Bauxite mining in Andhra Pradesh has been a touchy political issue for decades because of its far-reaching implications on environment and the livelihood of tribal communities.
The repeated attempts by successive governments in the past to take up bauxite mining in Visakhapatnam district had triggered anger among tribal communities. In fact, the issue was one of the key rallying points for the opposition parties as well.
Soon after taking over the reins of the state in May last year, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy ordered the withdrawal of a Government Order (GO) on bauxite mining and assured the tribals that his government would not take up mining in the district, which is a part of the environmentally fragile Eastern Ghats.
However, the controversial issue is back in limelight with environmentalists and opposition parties expressing fears that the government was trying to facilitate a ‘back-door entry’ for mining magnets in the region.
The reasons for new apprehensions are not far to seek: The YSR Congress government is preparing the ground for allowing commencement of operations of alumina refinery in the district by Anrak Aluminium Ltd.
The ruling party’s parliamentary wing leader V Vijayasai Reddy publicly stated that the private refinery would be allowed to operate with bauxite ore to be sourced from Odisha and abroad.
This statement has triggered fears that the government was ‘stealthily preparing the ground’ for bauxite mining in the state.
“We will not allow bauxite mining at any cost,” said Ravi Rebbapragada, the executive director of Samata, a local NGO which has been waging a prolonged legal battle against mining in the region.
The Supreme Court had in the past made it clear that either the State, its instrumentalities or the tribal themselves forming into cooperatives have right over forest resources in the scheduled areas.
Though Anrak Aluminium Ltd, a joint venture of Ras-al-Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) and Penna Group, completed the works on the 1.5 million tonne refinery long ago with an investment of Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 6,000 crore, it could not start operations for want of bauxite ore. The refinery is located in Makavarapalem mandal, about 80 km from Visakhapatnam.
In the combined Andhra Pradesh, the then Congress government, headed by Jagan’s father YS Rajasekhar Reddy, had decided in 2005 to allot bauxite mining to AP Mineral Development Corporate and supply the ore to Jindal South West Aluminium Ltd and Anrak Aluminium Ltd, floated by Ras-al-Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) and its Indian partner Penna Group.
However, the MoU was cancelled in 2015 following widespread protests from tribal groups and the opposition parties. This led to the filing of an international arbitration by RAKIA against the Centre and state governments. The government recently formed a committee with senior officials to arrive at an out of court settlement with Anrak.
“There was no provision for arbitration in the agreement. The private operator should be allowed in the mining and refinery areas keeping in view the environmental pollution,” the former union energy secretary and noted environmentalist E A S Sarma said.
“The refinery will cause damage to the environment. Any attempt to start it will face stiff resistance from people,” warned the local CPI (M) secretary K Lokanadham.
Sarma sought an independent investigation by Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) into the alleged illegal mining of bauxite in East Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts.
“I have been cautioning the government about private individuals and companies extracting bauxite in the guise of laterite. It may be noted bauxite mining is restricted to the public sector and to tribal cooperatives as directed by the Supreme Court in the Samata judgement years ago,” the retired IAS officer said.
In a bid to circumvent this restriction, the private miners, in collusion with the local mining officials, have been producing false analysis certificates to show that the bauxite they are extracting and exporting to alumina refineries is indeed laterite.
As per the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) report, any aluminous mineral ore containing more than 30 per cent aluminium is defined as bauxite.
However, the State Mines department has been granting leases for “laterite” mining, thus allowing the miners to go scot-free, Sarma pointed out. He alleged that many mining leases granted in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari actually involved illegal bauxite extraction.
As per the original plan, drawn up in 2005, the state-owned APMDC was to undertake the mining in 1,212 hectares of reserve forest area in Chintapalle and Jerella blocks of Visakhapatnam district.
However, the subsequent governments chose not to go ahead with the proposal due to widespread opposition in the region.
“Minerals like bauxite/alumina are scarce resources. Aluminium is a strategic metal that is used widely in the aviation industry and other manufacturing processes in the west. The price at which Indian miners export alumina is several times lower than the global price, which implies enormous scope for corruption and black money generation,” Sarma said.