The ripple effect of the Supreme Court verdict in the Vedanta mining case has hit far away Manipur. The Mapithel multi-purpose project, which began in Manipur in 1980 and is yet to be completed, now faces the same test as Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Odisha did — has it come up respecting tribal rights or not?

The project was sanctioned by the Planning Commission in 1980 at the cost of Rs. 45 crore then. Thirty three years down the line, the project is yet to be completed, it is to cost the country a whopping Rs. 1,147 crore now. Rs. 1,184 crore has already been claimed to be spent on it. It has been built over the past eight years in violation of green laws. To confound its fate, it has also become the next symbol of battle of interests over the Forest Rights Act and tribal concerns.

Dragged to the National Green Tribunal, the project has been put on hold till the court decides if it violated not just the forest regulations but also the FRA which the UPA operationalised in 2008.

The project if completed will submerge 1,215 hectares of land in Senapati and Ukhrul district. Nearly half of it is forests. The lands belong to people from Tangkhul and Kuki tribes that inhabit these hills of the strife-torn State. The project is meant to provide water to the capital Imphal, irrigation water to villages and around 7 MW of electricity.

Some of the works on the dam began in the 80s by when the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 had been passed to regulate use of forestlands for development projects. In 1986 the Environment Protection Act too was passed requiring all such projects to seek mandatory environmental clearances. The State government woke up for a bit in 1988 to apply for the mandatory forest clearance. The environment ministry discussed it in 1993, approving the project conceptually asking for the State to meet certain conditions including securing the mandatory environmental clearance as well. Till three years after the State did not respond to the conditions and the Centre finally shut the file on it in 1996.

In 2006, the environment ministry sent a notice to the State, warning that the project was going on in violation of laws without clearances but the Manipur authorities did not respond. The Centre didn’t bother beyond this either.

In 2009, the State came back saying that an environmental clearance was not legally required for the project and the case for granting forest clearance was reopened yet again. But the conditions remained unmet while work continued on the project.

When asked for clarifications on its proposal it went quiet yet again and the Centre too forgot about it.

By now the Forest Rights Act too had been promulgated. Petitioners from the affected area came to the National Green Tribunal propelling the State authorities to again wake up claiming it had met all conditions and should be granted the clearance for the project. But by now the FRA and established rights of the tribals under the new law became a new tool for them to demand a better settlement.

The Manipur government has come back claiming that as the land had been procured long back under a direct agreement with the affected parties the FRA does not apply. The petitioners have claimed that only private lands were acquired by the State and the rights over community lands remain unresolved. The ball has now fallen in the court of the Tribal Affairs ministry. After the Vedanta judgement, the fate of common forest lands lies purely in the hands of the tribal village councils. The project, 33 years after it began, is still far from a legal resolution.

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