To: Indian Prime Minister and Indian National Congress Party Chief
Dr. Manmohan Singh
Hon. Prime Minister of India
Chairperson, United Progressive Alliance
and Indian National Congress Party Chief
We are writing to draw your urgent attention to a matter of grave concern for India and the world, and appealing to you to protect the lives, culture and place of worship of the Kondh Adivasis, and the rich biodiversity which has been conserved due to their beliefs.
Respected Sir and Madam,
The Supreme Court, after a case lasting over three years, is about to give clearance to Sterlite/Vedanta to mine bauxite on the summit of Niyamgiri in the state of Orissa based on the recommendation of the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as Government of Orissa. If mining is permitted there, two of India's strongest Constitutional guarantees will be overturned: the right of a "primitive tribal group" to their territorial integrity and to decide on their own path of development (Schedule V of the Indian Constitution); and the right to religious practices and beliefs (Article 25 of the Constitution), since the summit of this mountain is sacred place of worship to the Dongria Kondh's supreme deity Niyam Raja.
Your intervention is required because the case has been marked by numerous legal irregularities, starting with the construction of Vedanta's refinery below the mountain without seeking forest clearance for mining it and against strong recommendations from the Central Empowered Committee (the Supreme Court's advisory body). The Court judgment dated 23rd November 2007 concedes that Vedanta is not a trustworthy company, due to its worldwide pattern of human rights and environmental abuses, outlined in a recent Norway Government report. It nevertheless invites Sterlite to form a 'Special Purpose Vehicle' to mine the mountain, despite Sterlite being Vedanta's 80\% owned subsidiary, mentioned for its malpractice throughout the Norway report.
No tribal development or afforestation package can address the loss.
For Dongria and other Konds, mining this mountain would be a sacrilege that no financial package can compensate. Just as it is unthinkable to shift Babri Masjid or Jagannath Temple of Puri, or to substitute the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque or Church of Saint Sepulchar, so too the sacred sites of India's indigenous people cannot be moved or replaced. Niyamgiri is as integral to Kondh religion as any place of worship is to other religions. But this is a religion rooted in nature. The Konds understand better than any scientist that the mountain is the source of their life, and that if the sacred summit area they have protected is deforested and mined, their perennial streams will gradually dry up.
What makes this case very unusual, and unites conservationists and social activists in a determination to prevent mining, is that the forest which Dongria religion has conserved (covering 670-hectares known as Niyam Dongar) is one of Orissa's last core areas of unspoilt forest - and Sterlite has even described it as bare of forest! It is significant that a multi-dollar report commissioned from J P Morgan (dated November 2003 and instrumental in Vedanta's registration on the London Stock Exchange in December 2003), does not mention the mountain's importance for biodiversity and water, or the presence of the Dongria Konds in Niyamgiri.
Sums offered by the company for tribal development, wildlife management and compensatory afforestation cannot begin to make up for what would be lost. Dongria Kond culture is eminently sustainable, growing fruit, vegetables and millet on the hill slopes. Their name for themselves is Jarnia linking their identity with Niyamgiri's magnificent streams. Bauxite capping a mountain retains monsoon water, releasing it slowly throughout the year. When bauxite is mined, the mountain loses this capacity. When it is still covered in prime forest a unique source of fertility is lost (a fact distorted in company reports stating that mining would aid run-off!). Numerous economic arguments against the project involve the extremely low prices which India gets for bauxite compared to this permanent loss.
Large sums coming in to the area for 'development' would bring unprecedented corruption through contractor-based construction. This is not desired by the people themselves, who have already witnessed large scale corruption and pollution around Lanjigarh, the site of the Vedanta refinery. The kind of development they wish for is small-scale medical and educational services under their own control.
The climate change aspect is also significant. Even the local tribal people understand that if the mountain is mined and its forest cover removed, local rainfall will be greatly reduced, quite apart from the larger negative impact on climate.
We are convinced that a judgment in favour of mining in Niyamgiri would amount to:
1. Irreparable environmental harm and major violations of fundamental religious and cultural rights as guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution,
2. Serious violation of the new Forest Rights Act, which empowers tribal communities to conserve the forest they depend on,
3. Intentional manipulation of the Law to suit the interests of Sterlite and Vedanta at the cost of the environment and the lives of people,
4. Wiping out an indigenous tribe and its civilization.
Sir, you as the head of the Ministry of Environment and Forests can avert this situation by revoking the environmental and forest clearance granted to the project which is bad in law and seriously undermines good governance as well as the faith of the marginalized communities.