The Supreme Court’s decision to stall UK-based Vedanta Group’s bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha, till gram sabhas of districts Rayagada and Kalahandi in the state give clearance to it, is a welcome development that protects the rights of the tribals living in these regions to preserve their traditional religious and quasi-ecological practices. The apex court has directed the gram sabhas of the two districts to decide in three months on the issues arising out of the mining project, which is handled by Vedanta’s Indian subsidiary, Sterlite Industries. The bench comprising justices Aftab Alam, KS Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi also directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to take action in two months after a report from the gram sabhas is received. The decision has put the spotlight back on the controversial and linked issues of tribal rights and environmental sustainability, coupled with forcible land acquisition by state governments in collusion with multinational corporations, such as the London-based Vedanta Group owned by British-Indian mining tycoon Anil Aggarwal. Vedanta, in conjunction with Odisha Mining Corporation, had been sourcing alumina from the mineral-rich state, and mining the chief aluminium ore bauxite to reach a target of one million tonne per annum of the widely-used metal. The mining project, which was planned to supply up to 150 million tonnes of bauxite to Vedanta Aluminium, India’s largest producer of the metal, was shut in December. This was in lieu of India limiting its issue of bauxite leases in the wake of widespread protests over forcible land acquisition, pollution of ecologically sensitive areas, damage to natural habitat and biodiversity of the regions, as well as displacement of tribal people from their ancestral lands.
Mining scams in India have already generated global outrage with heavy encroachment into forest areas, conflict with tribals and other forest dwellers over land rights, leading even to spread of Maoism in areas such as Chhattisgarh. In addition to bauxite mining, inconsistencies over coal bloc allocations have also caused a loss of several billions of rupees to the government exchequer, due to the delayed implementation of competitive bidding process for allotment of these blocs, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Transnational corporations such as Vedanta are known violators, who flex their financial muscle to arm-twist the local bodies into submitting to their whims and fancies, leaving no concern for the people native to the land, as well as for the flora and fauna of these abundantly biodiversity-rich regions. In addition to bauxite, illegal mining, far overreaching the environmentally sustainable prescribed upper limits of the total yearly extraction, has been carried out vis-à-vis iron ore, chromite as well as coal in the mineral-heavy state of Odisha, much to the detriment of the environment and its people. However, the SC decision to give the gram sabhas a chance to take the task in their own hands is a superlative move that finally gives voice to the natives and empower them with a choice of their own.