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Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are the pre-project standard for outlining potential environmental and social risks related to large-scale mining. Incomplete or disingenuous EIAs mask the potential social, environmental and economic impacts of large projects. To examine the possible misrepresentation of project risks, this article analyses a set of EIAs for the proposed Niyamgiri mine and related Lanjigarh refinery and refinery expansion in Orissa, India. In contrast to their promises of development benefits, it is argued that the project assessments fail to acknowledge the substantial social impacts for project-affected persons as some face displacement, livelihood change, marginalization and a loss of natural resources. The issues raised here are not unique to these cases, but are representative of a flawed system in which environmental clearance is granted for projects with misleading or mis-assessed EIAs. This article questions the validation of ‘development’ projects via EIAs which do not thoroughly estimate the social risks and costs of projects.


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This article builds on a growing critique of the human costs of economic growth and market liberalization in India (Bhaduri and Patkar, 2009; Guha, 2011; Gupta and Sivaramakrishnan, 2011; Kohli, 2006). A number of high-profile private sector projects have recently been halted over violations related to environmental assessments, land acquisition or community rights. The public visibility of human rights and environmental breaches, coupled with the large economic clout of the projects, has led to national debates questioning the compatibility of environmental protection, land justice and economic growth. Reflecting these debates, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 — a colonial relic — will likely be superseded by the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011. In theory, the draft bill recognizes that land acquisition for public purposes must be accompanied by fair and transparent rehabilitation and resettlement for individuals and communities ousted by such projects. However, scepticism remains: there are fears that the bill will lead to the repression of affected families (Sarkar, 2011), and that states will be absolved from seeking ‘informed consent’ from oustees (Chakravorty, 2011).

The overhaul of the land acquisition process is one piece of a growing conundrum in India which involves competing land demands for private sector projects, environmental protection and community rights. The environmental clearance process is one aspect of this problem. Private companies, legally required to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), often carry out the assessments in a cursory manner, and at times conceal vital information. EIAs are usually contracted out to consultants;1 their reports carefully craft project justifications, including employment, infrastructure and development. Although contested, ‘development’ narratives are used in EIAs to justify large-scale private projects, including mineral extraction. However, defining a corporate-led project as a path to development is dubious when the initiative may increase the social and environmental vulnerability of affected communities.

This article reviews how EIAs are used to legitimize the projects as a form of ‘trickledown’ development for those impacted. Promised ‘trickledown’ benefits are highlighted in assessments to counter the projects’ potential negatives including population displacement, environmental pollution, loss of livelihoods, land acquisition and deforestation; they are representative of broader efforts to mis-frame or conceal relevant risks. Mis-assessed projects lack candour about a project's environmental, economic or social costs and risks. While not a new phenomenon, the persistence of this problem deserves fresh examination at this time of heightened land and economic pressure in liberalizing India.

This study therefore examines EIAs and Rapid EIAs2 carried out for Vedanta Resources’ proposed Niyamgiri mine and the existing Lanjigarh refinery and refinery expansion, in Orissa,3 East India. EIAs were completed by a range of consultants on behalf of Vedanta Resources (hereafter Vedanta) and its subsidiaries. The article reviews these EIAs to determine if government requirements were met, and if further social risks were detailed. The study takes a social perspective to explore whether corporations are able to complete EIAs without acknowledging the environmental, social, economic or gender risks of mining. In the course of the research it became apparent that development narratives are used indiscriminately to promote the projects.

This study highlights the shortcomings of the impact assessment framework which assumes that all risks can be accounted for via a generic template. Throughout the EIAs, project-affected persons are almost invisible, and where mentioned are depersonalized through the use of statistics and broad categories to define diverse groups of people. The EIAs presume that the projects will elevate the economic status of communities, and appear to justify any acknowledged ‘costs’ as part of a path to development. In fact, projects promoted as a means to development can actually lead to heightened social risks and vulnerability. Granting environmental clearance for mis-assessed projects thus illustrates the fallacies of the current system.

The article stems from a desk-based study with local facts verified to the extent possible by people in the affected areas.4 In addition to a review of the extensive EIA documents, activists familiar with Vedanta's work and the state of Orissa were interviewed. A portion of the initial research on rights and EIAs was undertaken for Amnesty International. While the overall work looks at the range of connected potential ‘cumulative effects’ (Cernea, 2000: 16) of the project, this article focuses only on select social impacts including: population silences; population displacement; land and livelihood loss; gendered ramifications of a large-scale project; change in access to natural resources; and the framing of who benefits from mining. It concludes that the EIAs for the Lanjigarh refinery and Niyamgiri mine in Orissa are void of meaningful social indicators, and do not address the needs and concerns of affected communities.

The article starts with some relevant background, including a discussion of the use of ‘development’ as a justification for large-scale projects; a brief look at the main social impacts of mining and displacement; and a review of international standards related to EIAs. This sets the context for a closer examination of Vedanta's Orissa operations; an analysis of the mine and refinery EIAs is presented, highlighting the key social issues that the assessments fail to address, and outlining the government's criticisms of the project. In conclusion, the article examines the shortcomings of business attempts to justify large-scale projects as development initiatives.

Development as Justification for Private Projects

The widespread use and misuse of the term ‘development’ often conflates disparate models. Ferguson is correct in stating that the term development is muddled by bureaucrats to refer to both ‘modernization efforts’ and poverty reduction (Ferguson, 1990: 15). The former view of development encompasses the transformation of a place into a ‘modern, capitalist, industrial economy’ (ibid.); the latter conceptualization of development addresses poverty alleviation, freedoms and quality of living. The interchangeable use of varied development discourses causes confusion, and appears to fuel critiques of development.

