The Indian state of Orissa is where the Vedanta Aluminum Company (Indian-based subsidiary of a UK multi-national) runs a refinery in Lanjigarh. This refinery is home to a nearly overflowing 92 billion liter (24 million gallon) pond of rather innocent sounding red mud. Already this year, video shot by local residents show the walls of the pond being breached and streets being flooded. Compared to what is to come, the leaks have been relatively small.
When the monsoons come however, over 4,000 families in 12 villages will be threatened.
And red mud is not as innocent as it sounds. It is the leftovers of the aluminum refining process that includes highly toxic alkaline chemicals and radioactive materials. When the pond overflows its walls, red mud will contaminate drinking water, farmland, and homes, leaving environmental devastation in its wake and threatening the health and lives of thousands of people. This may sound familiar. Just last year a red mud spill in Hungary did the exact same thing.
Whenever there are “development projects” in various parts of the world, the ostensible reason given is almost always that they are good for the economy in some way– i.e., they “provide jobs” for the community where a project is being sited. This rationale is usually the only one cited to tip the scale in favor of a project irrespective of the costs to the community. It leaves me a bit “dazed and confused” (to quote Led Zeppelin– see video below) even as an economist because there is more than just jobs that play into whether a development project is good for the community. Things like whether the project will affect drinking water supplies, whether a project will result in soil contamination and also whether a project’s sponsors will treat the community in line with human rights law.
In Orissa, we seen over and over again that a company moving into a community for a “development project” means water and soil contamination and other human rights violations. Protesters are beaten or killed, property is confiscated and communities are left seething over their land and people being abused.
For the last two months, Kalinganagar has been witnessing recurrent clashes between the state police and about 250 well-armed private civil militia supporting land acquisition on the one hand and the adivasis protesting against government acquisition of their lands and habitats for setting up a six million ton capacity Tata Steel plant and a common road corridor. On March 28, 30 adivasi protesters sustained bullet injuries as police and the civil militiamen fired upon a 250 strong group of protesters who pelted stones at them in a bid to prevent them from taking over the land meant for the common road corridor.