Tribals in colourful and traditional attire danced in joy as the last of the 12 gram sabhas on Monday overwhelmingly voted against the proposed bauxite mining by Vedanta Group’s alumina refinery plant in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills.
With this all the 12 gram sabhas have voted against the proposed bauxite mining in the hills, driving in the proverbial last nail in Vedanta’s fading mining hopes.
Like all previous gram sabhas, the 12th and last gram sabha at Jarpa village in Rayagada, about 150 km southwest of Bhubaneswar, also rejected the proposal on Monday asserting their religious and cultural rights over the hills.
A total of 12 voters, including 6 women, passed a resolution seeking a ban on mining in the hills.
As the process of gram sabha – touted to be India’s first environment referendum – was over, tribals in their colourful attires danced to celebrate their “victory”.
The Odisha government had decided to hold gram sabha in 12 villages in Niyamgiri hills spread over Rayagada and Kalahandi districts since July 18 as per a Supreme Court order on April 18 that asked the forest dwellers to decide if mining in Niyamgiri hills – home to nearly 10,000 Dongria Kondh tribals besides other tribal groups – would affect their religious and cultural rights.
A total of 403 voters, including an overwhelming 234 women, participated in the 12 gram sabhas with all voters opposing mining in the presence of district judges of both the districts.
“We will submit our report to the state government with all documents,” said Rayagada collector SB Padhi.
Officials in Odisha Scheduled Tribe and Schedule Caste department said they would forward the gram sabha results to the Union ministry for environment and forest to take a final call on the issue.
Lada Sikaka, president, Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti, a tribal body opposing mining, said: “The opinion of the 12 gram sabha is the opinion of all the villages in and around Niyamgiri hills. We demand gram sabha in another 100 villages.”
The proposed mining in Niyamgiri hills is vital for Vedanta Group, which has signed an MoU in 2004 with the Odisha government.
The MoU includes supply of 78 million tones of bauxite by the state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) to Vedanta’s alumina refinery at the slope of the hills in Lanjigarh in Kalahandi.
In 2010, the Union ministry for environment and forests rejected the stage II clearance given to OMC on the ground that mining in Niyamgiri hills violated the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act.
Not being able to mine the hills due to stiff protests from the tribals, who revere the hills as their god ‘Niyamraja’, and problems in getting clearance from the Union ministry for environment and forest, the OMC had moved the Supreme Court which in turn asked for the tribals’ opinion.