Prafulla Das

Bhubaneswar, Jan. 11

THE Rs 4,500-crore alumina refinery project of Vedanta Alumina Ltd, a Sterlite group company, at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Orissa has suffered a serious setback with a fact-finding team, deputed by the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee, saying that the company had violated forest laws at the project site.

Recommending action against the company for violation of forest laws, the team said that bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills would destroy the biodiversity. Alternative sources of ore should be explored, it said.

The two-member fact-finding team, which recently visited Lanjigarh and heard several petitioners, observed that the company had taken up construction work of the refinery without getting clearance under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, for 58.93 hectares of forest land, which is an integral part of the refinery project.

"This is violative of the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests on the subject," it said

The team members are Mr S.C. Sharma, retired Additional Inspector General (Wildlife) in Ministry of Environment and Forests, and Mr. S.K. Chadha, Assistant Inspector General (Forests) in the Ministry.

Besides, the company had cleared parts of village forest land in Kottadwar and Kinari villages, the team said in its report submitted to the Empowered Committee.

Stating that environmental clearance for the mining site should either precede or should be linked with clearance of the refinery site, the team said an unusual situation had been created by granting of site clearance without linking the project with an approved mining site.

"Why environmental clearance for the refinery site has been granted by the Ministry without clearance of mining site is not understood," the team said.

It said that "appropriate action" should be taken against the company for clearing village forest land in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act and clearing trees in the project site without proper sanctions.

The team further said that Niyamgiri is a rich forest and a proposal had already been approved for declaring this area as a sanctuary.

"Further, the hills form the origin of Bansadhara river. The rivulets coming across these hills are source of water for the local communities. Any mining in this area is bound to destroy the biodiversity and affect the availability of water to the local people. The question of pollution of Bansadhara river is also there. Under these circumstances, alternative sources of ore should be explored for the project.''

The team also said that the present practice of the Orissa Mining Corporation getting into agreement for allotment of mining areas, in respect of which clearance under Forest (Conservation) Act and Environment (Protection) Act has not been taken, was violative of the aforesaid Acts.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests should set up a mechanism under which close coordination is maintained between the Impact Assessment , Forest Conservation and Wildlife divisions so that the Ministry is not put in an awkward situation regarding issue of sanctions on the basis of information supplied by the project proponents, the team said.

It further said that the rehabilitation package for the displaced persons given by the company was not in the interest of sustainable livelihood of the local communities as no land had been earmarked for grazing and agriculture purposes.

"The location of the rehabilitation colony has been decided totally ignoring the interest of conservation of forests. It is just a few metres away from the Niyamgiri reserve forest and adverse impact of this colony and the labour force staying near the forest is already visible."

The Supreme Court is hearing a public interest petition by the Wildlife Society of Orissa, which alleged that forest laws had been violated by Vedanta Alumina at their project site at Lanjigarh.

The Opposition parties had earlier raised the issue alleging that Vedanta Alumina had violated the forest rules and its actions were violative of the rules pertaining to the protection of environment.

`No technical violation'

REACTING to the development, Mr Debasis Roy, Associate Vice-President of Vedanta Alumina, told Business Line from New Delhi that the company had not technically violated the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

``We have not technically violated the Forest (Conservation) Act, although construction activities that we have carried out, restricting them to the non-forest area, have not been strictly in line with the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests,'' Mr Roy said.

Stating that the guidelines of the Ministry were not mandatory, Mr Roy said that the Opposition and the media were overplaying the whole issue.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 12, 2005)
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