In 2009, the Supreme Court and the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) cleared the Niyamgiri bauxite project. As a result, 721 hectares of forestland were almost leased away to Vedanta Aluminium Limited.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) carried out site inspections by Ramanathan and Saxena before signing off the deal. Both reports showcased clear observations that violated the Forest Rights Act and, by not consulting tribal groups, also violated the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) (Pesa) Act.
Then came the 2009 judgment that empowered the palli sabhas to decide on the question of bauxite mining and enabled Pesa (the original Extension Act) for the first time in Orissa.
Subsequently, 12 palli sabhas of the tribal communities of Rayagada and Kalahandi in Odisha rejected the mining project. According to the Supreme Court, the MoEF on Stage II of forest clearance was to take the final decision two months after the palli sabha proceedings.
The last unanimous remonstration was announced on August 19.
Environment minister Jayanthi Natrajan made it clear in a letter to her colleague tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo: “Rejection by one palli sabha would require the project to be rejected”.
The 73rd Amendment Act of 1992 provided guidelines and a three-tier structure of local governance to protect tribal economies, traditions and customary laws.
Institutions like the gram sabha were to have devolved powers sine qua non and be vested with authority on land, water and minor resources, development projects and minor forest produce. It was amended to the Pesa Act in 1996.
According to a Planning Commission Report, many states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh did not conform to the adoption of self-governing institutions while the Orissa Panchayat Act was passed with biases. According to the Central Act, gram sabhas need to be consulted regarding land acquisition, management of minor water bodies and licence for mining lease. The Orissa Panchayat Act vests these powers in the zilla parishad and not the gram sabhas.
The zilla parishad’s members hold authority at the district level and many of them are MPs and MLAs. It is quite evident that these bodies are linked to party priorities, whereas the panchayat model should be operational at the gram sabha level. Because of this, a self-governing gram sabha (or even zilla parishad) is a misnomer.
It is time the government stops dragging its feet on the fate of Vedanta and complies with the wishes of the palli sabhas.
(Sonum Gayatri Malhotra is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)
The views expressed by the author are personal