Faced with flak from the ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) and activists from Niyamgiri for its decision to limit gram sabhas to just 12 villages, Odisha is mulling legal opinion over the possibility of expanding the scope of such meetings.
“We are exploring legal angles to suggestions by MoTA on expanding scope of gram sabhas. If required, views of the law department will be taken,” said Santosh Sarangi, secretary, SC&ST development.
Defending the state’s stand to conduct gram sabhas in 12 villages on Niyamgiri hill slopes, he said, “A close scrutiny of the Supreme Court order dated April 18 would suggest it was referring to the 12 hill slope villages where the meetings were held earlier for settlement of claims under the Forest Right Act (FRA). It would not be feasible to hold gram sabhas in all villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Besides, the process would also be very time-consuming.”
Earlier, the SC&ST department had consulted the law department to interpret the order on holding of gram sabhas, citing lack of clarity.
In line with the views filed by the law department, the state decided to hold gram sabhas to decide the fate of bauxite extraction from Niyamgiri hills in 12 villages. These included seven villages in Rayagada district and five in Kalahandi district.
In his letter to MoTA, Odisha Chief Secretary B K Patnaik said: “At the time of filing of claims, neither the ministry of environment and forests nor MoTA had raised an issue before the court regarding coverage of villages over and above the 12 hill slope villages.” He added a reading of the court’s observation would make clear the reference was to the 12 hill slope villages for which affidavit was filed by Odisha. However, refusing to agree to the state’s contention, MoTA held limiting gram sabha proceedings was not in line with the order and the directions by the ministry under section 12 of FRA.
“The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under FRA or where cultural and religious rights are likely to be affected, cannot be arbitrarily decided by the state government. It is to be decided by the people (palli sabha) where claims would be filed through a transparent manner so that no genuine gram sabha that has a legitimate claim is left out of the process. This is in line with para 59 of the apex court judgement,” Vibha Puri Das, secretary, MoTA, wrote to Odisha chief secretary Patnaik recently.