File picture of Kondh tribal people celebrating a festival near the Niyamgiri hills

New Delhi, April 1: The Supreme Court today said it was not possible on its part to order mining activities in the state’s bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills unless the gram sabhas and others likely to be affected by it were also heard in the matter.

The apex court asked the Odisha Mining Corporation, which had sought fresh gram sabhas to consider the contentious Niyamgiri mining issue, to make the 14 gram sabhas, which had earlier rejected the move for mining bauxite and others aggrieved in the matter, parties before it decided on the controversy.

The controversy had erupted after the corporation and the Vedanta group had formed a joint venture seeking the Union ministry of environment and forest’s permission for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri triggering protests from the Kondh tribal people of the region. It had been forced to set up a committee in 2010 to find out whether Vedanta had complied with environmental laws and, therefore, it would be right to accord final clearance to the project. But, the panel’s report indicated violation of laws. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had also batted for the tribal people addressing a public meeting near the hills, where he described himself as their sipahi (sepoy).

In 2013, following a Supreme Court directive, gram sabhas were organised in the hills spread over Kalahandi and Rayagada to seek the tribal people’s opinion. The gram sabhas rejected the proposal sealing the fate of the project.

Today, the bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi told senior counsel A. Sundaram that unless this was done, it would not be proper for the court to deal with the issue. Environmental lawyer Sanjay Parekh said he was opposing the corporation’s application as the issue involved environmental and the tribal people’s constitutional rights. However, the court stuck to its stand that unless the gram sabhas and all others, who are likely to be affected by the proposed mining activities, were also heard, it could not pass any order.

The bench passed the direction while dealing with an application moved by the corporation seeking a direction to the Centre on the issue, after the ministry of environment and forest had rejected the corporation’s plea for mining on the ground that the 14 gram sabhas had refused to give their consent for the same.

The Centre had rejected the corporation plea on January 8, 2014 by citing an apex court direction of 2013. On April 18, 2013, the top court had, while dealing with a corporation application, said its permission for mining in the bauxite region would be subject to the consent given by the local gram sabhas and the tribal groups.

However, the gram sabhas had subsequently refused to give their consent for mining on the ground that the tribal people perform animal sacrifices and worship the hills as their deity. Following this, the Centre had refused to grant permission to the corporation for mining. Aggrieved, the mining body has moved a fresh application pleading for a direction to the 14 gram sabhas to consider its plea for mining on the ground that the rural bodies had merely cited their customary worship of the hills – which was about 10km from the actual mining region.

The corporation also contended that the gram sabhas had failed to consider several parameters laid down by the apex court direction of April 18, 2013, wherein it had asked that the gram sabhas should examine whether mining would affect the existing forest and customary rights of the tribal people. Instead, the gram sabhas had merely cited their right of worship as a reason for rejecting the mining proposal, the corporation pleaded.