These contradictions are exemplified by the incongruence of World Bank development goals, and the livelihood and social costs of many of the projects which it funds. On the one hand, the Bank argues that involuntary resettlement of those displaced by development can cause ‘severe long-term hardship, impoverishment, and environmental damage’ (World Bank, 2001: 1); it details how projects should avoid the displacement of people and ensure that oustees enjoy a standard of living which is equivalent to or better than pre-project levels. However, significant lapses between the rhetoric and the reality of World Bank displacement have been noted, leaving displaced persons marginalized and lacking recourse mechanisms (Clark, 2002: 206). For example, deficiencies in resettlement compensation for those displaced by a World Bank funded Coal India Ltd. project left many oustees impoverished (Mathur, 2008).

Debates over development persist in India and reflect the growing influence of corporate interests at the state level. The rising confluence of state and private interests has blurred the role of the Indian government. This is particularly evident when the state acquires land for a corporate project or must assess the legality and impacts of a private project. The role of corporations and the rapid government approval of some projects have led to increased condemnation of the pro-business development model as the state appears to favour business interests over those of the public. Kohli questions whether states that successfully promote economic growth through business alliances are the ideal agents to simultaneously manage inequalities and alleviate poverty (Kohli, 2006: 1366). The state/business nexus has arguably sustained inequities in India: ‘Not only does rapid economic growth then not benefit as many of the poor as it could if inequalities were stable, but also the balance of class power within India is shifting decisively towards business and other property classes … [This] makes it likely, that future patterns of development will be even more unequal’ (Kohli, 2009: 14).

The justification of large-scale projects as a means to develop marginalized communities is questionable when those affected are alienated from the lands, livelihoods and resources upon which they depend. While Cernea argues that development will require land use change and population relocation, ‘this does not mean that the inequitable distribution of development's gains and pains is inevitable or ethically justified. Such inequity is, in fact, profoundly contrary to the proclaimed goals of induced development’ (Cernea, 2000: 12). The inequities associated with some large-scale projects, including mines, have furthered concerns about who defines what is in the public's best interest, and what is promoted in the name of developing the country. The use of development narratives is unconvincing when there are social risks associated with projects.

Social Impacts of Mining

The pollution, displacement, loss of land or social and cultural changes caused by large-scale projects such as mining can have a profound impact on project-affected persons, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds. Cernea details the irony of development projects aimed at alleviating poverty, which ultimately create or exacerbate impoverishment through forced displacement (Cernea, 2008: 4). The extent of mining-related damage to people through increased poverty, displacement and land alienation is well documented in the Indian context. The Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights5 concludes that the rehabilitation of those displaced by mining is problematic, heightens the risk of impoverishment, alters social and cultural relations, and threatens the self-sufficiency of communities accustomed to generating their own livelihoods (Reddy, 2006: 38).

While the social impacts of mining projects have been severe in India, some companies do not fully consider the human risks of mining. The mining industry has preferred to analyse its projects from a ‘social monitoring’ perspective which focuses on measurable change including jobs, demography and services (Vanclay, 2002: 185). A quantitative approach and the use of social impact ‘checklists’ can be manipulated by consultants (ibid.: 184) and miss critical social impacts. Aware of these challenges, this study takes a more comprehensive look at rights and risks. For the purposes of this article, social impacts are framed in relation to what would be most just for project-affected persons. Justice is inherently linked to their social and economic condition, and also their ability to have a choice and voice in projects which will alter their current livelihoods. This approach does not privilege self-sufficiency above all else, but rather acknowledges that affected communities have the right to transparent information on project risks and benefits.

This formulation of social impact is informed by two broad contributions to the field. Brechin et al. (2002: 45) propose a notion of social justice for conservation oriented around the following principles: ‘(1) the right to participate at all levels of the policymaking process as equal partners, (2) the right to self-representation and autonomy, and (3) the right to political, economic, and cultural self-determination (sovereignty)’. The ideas of autonomy and cultural self-determination are particularly relevant to this analysis, as there appears to be a lack of choice on the part of impacted communities to decide their future. The EIAs were examined to see whether and how they gave voice to local identity, social rights and long-term justice. This article thus takes Brechin et al.'s analysis of biodiversity conservation initiatives a step further, to question who decides how a mining project will occur and at what social cost (Brechin et al., 2003: 16).

Cernea developed a model of population displacement and resettlement that addresses issues of risk, impoverishment and reconstruction. While specific to displacement, aspects of Cernea's model could be applied more broadly to project-affected persons, particularly when land alienation and changes in livelihood occur. Cernea considers risk in relation to the following: landlessness; joblessness; homelessness; marginalization; food insecurity; increased morbidity and mortality; loss of access to common property; and social disarticulation (Cernea, 2004). Ideas of the heightened risk of marginalization, loss of social network, insecure food sources, loss of natural resources and land particularly influenced my research. Further, studies on the social impact of mines and other large-scale projects in India (Asher and Kothari, 2005; Bhushan and Hazra, 2008; Reddy, 2006) provided insights into the specific categories of social impacts that were ultimately reviewed. Using these broad concepts and categories, the EIAs were analysed to understand social impacts, risks for project-affected persons and the use of development terminology to justify the projects.

Global EIA Standards

As global demand for minerals increases and corporations profit immensely from mining, some question the social ramifications of mineral extraction and processing (Bebbington et al., 2008: 887). EIA requirements vary greatly; some demand stringent assessments of how mining will affect people, while others require only limited social information.

