Nature Talk

Niyam-Raja as the Saviour!

    The protection and preservation of tribal culture, in the face of advancing juggernaut of development, is as important as the economic resettlement and rehabilitation of the tribals. This message unambiguously flows from the judgment of the Supreme Court of India (Orissa Mining Corporation vs. Ministry of Environment and Forest & others) pronounced in the recent past (18 April 2013). This judgment dealt with the denial of the MOEF (Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India), to grant Stage-II clearance to the Orissa Mining Corporation for its Bauxite Mining Project (BMP) in Niyamgiri Hills. The tribals inhabiting the area in and around Niyamgiri Hills, since the advent of Vedanta Alumina in Lanjigarh, have been living haunted by the prospect of losing their right to worship the deity Niyam-Raja once the bauxite mining of Niyamgiri is allowed. This judgment, to say the least, has come as a relief to them, as the Apex Court has acknowledged in no uncertain terms ‘their right to worship the deity Niyam-Raja’ with emphasis on this right ‘to be protected and preserved’. This right is implied by the right to Freedom of Religion, a fundamental right, enshrined in the Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India, that, in the words of Apex Court, ‘guarantee them the right to practice and propagate not only matters of faith or belief, but all those rituals and observations, which are regarded as integral part of their religion’.

    As Gram Sabha, a village assembly comprising all adult members of the village, is empowered by law such as Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, ‘to safeguard and preserve the traditions, customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and community mode of dispute resolution’, and further, as no land acquisition can begin for any development project without consulting it; nor any prospective license or mining lease for minor minerals can be granted without its recommendation, the Apex Court, in its judgment, held the ‘view that the question whether STs (Scheduled Tribes) and other TFDs (Traditional Forest Dwellers), like Dongaria Kondh, Kutia Kandha, and others, have got any religious rights i.e. rights of worship over the Niyamgiri Hills, known as Nimagiri, near Hundaljali, which is the hill-top known as Niyam-Raja, have to be considered by the Gram Sabha. Gram Sabha can also examine whether the proposed mining area, Niyama Danger, 10 km away from the peak, would in any way affect the abode of Niyam-Raja. Needless to say, if the BMP, in any way, affects their religious rights, especially their right to worship their deity, known as Niyam-Raja, in the hill-top of the Niyamgiri range of hills, that right has to be preserved and protected’ (paragraph-58 of the Judgment). As previously ‘this aspect of the matter has not been placed before the Gram Sabha for their active consideration’, the Apex Court directed ‘the State of Orissa to place these issues before the Gram Sabha, with notice to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, and the Gram Sabha would take a decision on them within three months and communicate the same to the MOEF, through the state government. On the conclusion of the proceeding before the Gram Sabhas determining the claims submitted before it, the MOEF shall take a final decision on the grant of Stage-II clearance for the Buxite Mining Project in the light of the decisions of the Gram Sabhas within two months thereafter’ (paragraph-60). In order to ensure that Gram Sabha proceedings are conducted with complete independence and without any external influence, the Apex Court prescribed 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 who shall 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’ (paragraph-62).

    While giving effect to the Apex Court’s order, dispute has risen over the selection of villages to hold Gram Sabha meetings. The Central government, as well as the Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), have objected to the State government’s selection of only 12 villages (seven in Rayagada district and five in Kalahandi) in the slopes of Niyamgiri Hills. While the central government alleges that such selection of villages is not in compliance with the Apex Court’s order and threatens to move the Apex Court against the State government, the Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti proposes to hold Gram Sabhas in 100 more villages spread over Rayagada and Kalahandi. Such objections, however, could not deter the State government from going ahead with the proceedings of Gram Sabhas. It has already conducted Gram Sabha meetings in eight villages, three villages of Rayagada district and five of Kalahandi district.  Interestingly, in all these Gram Sabha meetings have been heard unequivocal NO to the mining in Niyamgiri Hills. Tribal or non tribal, they all consider Niyam-Raja as their presiding deity and maintain that their customary right to worship Niyam-Raja would be robbed if mining in  Niyamgiri hills is allowed. Four more villages are left, all in Rayagada district,  the process is slated to be completed by 19th August 2013.

    Let us hope this trend continues till the process ends, and the MOEF honours the sentiment of the tribal people and echoes their voice to say ‘no’ to mining of the Niyamgiri Hills. Let this be the first instance where preservation of local culture finds precedence over the adversarial economic development. (BKN)