On Monday 5th November a fly ash pipe burst, pouring toxic ash over more than 15 acres of farm land at Vedanta Aluminium’s Jharsuguda aluminium complex in Odisha. In response women and local farmers from Kurebaga Panchayat gathered outside the gates of the factory demanding compensation for the land that had been destroyed. 38 were later arrested after the police were called by the company and evicted them from the spot. Many of those affected are displaced people moved from their farms and villages by the giant factory complex which is estimated to have displaced 10,000 people without compensation or rehabilitation.
Rather than apologising to villagers, Vedanta released a statement claiming that local ‘scrap mafia’s’ had repeatedly stolen the pipe, and that just the day before some ‘miscreants’ had been found trying to cut it. As a result Vedanta said they had increased their ‘security forces’ to guard the pipe. Vedanta employ an estimated 100 private security guards around the factory and surrounding displaced villages, who play a role in preventing dissent amongst local people and workers as well as ‘protecting’ the factory.
This is only the latest in a series of pollution incidents at the plant. In August this year fly ash was found dumped in reserve (protected) forest. In June fly ash rained down on local people causing asthma attacks and burning sensation in the eyes. In response a group of locals demanded justice by blocking the local highway. In June 2009 another major fly ash incident affected the whole township of Jharsuguda.
When visiting the plant in March this year Foil Vedanta members saw fly ash piled high in the open air and clearly seeping into a local river which people use to bathe. They heard of the landlessness, water shortage, pollution and illness suffered by local people, many of whom were displaced by the building of the factory. Women living in small, dust covered houses around the factory wall told how their husbands work in the factory for Rs 130 (£1.50) per day and get sick from the fumes and toxins.
Vedanta plans to make its Jharsuguda aluminium complex into the world’s biggest smelter, producing 1.7 million tonnes per year. The factory stretches more than 2km and includes four coal power plants and energy from the massive Hirakud dam. The plant was constructed illegally with a public hearing advertised a week before it was held, and goondas with guns employed to keep protesting voices silent. Nonetheless the subsidiary company which runs Jharsuguda (Vedanta Aluminium) is losing money as the factory is dependent on Niyamgiri bauxite which is held up by protests over its illegality.
Meanwhile in Odisha the Shah Commission into illegal mining has already discovered Rs 69,000 cr (£9 billion) worth illegal ore extraction from 60 mines in what amounts to a 531 million tonnes iron ore scam, so far. Commentators are suggesting the scale of illegal mining in Odsha could be even greater than Karnataka and Goa and Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister, is already being directly implicated.