This is a report from the 11th January hearing of the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) vs Union of India case at the Supreme Court of India. The previous ruling by Environment and Forests minister Jairam Ramesh in August 2010 prevented Vedanta from mining the Niyamgiri mountain due to violations of environment and forestry acts. The Orissa Mining Corporation, a state owned company with 24% shares in the joint venture to mine Niyamgiri with Vedanta, has mounted a legal challenge to the decision which continues to be heard and is expected to reach a conclusion in the coming weeks. This report is from Foil Vedanta’s eyewitness in the court room. It includes details about OMC’s accusations that the London protests are politically motivated and inauthentic, and that the Saxena Commitee’s damning report on the Niyamgiri mine was biased.
It was the OMC who represented their case for most part of the hearing with some rebuttals and few enquiries from the bench. The OMC began the hearing with reviewing and summarising the previous meetings for the benefit of the bench. There did not seem to be any new argument from the side and the entire duration was essentially split between trying to establish the work ethics of Vedanta and all that it has and can do for the area in the name of development and wildly accusing all other parties opposing it of trying to “corner Vedanta”, “mudslinging” and “being politically motivated”.
The OMC tried to establish Vedanta/Sterlite as a law abiding company which had met all the preconditions necessary for being given mining clearances including afforestation in the area and compensation. It reiterated the point that there was no habitation in the area of mining though there are some villages in the slopes. No extra land has been taken other than what has been granted. They claimed to adhere to “sustainable development” in the areas as poor as Kalahandi which had “no other opportunity” for livelihood. The OMC was also quick to quote figures- 200 crores that has already been spent in the area, the future amounts of 5% annual profits or Rs.10 crores (whichever is higher) promised for ‘development’ and the number of schools and hospitals that they intend to open. They also were quick to point out areas that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had earlier approved and blamed Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) for interfering.
The greater part of their accusations was directed towards the CEC for interfering and acting independently. The protests happening simultaneously in New York and London on the day were not spared either. They claimed to see “a hand behind the drums” in what they claimed was an “obviously politically motivated” so called ‘people’s’ movement and even cast aspersions on the Saxena Committee report at which point the the bench said they were making “serious allegations”. The protests were further called ‘unnecessary mud-slinging’ with rampant unjustified slogan such a ‘stop the killing’. They also said that people claiming to be natives were instigating these protests and other “foreigners” had no business “interfering” in the case. And of course protests and stay orders such as these were making “India suffer”. The the bench at this point interfered and clearly stated that ‘what is happening in London can be handled in London and there is no need to go there for the present’. The other ridiculous point under the ‘mudslinging’ section was the presence of Jairam Ramesh- the Rural Development Minister at the Niyamgiri site in the last few days. He was said to have “no business” there, going and talking to gram sabha’s and the Dongaria Kondhs like that. There is also a separate tribal commission. The bench sternly advised the OMC to come to the original point and not divert.
The OMC tried to question the mass protests and their authenticity. They also went on to make the argument that as the elected govt. and a “popular” govt. at that, they were themselves the voice of the people and they are the “parent”. The bench smiled and said “let’s not make “hyperbolic” arguments. He also clearly said about the protests in London that just because you say you are carrying out ‘development’ work, does not mean everyone feels so or that it is actually the case.
The most serious accusation was made on the Saxena Committee and its report. The OMC maintained that the report had not done what it was “supposed to do”- that is make way for Sterlite’s clearance. Contrary to that, the report was made with a pre-set mind to not give the clearance. If indeed this was not the case, they would have approached the Orissa state and district administration for some enquiries at least. The state they said felt “castigated” at this behaviour. The Union of India then objected by saying that the District administration and some higher authorities had indeed been approached but they had appeared extremely “reluctant” to help with the report.
At the end of the long speeches, the OMC tried to establish the fact that wildlife, hydrogeology, forest cover and environmental impact have all been discussed in the previous hearings and revisiting all these aspects was but a waste of time unless something new has been found, which is not the case. They claim to have complied with all laws and clearance pre conditions and that there was no ‘incriminating evidence’ against them. Instead they claimed to have been ‘pushed to the corner and made to defend their interest in the court of law’. They were also very ‘grieved by the fact that Saxena committee did not bother to seek any clarifications and reports” from them and that a lot of time, people accusing Vedanta of certain offences were not even related to those of the mine but the refinery which is a separate matter.
Interestingly, a couple of times the OMC advocate used the term “we” with Vedanta, sterlite and OMC interchangeable at which the bench interjected as to which party was he really representing. The response was a rather sheepish “we represent the same interest”. He also said he had represented all three in turn since the case began in 2004.
By the end of the hearing, the the bench pointed out that all else in the case was marginal and the real issue was the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and compliance with it, to which the OMC agreed. They said they would take the FRA up in the next hearing.