India's Supreme Court has barred a British company from mining bauxite in forested hills in the east of the country that are home to some of the world's rarest animals, handing a victory to environmental activists and tribal people.
Vedanta Resources Plc had planned a £470m open-cast mining project that would rip through the plateau of the Niyamgiri mountain range in Orissa to feed an aluminium plant it has already built in the area.
But yesterday the court ruled: "Adherence to sustainable development is a constitutional requirement. We cannot risk handing over this important national asset to a company." Development had to proceed, "without compromising the needs of future generations".
There was a chance that the project could proceed in some form, however, after the court asked Vedanta's Indian arm, Sterlite Industries, to come back with a proposal on safeguarding the rights of local tribal people through a new investment firm. There was no comment from Vedanta on the ruling.
The hilly areas of the southern part of Orissa, one of the most underdeveloped regions of India, are bauxite-rich, and the British mining group's project in the Kalahandi district to produce one million tons of aluminium a year has been at the centre of a raging environmental controversy. The dense forests contain endangered animals, including the Bengal tiger, Asian elephants, giant squirrels, pangolins, four-horned antelopes and the very rare golden gecko.
The mountains, once considered for status as a wildlife sanctuary by the state government, is also home to about 8,000 Dongria Kondhs, one of India's most distinctive aboriginal peoples.
For Anil Agarwal, a 54-year-old former scrap metal dealer and now chief executive of Vedanta, mining the area is worth billions of pounds, owing to the booming export demand for aluminium, a major raw material in the global arms industry.
But opponents of the project warn it would open the floodgates of massive exploitation of Orissa's natural wealth.
"Niyamgiri is extremely rich in biodiversity and many rare species of flora and fauna have been recently discovered from there," the Indian environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty said. "Major rivers have their source on the slopes of these mountains, filtered through the bauxite, which has exceptional qualities for holding and channelling water."
The green campaigners claim 660 hectares (1,500 acres) of pristine forest with a level of biodiversity rare in south Asia would be destroyed, leading to the drying up of at least two rivers and the annihilation of several rare breeds of wildlife. Protests led to the arrest of scores of tribespeople who fear the refinery will spell their doom.
The court order drew mixed reactions from those opposed to Vedanta. Jubilant tribal people, armed with bows and arrows, rushed out of their houses in the Niyamgiri hills as reports of the order reached the region.
"The people of Kalahandi and tribals of Dongria Kondh community salute the verdict of the court," said Bhakta Charan Das, a former MP who is spearheading the anti-Vedanta campaign.
Voluntary groups that supported the protests were, however, cautious. "We are very apprehensive of this special purpose vehicle," said Babu Mathew, country director of ActionAid India, referring to the court's idea of a new company to take control of the project.
"There have been too many such arrangements that have failed in the past," he told Reuters.Reuse content