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SC query on ‘faith’ & bauxite

- Development cannot banish God: Court

New Delhi, Feb. 19: The Supreme Court today put some searching questions to Sterlite-Vedanta Aluminium and the Odisha government as to whether, in the name of development, they could “banish God” and “destroy the faith of the tribals”, who believed that their God existed on top of the Niyamgiri hills.

The matter reached the apex court after the Union ministry of environment and forest’s rejection of the proposal to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills on the grounds that many environmental laws and the tribal people’s special rights of occupation and right to worship had been violated.

“Even if nothing is there in the hills, you can’t destroy the faith of those people. We are not talking about the entire hills, but its highest point, where the tribal people believe their God exists. They believe He is on the hilltop. Can you tell them to take away their God to another place? Are you banishing the God?” the three-judge bench of Justice Aftab Alam, Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Ranjan Gogoi asked senior counsel Aryaman Sundaram appearing for the Odisha government.

The bench posed the query after Sundaram had stated that there was no record or proof to show that there was any temple or tangible idol to prove that the tribal people worshiped on the hilltop.

The court told the counsel that it would be appropriate for the company and the state to seek the consent of the gram sabha to carry out its mining activities as mandated under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

“Under the act, the gram sabhas have to decide the issue. Its consent has to be obtained. Why should we interfere? Why did you put the cart before the horse?” Justice Alam, heading the bench, asked.

The court asked the state as to what would happen to the faith of the tribal people for whom the hilltop was sacred. “For them, it is a matter of faith. Can you dig out Nizamuddin dargah or the dargah in Ajmer?” the court asked.

Sundaram responded, saying the hilltop did not give the tribal people any right to worship. “It does not give them any right to worship at the place. For me, every place is religious. But to say it is a temple, there has to be physical manifestation of an idol. God is all pervasive. It does not mean we can’t carry out any industrial activities. The hill is not sacrosanct,” he said.

The court then retorted: “Yes, nothing is sacrosanct except bauxite mining!”

The Odisha government asserted that the gram sabhas could not be vested with the right of granting consent as the entire country would be held to ransom by the gram sabhas.

Senior counsel K.K. Venugopal, appearing for the Odisha Mining Corporation, denied that within four years, the mining reserves in the hills would be exhausted. He said one million tonnes would be exploited annually and the hills had a reserve of 75 million tonnes. The lease is for a period of 25 years.

“Right of worship cannot prevent the government from setting up industries,” he said.

Senior counsel C.U. Singh, appearing for the Sterlite group, said the Centre had cancelled the lease despite the company complying with all the 21 conditions framed by the ministry of environment and forest. He said the company had invested Rs 121 crore alone towards rehabilitation of the tribal people and promoting wildlife activities.

All these investments will come to a naught if the lease cancellation is not set aside, he said.

Solicitor general Mohan Parasaran will commence his arguments tomorrow.