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Alarming Odisha arrests, 'illegal' detentions ahead of Vedanta bauxite public hearing

Counterview Desk 

More than 80 lawyers, legal academics and researchers have written to the Governor of Odisha raising concerns about the “alarming arrests and illegal detentions” of about two dozen persons from Rayagada district in Odisha in anticipation of the upcoming public hearing for the Sijimali bauxite mine proposed by M/s Vedanta Ltd.
The letter, endorsed by legal luminaries such as Prof Kalpana Kannabiran, Gautam Bhatia, Prashant Bhushan, among others, calls for an immediate halt to the public hearings to clear 1,549 hectares of forest lands lying in areas covered by the V Schedule of the Constitution for violating the right to free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities.
Instead of undertaking due consultations under the PESA and FRA, the letter points out, the State government has followed an approach of repression to secure clearances through coercive means. Since early August, the police and paramilitary forces have conducted midnight raids, illegal detentions and arrests against the people of Kashipur village.
Nine leading activists of the Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti, including Lada Sikaka, Drenju Sikaka, Lingaraj Azad and poet Lenin Kumar have also been made the subject of an FIR under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for unlawful and terrorist activities. Goldman Environmental Prize 2017 winner, Prafulla Samantara, was abducted with his face covered and hands tied, and driven from Rayagada to his hometown in August 2023.
In addition, several FIRs have been filed by both the police as well as an official of M/s Mythri Ltd., related to M/s Vedanta Ltd., cumulatively naming about a hundred persons, along with hundreds of other unnamed. As such, kin of those arrested are struggling to secure their bail, while also looming under the threat of further persecution under these open-ended FIRs.
With key leaders in prison or facing further persecution, the State government insists proceeding with the public hearings, without complying with the legal requirements under the V Schedule, Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the EIA Notification 2006 on full-disclosure of information regarding the proposed project, the letter says.
The letter calls upon the Governor to release those imprisoned since August 2023 and withdraw all criminal proceedings, including those under the UAPA, to uphold their right to participate in consultations freely.
The letter also calls upon the Governor to ensure that information about the proposed bauxite mine is duly made available in compliance with the law, and to further halt the public hearings until an atmosphere of free and open democratic participation can be ensured.

Text:

