A tribal rights organisation and individual activists on Monday protested against the lease of forestland in Odisha to Vedanta and the Adani group for bauxite mining, and alleged police repression of protesting tribal youths.
The Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh (MSS) held a news conference in Delhi demanding revocation of an amendment to the forest laws, enacted in July, that allowed the government to lease forestland to the two companies without seeking gram sabha consent.
It also demanded the withdrawal of the cases against the tribal youths, who have been charged with offences such as attempt to murder or booked under the anti-terror law UAPA, allegedly for throwing stones at a visiting team from a mining company.
Forestland has been leased to Vedanta in the Sijimali hills of Rayagada district, and to the Adani group in the Kutrumali hills straddling the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.
At the news conference, lawyer Colin Gonsalves, Delhi University faculty member Jitendra Meena and MSS leader Madhu criticised the Narendra Modi government for amending the Forest Conservation Act.
Gonsalves said that one-fourth of India’s forest cover was “notified forest” and three-fourths were “non-notified” or “deemed” forest.
Under the old law, gram sabha consent was mandatory for the leasing of any area from a notified or non-notified forest. The amendment has waived the requirement for non-notified areas.
Madhu alleged the Odisha government had granted the mining leases illegally — without gram sabha consent — in February, probably in the knowledge that the Centre would have the act amended soon.
He said the two mining projects would lead to the displacement of 180 villages and 2 lakh tribal people.
“The central government amended the forest law to help corporate (groups) take over tribal land,” Gonsalves said.
Madhu said the state police had arrested 22 tribal protesters over the past one month, with 9 of them booked under the UAPA.
“Charges like attempt to murder and the UAPA have been brought against the protesting tribals,” Biswa Priya Kanungo, a human rights activist and lawyer, told The Telegraph.
“Altogether, 94 people have been named and booked for attempt to murder while 200 unnamed people have also been charged.”
Vedanta had a decade ago been forced to abandon its mining plans in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha after the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that permission from the local gram sabhas was a must.
“The next year, 12 gram sabhas in the Niyamgiri hills rejected Vedanta’s mining proposal,” Kanungo said.
In Bhubaneswar, Prafulla Samantara, an anti-mining activist, said: “The mining lobby enjoys government support. This is State-sponsored terrorism.”
Vedanta needs bauxite to feed its smelter plant at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi.
A senior Vedanta official described the protests as “politically motivated” and said: “We always focus on rehabilitation and resettlement.”
Repeated calls to Rayagada superintendent of police Vivekanand Sharma went unanswered.
Odisha steel and mines minister Prafulla Kumar Malik said: “We are not aware of their (the tribal communities’) demands. Once they put forward their demands, we will examine them.”
Malik refused to comment on allegation that the police had tortured tribal protesters, saying: “I am not aware of this.”
Vedanta has awarded the contract for mining at Sijimali to Mythri Infrastructure and Mining India Pvt Ltd.
An FIR lodged by Mythri says when its employees arrived in Sijimali with government officials for an inspection on August 12, tribal protesters threw stones at them.