And if this was not enough, the government, in a move that could possibly choke other supplies of raw material for its refinery, has decided to investigate whether other mines Vedanta buys bauxite from have environmental clearance. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) had reported on Monday that 11 of the 14 did not.
That apart, the ministry will also investigate what penal actions it can initiate against Vedanta and its officials for falsifying information given to the government for clearance as well as infringing Forest Conservation Act and Environment Protection Act provisions.
The spate of actions, coinciding with petroleum ministry’s bid to block Vedanta’s acquisition of majority stake in Cairn India, left political and corporate circles abuzz with speculation. With the possibility of Vedanta approaching the apex court against the Centre’s decision, environment minister Jairam Ramesh emphasized, “There is no emotion, no politics, no prejudice… I have taken the decision in a purely legal approach.”
The environment minister rejected the proposal to mine Niyamgiri Hills for Vedanta’s refinery a day after the statutory FAC agreed with the N C Saxena panel’s findings. The FAC recommended that the in-principle forest clearance for bauxite mining be “temporarily withdrawn” and necessary action be taken against the company for breaching environmental laws.
While the move by the Union government will not bring production at the Vedanta refinery to an immediate halt, sources in the ministry said the two committees and the ministry’s own eastern regional office had collected ample evidence proving wrongdoing.
In a deft move, which could help the Union government insulate itself from an adverse review in the Supreme Court, the MoEF has decided not to completely cancel the in-principle clearance for mining (the first stage where the company is informed that its proposal would even be considered). This will allow the government to suggest that the case was still under executive review and the company could always come back with its application if it followed all relevant legal provisions.
At the same time, Ramesh went out of his way to inform that his ministry was not looking to prosecute Orissa state government officials. In his 20-page decision, he noted, “I am prepared to believe that state government officials were attempting to discharge their obligations to the best of their abilities and with the best of intentions.”
In this, he contradicted the N C Saxena report, which had categorically accused the Orissa government for colluding with Vedanta and furnishing false information to the state in order to secure clearances. The FAC too had in its report on Monday pointed out that state officials had allowed illegal encroachments by the mining company on forestland.
Ramesh’s decision to not push for prosecution of state officials under the violations of Forest Conservation Act, Environment Protection Act and Forest Rights Act (where the state government is the concerned party and not the project developer) could help Orissa bureaucracy feel at ease even as the Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik accepts the political compromise of losing on the Vedanta case while the hope of Posco integrated steel plant being fast-tracked got a fillip after his meeting on Monday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Sources in the know suggested that the legal process of hearing out the case against the two show-cause notices could go on till the year-end before the government could actually take any action against Vedanta beyond the ban on mining.
See also: Timeline of Vedanta Imbroglio