In ordering a stay on all mining in a block at the Bailadila hills in Chhattisgarh, the state’s chief minister, Bhupesh Baghel, has flagged an important issue. “We have decided to investigate the gram sabha clearances,” he said. Since the range falls under Schedule V of the Constitution, it is governed by the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996.
The Act makes it incumbent on an agency that undertakes development activity in such an area to take the gram sabha’s consent. However, Adivasis, who have been protesting against mining in the area, allege violations of due processes. The gram sabha was reportedly convened in July 2014 but the residents contend that the village body’s approval to industrial activity was “faked”. The Chhattisgarh government’s decision to probe these allegations is welcome.
The Bailadila hills are known for world-class iron-ore reserves. The objections of the Adivasis pertain to one block of the range, Deposit Number 13. Developed by the NCL, a joint venture of the National Mineral Development Corporation and the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation Ltd, Deposit 13 or Nandaraj is a place of faith for the area’s Adivasis — much like the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Their agitation also raised concerns about Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL) being contracted by NCL to undertake operations in the area.
The state-owned enterprise contends that AEL was brought in only as a “developer” and it has not transferred the mining lease to the private outfit. The Chhattisgarh government has decided to review this permission as well.
The concerns raised during the imbroglio should also occasion revisiting broader issues that lie at the intersection of mineral wealth governance and tribal rights. When it was enacted, PESA was seen as a revolutionary piece of legislation as it empowered gram sabhas to take decisions on contested issues such as land alienation and customary laws. But dogged by low participation and frequent hijacking by influential interests, these bodies have struggled to stay afloat.
The Virginus Xaxa Committee report submitted to the NDA government in 2014 noted that “lack of consent before land acquisition… persists in the implementation of PESA”. That is what seems to have happened in Bailadila. The Chhattisgarh government needs to go back to the Xaxa Committee’s recommendation: “Strengthen the institutional system to support the implementation of PESA, including the Gram Sabhas.”