The Odisha government's decision to hold gram sabhas in only 12 villages of Niyamgiri hill slopes to decide the fate of bauxite excavation from there has drawn flak from the Union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA).
In its latest missive to the state government, MoTA has said limiting gram sabha proceedings to only 12 villages was not in line with the Supreme Court order dated April 18 and directions issued by the ministry under Section 12 of Forest Right Act (FRA).
"The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under the FRA or where cultural and religious rights are likely to be affected cannot be arbitrarily decided by the state government. It is to be decided by the people (palli sabha) where claims would be filed through a transparent manner so that no genuine gram sabha that has a legitimate claim is left out of the process. This is in line with para 59 of the apex court judgement", Vibha Puri Das, secretary, MoTA wrote to Odisha chief secretary B K Patnaik.
Para 59 of the apex court's judgement read, "The gram sabha is also free to consider all the community, individual as well as cultural and religious claims, over and above the claims which have already been received from Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Any such fresh claims be filed before the gram sabha within six weeks from the date of this judgement. The state government as well as MoTA, Government of India, would assist the gram sabha for settling of individual as community claims."
The MoTA said it is in receipt of copies of several claims under FRA for various rights including religious and cultural rights claimed over Niyamgiri forests and sacred areas from villages over and above the 12 villages selected by the state government.
It further shows that Niyamgiri forests are shared by not just 12 villages, while a number of other villages in Kalahandi and Rayagada too share religious and cultural rights over Niyamgiri, the ministry held.
Referring to Para 53 and 54 of the Supreme Court (SC) judgement, the MoTA letter said, "Such observations cannot be interpreted to assess the number of villages that need to be considered for recognition and vesting of claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Right) Act-2006."
The Odisha chief secretary in his letter to MoTA secretary had stated that a reading of the SC's observation would make it clear that the reference is to the 12 hill slope villages for which affidavit was filed by the Odisha government.
Again, referring to Section 3 (1) (e) of FRA, the letter from the ministry said, "The section addresses the rights of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (Dongria Kondhs and Kutia Kondhs in this case) over their customary habitats or territories which, in local context, comprise the entire Niyamgiri forests and sacred areas, which, as we have learnt, are shared by various clan groups of the local tribal communities. It must be noted here that Rule 12 (B) (1) of the Amendment Rules 2012 specifically deals with the recognition of habitat rights and ensure that all PTG (primitive tribal groups) receive habitat rights, in consultation with the concerned traditional institutions of PTGs and their claims are filed before the concerned gram sabhas. Since the rights to be addressed include habitat rights, it must be ensured that the process of claims covers all the villages and settlements which share these rights."