On April 18, 2013 India's Supreme Court ruled that village councils should make the final decision as to whether controversial British company Vedanta Resources can mine for bauxite in the eastern state of Odisha. Vedanta wants to mine on land that the local Dongria Kondh people hold sacred.
The controversy over the proposed bauxite mine dates back to 2004, and an international campaign has been waged against Vedanta's plans. The Supreme Court rejected a request from the company to end a ban on mining, and ruled that two local councils, or gram sabhas, should respond within three months on whether or not they want it to proceed.
The Dongria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills and regard the hills and forests as deities. The highest hill, which is in the proposed mining area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja.
On the environmental news site Down To Earth, Richard Mahapatra wrote a blog post called My god v. your resource:
Is a village council qualified to deal with religious beliefs? The answer lies in a recent order by the Supreme Court in the Vedanta case. Gram sabhas (village councils consisting of all voters in a village) in Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts will decide whether the industrial activities of Vedanta violate the constitutional right of tribal communities to worship. Translated into practice, the order means voters in a few villages will decide the fate of the multi-billion-rupee project based on their religious beliefs. Though parroted often that religious belief is a private concern, the apex court’s order is exceptional in making religious decision a community one.
There are a few reasons that make this case interesting. First, it is a perfect case where the government’s power to acquire land for public purpose and having right over minerals are in direct conflict with religious rights of local communities. Secondly, the religious belief in question is that of tribal communities. Unlike many religions, tribal religious beliefs are manifested in tangible living forms like forest, land and water. In this case, the direct conflict between religious belief and public purpose becomes intense as the public purpose acquisitions are the gods and goddesses of the tribals. For the Dongria Kondhs in Odisha, the Niyamgiri hill is the Niyam Raja or god. Thirdly, tribals do not have any supreme religious head or bodies to protect and interpret beliefs. Tribal beliefs are pure functional codes for maintaining the fragile ecology-economy equation that sustains them. This is where the court’s order to assign the village council, that enjoys constitutional powers, to take a call on the religious rights comes as an acknowledgement of the fact that the standard law and religion approach to tribal areas will not work.
Environmentalist Sunita Narain (@sunitanar) commented on the ruling:
@sunitanar: Vedanta judgement is environmentalism of poor. Deepening of democracy way ahead for green growth. Must welcome.
But journalist Prayaag Akbar (@unessentialist) was not impressed with how the ruling was reported:
@unessentialist: A tribal deity won't decide, Times of India, a gram sabha will. So stop sneering. Horrific reporting
At media monitoring website The Hoot, Aritra Bhattacharya noted:
Most reports failed to point out the fact that the court had, in a sense, chosen to bypass the most vexing questions relating to violations of environmental laws in the case. The Supreme Court decision, while granting the ‘right’ to decide on the fate of the bauxite mine to the gram sabhas, chose to set aside all ecological concerns and made religious rights of the Niyamgiri tribals the central plank of the judgement. […] In the coming months, local bodies in the area will have to deal with the following question: will the local deity be disturbed if mining is allowed within a 10-km radius of his/her abode? How much space, and what kind of access will be required to preserve my religious practices and rituals? As is evident, there can be no factual replies to such questions; instead, responses will be based on perceptions.
It has been alleged that the Odisha government and Vedanta are now pushing for gram sabha decisions in favour of the proposed bauxite mining. On May 22 a rally and public meeting of Dongria Kondh took place at Munikhol in Rayagada district, after a five-day march. CGNet Swara citizen journalist Litu Minj reported that the villagers were determined not to allow any company to mine in the Niyamgiri hills.