Supported by favourable opinion from the Attorney General, the Environment Ministry has given more powers to its panel probing into the impacts and legal issues concerning the Vedanta mining project in Orissa.

The Ministry has amended the scope of the work of the four-member panel headed by National Advisory Council (NAC) member N. C. Saxena, empowering it to “investigate and ascertain status of implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 in and around the proposed areas of the project.”

The widening of the panel’s scope came after AG G. E. Vahanvati opined that the Supreme Court nod to Vedanta Resources’ bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri does not bind the Environment Ministry to give an automatic clearance to it, and that the project must be approved only on “merits“.

The AG gave his opinion after the Ministry referred the issue to him asking whether it is within its rights to examine if the project involving bauxite mining on about 660 hectares of forest land is proceeding as per the law.

Comprising S. Parasuraman from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Promode Kant and Amita Baviskar - both from Institute of Economic Growth, the panel has also been given a free hand “to enquire or investigate any issue which the members might feel necessary for the purpose of their report.”

The other fresh mandates of the panel include “investigation of likely physical and economic displacement due to the project including the “resource development” of forest users and the rehabilitation plan.

The panel has also been asked to investigate likely impact on the bio-diversity, wildlife and the ecology of the land, and on cultural and social lives of the members of the Dongria Kondh primitive tribal group residing there.

The Saxena panel was formed last month following a report by a three-member committee which alleged “violation” of forest laws as well rights of the primitive tribal groups by Vedanta. The company denies the charges.

Vedanta’s plan to mine bauxite for its alumina refinery in the State has been facing hurdles since 2005 after protests by the local tribals who fear losing their homes and livelihood due to the project.