The Supreme Court judgment last week directing Orissa to hold gram sabha meetings in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts over whether bauxite mining can be allowed in the Niyamgiri mountains has opened Pandoras box for projects in the state.
Though Vedanta and the Orissa Mining Corporation hailed the judgment as a window of opportunity after years of glo-om,the SC order asking the gram sabhas to decide on the cultural and religious rights of Dongaria Kondhs over the Niyamgiri mountain plateau may have made things more complex.
The NC Saxena Committee was the first to say,in August 2010,that bauxite mining in Niyamgiri would deprive the Dongarias of their rights over the mountain,sealing the fate of Vedantas 1-million-tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi. The Ministry of Environment and Forests subsequently rejected the companys application for final forest clearance for its mining project.
Days later,Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had descended on Lanjigarh and backed the MoEF decision,while promising the tribals that he would be their emissary in Delhi. Its quite another matter that in the two years hence,Rahul has never returned to Lanjigarh to enquire about the same tribals.
Since then it has been downhill for Vedanta in Kalahandi,left scampering for bauxite from all over the country till finally closing the refinery. The closure has also severely affected the operation of its aluminium smelter in Jharsuguda district.
If the gram sabhas to be supervised by a district judge appointed by Orissa High Court indeed decide against mining in Niyamgiri,it would almost be the end of the road for Vedanta,the single biggest industrial investor in Orissa in the past 10 years. Vedanta can challenge the gram sabha decision in the SC,but that would again be a time-consuming process hitting the companys bottomline.
The SC judgment may have also added more obstacles to mining projects elsewhere in the state. The Khandadhar mines of Sundargarh district,where Posco plans to seek iron ore for its steel project,is also an area rich in biodiversity. Educated by the Niyamgiri experience,local politicians are already setting the stage for a similar fight here.
Perhaps aware of the difficulties ahead,the state Steel and Mines Department has said Orissa would henceforth not commit any mining leases to companies hardly a development that would draw investment to this backward state.
Debabrata is a special correspondent based in Bhubaneswar