After years of raging controversy over bauxite mining at Niyamgiri hills, it is down to the most crucial part now. Conduct of gram sabhas for establishing religious as well as cultural rights of the Dongria Kandh, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), will kick off from Thursday.
All preparations for the first palli sabha meeting at Serkapadi village of Rayagada district have been put in place. The sarpanch notification has been issued, chits have been distributed in every home and drummers have spread the word. At the stroke of 11 am on Thursday, the tribals will decide if they want to part with Niyamgiri hills, a bio-diversity hotspot and their lifeline.
The District Judge of Rayagada will be the observer for the meeting and the State Government has made adequate security arrangement. The meeting at Serkapadi will be the first in the series of gram sabhas set to be conducted in 12 villages of Kalahandi and Rayagada districts. On April 18, the apex court had ruled that palli sabhas should take a final call on the proposed bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills.
The gram sabhas will be conducted in seven villages of Rayagada district from July 18 to August 19 and in five villages of Kalahandi between July 23 and 30.
While the apex court order stipulates that the palli sabha meeting must remain uninfluenced by either the Centre or the State Government, the presence of outsiders such as media and NGOs working in the region will be decided by the District Judge, Special Officer of Dongria Kandh Development Agency S Srinath Rao said.
The run-up to the meetings has generated enough heat with activists questioning the inter-departmental committee which investigated the claims of the tribals and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) living in the regions. The committee has listed at least 16 claim applications for rights over the hills. Three of them relate to religious and cultural rights over at least 35 acre.
The committee’s report says that 20 individual claims were settled in the village before 2009-2010 and no new individual claims in Sherkapadi were placed by the tribal residents subsequently. While the tribal activists and green brigade claim that the Government is trying to set the agenda for the meeting by placing the report, Srinath refutes the charges. ‘’The team has to demarcate the land over which the claim applications were filed since the exact records such as plot and khata number as well as kisam must be presented before the palli sabha for its consideration,’’ he said.
The bauxite mining project is key to Vedanta Alumina Limited’s alumina refinery project at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district.