Three dozen perennial streams originate from the Niyamgiri hill range, spread over Odisha’s Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, giving birth to two rivers, the Banshadhara and the Nagabali. Thousands of primitive Dongria Kondh tribal people living in the 112 hamlets tucked in the forested hills grow a wide variety of fruits, including mango, banana, pineapple, jackfruit, orange and lemon, and spices such as ginger and turmeric for their sustenance. They worship the hills as god, Niyam Raja, and, like other tribal people living in the region, do not worship any other diety.
Some five years ago, their gram sabhas (village councils) voted against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills. They have not, however, been able to stop worrying about the future. They are wary of the governments in the State and at the Centre, which they believe have been helping Vedanta Limited (formerly known as Sesa Sterlite Limited) to run its alumina refinery at Lanjigarh at the foothills of Niyamgiri. The capacity of the refinery has been enhanced from one million tonne per annum to 2 mtpa. No authentic study has been conducted by any independent agency in recent times, but the tribal people believe that the refinery adversely affects Niyamgiri’s ecology and wildlife and their own lives and livelihoods.
That Vedanta is trying to increase its capacity to 6 mtpa and augment the capacity of its captive power plant from 90 MW to 340 MW only deepens their fears. The company has in fact started work on expanding the refinery’s capacity without obtaining the necessary clearance from the Centre.
The Odisha government recently approved the company’s expansion plan and also promised Vedanta bauxite from the Kodingamali hill in Koraput district. In 2017, the Centre granted the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) forest clearance to mine bauxite in the Kodingamali hill. After Vedanta’s failure to procure bauxite from Niyamgiri hills through the OMC, it has been sourcing ore for its refinery from its own mines in other States and abroad.
Hard-fought victory The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, an association of tribal people living in the hamlets in the hill range, formed after Vedanta signed its first memorandum of understanding with the Odisha government to establish the Lanjigarh refinery in 2004, has been strenuously defending the tribal people’s rights and highlighting their concerns about mining in the region. After long years of protest and petitions filed in courts of law, the Supreme Court ruled on April 18, 2013, that village councils would decide if the OMC could mine the Niyamgiri hills, said to contain 80 million tonnes of bauxite. A referendum was held in 12 of the 112 villages, where the village councils voted against mining in the hill range.
The Odisha government, however, did not give up that easily. The OMC again approached the Supreme Court seeking directions for conduct of fresh village council meetings. The court rejected the plea.
The struggle continues Although the State government has not made a fresh attempt to mine Niyamgiri, the tribal people find themselves targeted by the police for their opposition to mining and the refinery in the foothills. The Union Home Ministry, in its annual report last year, claimed that the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti was acting as a front organisation for Maoists. The Samiti denied the charge.
Prafulla Samantara, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2017, campaigned for many years to protect the tribal people from losing their homes in Niyamgiri. He said: “Maoists may have their presence in the region. But the agitation by the Niyamgiri tribal people has always remained non-violent. It is unfortunate that innocent tribal people opposing mining in Niyamgiri and demanding closure of the alumina refinery are being harassed, beaten up and arrested in false cases.” In the aftermath of the Thoothukudi firing, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti has announced that it will intensify its movement demanding permanent closure of the refinery at Lanjigarh. It has appealed to the State and Central governments to think hard before allowing the company to execute its plans at the cost of people’s lives and environment.
Lingaraj Azad, veteran activist and adviser to the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, said: “It is high time that the governments in the State and at the Centre stopped destroying the ecology of the Niyamgiri hill range to protect the interest of Vedanta.” To destroy it would be like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, he said.
“In order to save environmental degradation in the region, the Odisha government should order the shutting down of the refinery and instead facilitate procurement of fruits and vegetables grown by the tribal people to help them lead a better life. The government should think of establishing a food processing industry in the locality instead of promoting Vedanta,” he added.
He asserted that the government was not paying attention to the real development needs of the tribal people. For instance, he said, teachers appointed in schools in the Niyamgiri hill range did not know the Kui language spoken by the Dongria Kondh. “As a result, students and teachers don’t understand what either of them is saying,” he said.
The tribal people of Niyamgiri are also opposing the construction of roads to their hamlets under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana for fear that Vedanta and the mafia would gain easy access to the hill range if roads are laid. Azad said: “Though we have won the battle following the verdicts of the village councils in 2013, we are not sure that Niyamgiri is safe as long as the Lanjigarh refinery continues to run.”
The Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) had earlier pointed out that the refinery was polluting the air and water in its vicinity. Tribal people of the region now want an independent survey to study the disastrous effect of the plant on the environment and the health of the local people.
Azad pointed out that several reports, including one prepared by the OSPCB, had said that the refinery was poorly constructed and maintained and that repeated violations of rules had resulted in the pollution of groundwater and air. He alleged that red mud accumulated in the company’s pond was being released into the Rushikulya river at night, putting the local community at risk. “We are not anti-development, as we are being termed by those in power. We are for sustainable development and opposed to the kind of development that the government is imposing on us, putting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of tribal people in grave danger,” he said.
Vedanta continues to deny the charge that its refinery is polluting water and air in the Niyamgiri hill range. But the tribal people are strong in their resolve to continue their movement until the government orders the refinery to be shut down.