Justifying the cancellation of the environmental clearance granted to Vedanta for the Lanjigarh Bauxite mining project in Odisha, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on Friday said that forest land cannot be diverted under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

In its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the MoEF said: “The diversion of forest land on the proposed mining site of the Lanjigarh bauxite mining lease is violative of the fundamental rights of the Dongria Kondh tribals as well as the spirit of Forest Rights Act especially for the vulnerable tribal groups such as the Dongria Kondh and thus cannot be allowed for this reason alone.”

It said: “More than 7 sq. km. of the sacred undisturbed forests on top of the mountain, where the proposed mining lease area of the Lanjigarh bauxite mining lease is located has been protected for centuries by the Dongria Kondh, a primitive tribal group [now termed as particularly vulnerable tribe] as sacred to their deity. Diversion of these sacred areas for mining will undermine the customary rights of the Dongria Kondhs to protect their sacred places of worship and thereby amount to a violation of their fundamental right to manage their own affairs in the matter of religion and fundamental right to conserve the culture of their own. It was also in direct violation further of the specific provisions of the Forest Rights Act.”

According to the Orissa Mining Corporation, which filed the writ petition, the then Minister of State for MoEF, Jairam Ramesh, passed an order, withdrawing the environmental clearance just a day before the Council of Ministers was reshuffled. It said that no mandatory notice was given before such withdrawal. The then Minister withdrew the clearance despite knowing that the matter was sub judice and that the Supreme Court issued notice three months ago on a writ petition. It sought quashing of the order. The Centre filed its response on this petition.

The Centre said: “The Lanjigarh bauxite mining lease is located in Scheduled Areas as referred to in Clause (1) of Article 244 of the Constitution. Circumscribing or extinguishing of forest rights in such areas shall be in conformity with the provisions of the clause-5 of the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution.

“Section 5 of the 2006 Act inter alia provides that the holders of the forest right, Gram Sabha and village level institutions in areas, where there are holders of any forest rights under this Act, are empowered to ensure that habitat of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage.”