by Jugal Purohit / Daily Mail
Though their appearance may be purely seasonal, the dark clouds hovering above the mineral-rich Niyamgiri hills in Orissa are actually mirroring the sentiments prevailing on the ground.
On April 18, when the Supreme Court intervened to empower the Dongaria tribals to decide the fate of bauxite mining in the hills, which they consider as the abode of their deity, it was greeted with applause.
Exactly three months later, as the unprecedented gram sabha consultations finally began, everyone claims to have suffered heartburn.
Yet, not everyone can be trusted. At stake is the future of the Rs 50,000-crore Vedanta Alumina Refinery Plant (ARP) and the proposed Bauxite Mining Project (BMP) – easily among the biggest foreign direct investments that the state has attracted.
While the Supreme Court order directed the authorities to place before the gram sabha, in an uninfluenced atmosphere, the question whether or not the mining proposal affected their religious rights, the presence of a large number of non-tribal elements, including politicians as well as anti-plant activists, in the meeting held on July 18 was not lost on anyone.
The meeting was nearly complete after all 36 villagers of Serkapedi, in Rayagada district, voiced their opposition to mining.
However, in the final resolution, the same was not included initially which sparked off a protest.
“While we all spoke of protecting our hills, the same was not being reflected in the final resolution. We had to spend almost two hours arguing before the district judge, who was merely the observer.
“They are trying to barter our traditional religious rights over the hills for those under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which is unacceptable,” said Lingaraj Azad, organiser of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS).
Tribals are wary of technicalities being used to dilute their stand. Another aspect that has rattled the tribals is the logic behind the state administration conducting gram sabhas in only 12 villages when there are actually more than 100 in the Niyamgiri hill range.
Accusations are flying thick and fast. The local Congress unit which has opposed the project has termed this as manipulation to grant Vedanta the go-ahead.
Asked about the issue, Rayagada District Collector S B Padhi said: “Yes there are around 1,000 families but we won’t be going to all. Our law department as well as advocate general have scrutinised the SC order and given us directions.”
A state functionary said they were right in selecting the precise ‘affected’ ones. It can be argued that it was the 2011 speech of Rahul Gandhi to the Dongaria tribals that really elevated the profile of the case.
But the party’s conduct has been rather intriguing. Member of the Youth Congress and son of a former Orissa minister, Sibasankar Ulaka, who is now in charge of tribal areas near the Niyamgiri hills, told this correspondent that his party had actively transported tribals to the spot of the gram sabha since the government was being selective in talking to them.
Denying allegations of a love lost with Vedanta, whom permissions were granted by the Congress-led UPA, he claimed the party opposed the project from day one.
A Vedanta insider said: “We are bleeding heavily; our total losses have exceeded the Rs 3000 crore mark.”
For the group, the impasse over the last two years seems like a rude shock.
“We are here, in a landlocked location on the invitation of the state government.
“Our MoU with the state in 2006 was for bauxite to be mined by them and handed over to us so that our refinery can work on it.
“Today, just so that this plant is kept functional, we are sourcing bauxite from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and even Gujarat which is suicidal. We might as well move there,” he said.
The road ahead
Till August 19, a total of 12 gram sabha meets would be concluded, of which, seven will be in Rayagada district and the remaining five in Kalahandi.
On completion, the district judge, as the observer, will have to submit whether or not the tribals were able to exercise their right independently and uninfluenced by either parties.
At the next stage, the environment ministry will examine the reports and take a decision within two months on whether to grant Vedanta the permit for mining bauxite or not.