A public hearing held on 30 July in Lanjigarh, Odisha on the six-fold expansion of an alumina refinery operated by a subsidiary of the UK-based Vedanta Resources breached national and international standards, Amnesty International said.
“Local communities, who have the most to lose from the expansion, did not receive adequate information on the project’s potential impacts. Observers have reported that people who opposed the project were cut off or not given time to speak,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International India.
“The summary of the proceedings reflecting all views expressed was not read out, breaching requirements under Indian law.”
The hearing was held as part of the project’s environmental clearance process, and was intended for authorities to consult local people and address their concerns.
Kumti Majhi, a local Majhi Kondh Adivasi (Indigenous) community leader said, “There was no public announcement about the hearing, except until the morning of the day it was held. There was no discussion of the impacts affecting our village. If people who are living in the vicinity of the refinery did not get to know, imagine the situation of other villages.”
At a public hearing, every attendee is entitled by law to an opportunity to raise concerns. There must be a fair and full summarization of proceedings in the local languages, which should be read out to the public. Amnesty International India spoke to a number of local residents, activists and journalists who emphasised that these key safeguards had not been met.
Lingaraj Azad, a local activist, told Amnesty International India, “Only a small fraction of us were allowed to speak. Those who were opposed were being abruptly cut off or told to wind down. The organizers did not even read out the official record or minutes at the end of the hearing. How do we know if our objections were even recorded?”
Priyabrata Satapathy, an environmental lawyer who attended the hearing, said, “The discussion on the project impacts was limited to less than five minutes. A large part of the hearing was dominated by members of the ruling political party, with those in favour of Vedanta being summoned to speak. They continued to maintain that there is no pollution and that the plant has zero-discharge norms, when the reality is very clear for anyone to see.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 people who live in the 12 villages that surround the Lanjigarh refinery, including Majhi Kondh Adivasi, Dalit and other marginalized communities, remain affected by the refinery’s operations, including its impact on water and air, which has compromised their access to water for drinking and domestic use and placed their health and livelihoods at risk. Vedanta’s plans to expand its 700-hectare refinery involve the acquisition of an additional 888 hectares of land belonging to these communities.
Local communities have also raised concerns over the risk posed by the refinery’s red mud ponds, which contain hazardous waste materials. The ponds are situated only a kilometre away from streams that feed into the Vamsadhara river, which communities depend on for drinking water, personal use and for their livestock.
The EIA, in its current form, fails to address breaches of international human rights law and Indian laws by the existing refinery operations and how these will be remediated. The EIA contains no information on impacts on health, data on health monitoring, or how damage from past pollution and poor waste management will be remediated. An expert committee set up by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 found that the company “is in illegal occupation of 26.123 ha of village forest lands enclosed within the factory premises” and was in violation of the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act. The EIA has also failed to explain how this will be remediated.
“The Supreme Court of India, the former Minister for Environment and Forests and a range of national and international experts have highlighted the need for the refinery to rectify violations”, said Aruna Chandrasekhar. “The governments of India and Odisha have to ensure that there is no expansion until all existing problems are addressed and a full, impartial and adequate assessment of the human rights impact of the project is carried out in genuine consultation with affected communities.”
Since 2009, Amnesty International’s research has consistently highlighted evidence of human rights abuses associated with the operations of the Lanjigarh refinery, which commenced production in 2007.
Vedanta’s plans to expand its 700-hectare refinery were put on hold in 2010, when the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected the plans, finding that the project violated India’s environmental laws, and annulled a public hearing conducted in April 2009. The company subsequently submitted a new application for environmental clearance to which the MoEF, in August 2011, detailed 70 conditions that Vedanta would have to fulfil, including commissioning a new EIA and subjecting itself to a new public hearing. In April 2012, the Ministry once again put Vedanta’s plans to conduct a public hearing on hold, since it had not fulfilled the conditions put forth and had continued to deny communities access to 26 hectares of village forest land within the refinery area.
The alumina refinery was linked to plans by another Vedanta subsidiary to mine bauxite in the nearby Niyamgiri hills, but mine plans were unanimously rejected by all the 12 Adivasi villages in the mine lease area where official consultations were held in July-August 2013. These consultations, ordered by India’s Supreme Court in an April 2013 ruling, were a major victory for Adivasi rights in India.
The rejection of the mine plans raises questions about where the refinery will source bauxite and why a six-fold expansion is needed. The authorities have failed to take any serious action to end the refinery’s pollution, clean-up existing damage or to monitor the health and livelihood impacts of the refinery on the local communities. The authorities had also failed to act on a recommendation made by a Special Rapporteur of India’s National Human Rights Commission, who had investigated complaints from the local communities in 2011, that an expert committee be formed to systematically monitor and evaluate these impacts.
India is obligated under international law to ensure that both the Odisha state authorities and the central government authorities take all necessary measures to safeguard people from human rights abuses, including by third parties such as companies. This requires enforcing laws against pollution and preventing the contamination of water, air or soil.