The Saxena Committee Report on Mining in Orissa: A Summary

September 27, 2010

By Shiv Sethi, Sanhati

A glimpse into corporate mining practices in India

1. Background

The Saxena committee, comprising of four members, was appointed on July 19, 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). One of its mandates was to investigate the proposed diversion of nearly 660 ha of forest land (Niyamgiri Hills, Lanjigarh) in the Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Orissa for bauxite mining. The proposal was submitted by Orissa Mining Corporation Limited in collaboration with Sterlite Industries (India) Limited (SIIL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Vedanta Resources [1].

The Proposed Mining Lease (PML) site contains nearly 73 million tonnes of Bauxite ore, and Vedanta proposes to extract nearly 3 million tons per annum (tpa) or the projected lifespan of the mining site is around 25 years.

Vedanta is already operating a bauxite refinery near the proposed mining site since 2006, under an MoU signed with the state government in 2003.

1.1 Ecological Cost of the project

According the various estimates, nearly 1.21 lakh trees and nearly three times as many shrubs and ground level flora will have to be removed for mining on the proposed site on the Niyamgiri Hills.

Kalahandi is one of the most drought-prone districts in India. The bauxite-bearing soils have a highly porous structure, which gives them an increased capacity of water retention; it is evidenced by the nature of flora that grows on the slopes. These hill-top bauxite-containing soils are sources of perennial water and are crucial to ensuring a continuous water supply in low rainfall seasons.

The Hills form part of the catchment of two perennial rivers, the Vam-sadhara and the Nagavalli, with PML site as one of the main sources of Vamsadhara. This also means that the impact of mining would not only be felt in the vicinity of the PML site but also in the areas that lie further downstream along these rivers. To support their claims, the Saxena report reproduces a recent paper from the scientific magazine Nature, which discusses a similar adverse impact from hill-top coal-mining in West Virgina, USA.

1.2 Impact on human habitation

The main inhabitants of Niyamgiri hills are Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, noticed scheduled tribes. Dongaria Kondh, with a total population of 7952 (2001 census) are regarded as an endangered tribe. Atleast 20% of this population will be directly affected by the mining. The Saxena report notes the strong interdependence of the tribal groups on forest resources of
the PML area. The report notes:

… it is established beyond dispute that Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh have had traditional, customary and, often, formalized access not only to the numerous forest produce available in the proposed mining lease area, and on the surrounding thick forests on the slopes, but on the forest land itself for shifting cultivation, which will be extinguished if the area is transferred for mining.

These territories are protected under two main provisions under the law of India: (a) Schedule V of the Indian constitution applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. (b) The forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. Under both these acts, and especially under the FRA, no land can be acquired in these regions without the express consent of the tribal community. The ‘tribal community’ here refers not to their representatives in the state legislative or the government, but rather to the Gram panchayats. In other words, the grass root community is directly empowered under these laws to protect their land from usurpation by any external agencies.

In addition to the tribal groups, the mining is also likely to affect the dalit community (Doms) dependent on the forest. They are mostly landless and not considered worthy of compensation even under FRA, a fact the Saxena committee notes and laments as a weakness under the provisions of laws.

The Saxena committee is of the view that the conditions of the groups around the PML area is likely to worsen if the land is diverted for mining. They substantiate their claim by a comparison between the PML area tribal groups with those who ceded their land for the Vedanta refinery.

The present well-being of the Kondh, who continue to have access to the resources of the PML area and adjoining forests is in stark contrast with the status of the Kutia Kondh and Dalit households in Rengopali and Bandhaguda villages, whose lands have been acquired by the Vedanta aluminium refinery. In both villages, Kutia Kondh and Dalit households have sold their agricultural lands to the company, and are left only with their homestead land. Officially, they are classified as Project Affected Persons (PAPs), who lost their agricultural land but not their homes.

These people are “dispossessed” but not “displaced”. Having lost their land, they have failed to find alternative employment [2]. As a result, they suffer from recurrent malnourishment in addition to the diseases caused by air and water pollution owing to their proximity to the refinery.

2. Corporate mining confronts the laws of the land

As already indicated above, the Saxena committee notes multiple counts of non-compliance with the existing laws. They also establish a clear case of collusion between the state machinery at various levels and Vedanta.

2.1 Non-compliance with the Forest Rights Act

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 seeks to redress the past injustice done to the forest communities. The Saxena committee notes:

the FRA recognizes the pre-existing rights of forest dwellers ‘who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded’

There are two important aspects to recognizing and respecting these rights.

The first relates to identifying not only the individual rights but the the community rights over an area traditionally accessed by these communities for livelihood, religious rites and other practices, etc. This is enshrined in concepts like the Community Forest Resource (CFR), as defined by the FRA. FRA explicitly states that these rights

include the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.

