Niyamgiri mining ban to stay, SC says gram sabha will decide if project hits tribals' religious, cultural rights

FP

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Vedanta Group's bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa will have to get the gram sabha's clearance on whether it affects the cultural and religious rights of the tribals and forest dwellers living in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.

While the gram sabha's nod is compulsory under the Forest Rights Act, the court made it clear that the Act confers powers on the gram sabha to "protect the community resources, individual rights, cultural and religious rights".

"Gram sabha can also examine whether the proposed mining area, Niyama Dangar, 10 kms from the peak, would in any way affect the abode of (deity) Niyam Raja. Needless to say, if the bauxite mining project, in any way, affects their religious rights, especially their right to worship their deity, that right has to be preserved and protected," said the bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam, K S Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi.

The gram sabha will examine the proposals, juxtaposing them with the community, individual as well as cultural and religious claims by the tribals and forest dwellers, including their right of worship in the Niyamgiri Hills, said the court.

The bench directed the Orissa government to place all the issues before the gram sabha, with an intimation to the union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The gram sabha, which will have a nominee from the state high court as an observer, must take a decision within three months and communicate it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) .

"The MoEF shall take a final decision on the grant of Stage II clearance for the bauxite mining project in the light of the decision of the gram sabha within two months thereafter," said the court.

The project ran into rough weather after the MoEF refused Stage II forest clearance in 2010 for diversion of 660 hectares of forest land for bauxite mining in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, based on the Forest Advisory Committee's (FAC) adverse views on violation of rights of the tribal groups and impact on the ecology and biodiversity of the area.

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