This report comes from Foil Vedanta’s friend in the court room as the Niyamgiri case continues…
19th February 2013
Last week, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in the ongoing Vedanta case, saying the government and not the tribals and forest dwellers will have the final say in diversion of forestland for mining projects. FRA states that forest dwellers cannot be resettled from forestland unless their traditional rights over such land are recognised, and a 2009 order of MoEF had made it mandatory for all the projects which require forestland diversion to obtain consent of the affected gram sabhas (village councils). In December last year, the ministry stated in the court that the forest dwellers protected by FRA cannot be displaced except for protection of wildlife. However, in a change of stance on February 15, the ministry said in the court that consent of the people will be required only in cases where displacement of large number of people is involved and which affect the quality of life of the people. While the ministry did not even mention its 2009 order in the affidavit, it said the mining proposal should not be allowed because Dongria Kondh tribals have been protecting and worshipping Niyamgiri hills for centuries as their sacred deity. Mining on that land will undermine the customary rights of Dongria Kondhs to manage their own affairs in the matter of religion and fundamental right to conserve their culture. This stance provided the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMCL) and Sterlite Industries (the Indian arm of Vedanta) fodder and weakened the case against Vedanta. Clearly, the ministry has backtracked when asked to take a stand on the issue by the court.
The day started with Mr.Sundaram laying arguments for Orissa Mining Corporation (OMCL) and Sterlite Industries, and making a desperate case for why mining should be allowed in the Niyamgiri hills. He stated that the question of ecology and environment had already been tackled in previous judgements in November, 2007 and August, 2008 which had considered all the alleged violations under the EPA and FCA. Hence, this need not be discussed further and the only thing that the counsel needs to counter is the accusation of violation of FRA. Mr.Sundaram stated that there are no individual claims under FRA remaining and all claims had been settled — except 185 pending cases, which however, are not under the ambit of the proposed mining area. At this point, Justice Aftab Alam interjected to say, “Mr.Sundaram, this statement of yours that there is no claim remaining in the mining area is rather suspicious”. To this, Mr.Sundaram went on to rapidly quote a whole string of data about claims which have been settled and about land allocated. Then he said that 6 community claims were made to the Gram Sabha. Out of the 6 cases, 3 cases were claims on “pinpointed” areas and those claims had been settled and 16055 acres were allotted. However, the remaining three claims are for the whole mountain as a sacred hill, which Mr.Sundaram tried to say is not valid, and he went on to make a whole host of ridiculous arguments to prove it. The fact that FRA mandates that forest dwellers cannot be evicted from the land under their occupation till the recognition and vesting of rights under the Act is complete applies to the land under occupation only and not to the undefined territories used by the communities, he said.“Recognition of community rights can be a continuous process”, screamed Mr.Sundaram, “besides, the project is not evicting the tribals from the land under their occupation; the vesting of individual rights is already complete”. He went on to explain how the meaning of “habitat” under the FRA should be read only as occupational right, and not as usage rights to a whole area, in this case, the whole mountain. Territorial right under the FRA, Sundaram claimed, has to be with “holding the land of occupation”, and community right as the “right to specific identified areas”, as in the case of the 3 community claims that have been settled. He further argued that only in the case of occupation, forest rights need to be recognised at the advent. Hence, according to the counsel, the 3 community claims to the whole mountain, “have no merit”. To this, Justice Aftab Alam said that this decision had to be made by the concerned gram sabha. Sundaram vehemently replied, “one gram sabha cannot hold state to ransom” —– “I am the State government, it is my mine and my minerals, my usage cannot be prevented by one gram sabha!” he asserted.
