Odisha contemplating legal opinion over expansion of GS

Bhubaneswar: Odisha government is contemplating taking legal opinion over the possibility of increasing the number of villages which will hold gram sabhas to decide on proposed bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills for Vedanata's project.
The statement by the government's Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste Development department today on the possibility of seeking legal opinion follows the Dangaria tribes appealing for Odisha Governor S C Jamir's intervention yesterday in the dispute on the number of villages to hold the gram sabhas.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and local tribes have demanded conducting of gram sabhas in more villages and it has opposed the government bid to hold such meetings in only 12 of them.
"We are exploring legal angles to suggestions offered by MoTA on expanding the scope of gram sabhas. If required, views of the law department will be taken," Secretary in SC & ST Development department Santosh Sarangi said.
"A close scrutiny of the Supreme Court order dated April 18 would suggest that the apex court is referring to the 12 hill slope villages where the gram sabha meetings were held earlier for settlement of claims under Forest Right Act," he said defending the state government's stand to conduct gram sabhas in 12 villages.
The Odisha government has already initiated steps for conducting gram sabhas in the 12 villages of Niyamgiri hills located in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, but Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), an apex body of local tribals, has demanded such meetings in 104 villages. .
Sarangi said that it would not be feasible to hold gram sabhas in all villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.
Besides, the process would also be very time consuming as there are 4,500 villages in the districts.
Of the 12 villages identified by the state government for holding gram sabhas, seven are in Rayagada district and the rest in Kalahandi district.
Chief Secretary B K Patnaik in a letter to MoTA said at the time of filing of claims neither the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests nor it (MoTA) had raised any issue before the Supreme Court regarding coverage of villages over and above the 12 hill slope ones.
Patnaik said the apex court's observation referred to the 12 villages for which affidavit was filed by the Odisha government.
MoTA, however, maintained that limiting gram sabha proceedings to only 12 villages was not in accordance with the Supreme Court's April 18 order and directions issued by the ministry under Section 12 of the Forest Right Act.