EIAs have been criticized for ignoring or underestimating the impacts of mining on affected persons (Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, 2010: 15). In Zimbabwe it has been documented that some EIAs are a bureaucratic formality and do not address environmental (or social) issues (Spiegel, 2008: 42). EIAs may also be seen as a tool designed to legitimize projects to governments or funders, whether appropriate or not. Despite these limitations, EIAs are nevertheless required by many countries as part of the environmental clearance process in order to determine the baseline environmental status and potential risk of proposed projects. Given this key strategic role, it is important that EIAs should be subject to critical examination.

Social impact assessments (SIAs) have been proposed to analyse economic, environmental and social impacts holistically in relation to sustainable development (Lee, 2006: 58). However, as with EIA consultants, SIA consultants can be hired by corporations and are therefore not in a position to report freely or without bias. There are very few examples of SIAs leading to meaningful changes in projects (Maassarani et al., 2007: 146).

Recognizing the shortcomings of individual frameworks, some countries have undertaken a more integrative approach to environmental assessment. Gibson (2002) details the evolution of the Canadian system towards ‘advanced environmental assessment’. The ideal advanced environmental assessment includes a four stage process: earlier analysis of pollution problems; integrated mitigation efforts; review of biophysical impacts in relation to socio-economic risks; and greater participation through public meetings, which ‘reveal expert conflicts and uncertainties, and consequently the significance of public choice’ (ibid.: 152). In Canada, Gibson argues, work is still needed to ensure genuine participation, to understand the cumulative project impacts and to work towards integrated sustainability planning (ibid.).


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Having looked briefly at the wider context, the remainder of this article will focus more closely on the case of Vedanta, its corporate profile and the specifics of three interrelated projects. Founded in India in 1976, Vedanta operates aluminium, copper, zinc, lead and iron ore mines in India, Australia and Zambia. From its headquarters in London, Vedanta is run by Indian businessman Anil Agarwal. The company's Indian operations are managed by Sterlite, of which Vedanta owns a 59.9 per cent share. In the 2010 fiscal year, Vedanta reported a 21 per cent annual growth rate with total business at US$ 7.9 billion (Vedanta Resources, 2010). It has been listed on the United Kingdom FTSE 100 Index since 2006, as a metals and mines company, and was cited in the Wall Street Journal in July 2010 as one of the Index's strongest gainers over the previous twelve months (Cobley, 2010).

In contrast to the impressive financial growth of the company, Vedanta's operations have been mired in controversy related to environmental and human rights risks.6 Based on ground-level accounts of environmental and social violations, some funds have disinvested from Vedanta or applied pressure on the corporation. In 2010, the Dutch pension fund PGGM Investments dropped its US$ 7.3 million stake in Vedanta, citing concerns about the company's human rights record (Cobley, 2010). The Church of England and the Norwegian Government Pension Fund have also disinvested from Vedanta to protest human rights concerns in India. During Vedanta's 2010 Annual General Meeting, London blue-chip investment group Aviva voiced concern over Vedanta's disdain for the multinational enterprise guidelines published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Aviva, which owns 5 per cent of the company's shares, stressed the need for Vedanta to acknowledge social governance. Although this marks a significant shift in demands from some institutional investors, there are other stock-holders who are not swayed by such concerns.

In 1997, Vedanta established an alumina complex in the Kalahandi district of the eastern Indian state of Orissa, initially comprising an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. In 2007, the company applied to expand the refinery, and in 2008 it received environmental clearance for the exploitation of a new adjacent mine in the Niyamgiri hills to supply the refinery with bauxite. This spurred affected communities to file a petition with the National Environmental Appellate Authority. The proposed Niyamgiri mine site is located on top of a hill range utilized by tribal communities for their dwellings and for shifting cultivation. Two rivers run through the Niyamgiri hills and the area forms a critical watershed. Located 3.5 km below the proposed mine, the existing Lanjigarh refinery is sited in a flat area, which was formerly agricultural and grazing land.

Vedanta and the EIA Process

Under the MOEF's Impact Assessment Notification of 27 January 1994, all private entities proposing major industrial projects in India, including Vedanta, are required to complete EIAs.7 The findings of the EIAs must be considered at a public hearing within the vicinity of the proposed project. A new EIA notification process was introduced by the MOEF in 2006: this is significantly more detailed than the 1994 version, requiring details of environmental impacts throughout the course of the project (from construction to decommissioning), and the identification of land which is protected under national or local law. The new rules also require the assessment of human impacts from the project including migration, water use, water-borne diseases and risk of accidents (MOEF, 2006). While the 1994 EIA requirements are relevant for the initial mining and refinery applications in this case — the alumina refinery is a ‘primary metallurgical’ industry, which requires environmental clearance (MOEF, 1994) — the 2008 refinery expansion application was considered under the new guidelines.

This analysis is based on the review of a number of EIAs related to the mine, the refinery and the refinery expansion, specifically those conducted by Global Experts (2008), Sterlite Industries (India) Limited (2003), Tata AIG Risk Management Services Ltd. (2002a, 2002b), and Vimta Labs Ltd. (2005a, 2005b). Vedanta is the majority stakeholder in the mining ventures, which also includes the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation. The EIAs for the Niyamgiri mine and Lanjigarh refinery define the area as an impoverished landscape which requires intervention. The region is portrayed as poverty stricken, and lacking basic infrastructure (Sterlite Industries, 2003: 6; Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002b: 9). The Kalahandi district is described as a ‘wasteland’, where traditionally forest-dependent populations face food shortages. Throughout the documents there is an assumption that industrial development, in the form of a mine and a refinery, will provide solutions to poverty in the area, and that economic growth from these projects will provide benefits to the population. However, in failing to highlight project risks, the EIAs heighten the potential for impoverishment and deny the affected peoples their right to free, prior and informed consent.