The second related concept, as already noted above, relates to the definition of the community, which has been conferred the status of the statutory forest management authority under the FRA. The FRA recognizes the community to directly correspond to Gram sabhas or village level institutions.

Without the express approval of these institutions no forest land can be diverted from its traditional use. The Saxena committee provides strong evidence, through historic and more recent record, that even though no villages fall inside the PML site for bauxite mining, a large number of villages that fall inside the four forest blocks that contain and surround the site have always treated the site as CFR. They note the failure of the state administration to recognize this fact.

The state administration issued certificates that falsely stated that there are no claims on the PML site under the FRA, even though such claims had been submitted by the village community surrounding the site (both the false certificate and the claims of villages have been reproduced by the committee as annextures to the report). In many instances, the committee members
personally visited the villages to receive their depositions.

The committee concludes:

From the evidence collected by the Committee, we conclude that the Orissa government is not likely to implement the FR Act in a fair and impartial manner as far as the PML area is concerned. Since it has gone to the extent of forwarding false certificates and may do so again in future, the MoEF would be well advised not to accept the contentions of the Orissa government without independent verification.

2.2 Non-compliance with other laws

As noted above, the main beneficiary of bauxite mining on Niyamgiri Hills, Vedanta, is already operating a bauxite refinery near the PML area. The mandate of the the Saxena committee also extended to investigating into the multiple complaints about the working of the refinery. The Saxena committee found Vedanta to be in the violation of a number of important laws and rulings.

Illegal occupation of Forest lands:

Vedanta was granted permission to operate the refinery under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), which required that no forest land would be used for this purpose. The refinery premises illegally enclose 26.123 ha of forest land. This is also a violation of the Forest Conservation Act. The Saxena committee notes:

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.

Expansion of refinery capacity without clearance:

Vedanta had applied for the permission under EPA to expand its refining capacity from 1 mta to 6 mta in 2006. Even though the permission has not yet been granted, the company has proceeded to expand the capacity, ‘in complete violation of the EPA and is an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land’.

Contempt of Supreme court:

The Supreme Court had ruled in November 2007 that it is not Vedanta but its subsidiary SIIL that can operate the mining lease. However, the Saxena committee found that the ‘The company continues to operate as Vedanta quite blatantly, and there is no evidence of Sterlite. This is in clear violation of the Supreme Court’s order that it operate as Sterlite and not as Vedanta’.

Use of illegally mined bauxite ore in the refinery:

The Saxena committee reports:

A monitoring report from May 2010 shows that, of the 14 supplier firms from the eastern region that currently supply bauxite ore to the Lanjigarh refinery, only 3 have environmental clearance. The report lists the rest as ‘No information available’. The Committee requested Vedanta oficials to provide information about the status of these environmental clearances during its visit. So far, this has not been provided. This leads to the suspicion that the refinery is in violation of the MoEF condition of sourcing bauxite from mines with environmental clearance, and instead is sourcing bauxite from illegal mines that do not have such clearance.

Inadequate Environment Impact Assessment:

Vedanta sponsored two Environment Impact Assessments (EIA), in 2002 and 2005, to assess the impact of mining on the PML site; these were carried out by private companies Tata AIG Risk Management Services, Ltd. and Vimta Labs, respectively. However, the Saxena committee found these EIAs to be thoroughly deficient. They note that even though Kalahandi is a drought-prone district and the PML site and surrounding regions are important sources of many streams and two major rivers, the EIAs fail to underline the impact of mining on these crucial water resources. They also find irrefutable evidence of direct falsification. They note:

The EIA report [2005] mentions the PML site as unproductive and tree deficient area not useful for wildlife and forests. The WII [Wildlife Institute of India] specifically refers to this statement and refutes this claim. It states that the same is not true and that in reality these plateaus are very productive and with high occurrence of several herbivore and carnivore species. The rules of the MoEF regarding the falsification of information have already been discussed in sections 4.A.i. and 4.A.ii. and apply in this case as well. Given that there have been several deliberate attempts on the part of Vedanta Alumina Limited to conceal
information and falsify it in order to get the project approved, withdrawal of approval of the project as a result of the above would thus appear to be the most appropriate action at this stage.

Violation of pollution regulations:

The Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) has recorded numerous instances of non-compliance with the pollution control norms at the refinery. They have recorded worsening quality of river and underground water in the vicinity of the refinery. The refinery is also responsible for the degrading the air quality in the valley. The particulate emission from the refinery boilers have at times been five times the upper limits set by the law. Even though OSPCB have issued show cause notices to the refinery authorities, the response has not generally been satisfactory. The Saxena committee concludes:

From the OSPCB Inspection Reports it is clear that the existing refinery is poorly constructed and maintained. It is clear that the company has failed on several occasions to implement directions given by the OSPCB to carry out repairs or undertake other actions in a timely manner, increasing the potential for ongoing pollution of water and air. The company is clearly not according any priority to complying with their own design criteria, to statements and commitments in the EIAs..

