As per the April 18th Supreme Court orders, the BJD government in Odisha is holding Palli Sabhas in 12 villages which will decide the fate of Vedanta. However, Tribal Affairs Minister K C Deo has already said that Palli Sabhas should be held in not just 12 but all 166 villages where the particularly vulnerable Dongria Kondh live. He has termed the decision of the state government as "absurd and ridiculous" and said his ministry would bring this to the notice of the Supreme Court. Playing Devil's advocate, the minister also said that safeguards guaranteed under article 244 of the Constitution cannot be overruled even if all villages were to pass a resolution that Niyamgiri is of no spiritual value to them. He also slammed most of the opposition ruled states - Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Goa for transgressing constitutional provisions guaranteeing the interests of tribals.
Kishore Chandra Deo spoke to CNN IBN's Rupashree Nanda
Here's the full transcript of the interview:
CNN-IBN: As per the 18th of April Supreme Court's orders, Palli Sabhas have started being held in Odisha. But you have already objected saying that it should not be restricted to just 12 villages. So what are your fears about this process?
KC Deo: Let me get back a little bit - this was a case which was being fought between the Ministry of Environment and Forest and the OMC (Odisha Mining Corporation). In fact, Ministry of Tribal Affairs was not a party to it. By the time I took charge as a minister and they wanted my ministry to implead itself in this case, it was almost the last hearing. But we managed to get our affidavit through. It was represented by the attorney general in the court as a result of which the Supreme Court made the Ministry of Tribal Affairs the nodal authority for overseeing that their orders are implemented. Supreme Court in the orders had said that gram sabhas will have to be held to decide whether Niyamgiri has any spiritual consequence for the tribals living in that area or not; and also certain other issues regarding environment or anything else which is of their concern.
Niyam Raja is their god whom they've been worshipping for centuries, this actually is true of all the Dongria Kondhs, the particular tribal community which lives in that region. So, to say we will have a Palli Sabha or gram sabha in just twelve villages is absurd and ridiculous. When it is of spiritual value, it is of spiritual value to everyone in that community. In fact, the implication of the Supreme Court order is to ensure from gram sabhas, maybe from all the villages where this particular community resides or lives, to find out how important it is and what is the import of this spiritual implication for them. So, therefore we had written from my ministry to the state government that they have these Palli Sabhas organised in all the villages where the Dongria Kondh community is present. State government wrote back saying that they will do it only in twelve villages because that's where the project affected people are living. But, this is an issue which doesn't concern only project affected people. It concerns people of that community who are living, if I can go a step further, not only in this region but, anywhere else in Odisha also.
Now, you know the whole Odisha revolves around the culture of the Lord Jagannath. So if you want to hold gram sambas or Palli Sabhas regarding the spiritual importance of Lord Jagannath or anything about it, will you restrict it only to the Puri town or Puri district or will you consult all the devotees of Lord Jagannath all over the state maybe in other parts of the country also? I am drawing a parallel just to point out how ridiculous this suggestion of 12 villages is.
CNN-IBN: Are you suggesting that this should be held across Odisha or only in those villages in Niyamgiri?
KC Deo: Now, they have restricted it to twelve villages. You can't cover the whole of Odisha... you at least cover these hundred sixty six villages in and around this place where you see most of their population is concentrated. That's number one. According to me this is only a secondary issue. If you go through the judgement of the Supreme Court, you read paragraph 33 and 34 - they have mentioned about article 244 of the Constitution and about protections that have been given by our founding fathers for protection of tribal lands and rights which have actually been elaborated in the 5th schedule of the Constitution. Now, see in my view and opinion, article 244 of the Constitution or provisions of Schedule V can be altered, amended, changed or repealed by Parliament and Parliament alone as prescribed under article 368 of the Constitution. Even if you hold gram sabhas or Palli Sabhas in the entire state and, for arguments' sake I am saying that even if they pass a resolution saying that this is of no spiritual value to us, will that overturn a constitutional provision? Since they are having Palli Sabhas they have to do in a proper manner, they have to do it in all the villages which have this particular community in them. Today's reports, you must have seen, they have unanimously opposed this Lanjigarh project. But I would go further and say what about our Constitutional protections and safeguards? This is one issue. Other issue is that Vedanta is a private company. Now see a private person, or in other words a person who is not a scheduled tribe listed in the scheduled tribe list of Odisha which is notified by the President actually has no locus standi in that area vis a vis land and, land resources. Now, Vedanta is a company is neither owned nor controlled by scheduled tribes of Odisha. In my opinion they have no locus standi at all and constitutionally they have no place as far as mining or any other allied activity is concerned in any Vth Schedule Areas in the state. These are more serious questions and these will have to be addressed because this is happening in many states ... blatantly and flagrantly they are violating constitutional provisions.
