Vedanta flouts rules in Orissa, central government wants to know why

New Delhi, Nov 27 ( The union environment ministry has written to the Orissa government asking why the controversial bauxite mining project by the private firm Vedanta had been allowed to start work in violation of a ministry guideline.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said Friday that a probe had found construction work had started in land that belonged to the revenue department, though the project had not yet been cleared by his ministry.

The project to mine bauxite at the Niyamgiri hills — sacred to the locals — has been vehemently opposed. It envisages mining in protected forest area too.

Ramesh said in a statement: “I have been receiving a large number of representations in regard to the project for bauxite mining by the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) through Vedanta, a private mining company, in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Orissa. The total amount of forest land proposed to be diverted is 660.749 hectares, of which around 353.14 is in the Niyamgiri reserved forest. Concerns have also been raised on the impact that this project will, inter alia, have on livelihoods of tribal communities.”

Recalling that the project application was received Feb 26, 2005, Ramesh said the ministry gave “in-principle” approval Dec 11, 2008, “to be converted to a final approval after the fulfilment of stipulations contained in the ‘in-principle’ approval”.

Local residents started complaining to the ministry that Vedanta had started project activities without the final approval, so on Aug 6 this year Ramesh asked the Regional Chief Conservator of Forests based in Orissa capital Bhubaneswar to investigate the complaints. The official reported on Aug 16 that construction activity had begun in the revenue department’s land.

“Technically this is not a violation of the law but it is a violation of the guidelines issued by the MoE&F (Ministry of Environment & Forests) which says that when a project involves non-forest and forest lands, construction in the non-forest land should not begin without clearance for activity in the forest land itself,” Ramesh stated.

“A letter has been issued on November 25th, 2009 to the Orissa Government asking for an explanation as to how the violation of this guideline has been permitted.”

According to the minister, on Aug 3 the ministry had issued a “binding guideline” to all state governments that application for diversion of forest land for other purposes would be considered “only after all due processes contained in the Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006 have been fully and satisfactorily completed”.

Ramesh’s statement said: “A letter was subsequently issued by the MoE&F to the Orissa government on November 3, 2009 directing the state to comply with the provisions of the Scheduled Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006 and provide evidence for the compliance before the centre could examine conversion of the ‘in-principle’ approval to final approval. The reply of the state government is awaited.”

The union ministry is sending another inspection team in the next one week to verify fresh allegations of violations of the terms of the “in-principle” approval.

The minister said: “The new policy of the MoE&F does away with the concept of ‘in-principle’ approval. Projects are now being examined for approval or rejection so that there is no ambiguity and project proponents do not misuse the ‘in-principle’ approval.”