The EIAs for the mine justify the project as a way to improve the socio-economic status of local communities and revitalize the region. It is claimed that the mine will bring a ‘major economic boost to the region’, and that it will lead to the ‘elevation of economic status of the local population’ (Sterlite Industries, 2003: 35). Another mine EIA estimates that there will be an improvement to basic infrastructure including roads, water supply, communication facilities, medical facilities and schools (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002b: 2.7–4). The consultants do not elaborate on who will have access to these facilities, or what the provisions will be like for those displaced by the project.

Similar claims are made in relation to the refinery and refinery expansion. The 2002 EIA for the refinery states that a ‘large project with large investment and large employment potential in Kalahandi districts [is] expected to have major beneficial impact on the socio-economy of the region’ (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002a: 1). The assumption in the assessments is that this benefit will come both via new labour opportunities and through economic ‘trickledown’ into the communities. Yet the EIAs confirm that the bulk of jobs which could potentially be filled by locals are short-term, related to the projects’ construction or expansion phases. There are no promises that these jobs will be granted to project-affected persons rather than to labourers from outside the region. Further, there are limited long-term labour opportunities. As detailed in other cases, the only labour options for local people may be contract positions, which are poorly paid and indefinite in length and which may lead to further impoverishment or forced migration (Mathur, 2008: 262). The purported labour benefits do not outweigh the ‘risks’ of marginalization, food insecurity, livelihood alteration and social instability resulting from displacement, ‘landlessness’ and the loss of natural resources associated with the project (Cernea, 2004).

In 2008, an EIA was carried out for the proposed refinery expansion. This new EIA concludes that the overall economic condition of the area has improved since the existing plant was built, but does not specifically document the impact on the local economy or labour opportunities (Global Experts, 2008: 123). It does not mention any migration effects or social implications of the existing plant. It does, however, suggest that the potential environmental costs of the refinery are outweighed by the socio-economic benefits to the local community. ‘Although the air quality will have some impact on the environment, … considering the socio-economic importance of the project and for a better interest of the State and locals, the project has sustainable environmental impact attaining the projected growth in economy and social welfare’ (ibid.: 209–10). In rationalizing the project as a means to enhance the socio-economic welfare of the district, the EIA concludes that any environmental damage incurred will be outweighed by the project's social benefits. This is clearly a violation of the affected people's right to a healthy and safe living environment, regardless of any purported gains.

The refinery expansion EIA claims that ‘the local people will be benefited through trickledown effect’ (ibid.: 118). This assumption is not based on factual examples of ‘trickledown’ prosperity for mine-affected persons in India: to the contrary, it is well documented that mining operations exacerbate poverty and vulnerability for Indian communities. The Centre for Science and Environment has shown that ‘mineral-bearing districts continue to be among the most backward districts in the country, in spite of the immense wealth they generate’ (Bhushan and Hazra, 2008: 11). Far from making projections of prosperity, the Centre documents that ‘India's mineral-rich districts are marked by grinding poverty, low literacy and poor human development indicators’ (ibid.: 17). In justifying the mine and refinery as being beneficial for communities, the project promoters attempt to mask the potential negative social impacts beneath purported local gains. The Niyamgiri hills are represented as empty spaces waiting for modernization. In this context, it is necessary to problematize who benefits from efforts to develop or modernize a ‘backward’ area, and how the projects in question affect the ‘target’ population.

Project-affected Populations

In India, EIAs are required to include information on communities within a 10 km radius of the proposed project, but at times this metric misses other affected people or critical natural resources which fall outside the designated area. The EIA process mandates that the proposing entity enumerate who will be impacted by the projects, but the Indian government does not demand any further information regarding the affected populations. Beyond government requirements, however, there is much else that is needed. Project assessments should recognize the identities and socio-economic position of the affected populations as they relate to land use, livelihoods, gender divisions, labour, interactions with the environmental landscape and their varied capacities to adapt to industrialization. This is particularly true when vulnerable populations, including scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, will be affected.

Orissa is home to more than 10 per cent of the tribal population of India, with large differences among the groups (Mahapatra, 1997: 166), making it critical for social analysis to be completed for projects in this state. The majority of tribes in Orissa are dependent on subsistence economies, with hunters and gatherers, agriculturists and landless populations (ibid.: 167). There is a high incidence of poverty among the tribal population of Orissa, with endemic poverty in the region of the Vedanta projects. ‘A person belonging to the ST [scheduled tribe] category living in the southern region [of Orissa] has a more than 90 per cent probability of being in poverty — and women probably even more — compared to about 25 per cent of non-deprived groups in coastal Orissa, or less than 10 per cent in better-off parts of India’ (de Haan and Dubey, 2005: 2328). That women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation or marginalization by the mining industry is also picked up by Parthasarathy (2004: 215), who calls for gender-sensitive approaches to mineral extraction. Parthasarathy describes the gendered ramifications of chromite ore mining in the Sukinda valley of Orissa: after their lands were left uncultivable from mining-related water and land pollution, women were left with only two options — to seek employment at the nearby Talcher mines or to migrate (ibid.: 219).

The EIAs associated with the Niyamgiri mine and Lanjigarh refinery fail to properly detail who the local populations are and how they will be impacted by the projects. Population figures given in the EIAs are identical, and are drawn from the 1991 Government of India census data.8 While meeting the basic government requirements for the EIA process, the documents depersonalize the identity of communities through the use of broad categories, such as scheduled tribes, which obscures important differences among tribal communities. Although these terms are officially recognized by the government, they fail to indicate the intricacies and diversities within the communities in relation to land use, labour relations, gender issues and environmental dependence.

