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First people's court rejects Vedanta, tribals stake claim to entire Niyamgiri hills

Serkepadhi (Muniguda): The palli sabha at Serkapadhi village registered strong opposition to the proposed bauxite mining by Vedanta and claimed religious and cultural rights on the entire Niyamgiri hills after three and a half hours of high drama today.

At the meeting, Dongria Kondh villagers, both men and women, spoke emotionally and angrily in the presence of the Rayagada district judge appointed as the independent observer.

Village head signs the palli sabha resolution after 3.5 hours of high drama. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

Village head signs the palli sabha resolution after 3.5 hours of high drama. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

Tempers soared midway when villagers insisted on scraping a report prepared by the state government limiting their community forest rights last week and later refused to sign the resolution.

As the deadlock continued, the judge at one point threatened to call off the day's proceedings.

Finally, the Dongria Kondhs relented after the palli sabha resolution was amended to categorically record their claim over the entire Niyamgiri hills.

Following the 18 April Supreme Court order that asked the state to honour the ancient tribe’s religious and other rights within three months, the state government notified on 2 July that palli sabhas would be held at 12 villages in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts between 18 July and 19 August.

Despite severe criticism of its selection of only 12 out of 162 villages in and around Niyamgiri for holding palli sabhas, the state government stuck to its decision after the state's Advocate General (AG) backed the same.

Even Union Minister of Tribal Affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo was overruled. He had written to the state government, arguing that limiting Gram Sabha proceedings to only 12 villages was not in accordance with the Supreme Court order and directions issued by his 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 which has a legitimate claim is left out of the process,” Vibha Puri Das, secretary, MoTA, had written to the state chief secretary.

Many see a deliberate ploy in the state’s selection of a dozen tiny hamlets to settle the Rs 40,000-crore issue.

“It may not be without reason that a few smaller villages have been chosen, leaving out the bigger ones. We do not know what the government is up to. For example, Ijiurpa, one of the selected villages in Kalahandi district, is non-existent. It has only one non-residential family and no voters,” claims CPI-ML’s Azad.