Samatha vs State of A.P. and Ors., AIR 1997 SC 3297, JT 1997 (6) SC 449, 1997 (4) SCALE 746
Supreme Court decision regarding the leasing of tribal lands for mining and industrial purposes to non-tribal persons. Social action group appealed a high court ruling for the State of Andhra Pradesh on behalf of the affected tribal persons and argued that the leasing of tribal lands for mining purposes violated the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
This case concerns the leasing of tribal lands for mining and industrial purposes. The State of Andhra Pradesh granted leases to several non-tribal persons to mine tribal lands. Samatha, a group representing the rights of affected tribal persons, filed a petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh arguing that the granting of leases to tribal lands to non-tribal persons for mining purposes violated the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation (1959) and the Forest Conservation Act (1980). The petition was rejected by the High Court and Samatha subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of India.
The Supreme Court of India reversed the judgment of the High Court and held that government, tribal, and forested lands in the scheduled areas cannot be leased to non-tribal persons or private companies for mining purposes. The Supreme Court reasoned that all land in the scheduled areas, regardless of title, cannot be leased out because of the importance of agriculture as the source of livelihood for tribal persons. Paragraph 5(2) of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution preserved these lands to protect tribal persons’ economic empowerment, economic justice, social status, and dignity. The transfer of lands in the scheduled areas can be allowed only for peace and good governance of the land.
Additionally, the Supreme Court held that mining activity in scheduled areas can only be operated by the State Mineral Development Corporation or by a cooperative of tribal persons with at least 20% of profits from these activities going towards infrastructure and other social services such as schools, hospitals, and sanitation. All other leases granted to non-tribal persons are cancelled and void for violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
All mining leases that had been granted by the State of Andhra Pradesh were considered null and void. The State is also enjoined from granting further leases. Mining activity can only be operated by the State Mineral Development Corporation or a cooperative of tribal persons. The State of Andhra Pradesh’s subsequent appeals were dismissed by the Supreme Court. Since the Supreme Court’s judgment dealt a significant blow to the commercial mining industry, there has been subsequent pressure from private corporations to find a way around the ruling. In 2002, the Supreme Court based its decision in another tribal land case (BALCO Employees Union V. Union of India, AIR 2002 SC 350) on the Samatha judgment, but held that they had “strong reservations” about the majority’s decision in the Samatha case. Therefore, while Samatha is still good law, there may be a shift away from the decision held by the majority.
This case is important for acting as a check and restraint to state power from the exploitation of resources on tribal lands for commercial purposes. The Supreme Court also recognized the role of agriculture to tribal persons’ livelihoods.
For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net member: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.