Forest dwellers plan palli sabhas in all affected villages in Niyamgiri

Odisha government sticks to its list of 12 villages despite reservations from rights groups and Union ministry of tribal affairs

By Sayantan Bera
Published: Tuesday 09 July 2013

Dongria Kondh women painted on the walls of Vedanta Alumina's refinery in Lanjigarh, on the foothills of Niyamgiri. Stiff resistance from forest dwellers have prevented Vedanta from mining the Niyamgiri Hill ranges for Bauxite (photos by Sayantan Bera)

The forest dwellers from Niyamgiri hill ranges in western Odisha declared on Tuesday that they would organise Palli Sabhas—village council meetings—in all villages to be affected by proposed bauxite mining. “We have decided that all villages will call for Palli Sabha under the Orissa Gram Panchayat Act. The Palli Sabhas will receive individual and community claims to forest resources and will also decide whether mining will affect religious and cultural rights of Dongria Kondh and other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers,” said Lingaraj Azad of the local resistance group Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS).

The decision comes after the Odisha government refused to add more villages to its list of 12 that are likely to be affected by the mining project on the Niyamgiri hill ranges that spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. NSS contends about 162 villages from the two districts will be affected.

Orissa Mining Corporation Limited (OMCL) and Sterlite Industries, the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Aluminium Limited, wants to mine the Niyamgiri ranges for bauxite. The stage II clearance for the project was rejected by the Union ministry of environment and forests in 2010 on grounds it violated environmental laws.

In 2011, the MoEF decision was challenged by OMCL-Sterlite in the Supreme Court. The apex court  on April 18, 2013, ruled that that the Gram Sabha is also free to consider all the community, individual, as well as cultural and religious claims, over and above the claims which has already been received from Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. It also said, “needless to say, if the bauxite mining project, in any way, affects their religious rights, especially their right to worship their deity, known as Niyam Raja, in the hills top of the Niyamgiri range of hills, that right has to be preserved and protected.”

After the Odisha government drew up a list of 12 villages, Vibha Puri Das, secretary of the Union ministry of tribal affairs (MOTA) wrote to the state government on June 7, “Limiting the convening of Gram Sabha in only 12 villages is not in accordance with the Hon’ble Supreme Court order... The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under the forest rights act (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 genuine Gram Sabha who have a legitimate claim is left out of the process.”

Elderly and children from Dongria Kondh village of Lakhpadar inside Niyamgiri, with a basket of mushroom collected from the forests. The CRPF resumed combing operations in and around Lakhpadar since yesterday.

“Under Para 6 of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the State Government cannot notify dates for Gram Sabha. The respective Gram Sabhas will initiate the process- the state and Central government will only assist it,” said Prafulla Samantara of the non-profit Lok Shakti Abhiyan and an intervener in the Supreme Court case.

Were sarpanchs forced to sign?

On July 5, the Odisha government notified the dates for Palli Sabha in 12 hill slope villages—seven in Rayagada and five in Kalahandi district—to be held between July 18 and August 19. On July 2, the notices were sent to the sarpanch or village head of Sibapadar, Parceli and Trilochanpur panchayats for their signatures, without which the state government could not have notified the dates. After an initial refusal, the sarpanch of Sibapadar was made to travel to the district collector’s office in Rayagada where he signed the document.

The state government went ahead and notified the dates on July 5 even through the sarpanch of Parceli, Telo Sikaka, had not signed it by then. On June 6, the block development officer and the tehsildar (revenue officer) visited the Parceli sarpanch. According to one government officer present on the occasion, “she was not forced but higher officials told her, you will lose your job if you don’t sign”.  The position of sarpanch or village head is a constitutionally elected position.

Meanwhile, the Central Reserve Police Force personnel have resumed combing operations inside the forests. They reached forests near Lakhpadar village yesterday, according to local sources.

Inside the Niyamgiri ranges, the Dongria Kondh and other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers lead a self sufficient existence, living on perennial streams, fruits, spices and native millets and wild tubers. They worship the hill ranges as the abode of their supreme deity, Niyam Raja, without whose blessing no one can enter or live in the forest hills. When Down To Earth reached several of these villages last week, they seemed to be nearing a tipping point.

“Before Vedanta we never saw so much of the sarkar (government). Where were your roads, schools and hospitals all these years? Ebey bar hoyichu sarkar? (The government has come out now?) Let us be,” said Jamu Gaur from Tadijhola village with an unnerving calm, an axe neatly perched on his shoulders, between working on his Dongar—the small plot of shift and burn cultivation.


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