The Saxena committee also notes that the PML site has limited relevance for Vedanta operations in Orissa as the bauxite reserve at the site will last barely 4 years with the increased capacity of the refinery. They contend:

The same is also indicated by a presentation by Vedanta titled ‘Empowering Community for a Better Tomorrow’ indicating that the company expects to get a total of 1014 million tonnes of bauxite ore from deposits in Lanjigarh, Karlapat, Sijimali, Kutrumali, Saasbahumali, Majingamali, Krishunmali, Hatimali and Gandhamardan. Given the extent of these sources, the 72 million tonnes available at the PML site is insignificant since it amounts to a mere 7 per cent of the total 1014 mtpa.

3. Conclusion

The Saxena committee concludes:

…this Committee is of the firm view that allowing mining in the proposed mining lease area by depriving two Primitive Tribal Groups of their rights over the proposed mining site in order to benefit a private company would shake the faith of tribal people in the laws of the land. Since the company in question has repeatedly violated the law, allowing it further access to the proposed mining lease area at the cost of the rights of the Kutia and Dongaria Kondh, will have serious consequences for the security and well being of the entire country.

Based on the recommendations of the Saxena committee, the MoEF rejected the proposal to divert the land on Niyamgiri Hills for bauxite mining on August 20. The MoEF also issued show cause notices to Vedanta with regard to numerous issues related to the running of the refinery and have summoned the Chief Minister of Orissa to explain the prolonged and systematic failure of the state machinery in implementing relevant laws.

The concerned tribal groups, the civil society, and various functionaries of the Indian state have welcomed this news. Some have hailed the MoEF decision as a victory of the progressive laws of the democratic India over the unsavoury and predatory practices of corporate mining.

However, the euphoria of a small victory should not blur the broad view of the large-scale mining in India. First, the state-owned mining corporations have generally also been guilty of the same practices of displacement of indigenous population without adequate compensation or provisions for re-settlement, causing serious ecological damage, and failure to comply with laws with regard to pollution control, etc. The utilization of India’ natural resource for ‘growth and development’ has been a dominant mantra of India’s ruling elite since the independence.

After the onset of the neoliberal era in 1990s, the state-owned corporations have been joined by global mining companies in the extraction of these resources. Progressive laws like the FRA are pitted against the inexorable march of an economic outlook that holds the corporate mining to be indispensable to India’s economic prosperity. The tribal people and their practices are sometimes hailed for their exotic value. Even their role in preserving India’s forests is reluctantly conceded at times. But mostly they are seen as historic relics irrelevant in the ‘new and modern’ India. The fact that they sit atop some of the most precious sub-soil resources in India is seen as historic aberration that the modern India is advised to deal with the decisiveness of a country on its way to future glory.

One favourable decision cannot possibly serve to supplant the ‘vital national self-interests’. Tribal groups and their supporters resisting corporate mining will do well to remember this.

Notes

[1] Vedanta resource Plc is a London-based group of companies with mining operations in a range of ferrous and non-ferrous metals in India, Zambia, and Australia. Here the company and its subsidiaries, unless otherwise specified, would be referred to as Vedanta.

[2] The Report notes that Vedanta have failed to provide jobs they promised.

3 Comments »

3 Responses to “The Saxena Committee Report on Mining in Orissa: A Summary”

  1. Arnab Pal Says:
    October 3rd, 2010 at 05:22

    Apparently it appeared that The Saxena Committee report was able to put the break on Vedanta”s illegal mining at Niyamgiri in Orissa.But it might be result of corporate lobies inside the Government.One may have been surprised by the fact that notwithstanding violating the environmental laws and causing serious ecological damages,corporate houses like POSCO,VUSAN and so many sponge iron factories are operating in Orissa and Union Ministry OF Environment choosed to turn a blind eye from this.

    It is clearly evident from Saxena Committiee Report that Government of India is busy to look corporate interest in the name of “development”.If Government continues to undermine the the looting of country’s natural resources and turned a deaf ear to the tribal’s voice about the deprivation their traditional rights on “Jal, Jangal, Jamin”,I fear we will going to see a divided India. One governed by Manmohan SIngh and another by Kishanji.

  2. Arnab Pal Says:
    October 3rd, 2010 at 05:31

    In the second line of my previous response,please read “result of war within the corporate lobies…..”. I regret the mistake.

  3. Rukmini Banerjee Says:
    February 2nd, 2011 at 03:28

    India is going nuts. If there is anything we urban people could do to stop such corporate rape we should immediately. The Posco project will have nothing but the MNC getting richer at the cost of the tribal people.

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