Saturday, Mar 19, 2005
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By Anjali Dhal Samanta
NEW DELHI, MARCH 18. The Union Ministry for Environment and Forests has come under the scanner with the Central Empowered Committee demanding an explanation for grant of environment clearance to a bauxite refinery project to be set up in Kalahandi district of Orissa. Even though more than 700 hectares of forest would be destroyed in this mining and refinery project by Vedanta Alumina Ltd, forest clearance -- required under MoEF guidelines -- was not seen as a pre-requisite.
In what is being seen as a contradiction of its own guidelines, the MoEF has already granted environment clearance, as required under the Environment Protection Act, for the refinery on September 22, 2004. This environment clearance was granted without the required forest clearance even though the refinery project includes over 58 hectares of village forest land.
However, that's not all. What is even more surprising is that this environment clearance for the refinery was granted without taking into account the mining area that will be spread over 680-odd hectares of Niyomgiri Forests in Kalahandi district.
Under MoEF guidelines for implementation of the Forest Conservation Act, work on non-forest land cannot be started pending a decision about non-forestry use of forest land. However, with a fact-finding committee appointed by the CEC reporting that work for the refinery is already under way, a letter has been shot off to the Ministry on March 2.
"The State Government as well as Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. are of the view that mining from the proposed forest area is an integral part of the project without which the project cannot be viable. It is therefore seen that the environmental clearance has been accorded under wrong premise that no forest land is involved," says the CEC's letter to the MoEF.
The Niyomgiri hills in Kalahandi district, where mining would be carried out, are dotted with dense quality sal, anogeisus latifola and bauhinia species as noted by the fact-finding committee. The Niyomgiri Forests, as they are called, are also the source of many small rivulets that not only converge to form the Bansidhara river but are also used by local farmers to cultivate the paddy fields.
"The Niyomgiri area is very rich from the bio-diversity point of view. There is a proposal to declare this area as a sanctuary. It has also come to our knowledge that the State Government has made a proposal to include this area in the proposed new elephant reserve. Any mining in this area is bound to destroy the bio-diversity and affect the availability of water for local people," says Ritwick Dutta, advocate for the three applicants -- Prafulla Samantra, Academic for Mountain Environics and Wildlife Society of Orissa. The three applicants brought the case before the CEC a few months ago.
However, it is not the environmental aspect alone but the fact-finding team, as also activists, mention violations of Schedule V of the Constitution. According to the report, for construction of pillars for the conveyor belts the company has acquired village land from tribals in Jaganathpur village.
"There seems to be an attempt to intimidate the local population. It appears that the project proponents would like people to believe that there is no tribal population living on the hills. But there is a primitive tribe living there that would be extinguished if the project comes through. They are in a helpless position as their traditional land rights have not been settled. What are they going to do?" says environmentalist Shruti Devi, who visited the area recently.
The fact-finding report also notes that "the rehabilitation package for the displaced persons given by the user agency is not in the interest of sustainable livelihood of the local communities"''.
According to the standing counsel for the MoEF, A.D.N. Rao, "The environment clearance has been granted on the ground that no forest land was involved in the refinery project. Now the Ministry has received a proposal for forest clearance. Under the MoEF guidelines if it is a composite project, unless forest clearance is given, they cannot start work on non-forest land. But it appears they have started work. The MoEF wants to ensure implementation of its circulars and notifications. It seems in this case there has been a violation of the guidelines."
However, regarding the grant of forest clearance, the CEC has "requested" that pending examination of the project by the CEC or filling of the report in the Supreme Court, the proposal received under the Forest Conservation Act for diversions of forest land for the project may not be decided.
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