New Delhi: Religious and customary rights of tribals should be protected in addition to their individual and community rights by the government while granting permission to mining companies to set up venture in their areas, the Supreme Court has said.
While adjudicating a case on mining in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, the court rejected the contention of the state government that the Forest Rights Act deals with individual and community rights of the tribals and does not make any reference to the religious or spiritual rights protected under the Constitution.
"Religious freedom guaranteed to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and the Traditional Forest Dwellers (TFDs) under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution is intended to be a guide to a community of life and social demands," it said.
"The above mentioned Articles guarantee them the right to practice and propagate not only matters of faith or belief, but all those rituals and observations which are regarded as integral part of their religion. Their right to worship the deity Niyam-Raja has, therefore, to be protected and preserved," a bench of Justices Aftab Alam, KS Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi said.
The bench made the observations in its verdict on a petition moved by state-owned Orissa Mining Corporations (OMC) challenging the Environment Ministry`s decision to cancel the stage two environmental clearance granted to the Niyamgiri Bauxite Mining Project (BMP) of Sterlite Industries Ltd, the Indian arm of UK-based Vedanta Group.
The ministry had refused the next stage forest clearance to BMP citing violations of tribal rights and environmental laws by Vedanta`s Alumina Refinery Project.
"We are of the view that the question whether STs and TFDs, like Dongaria Kondh, Kutia Kandha and others, have got any religious rights i.e. Rights of worship over the Niyamgiri hills, known as Nimagiri, near Hundaljali, which is the hill top known as Niyam-Raja, have to be considered by the Gram Sabha," the bench said.