Disapproving the Odisha government’s decision to conduct gram sabhas in only 12 villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, the Union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) has constituted a team to assess claims beyond these 12 villages.
The state government had decided to hold the palli sabhas in 12 villages to decide the fate of a bauxite excavation project atop Niyamgiri hills considered crucial for running of Vedanta Aluminium Ltd’s (VAL) refinery at Lanjigarh.
The MoTA team is scheduled to visit Rayagada and Kalahandi districts from August 4-8. The team would consist of Gopal Sadhwani, deputy secretary, MoTA, legal expert Shomona Khanna, MoTA consultant Sreetama Guptabhaya and two representatives of Vasundhara, a Bhubaneswar-based civil society organization- Tushar Dash and Y Giri Rao
The team would submit its report to secretary, MoTA within five working days of return from its trip.
The MoTA is of the view that there could be claims under FRA for various rights, including religious and cultural rights, over Niyamgiri forest and sacred areas from villages over and above the 12 villages selected by the state government. This is based on several claims filed under FRA, for various rights, the copies of which have been made available to the ministry.
“The Union ministry of law and justice has agreed with the position of MoTA as earlier communicated to the state government. The law ministry has opined that the scope of filing claims is open for the entire district of Rayagada and Kalahandi and there is nothing in the judgement of Supreme Court to restrict the same to 12 villages,” Sadhwani wrote to the Odisha chief secretary.
Sadhwani said that the Supreme Court in its judgement dated April 18 (on the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project) had ruled that the MoTA would assist the gram sabhas for settling of individual as well as community claims.
In its letter dated May 2, 2013, the MoTA had issued directions to the state government for holding palli sabhas as mentioned under Section 12 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The MoTA letter stated that the list of villages will include all such villages from where the people access the forest area of Niyamgiri falling in the bauxite mining project area either as habitat or for collecting minor forest produce or whose religious rights would be affected by the diversion of forest area for mining.