By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
These are not the first reports on violent clashes and an irritable atmosphere in the project area of Utkal Alumina, a bauxite and alumina project in the Indian state Orissa, where Norsk Hydro is the major shareholder. The project was supposed to start construction works in the summer of 1996, but they have been postponed repeatedly as a result of massive local opposition and unstable relations between the owners.
This time the first serious clash happened on 22 April, when representatives from some of the project affected villagers put up a road block between the valley and the mountain plateau Baphlimali, where the company is planning to start a 10 km2 strip mine. Some contract workers from the company wanted to use the road to improve conditions on the plateau, work on the road and set up company signposts.
According to Agragamee, a fight arose, and people on both sides were injured, among other things from stone throwing. Among the injured was the leader of the village organisation PSSP, which coordinates much of the local struggle against Utkal Alumina.
The protestors against the mining project were met by a group of people made up of both police, contract workers and people from the village Nuagon, which is situated in the valley side where the road was closed. This village takes part in a greenery project started by the company, according to Ivar Oellingrath, who is Norsk Hydro's representative on the board of Utkal Alumina International Ltd. NorWatch has been informed that this village for some time has shown a positive attitude towards the project. The village gets some new jobs, and it will not experience the most negative effects of the project, such as forced relocation.
Achyut Das, the leader of Agragamee, points out that industrial development in this area may lead to a more uneven distribution of resources between the tribals and the non-tribals in the area. Nuagon and other villages that are positive towards the project, are mainly non-tribals, he says.
While the protest against the project seems to grow in the villages that will be negatively affected by the plans, the tendency is the opposite in the villages and towns near-by that hope for new jobs, and that are not affected by the company's extensive use of farmland, grazing resources and water.
That tension is rising among the local population does not affect the local NGOs that all along have supported the weakest among those who will be negatively affected and must "pay" the social costs the project will cause locally. Four organisations (Agragamee, Ankuran, Wida and Laxman Nayak Society) are still suffering from sanctions from the authorities after they spoke critically of Norsk Hydro and its partners. According to Agragamee, this has caused the organisations to reduce their activity in the affected villages. In this case, Indian authorities violate the mentioned organisations' freedom of expression.
- We in the company also find the sanctions against these organisations problematic, says Oellingrath, who informs that this subject was discussed when the company met Orissa's newly-elected Chief Minister recently.
When does construction start?
On 5 May 2000, 200 contract workers from Utkal Alumina came to the valley where the company is planning to build an alumina plant to process alumina from the bauxite that is extracted from the Baphlimali plateau. The workers brought equipment to build a new road, and rocks to mark the borders of the factory site.
A large number of tribals from Kucheipadar and other surrounding villages met the workers in a protest. This time there was no violent clash, but the workers felt threatened and packed up and left. This is confirmed by Mr. Oellingrath in Norsk Hydro.
Violence occurred, however, when demonstrators from the village Maikanch stopped works on the proposed mining plateau on 19 May. When the workers had to leave the place, their car had been wrecked by the protestors.
- Norsk Hydro earlier said that construction work would start in 2001. What are 200 construction workers doing on the factory site in May 2000 then?
- We will not do any irreversible work, says Oellingrath, and continues:
- This is only smaller preliminary works, markings and road works and so on. The actual starting date of the construction works is fixed.
New owners - again
Today Utkal Alumina is owned 45% by Norsk Hydro, 35% by Alcan and 20% by Indal. Indal used to be owned by Alcan, but was recently bought by the private Indian mining company Hindalco, which, according to the Indian finance newspaper The Economic Times, also has made an offer for greater shares of Utkal Alumina.
With this new development, ownership has changed once again. Hindalco also plans a competing bauxite and alumina project not far from Utkal Alumina. But this project has received at least the same amount of criticism as Utkal Alumina, and rumours say that Hindalco would like to get rid of this and concentrate on Utkal Alumina instead.
Norwatch Newsletter 6/00