The claim of even one village council for cultural or religious rights over the hill is enough to reject Vedanta plans

The door could soon be shut on Vedanta’s proposal to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. The Union Environment Ministry has decided that the claim of even one village council for cultural or religious rights over the hills provides the legal mandate to the Central government to reject the proposal under the Supreme Court orders.

Eleven villages have already claimed such rights but signals from the State had made the Centre wary of how the court orders were being interpreted.

But Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has made it clear that the Supreme Court orders in the case requires the government to protect the rights of the villagers.

In a letter to her Cabinet colleague V. Kishore Chandra Deo, Ms. Natarajan as said: “According to the Supreme Court’s judgment and the Forest Rights Act, rejection by even one palli sabha [village council] would require the project to be rejected.”

But she has expressed concerns about the reaction of the State government to the decisions of the village councils. “The State government may seek to turn its own agenda on its head and claim that the small number of villages [which voted] meant that the decision was influenced by ‘vested interests.’ This would then become a battle over perceptions and the State government may take the issue back to court, prolonging the affair further.”

The issue of rights of tribals has been muddled by different interpretations emanating from the State government and the Tribal Affairs Ministry. Ahead of the village councils’ decision on traditional rights, the State government began a process of demarcating the people’s usufruct and land rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Tribal Affairs ministry’s training manual for the region added to the confusion. It misinterpreted the powers of the gram sabha under the FRA and the Panchyat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA, which were reiterated by the Supreme Court orders to protect their ‘cultural and religious rights with the legal process, under FRA, to claim usufruct and land rights.

The State government short-circuited the process for land and usufruct rights by setting up a committee of its officers to evaluate and settle claims instead of the bottoms-up approach that the law provides.

This sent alarm bells ringing in Delhi with the central government – both the Environment and Tribal Affairs ministry – concerned that the emphatic verdicts of the palli sabha may be obfuscated later by counter-posing the usufruct rights against it.

But the Environment Ministry’s reading of the apex court’s order has settled the debate and is likely to lead to a rejection of the forest clearance.