Coerced Gram Sabhas in Sijimali: A Grave Travesty of Justice


  • December 10, 2023
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By Groundxero | 10 Dec, 2023

 

Peasant unions, Adivasi organizations, Trade Unions and social activists in Odisha have issued a joint statement condemning the farce of Gram Sabhas carried out by the Odisha Government in the Sijimali region to hasten the process of bauxite mining for Vedanta Limited. 

 

They have expressed outrage and concern over the illegal and manipulative tactics of the Odisha government in terrorizing and coercing the indigenous people to attend the hurriedly held “Gram Sabhas” without prior notice and validate the diversion of forest lands for the Sijimali Bauxite Mining Project of Vedanta Company.

 

On Friday, 8th December 2023, nearly 10 buses of armed police forces were deployed across villages in Sijimali hills in South Odisha to assist the district administration of Rayagada and Kalahandi to held “Gram Sabhas” and get villagers’ consent for the diversion of forest lands for the Mining Project. 

 

The activists pointed out that the Odisha government has resorted to such illegal and manipulative tactics following months of stiff opposition to the bauxite mining project by the local people. They said that in its desperate attempt to manufacture consent for the mining project, the district administration has hurriedly carried out Gram Sabhas without prior notice, and hundreds of armed police personnel were deployed in the Sijimali area to threaten people and pressurize them to sign consent forms stating that they had agreed to divest their sacred lands for mining.

 

In February 2023, Vedanta Limited was declared by the Odisha government as the preferred bidder to mine Sijimali bauxite reserve, which covers an area of 1549.022 hectares of Sijimali hills, estimated to have 311 million tons of bauxite. However, neither prior consultation was done with the local villagers nor consent was taken from them before leasing out the hills, even though the mining area is spread over more than 18 tribal dominated villages classified under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution due to dense presence of indigenous population in the villages.

 

In a press statement, the social movements and activists have condemned the government’s tactic of obtaining consent of Gram Sabhas at gunpoint by violating the rights of indigenous people of Sijimali hills. They have demanded the proper implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006, and called upon the Odisha Government to cancel the mining lease granted to Vedanta Limited. 

 

PRESS STATEMENT

 

December 10, 2023

Bhubaneswar, Odisha

 

Coerced Gram Sabhas in Sijimali: A Grave Travesty of Justice

 

Today, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, while the rest of the world is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we express our deep concern and despair at the violation of rights of the indigenous people of Sijimali hills in Odisha. On Friday, 8th December 2023, nearly 10 buses of armed police forces were deployed across villages in Sijimali hills to assist the district administration of Rayagada and Kalahandi to jointly unleash a reign of terror. The purpose was to coerce the indigenous people to attend hurriedly held “Gram Sabhas”, to validate the diversion of forest lands for the Sijimali Bauxite Mining Project of Vedanta Company. These tactics follow months of stiff opposition to the bauxite mining project by people, leading the state to again resort to coercive and manipulative tactics to get its own way. In its desperate attempt to manufacture the consent of the villagers, the district administration has hurriedly carried out Gram Sabhas, and without prior notice, thereby rendering them illegal on this count as well. 

 

The Sijimali bauxite reserve spreads over both Thuamal Rampur block in Kalahandi District and Kashipur block in Raygada District. In February 2023, Vedanta Limited was declared by the Odisha government as the preferred bidder to mine Sijimali bauxite reserve, which covers an area of 1549.022 hectares of Sijimali hills, estimated to have 311 million tons of bauxite. However, neither prior consultation was done with the local villagers nor consent was taken from them before leasing out the hills, even though the mining area is spread over more than 18 tribal dominated villages classified under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution due to dense presence of indigenous population in the villages. Under the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), private mining in Schedule V areas cannot be allowed without prior discussion and consent by the Gram Sabhas. Yet, such statutory requirements were clearly ignored. Therefore, the process of leasing out Sijimali Bauxite reserve is illegal and a clear violation of PESA and FRA. 

 

As villagers started organizing themselves to resist  the entry of the company for mining, the Odisha government resorted to severe repression. In early August 2023, twenty four leading activists were arrested (now released on bail after three months) on false charges. Nearly 93 people from Adivasi and Dalit communities were named along with 100 others in FIRs lodged by the company officials alleging them of rioting, murder and several other charges under different sections of the IPC.   

 

After putting the leaders in jail, a weak and highly incomplete Environment Impact Assessment Report was put out to the public on 14th September 2023. The numbers of water sources and perennial streams in the affected area was gravely undercounted. The cultural significance of the hill as the sacred abode of their deity Tijimali was ignored. The land as the main source of life and livelihood was overlooked. 

 

The state and the agents of the company also collaborated in creating a wedge within the community by conducting a rally on 5th October 2023 in favor of the quick implementation of the project.  

 

Intense police repression and harassment by the company goons across the villages in the Sijimali hills continued till mid-October. 

 

Public hearings to gain the environmental clearance had now been scheduled by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board. Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and repression, at the public hearings for environmental clearance held on 16th and 18th October 2023, at Sunger and Kerpai panchayats, the villagers clearly opposed the mining proposal.  

 

In its desperate attempt to divert forest land, on 14th November 2023, the Odisha state cabinet approved to amend the Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (by ST) Regulation Act 1956, which would allow tribals in Schedule V areas to sell or mortgage their land to non-tribals with the written permission of the sub-collector. However, in the face of severe criticisms from different sections, the government had to withdraw the proposed amendment. 

