The Supreme Court today kept on hold Vedanta Aluminium’s bauxite mining projects in two districts of eastern Odisha until the gram sabha there considers the environmental and religious issues of the project.
The gram sabha will give its views in three months, which will be reviewed by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and a final decision will be taken within the next two months, the apex court said.
The court said the issue of tribal rights and religious rights must be settled by the gram sabha of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. The Khond tribals hold the Niyamgiri hills where the project is coming up as sacred. MoEF had withdrawn Stage-II clearance because of the religious objections of the tribals. This is a right under the new Forest Rights Act.
In 2008, the Supreme Court had given Stage II clearance to Vedanta to mine at Niyamgiri, but it was cancelled two years later following an expert committee report. This was challenged by the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), which has a tie-up with Sterlite, a Vedanta group company. OMC is unable to supply raw materials to Vedanta units because of the ban.
A three-judge bench headed by Aftab Alam stated that if the project in any way affects the religious rights of the tribe, “especially their right to worship their deity, known as Niyam Raja, in the hills top of the Niyamgiri range of hills, that right has to be preserved and protected. We find that this aspect of the matter has not been placed before the gram sabha for their active consideration.”
The judgement, written by K S Radhakrishnan, further ordered that the state government, as well as the ministry of tribal affairs, government of India, will help the gram sabha settle individual as well as community claims. It stated the alumina refinery project was “well advised to take steps to correct and rectify the alleged violations by it of the terms of the environmental clearance granted by MoEF.”
A judicial officer has been put in charge to make sure that the decision of the gram sabha is taken independently and uninfluenced either by the project proponents or the central government or the state government.
The court referred to its orders in the earlier rounds in Vedanta and Sterlite cases in 2007 and 2008 to emphasise it was not against the project in principle, but only sought “safeguards by which the court would be able to protect the nature and sub-serve development.”