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Niyamgiri: Between Green Cover & Green Currency

Written By Gopal Krishna on Sunday, August 03, 2008 | 2:34 AM

Corporate Assault on the Sacred Mountains

At a Roundtable on “Decimation of Niyamgiri: Beyond land and forests” at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, New Delhi on 2 August 2008 stark facts like commodification of court's judgments and votes of legislators came to the fore.

UK’s mining company, Vedanta is killing Bansadhara river, Orissa by its illegal dumping of waste toxins that has killed all the fish and made the river unusable for bathing. Orissa State Pollution Control Board has asked Vedanta to clean up their act.

On July 31, 2008, Vedanta Alumina Ltd's (VAL) had its annual general meeting (AGM) in London. A delegation of tribals from Orissa came all the way to London to confront Anil Agarwal, the owner of a company that is planning to mine bauxite from a mountain considered sacred by them. Environmental and human rights groups support them since the layer of bauxite on the mountains acts as a sponge for the monsoon rains, releasing the water steadily throughout the year and ensuring fertility of the forests and crops.

One activist who had attended the AGM briefed the participants of the Round Table about Vedanta’s operations being comparable to the way the English East India Company took power in the 18th century, by manipulating law and finance.

Deliberations and reflections on relevant Supreme Court's orders, National Mineral Policy, 2008, decimation of the nation-state and emergence of corporate state evoked sharp reactions when comparisons were drawn with the goings on in Bastar, Kolar Gold Mines and POSCO's projects.

Why is it that our Prime Minister and the nation state is no more with people or on the fence, it has crossed over to the industry's side. What else can explain the fact that in Hokkaido, Japan, Manmohan Singh assured his help to POSCO's steel plant at Jagatsinghpur in Orissa.

Niyamgiri mountain situated in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, in Orissa is facing the threat of being mined. Dongaria Kond community dependent on this mountain for ages, they have preserved this mountain as the Lord of law as result a rich primary forest can be seen there even at this age of deforestation. People dependent on Niyamgiri have been up against the mining plans and have shown their anguish and determination to fight it out in more than one occasion.

Vedanta Alumina Ltd has set up alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, Kalahandi, Orissa keeping Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in dark about its bauxite mining project. It took environmental clearance for the alumina refinery project by delinking its mining project from it. Now it wants to undertake bauxite mining project arguing that the refinery cannot function without mining.

World's second largest sovereign pension fund, a $350 billion (Rs13.76 trillion) sovereign wealth fund run by Norway has sold its entire stake in Vedanta Resources Plc., a mining and metals company with a significant presence in India, and operations in Zambia, Australia and Armenia because of what one Norwegian government official referred to as "environmental and human rights violations" by the firm. Norway government withdrew its US$13 million in the UK-based Vedanta Resources because Vedanta has "forced relocation" of indigenous tribes in India.

Day-long interactive session with activists, academicians, lawyers, journalists and other concerned citizens took stock of the going on in the judicial corridors and attempted to understand why the traditional community is refusing to accept the state sponsored development agenda and what Niyamgiri means to them. This is not a mere struggle against a Company but the struggle is to protect a civilization woven around the mountain for centuries.

Niyamgiri is in a Schedule V area where, under the Constitution, the tribals should have authority over their local resources. Niyamgiri mountain is vital to the region's ecology and its human population. The unethical, immoral and ecologically destructive nature of the proposed mining project has caused a furore in both India and the UK and the matter is in the Indian Supreme Court.

But the court’s journey from being a protector of environment to becoming a threat seems complete. What else can explain the inconsistency between apex court’s order in the Kudermukh matter that was decided on October 2002 and the order of November 2007 in the Niyamgiri mountain matter.

In 2002 Justice Mr.Arjit Pasayat argued that “By destroying nature, environment, man is committing matricide, having in a way killed Mother Earth. Technological excellence, growth of industries, economical gains have led to depletion of natural resources irreversibly. Indifference to the grave consequences, lack of concern and foresight have contributed in large measures to the alarming position. In the case at hand, the alleged victim is the flora and fauna in and around Kudermukh National Park, a part of the Western Ghats. The forests in the area are among 18 internationally recognized "Hotspots" for bio-diversity conservation in the world.”

In 2007, he said, “Damage to the environment and ecology has got to be decided on the facts of the each case.” Setting up Alumina Refinery - Whether Vedanta Alumina Ltd should be allowed to set up its Refinery/Project known as “Alumina Refinery Project”. Applicant has obtained all necessary clearances. Adherence to the principle of Sustainable Development is now a constitutional requirement.

Samadrusti, a fortnighly journal from Orissa in its editorial alleged in February 2008 that a Supreme Court Judge, responsible for implementing laws protecting forests, is hand-in-glove with some of those companies responsible for decimating the sacred mountains. Justice Mr.Arjit Pasayat who hails from Orissa serves as the Judge on forest bench of the Supreme Court says, "those who focus too much on protection of forest and wildlife.... harm the society at large"...''Green cover versus green currency. We have to choose between the two….." at a seminar at Hotel Swosti Plaza, Bhubaneswar

The editorial notes, “There is no harm if Mr. Pasayat makes such partisan statements like this after resigning from his constitutional responsibility as an Apex Court Judge. He should remember the fact that all his judgments delivered by the virtue of being in the Forest Bench have gone in favor of the Corporate Sector…Niyamgiri, Tangarapada etc.”

“Given his record, we are convinced to suggest that after his Bhubaneswar speech, Justice Pasayat should resign from his present constitutional position and come out in open in favor of private companies in Orissa. Till the time he takes such a decision he should at least keep himself away from hearing all cases relating to Orissa-because we don't believe after speaking so much against established laws of the country he will be able to protect them.”

It is noteworthy that Justice Pasayat created a rare spectacle by not letting a senior advocate of impeccable repute like Sanjay Parikh to even argue on behalf of the tribals of Niyamgiri in language that does not behove the stature of any judge. His manifest antagonism towards public interest lawyers has become the topic of whispers in the corridors of the apex court and among journalists.

It has been reported that London Metal Exchange has sent a team to investigate the Anil Agarwal’s company’s acts of omission and commission.

For tribal people, when they are "displaced" they are forcibly dispossessed of everything they value: community, land, forest, water - "even their gods are destroyed". For them these projects are "anti-development": if that's the way mainstream society wants to go, why should they sacrifice the Adivasis, who have done least to deserve this?

The fate of Niyamgiri mountain and the indigenous peoples' efforts against corporate state's reform agenda is also a struggle to save, protect and preserve what has been deemed sacred for centuries by the human civilization from the naked lust for profit.
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