India junks Vedanta’s mining bid on environment concerns

August 24th, 2010 - 8:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh New Delhi, Aug 24 (IANS) Despite some forceful lobbying by Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, India’s environment ministry Tuesday formally rejected a bauxite-mining project in the state proposed by the London-based industrialist Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta group.

The decision, conveyed by Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh, came just a day after Patnaik personally met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and sought to place before the ministers concerned his point of view on the project proposed in western Orissa.

“The Saxena Committee report, recommendations from the Forest Advisory Committee and legal opinion of the attorney general have been taken into consideration and on that basis the environment clearance has been withdrawn,” Ramesh told reporters here.

Vedanta, however, refuted allegations of any wrongdoing at the mining site and said it was in discussions with the Orissa state government for alternative bauxite mining sites.

“There has been no regulatory violations of any kind at the Lanjigarh Alumina refinery. We are not in possession of Niyamgiri Mine and no mining activity has been or will be undertaken till all approvals are in place,” the company said in a statement.

Sterlite, which is part of the $7.9 billion Vedanta Group, the Orissa Mining Corp and the bauxite-mining project on the Niyamgiri hills at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Orissa cannot be granted stage-II forest clearance, the minister said.

“In view of the ongoing delay in approval of the Niyamgiri mining, the government of Orissa is actively considering allocation of alternate source of bauxite to Vedanta’s alumina refinery, from the state of Orissa,” the statement added.

“Since forest clearance is being rejected, the environmental clearance is inoperable,” Ramesh said, adding a show cause notice has also been issued to Vedanta, asking the group why the environment clearance should not be cancelled, he added.

“There is no emotion, no politics, no prejudice. I have taken the decision in a purely legal approach — laws are being violated.”

The minister said that though an approval, in principle, was given for the project in 2008 by the Supreme Court, new facts came up that were examined by the Saxena Committee. He also assured no witch-hunt against state officials as they had acted in good faith.

The four-member expert panel, headed by National Advisory Council member N.C. Saxena, last week said Vedanta’s proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hills should not be given final clearance as claims under the Forest Rights Act were not settled.

The panel had said allowing mining in there would shake the faith of the tribal people.

“It is extremely unfortunate the central government has rejected environment clearance to the mining project of Vedanta,” Orissa’s Industries, Steel and Mines Minister Raghunath Mohanty told reporters in Bhubaneswar.

“It is not proper. In-principle environment clearance to the project was given long ago. Now, the union environment and the ministry, all of a sudden, have announced the decision to reject the project,” Mohanty added.

The environment minister also used the forum to clarify that no decision has yet been taken on another project, that of South Korean steel-maker Posco, nor was there a deal with the Orissa government on the same.

“There was no deal to clear Posco. There is no deal linking Posco and Vedanta. I would look upon any bauxite mining proposal with great degree of circumspection, particularly where large tribal areas are involved,” Ramesh added.

“I will give the bauxite mining project in Andhra Pradesh the same degree of scrutiny that I have given to the bauxite mining operation in Orissa,” he said, clarifying that there was no discrimination against Orissa.

The remarks came against the backdrop of Chief Minister Patnaik alleging that Vedanta’s project in his state was being stalled, while clearance was given to Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh, which is ruled by a Congress government.

Ramesh said the clearance given to the Polavaram dam was on the condition that no part of Chhattisgarh or Orissa would be submerged. He, nevertheless, assured Orissa that the report by the Gupta Committee that is investigating the Posco would be expedited.

The report on what is being touted as the largest foreign direct investment proposal in the country worth $12 billion (Rs.54,000 crore) is expected by the first week of October, but Ramesh hinted that it could be submitted a month earlier.

“Bauxite is mined in other countries too but not like this. It has to be done in a sustainable manner and no flouting of environment laws should be allowed,” Saxena, who headed the committee on Vedanta, told reporters here.

“There was no pressure on us and we did not get any calls. This is an impartial opinion. We have not recommended action against the forest officials but only against Vedanta officials. The action, however, will be decided by the government,” he added.

The state’s ethnic tribes people and non-government organisations were seeking that the project be scrapped, citing environmental and ecological concerns, and felt that the culture of tribal groups such as the Dongria Kondhs and Kutia Kondhs would be destroyed.

Environmentalists welcomed the decision.

“There should be an exemplary action so that others don’t follow such people. Usually, environmental defeats are permanent, wins are temporary. This is the victory of common sense as these forests would have been badly affected,” Bittu Sehgal, an environment activist said.

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