Indian tribe comes to London to attack mining of sacred hills

Plans to mine bauxite from sacred hills in the Indian state of Orissa have been angrily denounced at the annual general meeting of the UK company behind the scheme.

The founder and chairman of Vedanta, Anil Agarwal, struggled to explain a commitment to "sustainable development" in the teeth of testimony by village people who had flown to London from Orissa to describe how the company was destroying the environment even before the mining has started.

Vedanta Resources told shareholders of "another excellent year" in which the company earned record revenue for a sixth successive year, with revenues of $8.2bn, 26 per cent up on 2007. But the good news was drowned out by the determination of minority shareholders to force the company to confront the consequences of its adventure in Orissa's Nyamgiri Hills.

The Dongria Kondh, a tribe some 8,000-strong from the Indian state of Orissa worship the peak of the Nyamgiri hills as a god – and with reason, as the thick layer of bauxite which crowns the hills serves as a huge sponge for the monsoon rains, releasing them steadily throughout the year and guaranteeing the fertility of the forests and crops.

Since 2002, the survival of the hills and of the tribe itself has been thrown into doubt by Vedanta's plans to mine the Nyamgiri Hills for bauxite. A protected forest area, it is home to endangered animals including tigers, leopards and elephants as well as hundreds of species of rare plants and trees.

The company has already built what Mr Agarwal called a "Rolls-Royce quality bauxite refinery" at the foot of the hills, destroying several tribal villages in the process, in anticipation of the arrival of the three million tons of bauxite the area is said to contain.

But despite the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Vedanta and the state government, the mining of the hills has yet to begin. That's because the land is a "Schedule V Area", protected under Section 18 of the Indian Constitution, which means it cannot be transferred to private companies without the consent of tribal people.

Monitors sent by the Indian Supreme Court in Delhi submitted a damning report, leading to a long-running legal case.

Last year the three-man bench ruled that Vedanta could not mine the hills – but allowed its Indian subsidiary Sterlite to reapply on condition that it plough five per cent of its profits into conservation and tribal development. The Indian court's final verdict on the new application is expected later this week.

Yesterday, in the dignified surroundings of the Institute of Civil Engineers in Westminster, the company strove to underline its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability as well as its success in achieving "industry-leading levels of growth". The bottom line was that India possessed abundant bauxite, the world is crying out for aluminium, and Mr Agarwal is uniquely well placed to supply it.

The pressure resulted in Mr Agarwal making a commitment, for the first time, to comply with international law. "I can only promise that we will only start work if we have complete permission of the court and the people," he told shareholders. The mining of Nyamgiri could be carried out "with a partnership approach". Indian observers at the meeting who claimed to be neutral said the mining of Nyamgiri should not be seen as a win-lose situation from which the tribal people would emerge defeated. Mr Agarwal said: "We have not touched the hill, it is intact."

"What do you mean you have not touched the hill?" retorted a member of the Dongria Kondhs. "You have dragged it to court..."

In fact the identity of the winners and losers in the Nyamgiri Hills is already clear. The Lanjigarh refinery produces up to three million tons of caustic soda waste, so-called "red mud", every year, and people living near the refinery complain that the pollution damages crop yields, kills livestock and causes pollution related illnesses.

If and when the mining gets under way, the damage will be proportionately worse. Vedanta denies that its operations cause damaging pollution and insists that it complies with all relevant regulations.

A report by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2005 predicted that the mining of Nyamgiri would produce massive deforestation, toxic contamination of the water table and would endanger the fresh water source for hundreds of thousands of people in Orissa. And the Dongria Kondhs will be scattered across the earth.

India's green battles

The battle over the Niyamgiri hills is just the latest flashpoint as India struggles to juggle the twin aspirations of economic development and environmental protection.

Of all India's environmental battles none is more famous than the Narmada dam. Opposition to the plan to build more than 30 hydro-electric dams in the state of Madhya Pradesh has been escalating since the 1980s and includes the novelist Arundhati Roy.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) warns that the project would displace more than 200,000 people and damage the fragile ecology of the region.

There are countless smaller protests. In the state of Orissa, activists have recently tried to halt the construction of a steel plant being built by the industrial giant Tata at Dhamra, close to a beach that is used by the threatened Olive Ridley turtles for breeding.

In Sikkim, environmental activists have gone on hunger strike attempting to stop the construction of dams along the course of the Teesta river.

And students in Arunachal Pradesh are protesting against the building ofa dam that will block the river Dibang, which is one of main tributaries of the Brahmaputra.

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