On 30 July, in the town of Lanjigarh in the district of Kalahandi, Odisha, district authorities and the Odisha State Pollution Control board organised a public hearing to discuss the potential expansion of an alumina-producing facility in the town. Sesa Sterlite, a subsidiary of the Vedanta group, was seeking environmental clearance to expand its 1 million tons per annum (MTPA) refinery to a capacity of 6 MTPA. The public hearing is a mandatory step in this process, and is the only formal space for local participation in a project’s clearance.
After the meeting, government authorities and company officials rushed to declare the hearing for the expansion “a success,” and told journalists that villagers supported the expansion. This was duly reported through news agencies, such as Reuters and PTI, and carried in leading papers, such as the Economic Times and the Business Standard, within hours of the hearing. A video news story uploaded to YouTube—on a channel called “Lanijigarh News,” where that video is the sole upload—a few days later reinforced this perception, asserting that the hearing had been a smooth affair.
But the Bhubaneswar-based web outlet Odisha Sun Times told quite a different story, reporting that the meeting had, in fact, been stormed by local Dongariya Kondh villagers, who
snatched away the microphones, raised slogans against Vedanta and questioned the purpose of holding such public hearing in the absence of locals and stage managed by the ruling BJD and company officials.
Contrary to official claims that the meeting was a success, the report notes that as a result of the protests, the meeting “had to be abandoned midway.”
Lawyers, journalists and villagers who were present at the meeting confirmed to me that the hearing had, in fact, been a deeply polarised event and did not see unanimous support for the project, as reported by the agencies. Video footage of the hearing by the journalist Mahammad Ashlam confirmed this alternative version. (Vedanta did not respond to an email and multiple calls made over a week, seeking their comment.)
The Lanjigarh plant was commissioned in August 2007 and has since been bedevilled by repeated run-ins with the law. The mining major had already constructed 50–55 percent of the proposed expansion in 2009, without an environmental clearance. It was forced to stop after the Orissa High Court ruled in 2011 that such expansion was illegal, since statutory clearances hadn’t been obtained.
The company has also struggled to implement its plans of mining the surrounding forested mountains for bauxite—the ore from which aluminium is extracted—given strong opposition from adivasi or indigenous communities who inhabit this resource-rich landscape, and depend on it for their livelihoods. Last year, in Supreme Court-mandated gram sabhas, the tribals of 12 villages unanimously rejected Vedanta’s proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite, after which the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected the company’s application.
Thus, the plant has had to import bauxite from other states including Gujarat, more than 1000 kilometres away. Vedanta Group Chairman Anil Agrawal said last September that the plant was running at a third of its capacity due to raw material shortage. If the expansion is cleared, the refinery’s bauxite requirement will increase from 3 million tonnes to over 15 million tonnes per year.
Given the difficulties it has faced so far, the company’s move to implement this six-fold expansion is surprising.
When government authorities hold public hearings, under Environmental Impact Assessment rules, company officials are required to outline details of the project under consideration, in particular its environmental impacts, while members of the public can express their views and concerns.
Because of widespread complaints from rural communities across India that public hearings have been manipulated or forged in favour of the project proponent, rules also require the entire proceedings to be video-recorded. Before presiding officials formally conclude the hearing, they must read out a record of the minutes to the assembled public. The video recording and minutes of the hearing are sent by state authorities to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, which makes the final decision about the clearance.
The environmental lawyer Priyabrata Satapathy, who works with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, a civil society body that monitors the implementation of green laws, attended the hearing in Lanjigarh. He said authorities conducted it in a partisan manner, and did not address any environmental concerns raised by the public. The Kalahandi-based journalist Mahammad Ashlam’s footage of the proceedings captured the tribals’ stormy intervention, in stark contrast to the video news story, which supported the official version.
Contrary to the account of unanimous support given to the media by government and company officials, here is how the hearing unfolded.
