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Niyamgiri gears up for India’s first environment referendum. Odisha limits number of villages that can have a say

of Lakhpadar village in Niyamgiri hills drew this map in 2010 to claim their 
rights over forest resources and places of worship. The Odisha government is 
yet to settle their claimResidents of Lakhpadar village in Niyamgiri hills drew this map in 2010 to claim their rights over forest resources and places of worship. The Odisha government is yet to settle their claim

A reclusive hill tribe in western Odisha has forced the state and the Centre along with the judiciary to come to its doorstep. Beginning July 18, the Dongria Kondh, designated as “primitive” tribal group, along with other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers will decide whether bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hill range will impinge on their cultural and religious rights. District judges, nominated by the Odisha High Court will ride, walk and climb uphill for long hours this monsoon to reach villages cocooned inside the dense tropical forest of Niyamgiri—to record the decision of the palli sabha, as gram sabha is known in Odisha.

The landmark event—India’s first environment referendum—will follow the Supreme Court judgement delivered on April 18 this year, while deliberating upon a case brought by the Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd (OMCL) against the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

In 2010, MoEF had rejected environment clearance to a joint venture of OMCL and Sterlite Industries, the Indian arm of the London Stock Exchange-listed Vedanta, to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite to feed Vedanta’s alumina refinery in adjacent Lanjigarh. MoEF’s grounds for rejection were violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. OMCL challenged MoEF’s decision in the Supreme Court in 2011.

I had never seen so many officials before Vedanta proposed mining. At palli sabha, I’ll ask the officials where were their roads, schools and hospitals all these years?

The apex court stressed on the role of gram sabha to decide on the forest dwellers’ claims to forest resources and on their religious and cultural rights. It asked the state government and the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) to assist gram sabhas in the process.

If the gram sabha takes place “independently and uninfluenced” by project proponents and the state and the Centre, as ordered by the apex court, it will be the first time communities will decide the fate of a mining project.

Are voices being suppressed?

At least 162 villages depend on or live in the Niyamgiri hills spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, says Lingaraj Azad, an organiser of resistance group Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti. As per the state government’s Dongria Kondh Development Agency (DKDA), there are 102 Dongria Kondh villages in Rayagada. But in May, the state government drew up a list of only 12 hill slope villages where palli sabhas will be held.

We pray to Niyam Raja when there is no rain. He calls Bhima debta, the rain god. Without Niyam Raja who will convey our request to Bhima debta?

The arbitrary list received flak from the Union tribal affairs ministry. “The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under the FRA or where cultural and religious rights are likely to be affected cannot be arbitrarily decided by the state government. It is to be decided by the people, i.e. palli sabha, where claims would be filed through a transparent manner so that no… gram sabha who has a legitimate claim is left out of the process,” wrote Vibha Puri Das, MoTA secretary in a June 7 letter to the state government.

Two weeks later, Union tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo wrote a letter to Governor S C Jamir, saying: “It is unfortunate that the directions of the Supreme Court are being treated with scant respect by the state government… convening of gram sabha should not be limited to only 12 villages but should cover all affected villages in the region.”

Yet, holding onto its list of 12, the state government notified dates of palli sabha on July 5. It says the list has been vetted by the law department and the state Advocate General. Palli sabhas will be held on 12 separate days, one for each village, between July 18 and August 19.

Anger and distrust are palpable among the forest dwellers. On June 17, when the state government organised an orientation workshop in Trilochanpur village in Kalahandi to inform the process of filing claims, the residents locked up the officials for an entire day. They refused to sign on attendance sheets or to be video graphed during the workshop, suspecting these would be misused by the government. Azad says tribal leaders plan to organise palli sabhas in all  affected villages under the Orissa Gram Panchayat Act.

Why Niyamgiri is sacred

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