 

When all the tactics failed, the state resorted to again unleashing a reign of terror before the mandatory Gram Sabha meetings. On 8th December 2023, hundreds of armed police personnel were deployed in the Sijimali area to threaten people and pressurize them to sign consent forms stating that they had agreed to divest their sacred lands for mining. Vedanta’s contractor, Mythri Infratech, officials were also present along with the police. The state-company nexus coerced people into signing consent forms, making a complete mockery of the constitutional values guaranteed to indigenous people under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution. To expedite the process, the district administration along with a huge posse of police and company staff went out to the villages to hold Gram Sabhas in complete violation of Free, Prior and Informed consent, guaranteed under PESA and FRA. 

 

People across the villages questioned the govt officials and police for not following due process in conducting the Gram Sabhas. They have also resisted signing the consent forms. In villages of Sagabari and Aliguna, the police, district administration and the company officials had to turn back in the face of strong resistance from villagers. However, the police and company officials have managed to conduct Gram Sabhas forcefully in a few villages like Chulbadi village (Kalahandi district) by threatening the villagers, and by giving Rs 1000 /- as a bribe. Women from Bandel and Kantamal village reported that when most villagers had gone to Aliguna to express their solidarity, the district administration along with police and company officials reached their village with adivasis from other localities and took their photographs as proof of Gram Sabhas held. 

 

A few regional media outlets have carried the false news that successful Gram Sabhas were held across 10 villages in Sijimali hills, without the resistance or questioning the illegal measures taken. These media outlets did not even bother to question the heavy presence of police and company officials at the Gram Sabhas. 

 

Meanwhile, a huge battalion of police, including women police personnel and JCB vehicles, proceeded to the adjoining Majhingmali hilltop. Over the past three months, women have been on vigil  to stop Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) officials from doing soil testing and carrying out a prospecting survey for bauxite. 

 

The independence of a core democratic institution, the Gram Sabha, and the freedom of the people to voice their opinions without fear has been gravely violated in the entire process. Given the above, and the violation of all due process, we the undersigned:

 

  • Express our outrage and concern over the violation of the rights of indigenous people of Sijimali hills. 
  • Demand the proper implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006 to ensure the indigenous people their right to land, nutrition, health and income. 
  • Call upon the Odisha Government to cancel the mining lease granted to Vedanta Limited. 

 

Endorsed By:

  1. Abhiram Behera, AIKS –Odisha
  2. Ashok Pradhan, Convenor, Paschima Odisha Krushaka Sangathan Samanvya Samiti
  3. Balabhadra Mallick, Chasi Mulya Surakshya Samiti, Kandhamal
  4. Bhalachandra Sadangi, National Secretary, All India Kishan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS)
  5. Bichitra Patra, Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI), Odisha
  6. Biswapriya Kanungo, Advocate and Activist, Bhubaneswar
  7. Damodar Behera, CPI State Executive Member & Social Worker, Kalahandi
  8. Deba Ranjan, Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS)
  9. Deme Oram, Anchalik Surakshya Committee, Bondamunda, Sundargarh District
  10. Godfrey Colaco, Samvad Foundation 
  11. Hena Barik, President, Basti Surakshya Mancha, Bhubaneswar
  12. India Social Action Forum, Odisha
  13. Kedar Sabara, Convenor, All India Tribal Forum
  14. Khirod Routray, Secretary, UDYOG
  15. Lingaraj Azad, advisor, Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti
  16. Meera Sanghamitra, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)
  17. Mahindra Parida, General Secretary, AICCTU
  18. Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti, Koraput, Odisha
  19. Narendra Mohanty, Convenor, Campaign against Fabricated Cases (CAFC), Odisha
  20. Niranjan Mohanty, Advocate and Social Activist, Bhubaneswar
  21. P Parvati, General Secretary, Odisha MNREGA Sramika Union
  22. People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Odisha
  23. Pradyumna Behera, PhD Scholar, IIT-Mumbai
  24. Prafulla Samantray, Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Odisha
  25. Prasant Paikray, Spokesperson, Anti-Jindal & Anti-POSCO Movement
  26. Radhakant Sethi, Working President, AICCTU
  27. Raj Kishore Raj Chairman cum Director, National Human Rights  Security Council Nawada, Bihar 
  28. Ranjana Padhi, Writer and Activist, Bhubaneswar
  29. Radharani, Secretary AIRWO
  30. Roma, All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) 
  31. Sankar, All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha (AIKKS), Odisha
  32. Saroj Mohanty, Convenor, Deshi Bihana Surakhya Mancha
  33. Sasi Rekha Behera, Secretary Gharoi Mahila Sramika Union
  34. Sharanya, Koraput
  35. Srikant Mohanty, Chasi Mulia Sangh, (AIKMKS) Odsiha
  36. Suresh Panigrahy, Secretary, AIKS-Odisha
  37. Sanjay Sunani, President, Kalahandi Zilla Auto Union, Bhawanipatna
  38. Tirupati Gamango, President, Adivasi Sangharsha Morcha
  39. Tuna Mallick, Adibasi Bharat Mahasabha (ABM)
  40. Yerumai Rajan, Student of Adivasi Movements, Bhubaneswar

 

Also Read:

 

Public Hearing For Vedanta’s Sijimali Mining Ends Amid Opposition By Villagers

 

Resounding Opposition From Local Villagers To Mining By Vedanta During The Second Public Hearing

 

Villagers In South Odisha Determined Not To Give An Inch of Any Of The Malis To Mining Corporates

 

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