The Dongria Kondh appear to be the population most impacted by the proposed mine. This is a tribal community, with an estimated population of 8,000 living in and around the proposed Vedanta operations. Community members tend to live in isolated areas and have low literacy rates and a pre-agriculture economy, which has led some to define them as a ‘primitive tribe’ (Mahapatra, 1997: 167). The Niyamgiri Hills are sacred to the Dongria Kondh, and house a male deity who embodies the vitality of water, plants and human life in the area (Amnesty International, 2010: 43). Some Dongria Kondh in the plains area are settled agriculturists, while the majority gather forest products and engage in hillside shifting cultivation (Chaudhury, 2004: 101; Mahapatra, 1997: 96). A 2005 report written by a government committee defines them as ‘a highly endangered primitive tribe … the Dongaria Kandha [sic] whose population is less than 6000 reside in the Niyamgiri hills. They are dependent on farming/agro-forestry and have no other source of livelihood’ (Central Empowered Committee, 2005: 8). A later panel, appointed by the MOEF, concluded, ‘If the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongaria Kondh [sic] population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community — mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life’ (Saxena et al., 2010: 3).

The populations affected by the Lanjigarh refinery on the plain include Dalits, Majhi Kondh, Paroja tribals and other communities. Again, there are significant differences among land ownership, work and other practices. Dalit families own less land than their tribal counterparts; they are predominantly wage labourers or itinerant traders (PUDR, 2005: 10). Some Dalits living in the plain and refinery areas serve as middlemen for marketing forest produce gathered by Dongria Kondhs, and therefore would be similarly impacted by project-related forest clearing. The MOEF panel determined that ‘mining is also likely to adversely affect an almost equal number of Dalits living in the Kondh villages who are landless and earn their living by providing various services including trading in the horticultural produce grown by the Dongaria Kondh’ (Saxena et al., 2010: 84). The Majhi Kondh are predominantly agriculturists or landless labourers, although some in the community do have legal landholdings for the fields they cultivate. While the labour needs, land use, gender divisions and cultural needs of these communities are quite distinct, the EIAs do not explore the differences among the affected communities.

Displacement and Land Acquisition

Large-scale projects, including mines, have devastating social and livelihood impacts on populations, particularly when they cause displacement or loss of land. It has been noted that the ‘expropriation of land removes the main foundation upon which people's productive systems, commercial activities, and livelihoods are constructed’ (Cernea, 2000: 23). The erosion of the foundation of home and associated relations leads to social strife, gender inequities and socio-economic vulnerability. Within the Indian context, project-related displacement has a disproportionate impact on tribal communities. Since 1990, it has been estimated that tribal people account for 55.19 per cent of the internally displaced in India (Swain and Kiro, 2006: 199), despite accounting for only 8 per cent of the total Indian population.

Until 2006 Orissa lacked a binding resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policy, and the state government has a reputation for not properly resettling displaced communities (Reddy, 2006: 7). According to the Orissa state policy, those displaced should be able to receive resettlement benefits.9 For those with legal land titles, fiscal remuneration will be neither adequate nor appropriate to compensate for their land and livelihood loss (Goodland, 2007; Iyer, 2007; Reddy, 2006). Those who only lose part of their landholding or people who lack legal land titles are not eligible for benefits.

Rew et al. (2006: 45) conclude that equitable and just resettlement in Orissa has failed due to persistent economic and social marginalization of particular communities and due to the power bestowed on low- and middle-level government bureaucrats and private sector workers. By disbursing or withholding project funds or vouchers, individual bureaucrats make critical decisions regarding the capacity of displaced persons to engage in new livelihoods (ibid.: 51). Asher and Kothari (2005) give the example of families who were moved from land surrounding a Wildlife Sanctuary, to the village of Krishnanagar. The Orissa state promised a range of land and facilities, which villagers have still not received, ten years after displacement. They have no legal recourse as ‘there was no written contract for the rehabilitation — everything was done in good faith’ (ibid.). Such historical injustices related to resettlement in Orissa suggest that the risk of human rights violations among oustees is high.

Official Displacement

While the MOEF stipulates that EIAs should include the ‘number of villages and population to be displaced’ (MOEF, 1994: 6), the issues of displacement and land loss are mostly absent from the Vedanta assessments. The EIAs remain silent on who the affected people are, how many will be displaced, where they will be relocated to, and how displacement will impact them. Although officially required, the assessments do not detail rehabilitation master plans. Instead, the EIAs propose that the company follow policies and plans developed by the Orissa government. Despite these omissions, the EIAs are accepted, as the MOEF has the discretion to determine if the EIAs meet the government's requirements.

The fact that the number of villages and populations to be displaced by the projects were not enumerated is a violation of the right of oustees to free, prior and informed consent, as well as a violation of government EIA requirements. The 2002 mine assessment projected that the mine would fully or partially displace an unknown and unspecified number of people, yet the same assessment claimed that the project would have a ‘minor negative impact on the displaced population’ provided that the state government's R&R plan is followed (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002b: 2.7–3). This is echoed in later claims that the company will be able to ‘ensure minimum adverse impacts’ (Sterlite Industries, 2003: 22–23) by following the state plan for resettlement.

