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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

£21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat