State government tells Tribal Affairs Ministry that legal opinion has been sought for holding gram sabhas

The Centre and the Odisha government are at loggerheads over the implementation of the environmental referendum being conducted in Odisha over bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills on a directive by the Supreme Court.

The fifth gram sabha held at Palberi on Thursday also adopted a resolution opposing mining.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Odisha government are engaged in war of words over restricting palli (gram) sabhas in the hill villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Secretary in the Ministry Vibha Puri Das had written to Odisha SC and ST Department Secretary-cum-Commissioner Santosh Sarangi recently that restricting gram sabhas to 12 would not be in line with the direction of the apex court.

In reply, Mr. Sarangi informed the Ministry that the State government had decided to hold gram sabhas in 12 villages after taking legal opinion. Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Governor S.C. Jamir underlining the need not to interfere with the rights of tribals over mining in Niyamgiri.

“The court order is loud and clear. Gram sabhas have to be held in all 112 villages affected by proposed mining. If it is not done, we will be forced to approach the court for justice,” National Alliance for People’s Movement convener Prafulla Samantra told The Hindu. Mr. Deo, in a letter dated June 21 to Mr. Jamir, stated that “the impugned MoU which was signed by the OMC [Orissa Mining Corporation] and Vedanta [for mining in Niyamgiri], are both ultra vires the Constitution. Hence, there is an urgent need for your intervention to safeguard the constitutional protection, guaranteed to the tribals and inhabitants of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts which are located in Schedule V areas.”

‘Scant regard for apex court’

In the five-page letter, he said: “It is also unfortunate that the Court’s directions are being treated with scant respect by the Odisha government which intends to hold gram sabhas only in 12 villages. You will appreciate the fact that Dongria Kondhs have a spiritual, emotional and sentimental bonding to Niyamgiri hills, which is part of their cultural tradition and way of life.”

The Supreme Court had set a three-month deadline for the State government to conduct gram sabhas. The government has sought an extension of the deadline. The court wanted the gram sabhas to find out whether mining in Niyamgiri – considered the abode of their ‘ista debta’ (presiding deity) ‘Niyamraja’ for several centuries – was an infringement of the religious, cultural, individual and community rights of Dongria Kondhs and other traditional forest-dwellers as per laws.