Indian tribe continues to oppose bauxite miner

Vedanta Resources Plc, a UK-based metals company listed on the FTSE-100 index , is awaiting the Indian government’s final clearance to start mining the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite for its alumina refinery close by. Its subsidiary, Sterlite Industries, which is co-owned by the Orissa state government, will operate the mine.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that a rising tide of protest – by tribal people and activists from around the world – has threatened the project, which has been repeatedly delayed since 2005. In March, in a further setback for the company, a government panel sent to the area submitted three reports saying Vedanta had begun work before receiving the final clearances.

Commenting on the government panel’s findings, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said Vedanta may have violated rights of the 8,000-member local Dongria Kondh tribe. "The letter and spirit of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has not been implemented by Vedanta," he told journalists, referring to the law that governs rights of tribes on forest lands they inhabit.

Mukesh Kumar, chief operating officer of the project, denies that Vedanta has violated any rights. He said no tribal people lived in the 721 ha area covered by the mining lease. “Where there is bauxite it is totally barren; there will only be mining,” he said.

But NGOs and activists who oppose the mine say the project could have catastrophic effects on the local environment. It is feared the mine could dry up dozens of perennial streams and two rivers that run through the hills, while pollution could damage fruit orchards and plants said to possess medicinal properties.

Vedanta argues that the project will “bring significant benefits to the local and national community by promoting growth in Orissa, developing local education, medical and other social infrastructure and furthering India’s global economic competitiveness.”

The state government has given its backing to Vedanta’s plans, as has the central government, pending final environmental clearances. In 2008, the Supreme Court approved the project, after it asked Sterlite to plow 5% of profits from its mines across India into developing the area.