Even more ridiculous than the above arguments was when Mr.Sundaram sought to put forward the case for why the community claim to the mountain as a place of worship is not valid. Mr. Sundaram claimed that the FRA nowhere talks about religion, and hence sacred rights cannot be interpreted into the Act. He said that the FRA is not where scared rights come from, but from Article 25 and other provisions of the Constitution. At this, Justice Aftab Alam asked, “Why are you trying to split up rights? Sacred rights are as much part of identity as any right, which makes it a question of survival. You cannot tell the tribals take your God to another place.” Mr.Sundaram went on trying to desperately prove his point with statements such as this, “Religious right is different. Does your right to believe in all pervasive lord be taken to imply that even the building that we are arguing at this moment is an intrusion into God’s space?”; “Religious right gives you the right to worship, but not the right to property”; “there needs to be atleast a shrine or something, when one’s belief is so intangible and nebulous as in the case of the Dongria Kond, one cannot take it to the extreme in the forms of rights”; “there is anomaly, when you say this mountain is my God and then also graze cattle there”; “these community claims to the whole mountain were instigated by NGOs, it never came from the people”; “the question is how far we can stretch religious rights? Does FRA prevent development?”. This line of argument was also made possible by the weakened stand taken my MoEF in its affidavit in the court, which basically reduced the whole issue of compliance with FRA to the violation of sacred rights of Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs).
After arguing that religious rights do not include rights to property and that there needs to be tangible limitations to what right to worship encompasses, Mr.Sundaram very cunningly tried to make the case for how the “wrong hilltop” was being talked about. Presenting a map to the judges, he showed to the them how the highest peak of the mountain is not Niyamgiri, but Nimagiri, which is not under the proposed mining area —- “Nimagiri is the abode of their god and there is also some sort of concrete structure of worship at that peak”, he claimed. He talked about how the Saxena committee report had got it all wrong because it says that the Dongria Kond worship the highest peak, which in their report is Niyamgiri, which is factually incorrect. Mr.Sundaram thus, made the submission that the mining site is not the abode of God for the Dongria Kond, as it is not the highest peak. At this point, the bench asked, “So since Nimagiri is the highest point, are you trying to infer that it is the sacred peak and abode?” Mr.Sundaram also gave the judges copies of a 1986 publication by the Socio-cultural Research Institute in Bhuwaneshwar. He read out various passages from this book by ‘experts’, to show that “Niyam Raja is obsolete”, and since there are small structures dedicated to Niyamraja outside every village hut of the tribals, “it is in their houses that the gods are”. Here, Justice Aftab Alam made a very pertinent point, when he said, “Mr.Sundaram, it has happened so many times in history that some learned persons have told people – this is your religion, this is what your belief should be. We have to clarify what the tribals see as their belief.”. It is important to mention here, an exchange that took place in court during this conversation. Mr. Sundaram proclaimed, “Belief is not sacrosanct”. At this Justice Aftab Alam asked, “Bauxite is sacrosanct then, is it?”, to which Mr.Sundaram replied, “No, but Economic Development is sacrosanct. We are talking about one of the most backward districts in the country here.”
During this hearing, Mr.Sundaram also again reiterated the Orissa state government’s grievances on the Saxena Committee report. He mentioned how one hour after the state government had met with Jairam Ramesh raising objections to the report, Mr. Ramesh had gone on to announce the cancellation of mining based on the report. Mr.Sundaram complained that the report was biased, “I only had one meeting with NC Saxena, where he appreciated the implementation of FRA in Orissa as the minutes show”. The counsel also challenged the CEC’s calculation that with expansion of the refinery, bauxite from the mountain will run out in 4years — instead, they argued that it would last for the next 25years. The counsel also brought up the issue of the Mines and Minerals Act, and said how the FRA cannot neutralise the provisions of this Act, as the FRA itself states that it is in addition to, and not in derogation of other Acts. They also argued that the issue of expansion of the refinery is not relevant, as it is a separate matter from mining. The case was also made for rehabilitation and compensation, and about how the mining process will and has already generated employment in the area, while bringing in development and infrastructure in the form of schools, hospitals, roads etc.
The hearing started with the Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran laying down his case. He stressed how the compliance with FRA needs to be “independently” acknowledged, and final clearance cannot be considered only after community rights have been secured. He also stated that Vedanta was guilty of not only non-compliance, but also of violation of numerous conditions. On being asked by the bench, the Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran listed in a detailed manner a series of 13 violations by Vedanta. Mr. Parasaran said that the court by its Aug 8, 2008, order had granted the clearance only for stage one of the project and the automatic clearance for stage two did not flow from that and it could not be reduced to a mere formality. Mr. Parasaran said the court by its order had itself said that the Ministry of Environment and Forest would decide clearing the stage two of the project in “accordance with law.”
