BS Reporter  |  Bhubaneswar  May 17, 2013

In its April 18 order, SC had directed the Odisha govt to conduct Gram Sabhas at Niyamgiri within three months to seek the mandate of the locals

The Odisha government today said it would seek six more weeks from the Supreme Court (SC) to conduct Gram Sabhas to decide the fate of bauxite mining at the ecologically sensitive Niyamgiri hills.

“We are going to request the apex court to grant us six more weeks for the conduct of gram sabhas, as it is not feasible to conduct these within the SC-stipulated timeline. The Sabhas will be held in 12 villages on the Niyamgiri hills,” said state law minister Maheshwar Mohanty.

In its April 18 order, SC had directed the Odisha government to conduct gram sabhas at Niyamgiri within three months to seek the mandate of the locals on the proposed bauxite mining project of Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) and Vedanta Aluminium (VAL), and also decide on fresh claims, if any, regarding community, individual, cultural and religious rights of the Dongria Kondh tribe residing these hills. The court had said the claims for these, to be taken up by gram sabhas, should be filed in six weeks.

According to the apex court order, the Gram Sabha decisions were to be communicated by the state government to the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests, which would decide on allowing mining at Niyamgiri within two months of securing the report.

In a letter dated May 2, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs had asked the state Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe development department to issue advertisements in local newspapers, informing tribals and forest dwellers in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts to file claims of religious and cultural rights, along with the individual and community rights, under the Forest Rights Act. It had urged the state government to display the notification related to holding gram sabhas, along with the details of the Supreme Court order, in all villages in the two districts, irrespective of their proximity from the mining site.

To ensure transparency was maintained in the identification of claims, copies of these notification should be sent to all civil society groups and non-governmental organisations active in these districts, it had said.

However, as it was unable to find clarity on the conduct of gram sabha proceedings in the Supreme Court order, the state Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe department had consulted the law department.

Opening the Niyamgiri bauxite mines, spread over Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, is crucial for the functioning of Vedanta Aluminium’s one-million-tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. The refinery, which depends entirely on bauxite sourced from outside, has been shut since December 5, 2012, due to unavailability of the commodity.