Business Today

A mine of dreams

In the perennial debate on development vs environment, it’s advantage development in Orissa’s bauxite-rich Kalahandi.

Ritwik Mukherjee        Print Edition: February 10, 2008

January 10, 2008
Lanjigarh, Kalahandi (Orissa),
510 km off Bhubaneswar

Gateway to development: While the refinery has drawn flak from NGOs, it has been a boon for the local people
Gateway to development
Think Kalahandi and you think famine, abject poverty and misery. These were exactly my thoughts as I set out on a visit to Lanjigarh, a picturesque town surrounded by the Niyamgiri range in the Kalahandi district of Orissa. As we (BT lensman and I) get down from our eight-seater private jet at Utkela airstrip, at least 50 pairs of curious eyes greet the rarely-seen machine and us. What brings us to Lanjigarh is Vedanta Alumina’s refinery project that has hit a ‘green’ roadblock.

The sight at Lanjigarh certainly doesn’t match my perception of the place, best known for “a year of drought in every three or four years”. The three-year-old township is now home to 118 families from seven erstwhile villages— Kinari, Borbhata, Kothduar, Sindhbahal, Narayanpur, Kasibadi, Rengopali. (The families object when the new township is called their rehabilitation.

A local tells us in Sambalpuri, a dialect of Oriya: “It was our place and we are staying here, albeit in much better living conditions”). The locals have pucca houses with toilets, drainage facilities, electricity and water, a temple, a market complex, a community hall, a childcare centre and a school along with a dispensary.

Forward march: Tribal women going for work at Vedanta’s Lanjigarh plant
Forward march
These “better conditions” are thanks to Vedanta’s alumina refinery project at Lanjigarh. The company has also proposed bauxite mining from Niyamgiri through a joint venture between Sterlite and Orissa Mining Corporation. Mining can commence only when the Supreme Court gives it the go-ahead.

Better future: A class in progress at Niyamgiri Vedanta Nagar
Better future
The Supreme Court has barred Vedanta Resources Plc from mining bauxite at Niyamgiri, keeping, however, the doors open for the 1-million tonne alumina refinery project. The apex court has asked Vedanta Resources, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, to put up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) through Sterlite Industries India and Orissa Mining Corporation to safeguard the rights of local tribals and make a fresh appeal before it for mining rights.

This apart, a group of NGOs under the banner of ‘Green Kalahandi’ is crying foul over what they call destruction of forest cover following bauxite mining, adverse impact on the habitation and substantial marginalisation of water regime.

Now, bauxite: Krishnan says their project will improve green cover
C.V. Krishnan
C.V. Krishnan, Group Business Head, Vedanta Resources, however, claims: “The forest cover will actually improve after bauxite mining due to reclamation and compensatory afforestation. One can see there is no habitation in the proposed bauxite mining lease area at Niyamgiri and hence no displacement. And even the Central Mine Planning & Design Institute, Ranchi, has confirmed that there will be substantial improvement in the water regime.”

A round of the proposed mining area in a chopper confirms Krishnan’s claims. There are, indeed, hardly any signs of habitation around the plateau offering bauxite on top of the Niyamgiri range.

Back on the ground, though, there are more surprises (read development) in store for us. A middle-aged woman Sulochana Harijan, a rag picker till 3-4 years ago, greets us in chaste Hindi. She now heads a self-help group of 25 women, called Budhima Mahila SHG, which makes phenyl and soaps.

“This company gave us a loan of Rs 5,000 along with training to make these products. We were not too sure if we would be able to do it. But a few months down the line, we could actually repay the loan and take a fresh loan of Rs 10,000 and then another two loans of Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000. Three years of hard toil and our current bank balance is Rs 84,000,” she says, proudly displaying her bank passbook.

Budhima Mahila was awarded the best SHG by the Orissa government last year. That’s not all. There are 37 women SHGs involving 336 members in the area, plus 50 SHGs involving 550 farmers from 45 villages covering 700 acres of land, carrying out modern agricultural practices after intensive training.

As we move on to meet the locals, we are drawn to the kids reciting nursery rhymes in English, Hindi and Oriya in the childcare centre and the primary school next door. Vedanta, which has hired 67 of the 115 project-affected people, also has an arrangement with DAV Public School; the latter absorbs all the students from its primary schools. Vedanta and DAV Public School are together putting up a large campus in the locality that will provide modern schooling to the locals.

The locals in Lanjigarh seem to have left the long history of drought and misery firmly behind. They don’t even realise that they would be a close witness to the growth of India’s largest aluminium producer. They are also not aware that India has the potential to be amongst top three aluminium producers in the world. They do not seem too bothered about the NGOs’ allegations either. It’s the better living conditions that matter.

As Khilona Pradhan, a local resident, sums up: “We are happy that we now have houses to stay; we don’t have to worry about our next meal of the day. Our kids are going to school. There are doctors and with some of our family members getting regular monthly salary, we know we will be able to sustain.”

Greens would find it tough to challenge this logic.

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