Vedanta: listen to the locals

My family’s lived in Leamington Spa (in Warwickshire) for at least five or six generations, maybe more. My forebears built some of the streets there and, glamorously, were involved in building the sewers. I don’t live there any more but in a way Leam is still my home – and there’s certainly no way you’d ever get my mum and dad to move. I write this not because I think you’ll find the Ballinger family tree particularly interesting but to illustrate the ties between people and where they’re from, and the impact when someone tries to take that away.

Orissa is thousands of miles away from Leamington Spa, both literally and figuratively. It’s one of the poorest parts of India. A company called Vedanta Resources, who’re listed here in the UK on the FTSE 100, are refining bauxite there to produce alumina, the raw material in aluminium. They want to build a mine in the nearby Niyamgiri hills to extract bauxite, and expand their refinery six-fold.

When Amnesty’s researchers visited Orissa, people living near the refinery complained of air, water and noise pollution affecting their health and wellbeing. Indigenous people living in the Niyamgiri hills told us that they were vehemently opposed to the mine and had not been properly consulted about it, even though they have lived there for generations.

One man from the hamlet of Lakpaddar, a member of the Dongria Kondh tribal people who live in and around Niyamgiri, said: “We have been living here for generations, how can the government now just say that it is their land and decide to allow mining without talking to us?”

It’s a response we heard time and time again. No adequate assessments of the likely impact of the refinery and the mine on local people; no proper consultation to find out what they thought of it.

Amnesty is urging Vedanta to halt mining and refinery expansion plans until they have consulted local communities fully and received their consent. We’re also calling on them to tackle the existing concerns about the human rights impact of their refinery. Today we’re delivering an Amnesty International petition signed by 30,000 people to the AGM of Vedanta Resources in London, showing that the Dongria Kondh aren’t alone in their fight to protect their land.

The tenuous link to Leamington Spa illustrates another side to this debate too. Many people think there aren’t enough mines and factories in my part of the world. The decline of the motor industry, the area’s biggest employer, has caused a lot of unemployment. And Orissa is a poor region of India, with mouths to feed and minerals under the ground – of course India wants to develop economically. The British PM David Cameron, currently in India, seems determined to ensure that the UK is a big part of this.

When I last went back to Leamington a few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk of the new high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, which could come pretty close to my parents’ home. Already there were rumours and petitions circulating, the NIMBYs were up in arms, while business leaders were backing it as it will bring jobs. There will probably even be some compulsory purchases of land made in order to build it. I’m all for the rail link and I wasn’t very popular when I said as much but I hope that all of those competing voices will be heard, and taken into account, before the first digger moves in.

The question is one of how, not whether, industrial development takes place. Companies can – and should – operate in a way that respects people’s rights. Thorough assessments can be done into what the impacts of heavy industry will be on local people. Consultations can assess their views and take them into account. Changes can be made to business plans as a result. This is what hasn’t happened in Orissa, and needs to happen.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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