Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo has criticised the Union and State governments for disinvesting in public sector companies to permit private entities to mine in tribal-dominated Schedule V areas, calling the move unconstitutional.

In a letter to Environment and Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, Mr. Deo said, “Circumventing the constitutional provisions through disinvestment is being done in a stealthy manner through decisions of the government instead of adhering to the well laid down procedure under Article 368 of the Constitution.”

“Disinvestment of shares of such companies can be resorted to either by the State or by the Central government. Once disinvestment takes place, the need for constitutional safeguards by such companies will not only get diluted but thrown to the winds,” he warns, noting examples of the Orissa Mining Corporation and the Andhra Pradesh Mining Corporation.

He also says, “Disinvesting shares of such companies which are not owned and controlled by ST community will result in surreptitiously subverting and undermining the sanctity of the constitution.”He concludes, “This threat looms large upon us today and this practice needs to be stopped forthwith.”

The letter came as a reply to Ms. Natarajan’s two missives to Mr. Deo in the case of Vedanta bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha.

In her letter, Ms. Natarajan noted that the State government was not following the Supreme Court orders in spirit and letter while facilitating the decision by village councils on whether they claim religious and traditional rights on the contested hill or not. She asked the Tribal Affairs Minister that he should act along with the Environment Ministry to block any attempt by the State government to vitiate the decisions of the village councils by claiming they were influenced by vested interests. She wanted Mr. Deo to issue binding instructions to the government under the fifth schedule as well as the Forest Rights Act to comply with the orders of the Supreme Court.

On Vedanta, Mr. Deo, in response to Ms. Natarajan, said he had formed a team to assess claims by village councils beyond the 12 councils that the State government had limited the exercise to. He said the Law Ministry had advised him against intervening in the issue as the Vedanta case was before the Supreme Court and that any legal remedy against the actions of the State government could be addressed only by the Environment Ministry.

He noted that the Law Ministry too agreed with the position of the Tribal Affairs Ministry that the scope of filing claims under the Supreme Court judgment would be open to all villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Many more villages than the 12 the State government had pursued had filed various rights, including religious and cultural, over the Niyamgiri forests.

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