When senior Congress Member of Parliament Bhakta Das was spotted at the dais of a gram sabha held at Palberi, a village in Odisha's abjectly poor Kalahandi district last Thursday, it created ripples. This was no routine meeting, since it was held under the direction of the Supreme Court and its outcome being crucial to determine the fate of Vedanta's Lanjigarh alumina refinery, the only visible sign of industrial activity in the district.
The presence of Das, a political heavyweight from Kalahandi, has again revived the debate over holding such gram sabhas without bias. The debate started from the maiden gram sabha itself, held on July 18, when scores of supporters of Amnesty International and Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) surrounded the makeshift camp hosting the meeting.
"Gram sabhas are held in the state in line with the guidelines laid down in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and also the Odisha Gram Panchayat Act, 1964. The gram sabhas for Niyamgiri are special as they are done under the Supreme Court's direction. We have spelt out that such meetings need to be free from any kind of bias or influence," says a senior government official.
The state's tribal affairs secretary, Santosh Sarangi, said, "We have nothing to comment on the gram sabha conduct or its outcome after a district judge has certified the proceedings. After receipt of the all the palli sabha proceedings, we will simply send it to the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). The ministry, based on the voting at these palli sabhas, will take a call on whether bauxite mining will be allowed or not."
The state government had decided to hold palli sabhas in 12 villages - seven in Rayagada and five in Kalahandi district -along the Niyamgiri hill slopes to decide the fate of a bauxite mining project on the hill top.
According to a senior forest department official, vote by a majority of the gram sabhas, with each village considered a single unit, will determine the fate of the mining project. This implies, if seven out of 12 villages oppose mining on Niyamgiri, the project is nixed.
"Since six palli sabhas have already unanimously passed the resolution opposing bauxite mining, the collective view of one more village is going to be crucial. That way, the fate of the mining project will hinge on the collective vote by a majority of the 12 villages," he said.
The district judges of Rayagada and Kalahandi have been nominated by the Odisha High Court to oversee the gram sabha proceedings and certify they were held without any influence.
At the behest of these judges, the meetings are to be initiated by the head of the forest rights committee or the respective ward member. All the registered voters of the village attending the meeting are given an opportunity to air their views, which are duly recorded.
Besides deliberating on already submitted claims on individual, community or religious rights, the gram sabhas are also free to entertain fresh claims at the spot council meetings.
The voters will also indicate their decision individually by raising their hands and their signatures are to be recorded.
Then, a collective resolution signed by the presiding ward member is to be submitted to the district judge who, in turn, will forward it to the state tribal affairs department.
The palli sabha resolution along with the audio and video recordings of the proceedings are to be sent by the state forest department to the MoEF.
The ministry is also to be informed on steps taken by the state government to place all issues of forest rights and religious rights before the palli sabhas.
According to the amended Odisha Gram Panchayat Act-1964, a quorum is achieved if half of the registered voters turn up for the meeting.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act says the gram sabha will initiate the process of determining the nature and extent of forest rights, receive and hear the claims, prepare a list of claimants and maintain a register containing details of such claimants.
So far, tribals of six villages - Serkapadi, Kesarpadi, Kunakudu, Palberi, Tadijhola and Batudi - have unanimously voted against the bauxite mining project and passed resolutions to this effect.