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ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Green Activists Gain Ground with Successive Victories

Analysis by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - Green activists in India have chalked up a series of successes recently and feel heartened that the central government is heeding their call. A number of mega projects which would have displaced vulnerable communities or caused damage to the environment were recently scrapped by the government.

The latest victory was in preventing the multinational group Vedanta from opening up bauxite mines in the eastern state of Orissa and trampling on the rights of the local tribal population.

Last week, a 600-megawatt dam across the Bhagirathi river in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, was abandoned. Though a group of ministers had said in June that the project could not be cancelled because of the financial commitments already made, activists forced them to reverse the decision.

The public sector National Thermal Power Corporation had invested 140 million dollars on the dam and placed orders worth 500 million dollars for equipment and other supplies.

”This contrasts sharply with the experiences of non-government organisations (NGOs) and project-affected people so far,” said Himanshu Thakkar, hydrologist and convenor of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Thakkar feels the union government’s newfound receptivity can be largely attributed to environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who seems to be sympathetic to global concerns on conservation.


Ramesh is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay who continued his studies in the U.S., as well as a founder of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, one of the world’s top 10 B-schools. The minister does not shy away from controversies, readily taking on powerful vested interests — whether they are cabinet colleagues or mining maharajas.

Ramesh’s ministry is now adding final touches to the Green India Mission which seeks to raise the country’s forest cover from 23 percent of its land mass to 33 percent, by engaging local residents, elected bodies and entrepreneurs.

Last week, a four-man committee appointed by Ramesh’s ministry threw the book at the 70 billion dollar Vedanta group, sealing the fate of its 1.7 billion dollar bauxite project that has been found trampling on the rights of the local Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribes in the eastern state Orissa and wreaking havoc on the environment with a smelter and refinery. The coup de grace on the operation was delivered on Aug. 24.

As a result of a sustained six-year-old campaign by international NGOs, the Church of England had, in February, announced withdrawing its investment in the company saying it was “not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect.”

An even bigger project in Orissa to fall foul of Ramesh’s ministry for violating tribal rights is run by POSCO, the South Korean steel giant. This 13-billion- dollar project, begun five years ago as India’s biggest foreign direct investment, has been accused of irregular land acquisition, which includes 3,000 acres of forest land. A pressing reason for the government’s responsiveness may be the need to address violent Maoist insurgencies in the mineral-rich tribal areas of central and eastern India.

In a string of attacks on security forces this year more than 100 policemen were killed. But the central government refused to deploy troops against the Maoists, and treats the insurgency as a development issue.

The government proposes to bring in legislation which will ensure that 26 percent of the profits are given as compensation to the people displaced by mining operations, minister for mines B.K. Handique told Parliament last week.

According to E.A.S. Sarma, a former career bureaucrat who now runs Forum for a Better Visakha, an influential green NGO in Andhra Pradesh, the central and state governments cannot always plead innocence when it comes to collusion with mega projects.

“(In the Vedanta case) the government may have (halted the operations), but what about prosecuting the officials, the company and its directors, and the political leadership that lobbied for Vedanta,” Sarma told IPS.

Sarma said the same held good for the privately-owned Nagarjuna Construction Company which was to build a three-billion-dollar, 2,000 MW coal-fired power plant at Sompeta town in the ecologically fragile Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

On Jul. 15, two villagers were killed as the police, supported by goons hired by the company, ruthlessly crushed an agitation by activists. Collusion between the state government and Nagarjuna Construction was visible on TV news coverage as the goons, easily identified by their blue headbands, assisted the police in forcing their way into the site and attacking the protesters.

Later, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) ruled against the project saying that the land allotted was part of a wetland system and provided water and livelihoods for people in the neighbouring villages.

“The NEAA has ordered a detailed survey and assessment of the wetlands, but the state government should have taken these measures much earlier,” Sarma said.

“Environmental activism is still not an easy task,” Sarma added. ”Those who ask the government to obey the law of the land are frowned upon and those that violate the law are respected in the corridors of power in New Delhi and the state capitals.”

 
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