Mr.Parasaran argued that since the meaning of habitat is ambiguous under the FRA, “it should be given the widest possible meaning, so as not to restrict the scope of the right, especially when it is a remedial right. He then elaborated on the ‘integrated’ way of life of the Dongria Kond, and the forms of their livelihood which included grazing, horticulture etc. — making the case for why access and usage rights to the mountain range is important to the tribals in numerous ways. Territorial rights under the FRA thereby, needs to be interpreted “beyond just village boundaries”. During this argument, Justice Aftab Alam asked, “But will tribals continue to be tribals all life? If offered the benefits of the modern age, will they not accept it? Will they live for ages and ages on grazing for their livelihood?”. Here, the Solicitor General, pointed out how the FRA provides for infrastructure and amenities such as schools, hospitals, roads, aaganwadis, drinking water, minor irrigation facilities, tanks, fair-price shops etc. Justice Alam was not convinced, and commented, “These amenities are beneficiary in nature to be provided by the state, what about generation of employment?”. There were other statements such as there from the bench “What if the tribals don’t want to continue how they are living and they want modern facilities?; If 5000 of the 7000 Dongria Kond say that they want development, you cannot tell them that – no you cannot have these modern amenities, as that is not what the FRA expects you to do.; What is it that the tribals really want?”. The bench also commented that it will have to be ascertained how much of the infrastructure and development espoused by Vedanta is actually there on the ground. They acknowledged the possibility that the tribals may want these developmental benefits, but still not want the company Vedanta to be there. To this, Mr.Sundaram from the company’s side interjected saying, “There is NO objection from tribals, my Lord”.
The Solicitor General also read out various sections from the NC Saxena Committee report, which included testimonials from individuals of the Dongria Kond who would be affected by the mining. When one of the testimonial was being read out, Justice Alam expressed confusion saying, “Why are people saying ‘we cannot leave our land’? Why this apprehension that they are going to be displaced, when the company says that there would be no displacement for mining? If the consequence of mining operation is that it will displace the tribals, that is a very serious matter and it demolishes Mr.Sundaram’s arguments from yesterday”. Mr.Parasan responded that even if mining might not be directly displacing the people, it has a severe impact on their lives. To this, Justice Radhakrishnan remarked, “By that logic, we would have to stop all mining in the country”. The Solicitor General argued that it does not always have to be the case, but sought to explain how with respect to Vedanta the consequences of mining would be disastrous on the Dongria Kond. He further read out the section on “Impact of Mining” from the NC Saxena Committee Report to support his argument.
Mohan Parasaran then went on to make the case for how religious and sacred rights come under the ambit of the FRA. He pointed out to clause 3.1.(j) which states “rights….which are accepted as rights of tribals under any traditional or customary law of the concerned tribes of any State” and to clause 3.1.(l) which states “any other traditional right customarily enjoyed by the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers……….”. He reasoned that religious right in the form of right to their sacred mountain for the Dongria Kond has to be read as a customary and traditional right, which falls under the jurisdiction of the FRA. To this, Justice Radhakrishan enquired, “But the clauses you mention are under the heading of Forest Rights, why include religious right in an Act such as this?”. The Solicitor General responded saying that, “The FRA should not exclude any right for a forest-dweller.” He also referred to a previous court judgement with regard to a case involving Shias and Shunnis, that mentions “customary right to perform religious practice”.
The afternoon session of the hearing started with the Mr.Parasaran reading out the summary of the NC Saxena report, on request by the bench. When he was reading out the paragraph in the report that talks about how no consultations where conducted with the gram sabhas about this project, Justice Alam remarked how it was “a completely opposite picture” to what Mr.Sundaram had presented the day before. When the question about the the fact that the process of determination of rights under FRA had not been completed at the level of the gram sabha, the bench enquired if “the union can vest gram sabhas with such powers that the powers of the State government is nullified”. To this, the Solicitor General pointed to specific articles in the Constitution that empowered gram sabhas in this manner. He also mentioned that given that the mining area is notified as a Scheduled area, gram sabhas here especially have a strong mandate. Vedanta was hence, also guilty of non-implementation of PESA. Also he clarified that MoEF cannot grant clearance unless FRA procedure is fully complete, irrespective of the fact if people have filed claims or not.
