
Bhubaneswar, Aug. 19: Villagers in south-western Odisha have rejected a proposal by Vedanta Aluminium to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, arguably in the country’s first referendum of its kind.
The last of the dozen gram sabhas, or village councils, voted today at Jarpa in Rayagada district against the plan, casting the Anil Agarwal-owned Vedanta’s Rs 5,000-crore project into deep uncertainty.
The state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation and Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange-listed Vedanta Resources, were to mine bauxite to feed a one-million-tonne alumina refinery nearby.
The decision has reignited the intense debate over what comes first: local sentiment or industrial development. At the same time, Niyamgiri’s referendum could prove to be the way to go for projects that get tied up in controversies over land acquisition — as at Singur in Bengal — or any other local issue.
All the 11 other village councils had earlier expressed their opposition because of their belief that mining would infringe upon their social, cultural and religious rights over Niyamgiri. The local Kondh tribals worship Niyamgiri as their god.
Sources said that of the 10 male and six female voters who turned up for the village council meeting at Jarpa, not one spoke in favour of the project.
“We will send the report of the proceedings to the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste development department,” said Rayagada district collector Sashi Bhushan Padhi.
The department will compile a report on the outcome of the 12 meetings held in the hills for the Union ministry of environment and forests, which had blocked forest clearance for the project three years ago.
A Vedanta spokesperson declined comment as the matter is sub judice. Sources said the company was now looking for alternative mines in Odisha. Odisha steel and mines minister Rajani Kant Singh dropped hints about bailing out the company, offering the argument that captive mines were required to run the plant.
The village councils were organised following a Supreme Court judgment of April 18 that said mining could not take place by trampling upon the religious and cultural rights of the Kondhs. The meetings, held at various places in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, began on July 18.
Whether or not the Niyamgiri example becomes the trendsetter to resolve similar controversies in the future remains to be seen, but it does offer an alternative mechanism to resolve differences.
The trickiest problem for industrial projects has often proved to be land acquisition, because of which Tata Motors had to leave Singur. After the Niyamgiri development, observers have begun to wonder what the outcome of a similar public referendum in Singur might have been.
It is not that the Niyamgiri case has been completely free of political association. Ruling Biju Janata Dal leader Balbhadra Majhi has accused the local Congress MP, Bhakta Charan Das, of trying to influence the outcome of the village meetings.
Survival International, an NGO, has been campaigning against the project, leading to allegations that opposition was being funded by foreign money.
The presence of two foreigners at an earlier village council meeting had triggered controversy.