On 13 September 2023, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board notified the announcement of a Public Hearing on 16 October 2023 towards the approval of proposed bauxite mining in Kashipur tehsil, Rayagada district and Thuamal-Rampur tehsil, Kalahandi districts. This Sijimali Bauxite Project, proposed by M/s Vedanta Limited, extends over an area of 1549 hectares covering eighteen villages, within or in proximity to more than twenty reserve forests and nine water bodies. Both Rayagada and Kalahandi are V Schedule areas with a predominant Scheduled Tribe population, comprising Kondh adivasi, Parajas and Dom dalit communities with a small percentage from other castes and communities.
Pertinantly, this Public Hearing has been notified following a month of intense repression and persecution of the people of Kashipur and other parts of Rayagada district. Starting from early August, when the police disrupted and declared as unlawful the peaceful assembly of more than a hundred persons to protest the entry of M/s Mythri Corporation for mining in their village, until today, people in Rayagada, particularly Kashipur tehsil, are living under an oppressive environment of fear, intimidation and terror. The active presence of police in the village is felt and arrests of persons are ongoing.
The decision of the Odisha government to proceed with the Public Hearings of the proposed bauxite mine in such a tense environment is not only illegal, but is a grave assault on the constitutional rights of the people to their customary homelands under the V Schedule, PESA and Forest Rights Act. Rayagada and Kalahandi district in Odisha are home to pristine dense rainforests with rich biodiversity, all of which stand to be destroyed by mining and extractive projects. On the ground, over the past two decades in Odisha alone, thousands of people have been evicted and displaced from their historic role of stewards of their land and waters. Some of the recent developments which have created the environment of fear and intimidation are:
Local leaders and several other persons illegally detained and arrested: Since the disruption of the 04 August 2023 protest in Kashipur, the police and paramilitary forces have conducted midnight raids in the villages. More than twenty persons were illegally detained and tortured. Most of them were later formally arrested under various provisions of the IPC, Arms Act and CLA. Most shocking among these FIRs are FIR Nos. 93, 96, 97 of 2023 at PS Kashipur which are duplicates of each other, have been filed successively on 08 August 2023, naming eleven persons and hundred other unnamed. Similarly, FIR No.101 dated 12 August 2023, filed by an official of M/s Mythri Ltd., names ninety four persons along with hundred others unnamed. Nine leading activists of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, including Lada Sikaka, Drenju Sikaka, Lingaraj Azad and poet Lenin Kumar have also been made the subject of an FIR under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for ulawful and terrorist activities. Goldman Environmental Prize 2017 winner, Prafulla Samantara was abducted with his face covered and hands tied, and driven from Rayagada to his hometown in August 2023. Presently, more than twenty persons have been arrested, and continue to be in prison, with their bail applications having been denied. Those who have not been arrested are struggling for the release of their kin. As per reports, there continues to be heavy police presence in the area, and open-ended FIRs bringing within their fold hundreds of named and unnamed others, has given rise to a grave environment of fear, persecution and terror.
The violation of V Schedule, PESA, FRA: The lands and forests over which the bauxite mine is proposed fall under the V Schedule, subject to the right to self-governance of adivasis over their traditional homelands. In the 1997 decision of Samatha v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court had prohibited the diversion of V Schedule lands in favour of non-adivasis, including public and private corporations. Again in 2013, the Supreme Court in Orissa Mining Corporation v. Ministry of Environment and Forests, had held that the gram sabhas under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), which in the state of Odisha are the palli sabhas, have the ultimate right to make decisions pertaining to the protection and conservation of their community lands and forests. In this case, there have been no prior consultations with the affected gram sabhas who have a right to participate in all decisions affecting their customary forests and homelands. Pertinent to note that the 2013 Supreme Court decision was also related to bauxite mine proposed by M/s Vedanta Ltd. in the same districts, although covering different and smaller areas than the one proposed in the current Sijimali bauxite mine.
Lack of compliance with EIA-mandated Public Hearing process: Under the EIA Notification 2006 [Appendix IV], the full EIA report and not just the executive summary needs to be made publicly available, at public locations such as the urban local bodies/ panchayats/ public libraries etc. It should be in the language local to the affected communities, so that they might comment on it. The full EIA report also has to be uploaded electronically on the websites of the State Pollution Control Board, the District Collectors, the District Industries Office. The District Collectors have to request persons to write in their views and concerns so that all will be taken into consideration. This has not been done. It must be noted that the Letter of Intent for the proposed project was issued only in March 2023. The pace and manner in which the project clearances are proceeding creates the impression that the Public Hearings are being conducted as mere formality in the checklist of the clearance process, without upholding the spirit of participation and transparency.
To conduct hearings in such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation subverts the legal frameworks established for democratic participation. It is deeply concerning that the state government continues to adopt a strategy of coercion and repression, instead of protecting the right to free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities immediately before the notification of the Public Hearings, such that the process is rendered devoid of any meaning and substance.
Thus, as lawyers -- Advocates, jurists and legal researchers -- we call upon you to uphold the rule of law, and to defer the Public Hearings until the affected communities have a proper opportunity to participate freely, without intimidation, and with full information. We urge you to:
  • Immediately order the withdrawal of criminal proceedings against the people of Rayagada and Kalahandi since 04 August 2023, and the release from prison of all those who have been arrested or detained. Adequate compensation to be awarded to all those who have been illegally detained and tortured.
  • Immediately order the withdrawal of FIR No.87/2023 under UAPA filed against local leaders associated with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.
  • Defer the Public Hearings until proper consultations are undertaken with the affected palli sabhas under the FRA.
  • Immediately arrange for the release of all relevant information on the proposed project, including the full EIA report, to the public in local languages in all required sites.
  • Ensure that affected communities have sufficient time to properly inform themselves of the impact of the proposed project on their lives, livelihoods and biodiversity before any proposed public hearings.
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Click here for signatories. Copy of the letter sent to Pradip Kumar Amat, Minister, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of Odisha; Prafulla Kumar Mallik, Minister of Steel and Mines, Government of Odisha; Swadha Dev Singh Collector and District Magistrate, Rayagada; P. Anvesha Reddy, Collector and District Magistrate, Kalahandi; Odisha State Pollution Control Board

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