Widespread pollution by the Vedanta refinery in Orissa raises serious questions
Business Standard Latha Jishnu / New Delhi July 11, 2009
At first sight the images are picture perfect. There are gurgling streams, a rushing river, a tree-dotted landscape, all of which are partially covered in snow, the kind of destinations tour operators peddle every summer. Then you see scruffy village children and buffaloes ploughing through the white stretches and kicking up a lot of dust and you realise that something is amiss. As the camera zooms in, reality comes as a shocker: This is Lanjigarh in Orissa's Kalahandi district where snow is as unlikely as apple blossom in Rajasthan. The thick white crust covering the Vamsadhara River and blanketing the surrounding villages is fly-ash — layers and layers of it, the soft, choking dust settling into heavy deposits that have scarred the topography and made life a living hell for people in the area.
These are shots from a documentary that has caused quite a furore in recent weeks. Sham Public Hearing — The True Face of Vedanta is a narrative of the environmental problems that have ensued after metals and mining behemoth Vedanta Resources (2009 turnover: $6.6 billion) set up an alumina refinery in Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi district three years ago. The one-million-tonne refinery along with a 75-MW power plant comes under Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL) which describes its Lanjigarh facility as one of the world's premier alumina plants "in terms of its technology, human resources and high quality infrastructure". It also boasts that the refinery is the only zero-discharge plant of its kind in India.
On June 1, VAL was marking a special triumph. It announced that it had bagged the 'prestigious' Golden Peacock Award 2009 instituted by the UK- based World Environment Foundation (WEF) in association with Institute of Directors. The selection had been made by a jury of worthies headed by no less than P N Bhagwati, a former Chief Justice of India and member of the UN Human Rights Commission. The award, the company said, "recognises Vedanta's efforts in setting high standards" in its environment management.
The celebration turned out to be premature. Barely a week later, The True Face of Vedanta, made by Bhubaneswar-based filmmaker Surya Shankar Dash, ripped apart this image. Apart from the environmental degradation, the documentary records the effects of pollution on the hapless villagers. Some of its sharpest images are of the very young victims of pollution — children with all kinds of skin diseases, from suppurating sores and boils to rash, which is on the rise in the area.
No one is certain why the disease is affecting villages like Bundel, which are on the periphery of the refinery. Local residents say the problem is of recent origin and comes from bathing in the river or drinking its water. The probable cause is the seepage of highly alkaline and caustic water from the waste ponds into the Vamsadhara and its nearby streams. The Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) has repeatedly brought this to the notice of VAL but despite several show-cause notices the company appears to have been unable to check the contamination.
VAL is dismissive of such charges. Its standard response is that it has adopted the zero discharge system in which no waste/effluent is released outside the plant or red-mud pond or fly-ash pond. A VAL spokesman is categorical: "There is also no contamination of any natural stream or river due to discharge of fly-ash," he says. As to the photographic evidence of fly-ash covering the streams and villages around the factory, he insists "it is of the inside disposal system of the fly-ash pond".
Dash refutes this. "You can clearly see the shots are of the river, not of the inside," says the filmmaker. "You cannot go anywhere near the refinery because the security guards will follow you and try to snatch your camera." Corroboration of what the film reveals can be found in official documents if one goes looking for it. The OSPCB's inspection reports are a damning indictment of the way Lanjigarh refinery has handled its wastes since inception. From November 2007, that is barely three months after the refinery started trial operations, OSPCB inspectors have been cautioning VAL about the seepage of contaminated water into the river. Even a January 2009 directive asks the company to set right the leakage of caustic water from its pipelines and to stop the discharge of contaminated water into the Vamsadhara. The reports also highlight the recurring problems that VAL has had with the maintenance of its ash and red-mud ponds, the latter, a lethal effluent of bauxite.
The litany of lapses/defects in the company's pollution control systems should have occasioned serious disquiet in official circles. But instead of penalties there has been reward. "OSPCB has given us consent to operate up till March 2011," claims a company spokesman because of the board's "satisfaction on our environmental measures".
The bigger irony is that OSPCB has allowed VAL to expand capacity to six million tonnes which will make it the largest refinery of its kind, globally. This is a clear coup for Anil Agarwal's London-based FTSE 100-company which has been battling a sustained campaign in India and the UK against the Lanjigarh complex. The problems of such aggressive expansive can be gargantuan. Working at just 70 per cent of its current capacity, that is 700,000 tons, the refinery produces 500 tons of fly-ash daily along with 2,500 tons of red-mud, all of which is supposed to be released into their respective ponds. But there is leakage and seepage into the groundwater, as OSPCB strictures show.
Villagers allege that whenever the pipelines carrying the wastes are choked the pipes are cut and effluents released into the streams. At the Belamba public hearing on April 25, OSPCB officials remained mute when over two dozen villagers, many of them from the Dongria Kondh tribe, gave bitter testimony about the effects of the red-mud pond and fly-ash pollution in the vicinity of the refinery. Kumuti Majhi of Sindhuali village said that he was jailed for several weeks for complaining about the pollution. The brooding anger and despair is widespread among the villagers in Lanjigarh and not a single official responded to the repeated charges of the health hazards posed by the refinery.
The True Face of Vedanta has acted as a rallying point for over a 100 global voluntary agencies and activists who have forced WEF to put the award on hold. VAL appears unfazed. "We are expecting the award very soon," says the company which is preparing for its biggest challenge — the commencement of mining operations in Niyamgiri Hills in the face of entrenched opposition from the Dongria Kondh.
As the company gears up for confrontation with the outraged tribe which considers the hills sacred and the source of their sustenance, the state is providing a helping hand. Bauxite mining will be carried out by the Orissa Mining Corporation in partnership with Vedanta's sister concern, Sterlite Industries India, under a Supreme Court order aimed at deflecting international censure of Vedanta. Close to 700 hectares has been leased to the joint venture for the mining. However, environmentalists have made a last-ditch attempt to stall the desecration of Niyamgiri. R Sreedhar, director of the Academy of Mountain Environics, which is a trust promoting sustainable development solutions, has petitioned the National Environmental Appellate Authority to quash the mining clearance in view of the many regulatory violations by the company. The petition is scheduled to be heard on July 21 but there appears to be little hope of a reprieve for the environment.