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Vollebæk visited India in January: Utkal Alumina discussed at top political level

During an official visit to India in January, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Knut Vollebæk, discussed the human rights aspect of Norsk Hydro's planned bauxite project Utkal Alumina with among others the Indian prime minister, with Norsk Hydro and with different NGOs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that Vollebæk's visit has contributed to improved communication between the parties. But locally, tension increases again in Utkal Alumina's project area. On 13 February, more than 5000 representatives of the affected local population demonstrated outside Utkal Alumina's local office.

 

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During an official visit to India in January, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Knut Vollebæk, discussed the human rights aspect of Norsk Hydro's planned bauxite project Utkal Alumina with among others the Indian prime minister, with Norsk Hydro and with different NGOs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that Vollebæk's visit has contributed to improved communication between the parties. But locally, tension increases again in Utkal Alumina's project area. On 13 February, more than 5000 representatives of the affected local population demonstrated outside Utkal Alumina's local office.

 


By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
Norwatch

Knut Vollebæk's Asia trip in January had several purposes. One of them was to gather support for Norway's campaign to be elected into the UN Security Council. In India, he also found time to discuss the conflicts around Norsk Hydro's controversial bauxite project, Utkal Alumina, with the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee.

This came as a surprise to many of Utkal Alumina's critics, since Norway's Minister of Trade and Industry, Lars Sponheim, shortly before refused to go to India to look into the case on principal grounds. Sponheim's letter (see NorWatch 15/99) says that the government does not want to get involved in specific cases affecting the human rights situation of Norwegian business establishments abroad.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs understands its role in the case as "a catalyst for a better dialogue between the parties". On 15 January Vollebæk met three representatives of NGOs, among others the network Mines Minerals & Peoples, which is critical towards Utkal Alumina's proposed mining project. They presented the problems of activists in the grass roots organisation PSSP being arrested and reported to the police. The PSSP is the indigenous people's organisation, which organises much of the opposition to the proposed mining project. They also pointed out that NGOs in the area have had serious problems with Indian authorities because of their engagement in the case. Finally, they stated that having a true dialogue on the construction plans is difficult as long as the company refuses to release many documents that are of vital importance to understand the consequences of the project.

There was also a meeting between the same NGOs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Norsk Hydro.

NorWatch has been in contact with the NGOs after the meeting. They were pleasantly surprised at how well informed the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is on the situation in the area. At the same time, they remind us of how serious the situation is, and they are not satisfied with the signals given by Norsk Hydro. The company allegedly admitted that the dialogue with the affected local population is not as good as it should be, and then claimed that the local population supports them. When they were confronted with the fact that the company is taking some of the local population to court, one of the company's representatives replied that Norsk Hydro does not deal with violent groups!

In spite of the distance between Norsk Hydro and the critics of the Utkal Alumina project, all the NGOs describe the meetings in Delhi as very useful. So does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

- The dialogue that took place is definitely useful, says Hans Jacob Frydenlund in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to NorWatch.

Increased tension
In Utkal Alumina's project area, however, tension is building up again. PSSP, the grass roots organisation that Hydro refers to as a "violent group", organised a peaceful demonstration outside Utkal Alumina's local office in Tikiri on 13 February. The 5000 demonstrators did not only demand an end to Utkal Alumina's mining plans, they also demanded an end to the activities of the company's so-called aid organisation URDS (mentioned in NorWatch 14/99). Further, the protestors demanded that all the police reports on the local population's work in PSSP must be withdrawn, and that all the land which the company has acquired illegally must be given back to the former owners.

This last demand has never been put forward with such strength before, and this reflects an increased focus on the methods used at the initial stages of the process of establishing Utkal Alumina. On other occasions, deliberate misinformation on the nature of the project has been mentioned, and also more serious things, such as use of drugs and violence in connection with transfer of title deeds.

PSSP did not participate in the meetings with Minister of Foreign Affairs Vollebæk and Norsk Hydro. And Norsk Hydro has earlier said that they are not interested in a dialogue with this organisation, in spite of the fact that PSSP is probably the most important opponent of the company's plans.

Norwatch Newsletter 2/00