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SC stalls Vedanta's mining project

                                                                                                    Deccan Herald, New Delhi, 19 April, 2013

Vedanta Group’s Bauxite Mining Project in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha will remain stalled as the Supreme Court on Thursday directed that clearance to the venture would be subject to the gram sabha deciding the cultural and religious claims of the tribes and forest dwellers of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.

The apex court directed the state government to place issues concerning individual, community, cultural and religious claims of Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Traditional Forest Dwellers (TFDs) before the Gram Sabha which would decide the same in three months.

The court also directed that the “proceedings of the gram sabha shall be attended as an observer by a judicial officer of the rank of the District Judge, nominated by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Orissa.

“The judicial officer shall have to sign the minutes of the proceedings, certifying that the proceedings of the Gram Sabha took place independently and completely uninfluenced either by the project proponents or the Central government or the state government,” a bench comprising justices Aftab Alam, K S Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi said.

The court also said that the “Alumina Refinery Project (of M/s Sterlite) is well advised to take steps to correct and rectify the alleged violations by it of the terms of the environmental clearance granted by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).”

It clarified that the corrective measures taken by it shall be considered by the MoEF while taking any final decision.  The bench said once the gram sabha has determined all the claims submitted before it, the MoEF will take a final decision on the grant of Stage-II clearance for the bauxite mining project in the light of the decisions of the Gram Sabha within two months.

Keeping the “focus mainly on the rights of the Scheduled Tribes and the Traditional Forest Dwellers under the Forest Rights Act”, the court said right of the tribals and forest dwellers to worship their deity Niyam-Raja has to be protected and gram sabha has a role to play in safeguarding their customary and religious rights under the Forest Rights Act.

It also said, “the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers residing in the Scheduled Areas have a right to maintain their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands.”