On the morning of 30 July, politicians of the district from the ruling Biju Janata Dal, elected to the assembly and local bodies, led rallies into the venue, raising slogans and placards supporting the refinery and Vedanta. The hearing kicked off with presiding officials calling many of the elected representatives to the podium, where they made speeches in favour of the expansion. The speakers included BJD legislator from the constituency of Junagarh, Dibya Shankar Mishra, who can be seen in the first video clip speaking aggressively in favour of the refinery expansion.
Mishra told me over the phone on 8 August that “everyone” supported the proposed expansion in the hearing. “Political groups are pro-Vedanta so that the tribals are benefitted, and the region and the state prospers,” he said. He added: “Some locals said the company hasn’t fulfilled its earlier promises of giving them jobs, but the company assured that it will happen with Class 3 and Class 4 jobs.”
Satapathy argued that speeches by ruling politicians in favour of the project are misplaced in a public hearing, since they detract from an atmosphere where villagers can ask questions or express their views freely and frankly. “It goes against the letter and spirit of the law,” he said.
Satapathy also pointed out that an Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) official took signatures and thumb prints of villagers in the audience at the very start of the hearing—Mahammad Ashlam’s footage shows this. “This is an illegal practice,” Satapathy said. “Such signature lists gathered in public hearings have been used in the past to falsely claim villagers’ support for pro-project resolutions, which are drafted without their knowledge and submitted to the MoEF.”
As Mahammad Ashlam captured in his footage, about an hour into the hearing, a troop of Dongariya Kondh villagers forced their way into the hearing, disrupting it and demanding to be heard. After raising slogans against the refinery, one villager took the dais and read out a statement demanding that environmental clearance not be issued. He pointed out that the company intended to meet its bauxite needs from the nearby hills, and reiterated that this proposal had been rejected already. “When there is no source of bauxite nearby,” he said, “it is unlawful to give permission for the expansion of the alumina plant.”
In the face of the Kondh protests, officials ended the hearing without reading out the minutes recorded by them to the public, as is legally required.
Kumti Majhi who was among the angry villagers expressing opposition told me over the phone on 8 August, “We are worried that the refinery expansion will be followed by pressure on us to consent to bauxite mining in this area. We are also concerned that the company will take a lot of water.”
Alumina production is a water-intensive process, and the refinery currently requires 14.8 million litres of water, which it draws from the Tel river. If it expands, its requirement will rise to 56.5 million litres of water a day.
The EIA report, presented by Vedanta during the 30 July hearing, repeats what an earlier report states—that one of the sources of bauxite for the expanded refinery is at a distance of 3.7 kilometres from the plant. Usha Ramanathan, who was a member of the MoEF committee that inspected the site in 2010, confirmed to me that this could only be referring to the Niyamgiri range, since there is no other source of bauxite within that distance. The company’s intention to use this source is questionable, given the villagers’ vote to disallow mining in the region, followed by the MoEF’s rejection of the company’s proposal this January.
Kalahandi’s district collector Bijaya Ketan Upadhyaya told me in a phone conversation on 8 August that no land would be acquired for the proposed expansion.
But Vedanta’s EIA report contradicts this, saying: “The proposed expansion would require additional land to be acquired (about 888 Ha) for accommodating the red mud pond, ash pond, township, railway corridor and green belt.”
Upadhyaya downplayed the dissenting Kondh voices. “The hearing was positive,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people spoke in favour of the project. A few people said we won’t give up Niyamgiri.”
OSPCB’s Regional Officer Mitrasen Majhi was among the two officials who conducted the hearing, and will be signing off on the minutes to be sent to the MoEF. Over two phone conversations in the weeks after the hearings, he described the issues raised by the Kondh villagers as “a small disturbance.”
He also fended off all queries about discrepancies in the EIA report and where the expanded plant would source raw material from, declaring, “It is not my duty to know these things.”
I asked him if the minutes of the public hearing had been read out to those who were gathered, as is legally required. He hung up and didn’t take any of my calls after that.
Chitrangada Choudhury is an Orissa-based multimedia journalist and researcher, and a Fellow with the Open Society Institute.