While the battle over whether the Vedanta Group will finally get to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills for its Lanjigarh plant plays itself out in the Supreme Court—the central government is opposing the Orissa government’s plan to mine the hills—the Supreme Court has asked the central government some interesting questions. Are tribal people, the bench asked the Solicitor General, to be allowed the choice to decide whether they want modern-day benefits like roads, schools, electricity and hospitals, among others. “Have you found out”, the Court asked, “will they not accept?” The tribal people, the Court said, had to be given the option of making a choice. Mining in the area is not possible since the environment ministry has not given it Stage 2 clearance on grounds it violated the religious and cultural rights of tribal people under the Forest Rights Act.
Eventually, it may turn out, the Court’s decision may not be based on these oral remarks, but on the larger question of whether or not the gram sabha has the right to decide on whether mining should be allowed. While the Centre argues the gram sabha has this right, the Orissa government has argued that since there is no habitation on the top of the mountain—where the mining is to take place—no gram sabha clearance is required.
The questions raised, however, are important and, in the long run, need to be answered in order to get a fix on what India’s policy is going to be towards improving the living standards of tribal peoples. Analysis of income levels from the NCAER all-India survey of 2004-05, for instance, finds that, at an all-India level, tribal people living in rural areas had an average annual household income of R37,615 and this rose to R60,929 as tribals moved to small towns with less than 5 lakh population, and to R85,023 as tribals migrated to big cities with more than a million people. So, an illiterate tribal household in a rural area earned R22,396 but this rose to R35,751 as the tribal moved to large towns. In the case of tribal households with at