Environment struggles are now being used to create political space and new form of vote bank politics, alleges BJP activist Bhupender Yadav.
The decision to reject the approval for mining in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa is one environmental decision that has taken the nation by storm. Perhaps never before has an environmental issue dominated the media: both national as well as international as the way in which Vedanta has.
There is no doubt that Vedanta did violate many of the laws and mining in such an ecologically sensitive area which is revered by the local tribals should not be allowed. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said clearly that no politics is involved and the issue is being decided purely on a legal basis. Unfortunately, the visit of Rahul Gandhi two days later to the Niyamgiri hills and his open declaration that he is the tribals' 'soldier' in Delhi could not hide for very long the fact that there was indeed 'some' politics. However, can the United Progressive Alliance claim to be the saviour of the tribals so far as Niyamgiri is concerned?
By way of background, there are three components of the project: mining, the alumina refinery and smelter. The refinery project was granted environment clearance on September 2004 by the ministry of environment and forests, (when Manmohan Singh was the PM). There were serious violations of the environmental clearance procedure while granting approval to the refinery, yet the project was approved. R Sreedhar, Prafulla Samatara and the Wildlife Society of Orissa challanged the oroject before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court. The CEC recommended that the environment clearance granted to the project be revoked since it was based on misrepresentation and concealment of information and that the environment ministry had granted undue favour to the project and approved the project in haste.
The environment ministry opposed the recommendation of the CEC and prayed to the Supreme Court that the project be approved since there will be no impact on Dongaria Kondhs and wildlife.
Despite the strong report and insistence of the CEC, the Supreme Court approved the forest clearance for the mining project since the environment ministry was keen that Niyamgiri should be mined.
Vedanta's smelter plant is located at Jharsuguda and the construction on the same also started prior to the approval by the government. Prafulla Samantara was the petitioner before the National Environment Appellate Authority and the Delhi high court and a cost of Rs 50,000 was imposed on Vedanta. However, the case ultimately went in favour of Vedanta in 2009 since the MoEF supported the project despite all the violations. It is important to point out that the Vedanta lawyer before the NEAA as well as the Delhi high court was Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress MP and spokeperson.
In January, 2009 Rahul Gandhi visited Niyamgiri and promised the tribals that he will not allow mining at Niyamgiri. However, on April 28, 2009, the mining project at Niyamgiri was given environmental clearance by the MOEF. In June 2009, the environment clearance was challenged by 25 Dongaria Kondhs before the NEAA. The ground for challenge was that the environmental impact assessment report was prepared two years after the public hearing! This was in addition to many other grounds. The case hearing used to take place twice every month over a period of more than one year. By this time Jairam had already become the environment minister and yet the MoEF took the stand that there is no need to have a public hearing and all environmental concerns have been taken into consideration.
As late as May 2010, the MOEF has taken the stand before the NEAA that the project has been approved after taking due consideration of the impact on forest, water and tribals and such a project is essential for the development of the area.
If the MoEF was serious of taking action they could have supported the Dongria Kondhs before the NEAA. But it did not do so.
In his press conference Jairam Ramesh clearly mentions that 'there is no politics' in the decision and it is purely based on legal violation. If that is so why is there a need for Rahul Gandhi to visit Niyamgiri two days later?
The environment struggles are now being used to create political space and new form of vote bank politics.
At the end the following questions must be answered by Rahul Gandhi:
- Which government granted approval to the Vedanta Alumina Refinery project in 2004?
- Which government supported the stand of the Vedanta before the CEC and the Supreme Court when Supreme Court was hearing the issue of whether mining should be allowed or not ?
- Who granted environmental clearance to the mining project of Niyamgiri on April 28, 2009?
- Who represented Vedanta and Orissa Mining Corporation (the lease holder for the mines at Niyamgiri) before the different courts?
- Which government opposed the Dongria Kondhs when they challenged the mining project before the NEAA as late as 2009?
Surely, the 'Soldier' of the tribals has lot to answer.
Bupender Yadav is national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party