The last of the twelve villages in Niyamgiri hills, Odisha has announced its decision regarding allowing mining by Vedanta in the region. All have said a big ‘NO’ that resounds loudly across the Niyamgiri.
Following a Supreme Court order earlier this year, Odisha has been conducting public hearings under a district judge in twelve villages to get their views on mining in the hills. Village after village voiced their opposition leading to concern in the mining department in Odisha. Local activists have taken it as a victory, but are concerned about what comes next.
Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanti Natarajan recently wrote a letter to the Union Tribal Affairs Minister, KC Deo asking him to include around 100 villages in the decision-making process. Deo hit back by saying that the environment ministry had the power to stop mining in Niyamgiri and thus it was up to Natarajan to ensure the villages’ inclusion. Even before the union minister’s letter, Odisha BJP leader, Jual Oram had been demanding the inclusion of the 100 villages which consider the Niyamgiri hills as their tribal deity. Since neither are partners to the Biju Janata Dal-ruled government in the state, both the BJP and the Congress have come out in support of the tribal people. However, the Congress has not taken any decisive steps to address the issue, save the lone letter from Natarajan.
The villagers’ decision has brought to fore the debate regarding land acquisition and the pending Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill which is on the anvil during the ongoing monsoon session of the parliament. BJD MP Baijayant Panda told TEHELKA, “This [mining in Niyamgiri] is a complex issue with many arguments on both sides. As far as the overall principle of land acquisition is concerned, the big debate – not only in Odisha, but in the country as a whole – is on how to evolve a fair system that adequately compensates land-losers and provides them further opportunities in a manner that is supported by the majority of displaced people. This process has been abused due to outdated laws but has also been held hostage by some who argue that every single person must agree to any acquisition plan; in other words, providing veto power against major developmental plans to tiny groups of objectors. It is high time that this issue be discussed in Parliament and a national consensus be reached.”
In this case, however, there has been unanimous opposition to mining in Niyamgiri and it could be time for the BJD to re-look its attitude towards mining in a place which has both cultural and religious significance for tribal people and is also the natural habitat of many animals.
It is to be noted that, on paper, Odisha has fared better than other tribal states in the distribution of land titles (pattas) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. According to the Union Ministry for Tribal Affairs, Odisha boasts of having distributed 3,20,149 (3,18,375 individual and 1,774 community) pattas as of June 30, 2013. This is the highest in the country and much higher than neighbouring Jharkhand which has distributed around 16,000. Chattisgarh has also fared well by distributing more than 2 lakh pattas.
Panda said that the BJD is sensitive towards tribal welfare, but laid the onus for change on the parliament in the context of Niyamgiri. “Regarding community rights, Odisha has also set precedents in terms of involving the local population in developmental activities. But in the present context, there are national laws which contradict each other and that needs to be resolved in Parliament rather than within any state,” said Panda.
Till now, it is mostly NGOs and activists who play an important role in the protection of tribal lands and culture. The political players have largely chosen to stay out of the realm of actual action except for legislation and schemes that have poor implementation. In Odisha, the Congress and BJP have limited their efforts to lip-service since both are in opposition in the state legislature. Though Oram, also a national Vice-President of the BJP, may express pro-tribal intentions, his own party was accused of acting against the interests of tribal people while in power in Jharkhand.