By the time of the 2005 EIA, the land requirements for the mine had changed, increasing ‘from 720 hectares to 922.12 due to minor changes in the layout of Ash Pond, Red Mud and Railway Route. In addition, a certain quantity of revenue land, which became an uneconomical holding for the displaced families of villages Kinari and Bhorbhata, were also acquired, even if it was not required for the plant’ (Vimta Labs, 2005a: E-4). In a continuation of the logic that the project will yield positive outcomes for the communities, this EIA assumes that land is being acquired for the benefit of local people, rather than for the financial gain of the mining company. Beyond this, the assessment fails to mention any project impact on human settlements. The consultants conclude that, ‘there is no habitation in the lease area on plateau top hence no displacement is envisaged’ (Vimta Labs, 2005b: C4–23).

For the refinery, the 2002 EIA estimates that 720 hectares of land will need to be acquired, and claims that the corporation intends to select land which will minimize population displacement and the transfer of agricultural land (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002a: 3). It mentions that 300 people are expected to lose land, fully or in part, but there is no elaboration of the location or identity of the affected peoples, or of how there are expected to adjust to new livelihoods or to changed land access in their existing locations. As with the mine EIAs, the refinery assessment suggests that the corporation follow the compensation guidelines of the Orissa government (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002a: 15), despite the state's mixed record with equitable displacement compensation (Rew et al., 2006). The refinery EIA claims that there will be ‘no major impact on demography’ in the region as some populations are displaced and new workers settle into the area (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002a: 10).

The 2005 EIA for the refinery expansion names some of the villages which would be affected by the proposed refinery,10 but does not include details of all villages to be displaced or specify whether they will lose some or all of their land (Vimta Labs, 2005a: C7–2). It does, however, substantially increase the number of people expected to partially or fully lose their land — from 300 to 700 people (ibid.: C4–3). Overall, the assessments mask specifics of those who have legal rights to displacement packages, while generating uncertainty among potentially affected communities. In addition to violating the EIA requirements, this practice denies the right to information of potential oustees.

Other Populations Affected by Displacement and Land Acquisition

Other groups who will be impacted greatly by displacement and land acquisition are not considered in the EIAs, including landless labourers, cultivators of communal land, animal grazers and non-timber forest product collectors. Women who lack legal land titles face significant losses, and yet will not be compensated. Padel and Das (2008: 104) estimate that ‘though the number of villagers directly displaced by the refinery construction, now living in Vedantanagar colony, may be only a few hundred, the project covers a huge area and has negatively impacted thousands’. The vulnerability of people alienated from the land should not be underestimated. Without access to comparable land resources ‘landlessness sets in and the affected families become impoverished’ (Cernea, 2000: 23).

Some villages in the Niyamgiri hills have been excluded from the mine EIAs despite being located in the project vicinity. Many of the settlements in the area are hamlets, not government-recognized revenue villages or recorded in any way by the government. According to the People's Union for Democratic Rights, ‘There are nearly a hundred villages in Niyamgiri Hills, which have no place in revenue records’ (PUDR, 2005: 44). Although these villages are absent from official statistics, they could have been counted via a baseline study of affected populations. Ownership titles in the area tend to cover only plains land and not hillside agricultural tracts with an incline of 10 degrees or more, which have never been surveyed (ibid.: 11). The absence of land titles precludes these impacted communities from receiving compensation.

It has been documented that risks from mining projects make women more vulnerable, overworked and stigmatized by social taboos (Bhanumathi, 2002: 21). Women will be further marginalized through a resettlement policy, as few women within India are owners of land, and frequently become ‘invisible’ in an R& R system that is based on formal land ownership (Dewan, 2008: 129). This will have social repercussions as women have to migrate to new areas or engage in professions not of their choosing. A report on Indian women in mining concludes that ‘due to lack of literacy and skills, thousands of migrant young women become exposed to labour exploitation and trafficking’ (Swain and Kiro, 2006: 199).

Natural Resource Change: Water and Forest Products

The introduction of major industrial projects within the area has and will continue to have lasting impacts on the residents’ capacity to hunt, gather forest resources, collect water, cultivate land and graze animals. To date the refinery has polluted local water sources, as documented by the Orissa State Pollution Control Board (Amnesty International, 2010), and future risks include soil, air and land pollution. Pollution could further reduce the availability of natural resources and expose the populations and ecosystems to environmental toxins. Despite these major threats, the EIAs are devoid of information detailing how the reduction or loss of forest, water and agricultural and grazing lands will impact community livelihoods and health. The forests of the Niyamgiri hills have been partially cleared for a mining conveyor belt and access roads. As the forests are depleted and fragmented, critical habitat for local wildlife is lost and non-timber forest products become scarce. Afforestation plans have been promoted by the company, but it is not clear how this effort will compensate for the immediate losses faced by forest-dependent communities.

The Dongria Kondh of the Niyamgiri hills depend upon resources gathered from the forest both for subsistence and for trading, including timber, fruits, mushrooms, leaves, grass and flowers (Chaudhury, 2004: 109–110). If local forests are reduced, the economic and cultural impact on the Dongria Kondh is likely to be severe. ‘For poor people, particularly for the landless and assetless, loss of access to the common property assets that belonged to relocated communities (pastures, forested lands, water bodies, burial grounds, quarries, and so on) results in significant deterioration in income and livelihood levels’ (Cernea, 2000: 29). The natural resource change associated with the refinery and the mine could thus exacerbate impoverishment. Women will be especially adversely impacted by reduced access to forest resources; a World Bank study notes that extractive industries ‘can change access to clean water, food, and firewood, which women and girls are often primarily responsible for gathering, by making these further away or polluting resources’ (Eftimie et al., 2009: 19).

