State invites forest rights claims from only a dozen villages on Niyamgiri hill slope
Vedanta‘s bauxite mining proposal in Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi has been stiffly opposed by affected tribals and forest dwellers Photo credit – Saroj Mishra
The directions of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs to the Odisha government, asking it to ensure that the Supreme Court’s order in the Vedanta case is properly implemented, seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Defying the ministry’s instructions that the state should invite claims of individual and community rights under the Forest Rights Act from all the villages in Kalahandi and Raygada districts over the proposed bauxite mining area, the state has decided to invite such claims only from the 12 villages that lie on the slope of the Niyamgiri hill.
Orissa Mining Corporation Limited (OMCL) and Sterlite Industries, the Indian arm of Vedanta, had proposed to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha’s Kalahandi district for Vedanta’s alumina refinery in nearby Lanjigarh. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had refused to give approval for the project more than two years ago, saying it violated provisions of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), Environment Protection Act (EPA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). OMCL later challenged the government’s decision in 2011 in the apex court.
On April 18, the Supreme Court ordered that village councils in Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts would decide if projects of the metals and mining giant,Vedanta, have infringed the tribal communities’ right to worship. The court made it clear that the religious rights of the tribals must be protected . It also asked the gram sabhas to consider afresh—under FRA—all other individual and community claims of the tribals. The Niyamgiri hills are revered by the Kondh tribals of the region who have been fighting a pitched battle against the project from the very beginning.
All in Rayagada and Kalahandi were to be consulted
The tribal affairs ministry, on May 2, sent “legally binding” directions to the state under FRA , prescribing the process and time frame to aid the gram sabhas affected by the Vedanta’s proposed mining project to decide—independently and in a transparent manner—the veracity of religious and cultural rights claimed by the tribal people on Niyamgiri hill. The ministry asked the state to issue advertisements in newspapers, including those in vernacular languages, asking all the tribals and traditional forest dwellers in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts to file claims of religious and cultural rights, along with the individual and community rights over the proposed mining area. The ministry has also asked the state to display this notification along with the details of the apex court order in all villages in the two districts irrespective of their proximity to the mining site so that there is no possibility of subjectivity in the selection of gram sabhas where the meeting will be finally held.
The state, instead of responding to the directions, referred the matter to its law department which suggested the gram sabha meetings should be conducted in only the 12 villages that fall on the Niyamgiri hill slope. “The Supreme Court, in December last year had asked the state to inform it about the status of implementation of FRA in the villages on the hill slopes of Niyamgiri. The state then submitted a list of 12 villages on the hill slope and status of FRA implementation in them to the court. The law department has suggested that the final judgement of the court and its December 2012 order need to be seen in conjunction and hence the government has decided to conduct the gram sabha in the same 12 villages,” said Santosh Kumar Sarangi, secretary, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Development Department in Odisha.
The collectors of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts have already been instructed to initiate the process of inviting claims in the 12 villages. Out of the 12 villages selected, Jarappa, Khambessi, Kesarpadi, Batudi, Serkapadi, Lakhapadar and Lamba fall in the Raygada district while Palaberi, Phuldumer, Konakadu, Tadijhola and Ijrupa fall in Kalahandi. While the Supreme Court ordered that the claims should be invited within six weeks from the date of judgement—April 18—the state has asked for six weeks extension as it had not decided on the villages to be consulted.
Another round of battle?
“It is a conspiracy of the company and the state to reduce the number of villages which can claim rights over the Niyamgiri hill. The 12 villages that the state has identified are hardly significant. For instance, Ijrupa has only one house while another village Tadijhola has no population of Dongriya Kondh. According to the apex court judgement, claims of all the villages falling within 10 km of the mining area should be considered. There would be at least 60-80 such villages. We are planning to submit a memorandum to the state government and tribal affairs ministry on irregularity of the selection of villages,” said Prafulla Samantray who was an intervener in the case.
On being asked about the ministry’s course of action if the state does not abide by its directions, Vibha Puri Das, secretary in the tribal affairs ministry, said she has already written to the chief secretary of the state to report on the actions taken by the state on the ministry’s directions. “We have proposed a joint exercise of the state and the ministry for facilitation and capacity building of the gram sabhas as per the Supreme Court order. We are dealing with a state. We will have to see how it works out,” she added.
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