A look at how the key players involved in the tussle to control Niyamgiri hills will move forward
The palli sabha held at Jarapa village in Rayagada district on August 19 voted unanimously against the proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hill range. Jarapa is the last of the 12 villages to hold village council meetings to decide the fate of mining and metals giant Vedanta's proposal to mine the hills for bauxite. Jarapa has 16 adult village members, and the 12 who were present in the palli sabha opposed the proposal. All the 12 palli sabhas have overwhelmingly said “no” to mining in the region.
What happens next? Down To Earth analyses how the key players will move forward from here:
Supreme Court's pivotal role
On April 18, the Supreme Court asked the Odisha government to seek consent of the villages to be impacted by the Vedanta's projects in and around Niyamgiri. In this order the court interpreted the rights and power of tribals and forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 and the constitutional provisions specific to tribals. The order focused on the religious and cultural rights of tribal community which the court observed is integral to their way of life.
Referring to FRA, the court said, “The Forest Rights Act has been enacted conferring powers on the Gram Sabha constituted under the Act to protect the community resources, individual rights, cultural and religious rights.”
On the constitutional rights, the court said: “Religious freedom guaranteed to STs (scheduled tribes) and the TFDs (tribal forest dwellers) under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution is intended to be a guide to a community of life and social demands. The above mentioned Articles guarantee them the right to practice and propagate not only matters of faith or belief, but all those rituals and observations which are regarded as integral part of their religion. Their right to worship the deity Niyam-Raja has, therefore, to be protected and preserved.”
Though the court talked about issues related to environmental and forest clearances involving Vedanta, the order was based on the the religious rights protected by the constitution and the power of the gram sabha to take a decision on these rights.
The court ordered that gram sabhas or palli sabhas should be held to decide whether religious rights or right to worship the Niyamraja have been violated by the two projects. If it has been violated, the rights of Dongria Kondhs must be protected, the court said.
The court will play a critical role if any of the players concerned lands up with grievance.
Union environment ministry
The Odisha government held gram sabha meetings in 12 villages in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. These villages were identified by the Odisha Mining Corporation as those to be impacted by mining. All the villages have rejected Vedanta's projects, citing gross violation of their religious rights.
According to the apex court order, the state government will submit the 12 gram sabha resolutions to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). “The MoEF shall take a final decision on the grant of Stage II clearance for the Bauxite Mining Project in the light of the decisions of the Gram Sabha within two months,” said the court.
So, by mid-October, the fate of the projects will known. Now the question arises: will Vedanta get the clearance after this resounding rejection? Till September 20, the ministry can't declare any decision as Odisha is holding elections to local urban bodies. According to a senior state government official closely involved with the Vedanta issue, the state government will also not submit any report to the MoEF using the pretext of the election codes. “Given the opposition to the project within the central government, we don't expect a positive decision,” says the official. The ministry may seek legal opinion on the resolutions from another ministry – the Ministry of Tribal Affairs – which has already opposed holding the gram sabhas in only 12 villages, as against over 100 that are affected.
Vedanta officials are not showing any signs of nervousness. They are hoping the state government would bail them out by allotting them alternative sources of bauxite. The selection of the 12 villages was done in consultation with Vedanta. So, legally, the company can't go to the court now and contest. “This is where we have lost. A rout in all the villages also raises ethical question over our conduct,” says a senior Vedanta official. At the same time, its officials have been in hectic consultation with state officials monitored by the Chief Minister Office over ways out. “It is almost certain that we will not get the clearance for another year. But we may get small mines within 100 kilometre of our current projects,” says the company official, pointing at recent discussions with state government.
In urban areas around the Vedanta projects, there is support for the projects. Pending elections to the urban local bodies on September 18, the state government doesn't want to give a message of closure of the projects.
Ministry of Tribal Affairs
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has already taken a decision to contest the state government's decision to hold gram sabha in only 12 villages. A team is already in work to move objections. As ministry officials point out, there is a possibility of the ministry approaching the Supreme Court to order gram sabha in 122 villages. “Our sense is that the 12 villages can be influenced later to change the resolution. If we get Gram Sabha resolutions from 122 villages, the company and state government officials can't influence so many villages,” says a joint director with MoTA who is currently drafting future strategy.
Currently, all eyes are on the state's political leadership. The ministry looking after tribal affairs is working on a plan of action based on the resolutions of the 12 villages. “With or without Vedanta, the government is going to focus more on community rights under the FRA. We need to speed up filing of claims around areas earmarked for industrial development,” says a senior official of the state government. With elections to the state Legislative Assembly just six months away, there is a political decision to not pursue mining in Niyamgiri. Instead of that, as officials in touch with Vedanta point out, the state government is working out a strategy to supply bauxite to the company from the reserve of the Odisha Mining Corporation. Also, it has already identified small mines that can be exploited as interim measures.
Boost to communities
The victory in Niyamgiri is contagious. Many villages in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts –estimated to be 122 – will now file habitat rights under the FRA. This right recognises the traditional clan-based boundary of forests. A significant number of proposals for mining and industrial development are in and around forest areas. Using the current Supreme Court order on constitutional right to worship and traditional culture, many community groups are already drawing plans to apply for habitat rights. In Khandadhar iron ore mines, earmarked for Posco's steel plant in Odisha's Jagatsinghpur district, communities are going to invoke the right to worship to oppose mining the hills considered sacred by local tribal communities.
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