Sixth rejection in a row for proposed bauxite mining; tribal affairs ministry team to visit Odisha to assess claims beyond 12 villages
Batudi, a Dongria Kondh tribal hamlet in Rayagada district of Odisha, has also rejected the proposed mining in the Niyamgiri hill range. The decision of the palli sabha or village council meeting on Saturday marked the sixth rejection in a row for Vedanta Aluminium Limited which wants to source bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills that the Dongria Kondh and other forest dwellers consider sacred.
The palli sabha, with 31 among 40 voters from the hamlet in attendance, also rejected a joint verification report to settle community and religious rights to the forests granted under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. The joint verification report settled rights in 25 places around the hamlet that include perennial streams, cultivable plots on hills slopes (dongar), local places of worship, burial ground, animal habitats and grazing land, totalling 454.5 acres (one acre equals 0.4 hectare).
The report allocated portions in their forest habitat, for instance, a miniscule 0.42 acres for a perennial stream (Dambikhala jharna). Local places of worship got 0.06 acres while Niyam Dongar and mandir (temple) was allotted 39.55 acres, against the religious and cultural claims of the forest dwellers spanning the entire Niyamgiri hill range.
The joint verification team, comprising of the revenue inspector, forester and welfare extension officer, visited the village on July 8 and claims to have settled the community and religious rights with the full knowledge of residents. Dasru Jakesika, secretary of the village forest rights committee, whose signature is on the verification report denied this in the palli sabha.
“We were cheated. They got our signatures by fooling us. We don’t agree to 5, 10 or 20 acres. The whole of Niyamgiri belongs to us,” he said in the meeting, adding, “with mining in Niyam Dongar (the proposed mining site) our god will be destroyed.” The Dongria Kondh and other forest dwellers consider the Niyamgiri range, spanning 240 sq km across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, as the abode of their supreme deity and ancestral kin, Niyamraja.
Batudi was the second village today to reject the joint verification report after Kesarpadi which rejected the settlement on July 22. Serkapadi, the first village that held the palli sabha meeting on July 18 accepted the report after protesting for more than an hour to the district judge and observer to the proceedings, Sarat Chandra Misra. The residents acquiesced after a paragraph noting their claims on the entire Niyamgiri hills was inserted in the minutes of the meeting.
MOTA team to access claims beyond 12 villages
While the Odisha government conducts palli sabhas in the 12 villages it has chosen to decide on mining in Niyamgiri, a team from the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) will visit Rayagada and Kalahandi between August 4 and 8 to assess claims of forest dwellers to Niyamgiri, over and above the 12 villages. Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, the local resistance group, earlier asked the state government to hold meetings in all the villages (estimated between 112 and 162).
Pursuant to the Supreme Court order of April 18 that the forest people of Niyamgiri hills will decide if proposed mining will infringe on their religious and cultural rights, the state government of Odisha listed 12 villages—seven in Rayagada and five in Kalahandi—to hold palli sabha meetings.
To address its concern over limiting the number of villages that can have a say, MOTA sent a letter to the Odisha chief secretary on 24 July this month (see pdf). “...the scope of filing the claims is open for the entire district of Rayagada and Kalahandi and there is nothing in the judgement of Supreme Court to restrict the claims to 12 villages... the ministry is in receipt of several claims under FRA for various rights including cultural and religious rights claimed over Niyamgiri forest and sacred area from villages over and above 12 villages selected by the State Government,” reads the letter.
The letter continues, “The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has, in compliance with the Supreme Court Judgement, decided to constitute a Team to assess evidence regarding claims in villages beyond 12 villages selected by the State Government...”
The team, scheduled to visit Rayagada and Kalahandi districts between August 4 and 8 next month, will have five members: Gopal Sadhwani (deputy secretary, MOTA), Shomona Khanna (legal expert), Sreetama Guptabhaya (consultant, MOTA), Tushar Dash and Y Giri Rao from the Bhubaneswar civil society organization, Vasundhara.
“The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under FRA or where cultural and religious rights are likely to be affected cannot be arbitrarily decided by the state government. It is to be decided by the people, i.e. palli sabha, where claims would be filed through a transparent manner so that no... gram sabha who has a legitimate claim is left out of the process,” wrote Vibha Puri Das, MoTA secretary in a June 7 letter to the state government.
Union tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo also wrote a letter to governor S C Jamir on June 21, which said: “It is unfortunate that the directions of the Supreme Court are being treated with scant respect by the state government... convening of gram sabha should not be limited to only 12 villages but should cover all affected villages in the region.”
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