Kumar Sambhav S…
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Odisha government gets a slew of orders to ensure the order is properly implemented

The ministry of tribal affairs seems to have pulled up its socks to ensure the Supreme Court’s order in the Vedanta case is properly implemented on ground. In a letter to the Odisha government on May 2, the ministry directed the state to facilitate the gram sabhas affected by the proposed bauxite mining project on Niyamgiri hills to decide—independently and in a transparent manner—the veracity of religious and cultural rights claimed by the tribal people on Niyamgiri hill. It has issued several legally binding directions under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to the Odisha government and has prescribed a timeframe for the entire process.

On April 18, the Supreme Court ordered [1] that village councils in Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts would decide if projects of the metals and mining giant,Vedanta, have infringed the tribal communities’ right to worship. The court made it clear that the religious rights of the tribals must be protected. It also asked the gram sabhas to consider afresh—under FRA—all other individual and community claims of the tribals.

The ministry has now asked the Odisha government to issue advertisements in newspapers, including those in vernacular languages, asking all the tribals and traditional forest dwellers in Kalahandi and Raygada districts to file claims of religious and cultural rights, along with the individual and community rights under the FRA. The ministry has also asked the state to display this notification along with the details of the SC order in all villages in the two districts irrespective of their proximity from the mining site. “This will ensure that there is no allegation of subjectivity in the selection of palli sabhas (gram sabhas) where the meeting will be finally held as per the direction of the Supreme Court,” the letter says.

The ministry has asked the state to prepare a list of all the villages near the mining site and on the Niyamgiri hills where tribal people have made claims of traditional rights. It has given the state government 20 days to prepare the list.

The selected gram sabhas will then have to be sensitised by the state with the help of independent experts working on tribal rights as guaranteed by the FRA as well as by the SC judgement. The decision on the claim will be taken by the gram sabha in presence of a judicial officer, as per the court’s directions.

The ministry has directed the state to involve non-profits in the process to make it transparent. It has also asked the state to submit the audio and video recordings of the gram sabha meetings—replete with all the resolutions passed by the village body—to it right after the meetings. A Bhubaneswar-based analyst said the ministry’s move was welcome because the company has started dividing the community. “A few people who have got some benefits from the project might try to manipulate the whole community. Rights activists are already facing problems in having access to the affected villages. The ministry’s action is certainly timely. Now it it needs proper follow-up,” he said.

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