The Supreme Court has strongly endorsed the role of the gram sabhas as democratic decision-making fora on issues of individual, community and cultural rights of tribals and traditional forest dwellers. Its recent ruling in the Niyamgiri bauxite mining case has far-reaching impact because environmental laws such as the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Forest Rights Act and the Environment (Protection) Act are given scant respect by industrial project proponents looking for natural resources. This trend has accelerated in recent years, with national development being measured by a single number, the Gross Domestic Product. Under pressure, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has generally adopted a benign approach to enforcement. In the bauxite mining project promoted by the Vedanta group in Odisha, the Ministry made a welcome exception and recorded “violations too egregious to be glossed over.” The Supreme Court order in the case, endorsing the rights of tribals under the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act to make fresh claims and designating the gram sabhas as the competent fora to decide them, should end strong arm measures against defenceless communities. It is beyond doubt that there is an organic connection between tribals and the land, and this has been accepted by the Supreme Court in another case in 1997. That bond must be respected.
Besides this fundamental issue, several key questions relating to negative externalities caused by development projects have also been addressed: diversion of forest land for industry should be compensated through payment of Net Present Value; separate funds must be earmarked for compensatory afforestation and wildlife management; designated pre-tax profits should be allocated for development of scheduled areas. Unfortunately, such basic requirements are often portrayed as impediments to economic growth, and environmental losses stand ignored. Moreover, a transparent, independent assessment mechanism to monitor implementation of conditions set for grant of clearance does not exist. In Odisha, for instance, environmental rules and conditions were brazenly violated by Vedanta Alumina when it launched the expansion of its project before clearance was given, a fact recorded by the Saxena committee of the Environment Ministry. Now that the gram sabhas, and thereafter the MoEF have another opportunity to revisit the Niyamgiri project, they must ensure that tribal rights are recognised. The Supreme Court order is a good precedent for all projects that have environmental and social consequences. Development is a natural aspiration, but it must be genuine and not result in the loss of even the existing quality of life.