In a setback for the Odisha government that had sought a virtual reversal of the Supreme Court ruling three years ago against mining in the state's tribal-inhabited Niyamgiri hills, the apex court said on Friday that local gram sabhas can't be reconvened to take a relook at their stand on mining in the locality, as that ''would be tantamount to infringement of the religious, community and individual rights of local forest-dwellers''.
While the April 2013 order banned mining by Vedanta Aluminium in the hills till the gram sabhas cleared it (See: SC extends bauxite ban in Odisha, eases iron ore restrictions), the latest plea from the state government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) was to mine in the region independently.
A bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that it is not inclined to entertain the application. All aggrieved parties shall challenge the decision of gram sabhas and the subsequent refusal of environmental clearance by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) before an appropriate forum, it said.
Senior counsel CA Sundaram, appearing for the state government, argued that the gram sabhas had failed to take into account the court's directive to consider the cultural and religious rights of the tribals and forest dwellers living in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, but have gone beyond their mandate by deciding against mining in the hills. However, the court said that ''that is in your perception. The conclusion is that people don't want mining and then the II stage (environmental) clearance can't be given.''
Earlier on 1 April, the apex court had refused to entertain the state government's plea without hearing all the affected and interested stakeholders including tribals and 12 gram sabhas, and had asked it to amend the application by making all the stakeholders as parties.
In 2013, the court had banned mining in the Niyamgiri hills till local gram sabhas conducted a study and filed a report on whether mining could be allowed in the area.
The government had then identified 12 villages from among more than 100 in the Niyamgiri hills to prepare the reports.
The Niyamgiri Hills - home to 8,000-odd Dongria Kondhs, a primitive tribal group, a few hundred Kutia Kondhs and other forest-dwellers - is considered sacred by the indigenous tribes and others as it is said to be the abode of Niyamraja, their presiding deity.
The MoEF and the Dongria Kondh tribe had also questioned the maintainability of the state government's application.
The Odisha government had scrapped the mining project in 2014 after all 12 gram sabhas voted unanimously against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills.
This had dealt a blow to the alumina refinery of the Vedanta group at Lanjigarh, which was dependent on raw material from the hills. Sundaram said that the gram sabhas should take a fresh look into the issue on the ground that they had rejected the mining proposal of the joint venture project between Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), a state undertaking, and Vedanta.
As the state has since cancelled the JV agreement and decided that mining will be done by only OMC, the original lessee of the deposit, it should be treated as a new proposal, requiring conduct of fresh gram sabhas for forest and environment clearances.
The Vedanta's project had run into rough weather after the MoEF refused Stage II forest clearance in 2010 for diversion of 660 hectares of forest land for bauxite mining in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, based on the Forest Advisory Committee's (FAC) adverse views on violation of rights of the tribal groups and impact on the ecology and biodiversity of the area.