Water pollution and the reduction of water resources are major challenges associated with mining projects. Although one of the EIAs indicates that during the construction phase an unspecified number of bore wells will be dug for public consumption, it does not mention the potential for drinking and agricultural water to become polluted as a result of mining operations (Tata AIG Risk Management, 2002a: 12). During field visits to the refinery area in 2009, Amnesty International documented water pollution in the local Vamsadhara River and associated skin and health problems. Villagers informed Amnesty researchers that they had previously drawn drinking water from the river, but now they have to rely on bore wells, which are frequently empty during the dry season (Amnesty International, 2010: 34). This change particularly affects local women, who shoulder the responsibility of water gathering. Where once they collected water from the river, they must now either accept polluted river water or endure the extra labour of collecting and transporting unpolluted water from the Niyamgiri hills.

The influx of refinery workers has also changed social dynamics and spaces for women in relation to water. As one local woman reported to Amnesty International, ‘Vamsadhara [river] is our life line. We used it for drinking, bathing, washing, but also it was a place for socializing with other women in the community. We have lost some sense of privacy, as there are workers from outside working in the factory who are often passing by or sometimes using water’ (ibid.: 35). Activists tell how women in the area have reported an increase in the incidence of sexual harassment and have described how they have been insulted by refinery security personnel.


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The Niyamgiri mine has been the subject of regular controversy and shifting decisions by various branches of the government. The Orissa Mining Corporation submitted a proposal on 28 February 2005 to divert 660,749 hectares of forest land for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills. The Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court of India released a report on 21 September 2005 which concluded that the diversion of forest land for the project should be prohibited.11 On 11 December 2008, the MOEF issued ‘in principle’ approval for the mining project; but in April 2010, following public concern over the proposed mine, the Forest Advisory Committee of the MOEF recommended the appointment of a panel to examine possible violations of tribal rights and the settlement of forest rights.12

The panel, headed by N.C. Saxena, was appointed in June 2010 to review the impact of Vedanta's proposed mining operations on tribal communities and on wildlife (Pradhan, 2010). In August 2010, it concluded that Vedanta had violated Indian law in the building and operation of the Lanjigarh refinery. It also determined that the state government had failed to recognize rights guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act. As a result, ‘the legitimate and well established rights of the Kondh Primitive Tribe Groups have been deliberately disregarded by the district administration and the state government, the only course of action open before the MOEF is to withdraw the Stage 1 clearance given under FCA [Forest Conservation Act] for the said area’ (Saxena et al., 2010: 85). The panel determined ‘that allowing mining in the proposed mining lease area by depriving two primitive tribal groups of their rights over the proposed mining area in order to benefit a private company would shake the faith of tribal people in the laws of the land which may have serious consequences for the security and well-being of the entire country’ (ibid.: 9).

The panel's report represents strong condemnation from a respected body, and appears to have influenced the MOEF in August 2010 to reject environmental clearance for the Niyamgiri mine (MOEF, 2010). The MOEF concluded that mining would be illegal and would ‘destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups [and] endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods of these Primitive Tribal Groups’ (ibid.: 5). The MOEF head, Jairam Ramesh, noted the ‘blatant disregard displayed by the project proponents with regard to rights of the tribals and primitive tribal groups dependent on the area for their livelihood, as they have proceeded to seek clearance’, calling it ‘shocking’ (ibid.: 14).13

In making its decision, the MOEF refers to the Saxena panel's findings that the large-scale expansion project was undertaken without initial environmental clearance, in violation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The cases brought to the National Environment Appellate Authority by concerned persons, including Dongria Kondh, against the project are also mentioned as noteworthy.14 In particular, the MOEF references environmental clearance violations including lack of submission of the full EIAs before the public hearing; submission of different EIAs to the public and the MOEF; and submission of a Rapid EIA in place of a full assessment (MOEF, 2010: 17).

Although questionable environmental clearance processes persist, a recent case suggests that the MOEF is scrutinizing mis-assessed EIAs. In September 2011 the MOEF cancelled environmental clearance for an iron ore mine, when the government determined that information had been withheld from the EIA. Vedanta-owned Sesa Goa received clearance in 2009 for the mine in Pirne, Goa, but the clearance was withdrawn after a MOEF site visit revealed that the EIA had deliberately included misleading information regarding the location of a river and residences in relation to the mine.

The government's refusal to grant environmental clearance for the Niyamgiri mine — and its revocation of clearance for the Pirne mine — will likely place financial strain on the company, and thus represents a step towards prioritizing environmental and human rights over economic gain. While there was persistent poverty in the Niyamgiri region prior to mining, one must question whether mining will bring improvements, or will exacerbate marginalization and increase the vulnerability of impoverished populations. It is not the contention of this author that the human rights of project-affected persons may only be met through the continuance of their traditional livelihood practices. They have a right to develop. Subsistence livelihoods and poor services may endure in the region, but affected populations should have the right to self-determination and to understand the extent of environmental, social and economic risks associated with large-scale projects. Environmental clearance could be an opportunity for transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making processes; unfortunately, EIAs have not had a track record of lucidity or fair practice in the Indian context. The examples highlighted in this article are emblematic of a broader environmental clearance process which is flawed, and further disempowers peoples who have been traditionally marginalized in the country.


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The Niyamgiri and Lanjigarh EIAs justify the proposed mineral and refining operations as a means to bring development to an impoverished region. The assessments laud the socio-economic benefits of the project, while remaining silent on the likely risks associated with displacement, land loss, natural resource depletion and exposure to potential pollutants. This article has sought to show that EIAs grossly mis-assessed the extent of project-related social and environmental risks. Project proponents failed to provide transparent information about the scale and extent of project impacts and thus denied affected communities their right to self-determination.

