New Delhi, Feb. 20: The Supreme Court today asked the Union government and environmentalists whether it wanted tribal people to live in abject poverty for the next 100 years by insisting that there could be no mining activities in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills for the massive Vedanta-Sterlite aluminium project.
The apex court wondered what could be the objection of tribal people to blend with the mainstream if the government and the project owners pumped in money to provide various welfare measures such as industries, hospitals, schools and employment avenues for them.
“If tribal people are offered modern benefits will they not accept? Do you want them to remain like that for 100 years, collecting firewood and tendu leaves?” a three-judge bench of justices Aftab Alam, K. S. Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi asked solicitor general Mohan Parasaran, who stoutly defended the ministry of environment and forests decision to ban mining activities in the region. Parasaran told the court that mining has been halted by the government to protect the environment and tribal habitats. “Please tell us very clearly how far mining on the hill top infringes their (tribals’) rights,” Justice Alam, whop was heading the bench, asked.
“We don’t really understand what the tribal people require. What if the area is developed and tribals are made aware of it. What do they need. If a large number of tribals say we want to live and stay here that may be a different situation, nevertheless that is an important consideration. But if tribals say they want schools, colleges, employment and hospitals can we say no? Just go by the Forest Advisory Committee. Will this court be right in saying you will not have any such facilities?” Justice Alam asked.
Parasaran argued that in the name of development, the customary, cultural, and ethnic rights of the tribal people could not be destroyed. “You can’t seek to dissect religion and customs. Customs are part of the religion and the Act gives them the right to protect their customs,” the solicitor general said.
To this Justice Radhakrishnan interjected and observed: “It is doubtful whether the religious right will come into question or not? The court also asked another counsel Sanjay Parekh appearing for some of the tribal people as to why he was opposed to the project when the tribes were expected to benefit.
“Of all people, why are you fighting shy of giving them development. Do you want them to lead a life of abject poverty for the next 100 years?” Justice Gogoi asked the counsel, who responded saying that in the past too a number of people have been deprived of their basic needs after being promised rehabilitation in various projects across the country, which never took off.
However, Justice Alam observed: “I am sure they will feel far better after the project takes over. One or two individuals do not reflect a large picture. But we are completely one with you on their rehabilitation.”