Rengopalli is a small village sandwiched between Vedanta's sprawling aluminium plant at Lanjigarh and the hills of Niyamgiri in Odisha’s Kalahandi district.
In 2010, it had briefly made it to national newspapers when the villagers complained about red specks in their handpump water. The claim about the red specks was corroborated by the district collector. Visiting the village at that time, I saw those specks too.
The villagers attributed the specks to Vedanta's red mud pond which stored chemical slurry from the bauxite refining process and was located just a few hundred metres away from the village.
The water, they insisted, was making them sick. For its part, the company rejected any probability of the slurry contaminating local groundwater. Five years later, visiting Rengopalli again, I was pleasantly surprised to see villagers getting their water from a new overhead tank installed by the company. Good, I thought, something came out of the collector's report and the media attention.
I was quickly corrected by the villagers. The tank is, yes, new. But it is connected to the same borewell as the handpump. They are still drinking the same water as before and red specks still show up in water pulled up by the handpump. "Maybe the specks settle down in the tank and the water on top is safe to drink," said Archit Patnaik, a young man who lives in the village. Five minutes away, a second red mud pond has become operational and is brimming with drying slurry. The village is now flanked by red mud ponds on two sides.
Whenever winds blow over the ponds towards the village, Rengopalli gets swamped by chemical dust. No wonder its people complained of skin diseases and worse. One of the foremost activists in the village, I was told, has given up and joined the company.
Standing there, it is possible to understand why.