The Union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) has objected to the Odisha government's decision to hold gram sabhas in only 12 villages of Niyamgiri hill slopes to decide the fate of bauxite mining for Vedanta Group’s alumina plant.
In a letter to Odisha chief secretary BK Patnaik on Friday, the union ministry secretary Vibha Puri Das has written that limiting gram sabha meetings is not in accordance with the Supreme Court order.
She has asked the state government to arrive at the exact number of villages where gram sabha was to be conducted as per the direction laid down by the union ministry.
Das said: “The list of villages where rights of the 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 which have a legitimate claim is left out of the process.”
She said the Supreme Court judgment on April 18 was the only judgment that assumed finality and not subject to or to be read in reference to earlier orders, affidavits filed, argument or submission made. “The apex court has not alluded to or limited the application of FRA in the project areas to any specific number of villages under any paragraph of its order,” she said, adding that any interpretation of the order to the contrary would be incorrect.
On June 1, Patnaik had written to Das justifying the selection of the villages for gram sabha saying the Odisha government had filed an affidavit before the apex court in this regard. “At the time of filing of claims relating to 12 villages which are on the slopes of Niyamgiri hill and during subsequent deliberation, neither the Union ministry of environment and forest nor the ministry of tribal affairs had raised any issue before the apex court regarding coverage of villages over and above the 12 hill slope villages,” he had said.
The Supreme Court in its order had said the decision of gram sabhas of Kalahandi and Rayagada district was crucial on the issue of whether mining should be allowed in the hill – home to nearly 10,000 endangered Dangria Kondh tribals, portrayed in western media as Na’vi from Hollywood blockbuster Avatar.
On May 27, the Odisha government had issued notices to the collectors of the two districts to call gram sabha meetings in five villages of Kalahandi and seven villages of Rayagada and complete the process within three months as stipulated by the Supreme Court.
Social activist Prafulla Samantara, an intervener in the case, had opposed the state government’s move saying selection of just 12 out of more than 100 villages thereby keeping away a large number of Dongria, Kutia and Jharnia Kondh tribals was against the judgment of the apex court.
The proposed mining in Niyamgiri hill is vital for the Vedanta Group, which has signed an MoU with the Odisha government in 2004. The MoU includes supply of 78 million tonnes of bauxite by the state owned Odisha Mining Corporation to the alumina refinery from Niyamgiri hill to its alumina plant adjacent to it in Lanjigarh in Kalahandi, about 550 km southwest of Bhubaneswar.
But the OMC has not been able to mine the hill due to stiff protest from the tribals who revered the hill as their god ‘Niyamraja’ and problems in getting clearance from the Union ministry for environment and forest. Denied clearance by the ministry in 2011, the OMC had moved the Supreme Court, while Vedanta had shut down its refinery on December 6 last year due to lack of bauxite.