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Mukesh Kumar: "We Don't Want a Repeat of Niyamgiri"

Mukesh Kumar, head of Vedanta Aluminium's Orissa operations, talks to Forbes India about losing the battle with the Dongaria Konds


Mukesh Kumar
Age: 48 years
Profile: Chief Operating Officer, Vedanta Aluminium Limited, Lanjigarh
Education: B.Tech, Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. M.Tech, Doctoral Studies - Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi
Career: Three decades in the engineering and metals industries. Before joining the Vedanta Group, he was COO, Engineers India Ltd and head of its business unit in the Middle East
Interests: Yoga and Ayurveda

What has been the loss for Vedanta?
We have suffered for three years. Already Rs. 8,000 crore has been invested in the area. Now it will take us another two or three years to start a mining project.  

The environment ministry revoked the clearance to your bauxite mining plan in Orissa based on the N.C. Saxena report. What has been the impact?
As of now, the project is going on as it is. Let me make one thing clear. We are not anywhere in the picture. The mines do not belong to us but to the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC). The proposal to mine was submitted by them. Our interest is that we are having an agreement with OMC to source 150 million tonnes of bauxite. The real dispute is between the state and the Centre.

But the Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that approved the mining project was directly concerned with you.

The fact is that the Supreme Court ruling had cleared the mining project. This is the first time in the history of the Ministry of Environment and Forests that a project’s clearance has been revoked after clearing the first phase [of environmental clearance]. After the Supreme Court cleared the case, no one can take up the issue again except for the President of India. So I don’t know why things have changed now.

Do you think that the issue has become political, especially after Rahul Gandhi aired his concerns about tribal rights?

It is not right for me to comment on this. The project is economically and physically viable. If one traces back, it was demanded by the Congress party on November 28, 1996, in the Parliament. It had said that the bauxite deposit in Orissa should be developed. That was the growth vision for Kalahandi. Now I don’t know what has happened suddenly.

But the N.C. Saxena Committee had cited violation of Forests Rights Act by Vedanta, including that the consent of the Dongaria Kond tribe was not taken.

That is wrong. In fact, in the Forests Rights Act, there is no such provision that public consent has to be taken to clear a project and even if one takes into account the community rights, here in this case it was not applicable. The mining lease area is on top of the Niyamgiri hills. The hill top does not have any vegetation and thus no grazing of livestock or farming can be done.

This committee [headed by N.C. Saxena] had gone to the area with a local NGO, which had beforehand made sure that some cows were brought there so that the committee officials could take photographs. For the seven years that we have been here, we have never seen any animals grazing there. Anyway, if people are staying at 500 metres above sea level [like the Dongaria Kond tribals are] and have a lot of grazing place around them, would they travel 2 km beyond and at a much higher height to graze their livestock?

One of the alternatives for deposits in Orissa is on the Gandhamardan hills, which also has religious significance in Hindu mythology.
Yes, we realise that the Gandhamardan hill is also auspicious and is sensitive. We do not want a repeat of Niyamgiri.

Are there other options to source bauxite for the refinery?
We are talking to the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation and are in the final stages of negotiations for the supply of bauxite from the state. But bauxite from Gujarat is not economically viable. There are only a few options.