Vedanta faces fresh protests over Odisha alumina plant
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