The next submission of the day was by Advocate Sanjay Parikh who is representing the tribals in the case. He first expressed his grievance that he had not yet been allowed to present his case, given that the tribals ought to be the main affected party in this case. Mr.Parikh began his submission by quoting a paragraph from the book “Out of This Earth” by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, where to the question of “What is your religion?”, the Dongria Kond tribal replies, “Mountains”. In fact, the OMC lawyer objected to the reference from this book, saying that it was written by academics and activists who are politically motivated and have led a campaign against Vedanta. Mr.Parikh used this instance to illustrate how we have to understand and be sensitive to the culture and beliefs of the Dongria Kond, as it is very different from the mainstream perceptions of our society. He argued that the determination of the rights vested in this context has to be done by the gram sabha. Just a few minutes after Mr.Parekh had started his submission, the bench bombadred him with a whole host of questions that were steeped in a very poor understanding of tribal issues and values, and also displayed a highly patronising narrative. Some of those questions were – “Have the tribals been made aware of the material benefits that will come to them under the orders of this court? Only once they are aware of this, can they give conscious and informed consent!; Can you read out any section in the NC Saxena Committee report where they have specifically rejected the modern benefits?; The tribals have been living this way of life for hundreds of years, you want them to do that for hundred more years? They cannot remain primitive forever; Are you Mr.Parikh, of all people, trying to say that they are destined to live in poverty for the next hundred years also?; They are being told all negative impacts of mining, the FRA does not ban them from choosing modernity, if they see it as better for them”; As long as this court is there, how can their land be taken away? By an order of this court guaranteeing the benefits of modernity, wouldn’t we undo some of the historical injustice you refer to Mr. Parikh?”. Justice Aftab Alam emphasised that “this court will take utmost cognisance of the wish of tribals, but the wish must be conscious after being made aware of the good and bad impacts of mining”, although he said that “it will not be determinative”. To these various statements, Mr.Parikh tried to make the case for how the bench is using the wrong lens to look at the matter. “If we ask critically, development benefit has gone to whom, My Lord?”, asked Mr.Parikh. He argued how we cannot use the same parameters used for mainstream society to decide on what the tribals want – for instance, for most tribal communities, happiness is not derived from material wants, but from a sustainable way of life that lives in harmony with nature. “This integrated way of living should be protected”, said Mr.Parikh. Mr.Parikh also presented some individual tales of Dongria Kond tribals and their opinions about the adverse effect that the proposed mining will bring to their way of life. At this, the bench interjected to say, “I am sure the other side can present 15 affidavits from members of the Dongria Kond, along with photos, stating how the mining activity will change their lives for the better. One or two incidents cannot demonstrate the larger picture – which is what we are interested in”. Here, Mr.Parikh talked about the pollution of ground water caused by the refinery, and as well as how if the mining started, the source of the rivers at the top of the mountain, which allows for their livelihood and survival will be destroyed. These he claimed are gross and large scale violations of rights which has and will put the survival of the Dongria Kond at stake, and also provides us with a larger picture. Given the unethical practices of Vedanta so far, the Dongria Kond cannot trust the company at all. Mr. Parikh pointed out that “it is the responsibility of the state to provide and facilitate for development. The state has not been doing that, and how can we expect a private company to come in now and do this?”. He also mentioned that even in the case of the Jarava tribes of the Andamans, it was the same debate with regard to development through tourism. In this case, the court decided in favour of protection of the tribals.
The session ended with a short submission by the representative of CEC, Mr. Raj Pajwani, who argued that once mining starts, there might not be physical displacement, but the habitat of the Dongria Kond will be destroyed – “once you cut off the source, then what happens to rivers and agriculture?”, he said. The CEC’s submission also reiterated the various violations of procedure committed by Vedanta.
I was not present in Court this day. The day started with Mr.Parikh finishing his case on behalf of the tribals from the day before. The CEC also made another submission. It ended with OMC and Vedanta side presenting a response. The final arguments for the case have been laid down now. The bench has reserved judgement on the matter.