India backs tribes in mining ruling
India's environment minister struck down a controversial mining project Tuesday by multinational Vedanta that threatened a tribal group whose fate was compared to the stars of the film Avatar.
Jairam Ramesh rejected the proposal by British-based resource giant Vedanta, owned by Indian businessman Anil Agarwal, to build an open-cast bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hill range in the eastern state of Orissa.
The 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh tribespeople believe the remote hills are the home of their God, Niyam Raja, and rely on the land for their crops and livelihood.
Survival International, which fights for tribal groups, has run a highly successful public relations campaign likening the plight of the Dongria Kondh to the fictional Na'vi tribe in the blockbuster James Cameron film Avatar.
Ramesh told reporters that forest clearance for the project had not been granted, in keeping with a recommendation by an environment ministry advisory panel, meaning the project was "inoperable".
"Only after being reassured by the attorney general, I have gone ahead with my decision -- upholding the recommendation of the panel after due consideration," he said.
London-listed Vedanta, the second-largest aluminium producer in India, wanted the mine in Orissa in order to secure a supply of bauxite for a nearby aluminium refinery.
The proposed 125-billion-rupee (2.7-billion-dollar) investment has emerged as a test case in India, pitting industrial development interests against those of indigenous peoples and the environment.
Vedanta argues that the mine, which has been mired in controversy since 2005, would cause minimum disturbance to the remote hills and that mined areas would be planted with trees once the bauxite was extracted.
Company officials have also stressed that the refinery and mine would help alleviate poverty in the deeply deprived region, with the company committed to providing jobs, health care, education and midday feeding schemes to locals.
The rejection from Ramesh appears the final nail in the coffin for the project and Vedanta has recently signalled that it is prepared to look for another site.
"We are willing to look at alternate locations," Agarwal was quoted as saying in the Hindustan Times on August 18. "Without the requisite approvals and clearances we will not even move an inch."
The company could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.
In a report commissioned by Ramesh and made public earlier this month, a panel of experts said the planned Vedanta project would threaten the "very survival" of the Dongria Kondh.
The report said going ahead with the open-caste mine would have a huge environmental impact which would "drastically alter" the region's water supply, affecting both ecological systems and human communities.
It also declared that Vedanta was in "illegal occupation" of 26 hectares of land in the area at a time when the mine had yet to receive federal approval.
"This is an act of total contempt for the law on the part of the company and shows an appalling degree of collusion on the part of the concerned officials," it said.
© 2010 AFP