The EIA process is perceived as a pre-project safeguard, but it frequently provides legitimacy to a flawed system that does not meaningfully acknowledge the full social or environmental costs of projects. The recent denial or revoking of environmental clearance for the Niyamgiri mine and the Vedanta/Sesa Goa Pirne mine demonstrate a deeper probing of mis-assessed projects, but further work still needs to be done to strengthen the environmental clearance process, including the quality of EIAs.

At a minimum, EIAs should meet the basic standards required by law. The government should not accept incomplete assessments, nor should it provide environmental clearance if EIAs provide false or misrepresentative information. Where land acquisition, population displacement and mineral extraction are involved, EIAs should detail the exact social, economic and environmental risks. Well-designed and implemented ‘advanced environmental assessments’ (Gibson, 2002) should become the industry norm, providing a meaningful and thorough review of who will be affected by the project, what risks will be faced by populations and ecosystems and how future risks will be mitigated. Transparency in the assessment process and dissemination should allow for meaningful inclusion and input from affected communities, possibly as full or part decision-makers. While one should not assume that those impacted would prefer their current livelihoods or economic status, they should have the right to free, prior and informed consent regarding displacement, land loss or environmental change related to a large-scale project.

This article also calls for a critical examination of the use of ‘development’ to validate corporate-led projects. Assessment narratives often suggest that the project will bring benefits to the region, without associated risks. Such misrepresentations are ‘profoundly contrary’ (Cernea, 2000) to the promotion of development. This is particularly poignant in relation to project displacement, which creates or deepens impoverishment (Cernea, 2008). While the use of development narratives to legitimize corporate projects is not a new phenomenon, environmental assessments are not the place for project justification. The projects reviewed in this study are ultimately about the generation of economic profits for private companies. The core goals of these and similar projects should be accepted for what they are, rather than for purported ‘trickledown’ development benefits for communities. Attempts to mask economic goals in the language of social development are disingenuous. The clearance process should limit itself to thoroughly addressing the social and environmental impacts and risks of the projects. Possible benefits, such as job creation, may be clearly stated, but the risks for affected communities must be made equally clear.

In liberalizing India the size and number of mining and other large-scale proposed projects is likely to increase, and each one will carry social and environmental risks. Government rejection of mis-assessed projects, the application of higher standards of environmental and social assessment and the increased involvement of affected communities could greatly enhance the environmental clearance process. As a result, those impacted by projects may have the opportunity for free, prior and informed consent and their self-determination rights regarding their future livelihoods and exposure to social, environmental and economic risks could be protected.

  • 1

    Noting the questionable and variable quality of consultant-completed EIAs, the Ministry of Environment and Forests announced that environmental consultants must receive accreditation from the Quality Council of India (MOEF, 2009).

  • 2

    Rapid EIAs do not include environmental information for all seasons of the year, and usually allow a faster route for gaining project approval (MOEF, 1994). This study reviews both Rapid EIAs and EIAs, as in some cases the company only submitted Rapid EIAs.

  • 3

    The state formerly known as Orissa was officially renamed Odisha in 2011. The name Orissa is used in this article, as the documents central to the research refer to Orissa.

  • 4

    Any omissions or mistakes are solely the author's responsibility.

  • 5

    A review of a proposed Utkal Alumina bauxite mine was made by the Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights in 2006. Headed by Retired Former Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court, S.N. Bhargava, the Tribunal examined the impact of the mine proposed for Kashipur, Rayagada district, in Orissa. The Tribunal's conclusions are relevant at some level to this article as the Utkal Alumina mine is in the neighbouring district to the Vedanta mine and shares similar characteristics.

  • 6

    In addition, the operations of Vedanta's subsidiary Sesa Goa in the Indian state of Goa are under investigation by the state Registrar of Companies for invoicing irregularities and malpractice (Narayan and Singh, 2009). The Goan operations have further been critiqued by affected community members who note water pollution and health concerns related to the mining operations.

  • 7

    According to Paliwal (2006: 503–5), the Indian EIA process faces the following limitations: poor governance; corruption; tensions related to the push for economic growth which may be in conflict with environmental protection; limited regulation of small-scale industries; lack of accountability among EIA ‘experts’; and improper management of baseline data.

  • 8

    Indian census data are collected every ten years.

  • 9

    As defined by the Government of Orissa, a ‘displaced family’ is a ‘family ordinarily residing in the project area prior to the date of publication of notification under the provisions of the relevant Act and on account of acquisition of his/her homestead land is displaced from such area or required to be displaced’ (Government of Orissa, 2006: 2).

  • 10

    The refinery is now operational, but at the time of the EIA it was only proposed.

  • 11

    The report also stated that environmental clearance for the Lanjigarh refinery should be rescinded (MOEF, 2010: 2).

  • 12

    The committee came under the purview of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, and reviewed rights guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

  • 13

    Ramesh considered the following three core issues: the violation of the rights of the tribal groups including the primitive tribal groups and the Dalit population; violations of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; and violations under the Forest (Conservation) Act (MOEF, 2010: 14–18). The judgement also notes injustices related to forest-dependent Dalits, although their rights are not protected under the Forest Rights Act. Ramesh cites the repeated efforts of the project proponent to conceal information and to violate the Act, which in turn would have a grave impact on local biodiversity and ecology (ibid.: 18).

  • 14

    Kumati Majhi and ors v Ministry of Environment and Forests; Srabbu Sikka and ors v Ministry of Environment and Forests; R. Sreedhar v Ministry of Environment and Forests; Prafulla Samantara v Ministry of Environment and Forest and ors Appeal 18, 19, 20 and 21 of 2009.


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