CNN-IBN:You had written to the Governor regarding this. You have written to the state government also. What has been their response? Now that they have gone ahead and done it what would be your next course of action?
KC Deo: Well, the governor has been responding. We have been in close contact and touch with him. He has been contacting the officials of the state government and I think he is performing his duty as a governor. But if the state government insists and goes beyond that, we will have to think of appropriate action. We will have to inform the Supreme Court because they have made us the nodal authority otherwise we will be failing in our duty.
CNN-IBN: Rahul Gandhi had visited Niyamgiri. He had said that he is their soldier in Delhi. The Court has given a particular kind of judgment. Do you feel that the tribals will be adequately protected or do they have to constantly live in fear of being displaced?
KC Deo: You see, as long as this Constitution exists they will have to be protected. If you want to abandon the Constitution it is a different matter. But you see we are bound by the Constitution under which we all have taken our oath including those who are today in power in the state government of Odisha and you see it is our bounden duty to see that Constitutional provisions are upheld and safeguarded.
CNN-IBN: UPA government and the Congress party always seem to be at odds when it comes to big issues like big ticket investments especially like Vedanta and others. The Finance Minister has recently gone abroad to attract foreign investors. What signal does this send to potential investors abroad? And do you think that there is a division within the party itself which cannot make up its mind on which line of development it should follow or what are the boundaries that it must not cross.
KC Deo: First of all, the boundaries that nobody one can cross are the Constitutional boundaries. Now the finance minister had gone and asked people to come and invest over here. He has not asked them to invest in areas which are prohibited for them to do so. He has not asked them to go and start mining and setting up industry in Vth schedule areas or in VIth schedule areas. When we invite them naturally it is for them also to understand that they have also to work within the framework of our Constitution and within the perimeter of existing laws which have been enacted by Parliament and other states keeping in mind the fact that land is a state subject.
CNN-IBN: Do you feel there is a division in the government or the party- Whether it is the food security bill or it is concerning issues about tribals or whether it is the land rights issue? On every issue - especially when it comes to the poor and underprivileged the government takes a line which is different from the party?
KC Deo: No, I don't think that's correct. Ours is a democratic party. So there is free discussion. We don't hold our discussions behind iron curtains or in secrecy. As one would expect in a democracy we also brief the press, people, and media. And ultimately the government has always implemented what the party has decided. But we discuss freely pros and cons. Always there is a different opinion, more than one opinion. Especially when it comes to the poor since you mention the poor now, I don't think any government since independence has taken the kind of path breaking measures that the UPA government has taken so far. And ultimately what is important is whether the government implements it or now and we have been implementing what the party has decided.
CNN-IBN: You have perceived as one of those ' dissenting ' ministers in the UPA. You have said that a few cannot benefit at the expense of million of poor. What are the threats that you see if you pursue this kind of growth. Particularly from the perspective of tribal affairs because they are most vulnerable.
KC Deo: I am not all a dissenting minister. You see the prime minister himself has gone on record to say more than once that the UPA government stands for the common man and that the UPA government stands for inclusive growth. And inclusive growth, as I understand, means to take along with you the most exploited, the most deprived sections of society. So, I think there is no contradiction with what the prime minister has been saying, with what I have been saying and what the UPA government stands for. You must also appreciate the fact that you see most of these things are happening in states which are not ruled by the Congress party this is a reality. This is a fact which I am stating - this is not an allegation that I am making. Where is this happening? This is happening in Odisha, this is happening in Jharkhand, this is happening in Chhattisgarh, this is happening in Goa now - of course Goa has no scheduled area. But you see, the states in which this is happening are fortunately or unfortunately are states where we have no say and land is a state subject. Implementation of the Forest Rights Act, or PESA or of other laws in our federal scheme of things lies with the state government. What I am trying to say is- unfortunately many of the state governments are closing their eyes or blinking to these laws or they are actually transgressing across the basic commitments we have made to the nation.
CNN-IBN: Do you think that is a threat - to our democracy, to the republic to the constitutional values that are enshrined?
KC Deo: Now, you tell me whether your extremist movement is a threat or not ? The result of the extremist movement as I have mentioned time and again is a result of extreme exploitation, deprivation and today they have reached a state where their traditional livelihood resources are threatened. They are being driven out of their homelands, they have very little alternatives before them so these are the consequences we are having to face because of these mindless actions that some state governments are wanting to take.
CNN-IBN: You think Congress party is not responsible? Only opposition ruled states are responsible?
KC Deo: If you can name one congress ruled state where this is happening I will react ... it had happened in my own state of Andhra- now I have stopped that. Because it is a Congress ruled state I could convince my leadership of the party, of the government and we have seen to it that it has been stopped... It was happening in Karnataka earlier on. Our government has come. Once our government has come we have decided to stop the mining that was going on over there. You see the rule applies not only to non-congress ruled states but also to congress ruled states.