Mining corporation Vedanta Aluminium Ltd has confirmed that members of its corporate social responsibility team were attacked by villagers last month near the proposed site of a controversial bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa, India.
The attack is the first direct violence the company has faced since it began operating in the region in 2004. A jeep containing the Vedanta team was attacked and set alight as it returned from a meeting with tribal villagers in the Lanjigarh region on 17 February.
According to a local press report, the jeep contained the company’s head of corporate social responsibility, PK Hota, and head of public relations Chitaranjan Behra. Both were admitted to a local hospital with minor injuries.
Mukesh Kumar, chief operating officer at Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, said the attack was carried out by villagers from an outside community and not by the Dongria Kondh tribe that has been protesting against Vedanta’s plans to take over 721 hectares for bauxite mining in the area.
“This attack was not done by any Dongria Kondh,” said Mr Kumar. “The attackers had come from outside looking for work on the project but had not pulled together with the local community and had been forced to leave two months back. They blamed Vedanta, so they attacked us. It is very unfortunate.”
UK-based Vedanta has invested heavily in its hearts and minds campaign in the region, providing schools, colleges, medical care and infrastructure in its attempt to win over locals to the project.
The company admits that this has brought resentment from those outside the project boundary that have not benefited from these schemes.
“Around 120 families agreed to move when the refinery was built,” said Mr Kumar. “A number of families, under pressure from outside organisations, refused to move so we changed our plant lay-out so they could stay outside the boundary. Once it became operational, they saw how the lives of the displaced families had improved with new houses, motorbikes and televisions. These groups are now asking us to be displaced, but we are not taking any more land.”
Activists maintain that the Dongria Kondh remain fiercely opposed to mining of the Niyamgiri Hills, which is home to their deity, Nayam Raja. On 21 February, a large number of villagers gathered on Niyam Dongar hill to carry out a puja [religious ceremony] in which they vowed to resist any attempts at mining in the area. Reports on the number of attendees range from 500 to 5,000.
Critics say the recent attack on Vedanta staff is evidence of how the project is disturbing traditional social structures in the region.
“These tribal communities may have been poor on our terms, but they were basically self-sufficient. Their society has always been very egalitarian and based on sharing,” said Dr Felix Padel, a British anthropologist who has been living and working in Orissa for over 30 years. “Vedanta has made a bee-line for those individuals who can be corrupted. It puts a lot of pressure on them to accept lucrative compensation packages. Half of them may grab it and this creates huge tensions between communities.”
Vedanta has faced a spree of bad publicity in recent months, including a damning report from Amnesty International which claimed the refinery had poisoned local rivers and drinking water, causing a number of health concerns among residents, including skin rashes and sores. A number of stakeholders, including the Church of England and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have abandoned their stake in the business.
In the past week, a government fact-finding team agreed that Vedanta had flouted forestry and human rights norms in its operations – findings which could damage its chances of gaining the forestry clearance rights that are the last piece of legislation needed to begin mining.
Vedanta disputes the report and says that it operates the cleanest mining operation in India, with a “zero discharge” policy that ensures “not a single drop of waste water” goes outside its land. The company argues that it is leading the way in ethical corporate practices and bringing vitally needed development to one of India’s most impoverished regions.
“Poverty is the worst polluter and human rights violator,” said Mr Kumar. “When we came here, 55 to 65% of children were malnourished. Now, we have built 43 childcare centres and 1,000 Anganwadi [community] centres. We have already substantially reduced malaria in the region and plan to eradicate it completely. We will soon start providing midday meals to over 20,000 children in 273 schools.”
Dr Padel claims such programmes are a sham designed to provide legitimacy to a project that destroys communities and heavily pollutes the forest.
“When you read Vedanta’s corporate social responsibility report, it bears almost no relation to what actually happens,” he said. “The model villages to which displaced people are moved might provide them with meals, but the model is completely top-down. The local people are no longer part of the decision-making process in their own lives.
“The question becomes: what kind of development are we talking about? These people who were once self-sufficient no longer own their own land.”