Mining activities by corporate giant Vedanta continue unabated in Odisha’s Lanjigarh and Kodingamali during the 21-day national lockdown in the face the coronavirus pandemic, risking the lives of many.
Activists on the ground say that workers are risking their lives to work in the factories with their jobs on the line. On the other hand, mining companies have claimed that they are taking precautionary measures to ensure their safety.
However, locals said that the precautions are not enough to safeguard workers who face occupational risks anyway, given the nature of work. Moreover, refusing to work is not an option for many as it could lead to a loss of livelihood. Many working as porters and truck drivers are also at high risk of contracting the infection given that they commute for long hours, often without supplies of food or water.
Writing for The Wire, Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Research noted: “The central Indian mining states have deployed a slew of legislations to continue mining operations. The Odisha government has invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 and issued Orissa COVID-19 Regulations, 2020 under it. These regulations allow the government to exclude ‘essential services’ from any lockdown restrictions. An order (9015/H&FW) issued by the Health and Family Welfare Department on March 24 has excluded the following from any restrictions, subject to preventive measures like social distancing and containment.”
Speaking to NewsClick, an activist from the movement to save the Niyamgiri hills said that the factory at Lanjigarh “is operational. Many people are not aware of it, but the companies are risking the lives of the workers for their own profits. There are over 2,000 people working in the factory at Lanjigarh and this has angered the local tribal population who are saying that the government and the company is endangering their lives just for making a profit.”
Mining activity requires a lot of transportation, and a lot of movement by people, as a result, making locals vulnerable to the virus. “The bigger question is how is a private profit making venture considered an essential activity?” the activist asked.
Prasant Pai, an activist working with miners in Kodingamali and Sukinda said: “I get distress calls everyday because police are not letting people gather due to the pandemic. However, people are angry over continuing mining activity. If the entire country is under a lockdown then why are corporations getting leeway? This is a question that everyone here asks.”
The exemption to the companies is understood in the light of their profit-making enterprise which comes at the cost of the locals. The mines have been made functional despite the long struggle of the tribal population in the region. The residents of the region have accused the firm of forcefully acquiring over ten acres of village common land without necessary clearance.
According to them, not only did the companies reportedly ‘ignore community concerns’ but in connivance with the state and Union government, blatantly ‘breached’ state and national regulatory frameworks and overlooked adherence to international human rights standards, displacing over a hundred families. The villagers were also promised job opportunities at the plant and free education for their children. However, that did not happen.
In March last year, two persons were killed and 50 injured at Vedanta’s aluminium refinery. The deaths happened after Odisha Industrial Security Force (OISF) personnel mercilessly used batons on the displaced tribals who were protesting and demanding jobs.