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Adivasis Sidelined in Corporate Tug-of-War Over Odisha Bauxite Block

Ayaskant Das |
The consent of local communities for extracting minerals is mandatory in areas classified under Schedule V of the Constitution.

Bauxite in yercaud. Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: The rights of local Adivasis have been ignored as corporate giants compete over a block of rich bauxite deposits in a tribal-dominated region of southwest Odisha. 

Billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal’s London-headquartered Vedanta Group has sought an environmental clearance to commence mining from the Sijimali bauxite block, awarded by the Odisha government. 

On the other hand, multibillion-dollar conglomerate Larsen & Toubro (L&T) has filed a case in the Supreme Court (SC) challenging an Odisha High Court (HC) order that disentitled it from obtaining the block’s mining lease.

The consent of local communities for extracting minerals or the proposed diversion of forestland was never obtained.

The mining area is spread over, at least, 18 villages in the tribal-dominated districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada, classified under Schedule V in the Constitution due to the preponderance of the Adivasi population. The consent of the entire adult population of these villages through Gram Sabhas is mandatory before exploiting their natural resources.

Further, the consent of Gram Sabhas is also essential because around 700 hectares of forestland on which local communities depend for their livelihoods are proposed to be cleared for the project. 

These rights are guaranteed to local communities through the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA).

Notwithstanding the uncertainty looming over the Adivasis of the two districts, the Vedanta Group’s proposal for an environmental impact assessment for the project was taken up for consideration by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on May 30. The committee has asked Vedanta to furnish additional details before handing it out terms of reference for the assessment.

“Under PESA and FRA, no private mining can be allowed in this area without a prior discussion and consent by the Gram Sabhas, supported by a resolution of the Odisha Tribal Advisory Council,” retired bureaucrat EAS Sarma wrote to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) in February.

“It appears that the concerned authorities are not in compliance with that statutory requirement, which renders allotment of the mine to any private party illegal,” he wrote.

Through preliminary studies, as many as 100 families have been identified to be displaced for the mining project from the 18 villages, spread across Thuamul Rampur and Kashipur tehsils of Kalahandi and Rayagada, respectively. The livelihoods of an additional 500 families will also be affected. However, Vedanta has estimated that the project will generate only 374 jobs.

Sarma pointed out in the letter that the project’s feasibility should also be considered in the light of the restrictive provisions of the Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (By Scheduled Tribes) Regulation, 1956, which prohibits alienation of land and minerals in Schedule V areas of the state to private parties. 

Nearly, 128 hectares of private land is also sought to be acquired by Vedanta for the project. This acquisition is set to take place against the aforementioned regulations, which prohibit the transfer of immovable properties by members of tribal communities except for mortgage-against-loan for agriculture (See Paragraph 3 (1)).

Experts have also pointed out that any takeover of Adivasis land by a private party to extract natural resources is null and void as per the Supreme Court’s landmark Samatha vs State Of Andhra Pradesh And Ors verdict in July 1997.

“This is a classic case where big businesses have cozied up to politics to corner precious natural resources bypassing local communities, who are the rightful owners,” said Rebbapragada Ravi, chairperson of mines, minerals & PEOPLE, an alliance of individuals and communities affected by mining.

“The Samatha case dealt with a statute in Andhra Pradesh similar to the regulation in force in Odisha prohibiting the illegal transfer of properties belonging to tribal communities in Schedule V areas. In the Samatha verdict, the Andhra Pradesh High Court held that mining by a private agency in Scheduled V areas of the state was invalid. The directions in the judgement should be equally valid in Odisha because of the regulation,” Ravi added.

Vedanta has proposed to extract 9 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of bauxite from Sijimali on a lease area of 1549.02 hectares via opencast mining. More than two-thirds of the lease area belongs to the state government. 

Apart from the livelihood and displacement of Adivasis communities, substantial environmental issues are involved. The EAC has pointed out that, at least, two villages affected by the project fall within the notified eco-sensitive zone of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary. 

The protected sanctuary is home to many threatened species, including the tiger and the elephant. Vedanta had stated in its application to the EAC that the project site does not fall within the eco-sensitive zone of the sanctuary.

The Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government has allotted the bauxite block to Vedanta amid a court battle over ownership of its mining lease. The state government issued its letter of intent to Vedanta on March 1 based on the results of an auction in February. 

A day later, the Odisha HC issued an order directing that L&T, which has been holding the prospecting licence of the block for more than three decades, is not entitled to its mining lease.

In 2015, the Odisha government had recommended to the Narendra Modi government to award the bauxite block—and another adjacent bauxite block named Kutrumali—to L&T. 

Though L&T has been holding prospecting licences of these blocks since the early 90s, the Odisha government was reluctant to give it mining leases because the corporate entity was never successful in setting up an end-use plant in the state for bauxite it would extract as per the original terms and conditions.

prefeasibility report had been submitted by L&T in February 2020 to extract 6 MTPA bauxite from Sijimali.

Vedanta filed an application with the ministry on May 4 demanding terms of reference to carry out an environmental impact assessment for the mining projects soon after it was awarded the letter of intent. 

Meanwhile, L&T challenged the Odisha HC order in the apex court, which said that any lease agreement for the Sijimali bauxite block will be subject to the final verdict.

“For grant of interim relief is concerned, it is suffice to direct that if any lease is granted or any agreement is executed, the same shall be subject to final outcome of the petition,” a Division Bench comprising Justice JK Maheshwari and Justice MM Sundresh ordered on May 15.

Replying to a detailed questionnaire emailed to it about its course of action if the SC overturned the Odisha HC order, a Vedanta spokesperson said: “Any mine operations shall be as per regulatory provisions and within the extent of laws after obtaining all statutory clearances.”

Less than a week after it was awarded the letter of intent for the Sijimali block, Vedanta had written to the Odisha government on March 9 demanding suitable land for compensatory afforestation against the 700 hectares of forestland it has proposed to clear for the project. 

The Rayagada district administration has reportedly already initiated the process to identify land for the project even as the consent of local communities hasn’t been obtained.

“The NCST has taken cognisance of my letter highlighting that consent has so far not been obtained from Scheduled Tribe communities in Kalahandi and Rayagada for the mining project. The NCST has registered it as a complaint and called for a report from the Ministry of Mines and the district magistrates (DMs) of Rayagada and Kalahandi. The NCST enquiry is going on,” Sarma said.

Kalahandi DM P Anvesha Reddy did not respond to calls. Her Rayagada counterpart SD Singh said that the consent of local communities would be sought when land acquisition starts. 

“Land acquisition for the Sijimali bauxite block mining project has not yet commenced. Due process of law will be followed to obtain the consent of Adivasi communities as and when land acquisition starts,” she said.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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