Biodiverse Gandhamardan where mining attempts were abandoned earlier after massive public protests also on the radar of metal giant
Vedanta Alumina Limited‘s (VAL’s) hopes of sourcing bauxite from Niyamgiri hills for its refinery is fading fast following the Dongria Kandhs’ emphatic “no” to mining in their place of worship. Even before the referendum on Niyamgiri drew to a close with the last of the 12 scheduled palli sabhas being held on August 19, the Odisha government and VAL authorities started scouting for alternative mineral sources to feed the one million tonne per annum (mtpa) capacity alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in the foothills of Niyamgiri.
Odisha government as well as VAL sources pointed out that Niyamgiri reserve would not be pursued further, which implies that the focus would now be on alternative sources. VAL has identified 10 sites with collective bauxite deposits amounting to 991 million tonnes situated within 160 km from the Lanjigarh in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
Eyes deposits in non forest areas
Desperation of the company for raw material can be gauged from the fact that it has suggested to an inter-ministerial group constituted by Odisha government to open closed mines (small bauxite reserves) either through Odisha Mining Corporation or leaseholders. This would help VAL meet bauxite requirement on short-term basis.
Fearing that hindrance similar to Niyamigiri fiasco may come in its way of bauxite mining, the company has urged the state government to give priority to prospecting licences (Pl) and mining leases (ML) for bauxite deposits in non-forest areas (see ‘List of VAL applied PL/ML areas across Odisha ’). The company has identified 18 reserves (small and medium) in non-forest areas in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
Simultaneously, the company is trying to identify large deposits having reserves of more than 200 million tonnes so that processes of obtaining rights can be fast-tracked. An exhaustive survey carried out by the company to tap bauxite sources from alternative places also led to Gandhamardan bauxite mine which has witnessed massive people’s protests over proposal of mining in the past. Gandhamardan has an estimated 223 million tonnes of bauxite reserve; the place is 160 km from Lanjigarh.
Besides, Vedanta has asked for rights to laterite deposits as the company sources say laterite can be used as raw material looking at the urgent need of the plant which has developed a system to consume laterite.
The reason for company’s preference for laterite deposits is that all approval processes would given at the state level only. Vedanta points out that laterite deposits are available within 100 km radius of its Lanjigarh plant.
Amidst a host of plans such as “plans A, B and C” submitted by Vedanta to the Inter Ministerial Group, the company is apprehensive that procedural delay in form of rights settlement under the Forest Rights Act would definitely return to haunt it.
Of the 10 possible alternative bauxite reserves suggested by VAL, eight deposits fall within 60 km radius of Lanjigarh (see table, ‘Bauxite sources around Lanjigarh ). These reserves are Lanjigarh (base), which has an estimated reserve of 77 million tonnes (mt), Karlapat (224 mt) 32 km away, Sijimali (209 mt, 50 km), Kutrumali (80 mt, 55 km), Sasubahumali (81 mt, 55 km), Majingamali (20 mt, 50 km), Kissanmali (30 mt, 25 km) and Hatimali (30 mt, 60 km). Of these sites, only Sashubahumali and Majingamali are said to be in non-forest areas.
From the perspective of company and the state-run OMC, which , it is claimed, has committed a supply of 150 mt for Lanjigarh facility, Karlapat and Sijimali are the two most sought after reserves.
The state government has already shot off several letters to the Union Ministry of Mines to reserve above 3,000 ha of area in favour of OMC. As far as Sijimali is concerned, sources said company has already launched its corporate social responsibility activities in the area. Both the mines put together could guarantee 300 mt bauxite.
The religious or habitat rights, which were main ground of overwhelming opposition to proposed bauxite mining in Niyamgiri, may not be factor in case of Karalpat or Sijimali. But their proximity to wildlife sanctuary could prove to be a major obstacle.
The conveyor belt to transport bauxite from inside the Niyamgiris gathers rust next to the Lanjigarh refinery of Vedanta. The company illegally constructed the conveyor belt between 2008 and 2010 without the necessary forest clearance (Photo: Sayantan Bera)
“Both the Rayagada and Kalahandi South Forest Division have tigers. The Karlapat wildlife sanctuary is adjacent to the proposed mine site. Tigers from Narayanpatna and Liliguma forests are known to migrate to the Kalahandi’s Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary and operation of mines in the areas nearby would cut off the migration,” said Biswajit Mohanty, an environmentalist.
President of people’s front Loka Shakti Abhiyan (LSA), Prafulla Samantra, said mining should not be allowed in Karlapat. “A number of perennial streams and nallahs flow across the area and feed into river Tel, a major tributary of the river Mahanadi. High plateau and waterfalls attract tourists to study and enjoy the nature. The vegetation of the Karlapat sanctuary along with its perennial water sources influences the microclimate of the area.”
Moreover, 10 revenue villages and nine yet-to-be surveyed villages with a population of 1,551 within Karlapat sanctuary would be affected by mines, Samantra claimed.
VAL told the state government that it had already invested Rs 5,000 crore for setting up the Lanjigarh refinery. Besides, a total Rs 50,000 crore had already been invested in the state compared to Rs 8,400 crore committed by the company.
“The investment plan has been designed for Odisha bauxite and cannot sustain without Odisha bauxite,” said a top VAL executive.
India has over 3,479.620 mt of bauxite reserves. Odisha possesses 1,810.458 mt of bauxite constituting 52 per cent of India’s reserves.
Antipating trouble, the company had submitted a total 26 applications (PL-14 and ML-12) for bauxite reserves with the State Mines Department.
In pre-Niyamgiri gram sabha period, the state government had a major role in identification of reserves and processes leading to obtaining of mining lease. If gram sabhas would become the first authority of granting consent, the road to mining would not be smooth one. Despite having the state government on its side, VAL may not get the desired deposits for its facility at Lanjigarh in the coming months. The short-term measure such as arranging bauxite from small deposits is not the solution the aluminum giant is looking for.