31st July, 2014. Yesterday public hearings on the six fold expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, were disrupted by around 1000 local people including Dongria and Kutia Konds virulently opposing the expansion.
Some Konds waved their axes demanding that Vedanta (Sesa Sterlite) leave Lanjigarh immediately and citing their objection to the Niyamgiri mine (voiced unanimously in a precedent referendum last year). The Land Losers Association also registered their objection citing the false arrests and imprisonment they have suffered since losing their land to Vedanta without proper compensation or employment as Vedanta had promised. A recent report from a local activist detailed how 34 of the Land losers have died since they lost their land, attributing this to poverty and disease from the Lanjigarh plant.
Local commentators have accused the Government of Orissa and police of trying to stage manage the event – using hired goons and BJD workers to block journalists and locals from entering, and employing fake participants to support the expansion. Nonetheless these strategies fell through when Dongrias flooded the hearing and made their voices heard. Anger flared in the public hearing when Sridhar Peshnia, who controls Lanjigarh Anchalika Bikas Parishad (LABP) -a local organisation floated by Vedanta to demand mining permission for Sesa Sterlite – made some derogatory racist remarks about Konds.
The expansion of the Lanjigarh plant was in fact already started illegally in 2003 (without permission) and the half built chimney stands like a ghost in the middle of the plant.
The hearing attracted controversy before it happened as the notification stated that bauxite would be sourced from 3.5km away from the Lanjigarh refinery, suggesting that Vedanta have not given up on mining the Niyamgiri Hills despite last years landslide victory for the tribal inhabitants which stopped the project.
Raghu Mahakud, a local lawyer for Vedanta who had previously supported the company said:
“I gave my land for the company. I had land in Kinari, Borbhata, Malikukudaghara, and Chatarpur. They gave us PAP(Project Affected Person) card. We got nothing. We do not want this card. The cheater Vedanta keeps on cheating us. Why would we believe them this time?”
Despite the major opposition to the hearing, the local papers immediately quoted a local official who stated that the majority of local attendees had agreed to the expansion and given it the go-ahead, though some of them revoked this stance later. National papers and even international agencies like Reuters have also propagated a shockingly false version of events.
Lingaraj Azad, of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti said:
“It was very clear in the public hearing that the government was pro-actively working with Vedanta. There were almost 1000 people at the public hearing. The procedure of the public hearing was dubious. The statements of the dissenting villagers, who were the majority, were not recorded. Why were the recorded minutes of the public hearing not read out in the end? There were so many people at the meeting, not everyone could speak, there was no system of voting to gauge how many people were for and how many against the refinery expansion. Also there was no work done for publicising the hearing and giving notification to people. It should have been done 15 days in advance, but only today morning did the government go around in loudspeaker announcing. People cannot attend an event at such short notice, the number of people who did show up was because of the work done by us to spread the information.”
“The ADM told the reporters that he will report the matter to the DM. But even he might not have reached the DM’s office when livemint declared that Vedanta got no objection to its proposal for expansion in the hearing.This can happen only in India. No village in the area had got any information about the event. This morning only a vehicle was going round the town declaring and inviting the people to come for the hearing as if a football match was going to take place. No circulation of EIA report, no discussion with the people. The media in Odisha seldom questions the company even if they do terrible crimes. The OTV-non official channel of the ruling party declared that it was a success. All paid news agencies echoed the same voice. The Kanakv TV of Odisha reportedly informed the Truth to its viewers that the Public Hearing ended abruptly without any conclusion.”
Raghu Mahakud the P.A.P holder and local Advocate shouted against expansion for not compliance of previous assurances by the company. He gave his opinion against expansion of the project. Landloosers association president Kumar Naik & secretary Parma Naik also gave their opinion against Vedanta at last Jilu Majhi, a Dongria Kond of Palberi village gave his statement that he was falsely accused by Vedanta & police personnels & he was in jail custody for two months. He demanded that Vedanta quit Lanjigarh. Then Kumuti Majhi, Lada Sikaka, Dadhi Pusika and Suna Majhi (all Dongria people) protested with their axe shouting STOP PUBLIC HEARING and gave their statement one by one. They stated “we do not want Vedanta”, “Niyamgiri belongs to Dongria people, and it is our God”. They explained that before Vedanta came they were happy and now they are in distress so Vedanta should quit Lanjigarh. “STOP expansion” they shouted. Lingaraj Azad and Satya Mahar – activists of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti also gave their statement against Vedanta and their expansion project. At last the govt officials A.D.M & pollution control board present in public hearing declared the meeting to be over.