Vedanta faces fresh protests over Odisha alu­mina plant

Financial Chronicle - - PLAN, POLICY - KR­ISHNA N DAS & JATINDRA DASH

AF­TER Tamil Nadu shut a cop­per smelter run by Vedanta Re­sources fol­low­ing deadly protests, the com­pany faces an­other chal­lenge 1,000 miles away, where axe-tot­ing tribes­men and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have joined forces to de­mand the clo­sure of an alu­mina re­fin­ery.

An al­liance of ac­tivists and lo­cal peo­ple has for years blocked Lon­don-listed Vedanta’s plans to mine baux­ite in the green, jun­gle-clad Niyam­giri hills of Odisha, which the tribes peo­ple con­sider sa­cred.

The killing by po­lice of 13 peo­ple protest­ing against the cop­per smelter in Tamil Nadu, has given fresh im­pe­tus to their cam­paign to also close the Odisha re­fin­ery run by Vedanta. The firm is seek­ing to ex­pand the plant.

“We will shed our blood for Niyam­giri, we will die for Niyam­giri,” tribal leader Lado Sikaka, told a rally near the re­fin­ery in Lan­ji­garh, on June 5. “Vedanta can give jobs to only a few but Niyam Raja has given us ev­ery­thing,” he said, re­fer­ring to the hill-god of the com­mu­nity’s tra­di­tional an­i­mist re­li­gion. “We will keep fight­ing till the end. We will in­ten­sify our ag­i­ta­tion,” he said.

In Tu­ti­corin, of­fi­cially known as Thoothukudi, Vedanta has been ac­cused by lo­cal res­i­dents and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists of pol­lut­ing air and ground­wa­ter. The po­lice shoot­ings on May 22 came af­ter at least 50,000 peo­ple gath­ered on the 100th day of their cam­paign to op­pose the ex­pan­sion of the smelter.

The com­pany, in which In­dian scrap me­tal dealer-turned-bil­lion­aire Anil Agar­wal has a con­trol­ling stake, called the in­ci­dent “ab­so­lutely un­for­tu­nate”. It de­nies it is in breach of any en­vi­ron­men­tal laws.

In the wake of the po­lice shoot­ings, the Tamil Nadu gov­ern­ment or­dered clo­sure of the Thoothuku- di cop­per smelter on en­vi­ron­men­tal grounds, wip­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars off Vedanta’s mar­ket value and sales. Sources say the firm may ap­peal.

The Odisha alu­mina re­fin­ery, lack­ing a lo­cal source, mostly uses costly baux­ite im­ported from as far as Brazil and Guinea and brought 275 km by train from a port in neigh­bour­ing Andhra Pradesh – a sit­u­a­tion that makes no eco­nomic sense.

One Vedanta ex­ec­u­tive who spoke to Reuters ac­knowl­edged that min­ing in Niyam­giri re­mained its long-term aim. “In busi­ness you have to take risks. The whole pur­pose of set­ting up the plant in this jun­gle was to have ac­cess to baux­ite,” said the ex­ec­u­tive. “Some day baux­ite min­ing will hap­pen here. Don­gria peo­ple are look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties. A sec­tion of them wants to join the main­stream,” the ex­ec­u­tive said.

Vedanta had in­tended to sup­ply the re­fin­ery with baux­ite ex­tracted from the Niyam­giri hills by a min­ing com­pany owned by the state gov­ern­ment, which backed the project. A rust­ing steel con­veyor belt mounted on dozens of con­crete pil­lars can still be seen snaking down the green hill­side to the plant.

But, af­ter op­po­si­tion from lo­cal vil­lagers and global rights groups, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and Supreme Court blocked the plan in 2013. Two years later, Odisha tried to re­vive the min­ing plan with­out suc­cess. Vedanta said it would par­tic­i­pate in any auc­tions of new baux­ite mines in Odisha, adding the state had 70 per cent of In­dia’s to­tal baux­ite re­serve, the world’s fifth largest. The firm didn’t an­swer a ques­tion on whether it still hoped to ac­cess the Niyam­giri re­serve, which is es­ti­mated to hold 88 mil­lion tonnes of baux­ite, enough to meet the re­fin­ery’s de­mand for around 17 years based on cur­rent an­nual con­sump­tion of 5 mil­lion tonnes.

The Niyam­giri re­serve is es­ti­mated to hold 88 mil­lion tonnes of baux­ite, enough to meet the re­fin­ery’s de­mand for around 17 years

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