Bhubaneswar, Feb. 19: The state government has made a fresh move to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts nearly three years after gram sabhas had rejected the proposal.
Steel and mines minister Prafulla Kumar Mallick said the government had filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking conduct of fresh gram sabhas to decide the fate of the Niyamgiri deposits - crucial to the industry, especially the Vedanta Group's refinery at Lanjigarh. This time, the proposal is for mining by the state-run Odisha Mining Corporation, which had earlier decided to work the in tandem with the Vedanta Group.
"The bauxite mine had originally been reserved for the corporation. It was later decided to take up mining as a joint venture between the corporation and the Vedanta Group. That was thwarted with environment clearance to the project being quashed by the Supreme Court. The joint venture agreement has been terminated, and the corporation is now interested in taking up mining alone. So, we have sought the apex court's permission," Mallick told The Telegraph.
The project had been jinxed since the beginning, facing protests from the Kondh people, who worship the Niyamgiri hills as their presiding deity. Backed by voluntary organisations such as Green Kalahandi, they held demonstrations and formed human chains in the hills protesting against mining.
As the movement against mining gained momentum, the Union ministry of environment and forests set up a committee to find out whether Vedanta had complied with the environmental laws and could be given "stage 2" status for final clearance. But, the panel's report submitted in 2010 indicated laws had been violated.
In 2013 following a Supreme Court directive, gram sabhas were organised between July 18 and August 19 at 12 places in the Niyamgiri hills to seek the local people's opinion. The sabhas unanimously rejected the proposal to mine the hills.
The fate of the project was sealed with the tribal people giving a thumbs down to mining at the final village assembly at Jarpa in Rayagada. The Congress, whose youth icon, Rahul Gandhi had campaigned actively against the project and described himself as the "sipahi" (soldier) of the local people, hailed the rejection as a victory. Other anti-mining activists also celebrated, but the development spelt trouble for Vedanta's refinery, which faced with a raw material crunch.
Mallick expressed hope that the apex court would give its nod for organising fresh gram sabhas, and this time, the people would support the project. "We think they will give their consent this time as people of the region, by and large, want economic development," said the minister.
However, Niyamgiri Surakasha Manch activist Raghu Pujari asserted that local tribal people would never allow the project to come through as they worship the hills as their god. "The government should not have made this move in the first place. But, if it has it is going to be defeated again," he averred.