ANYONE who reaches the top of the Niyamgiri hill in Odisha after several hours of trekking to be part of the annual Niyam Raja Parab celebrated there by thousands of Dongria Kondh (also known as Dangaria Kandha) tribal people can easily sense the strength of their uprising.
All the pain caused by the trek vanishes instantaneously upon seeing the huge plateau on the hilltop resonating to chants such as “Paaen, Pawan, Jharan, Dangar, Sabu Nijara” (Water, air, streams, hills, slopes, are all ours) accompanied by rhythmic drumbeats and dancing by the Dongrias before their Niyam Raja, the presiding deity of Niyamgiri forests.
The Dongria Kondhs living in this bauxite-rich hill range derive their strength from their innate simplicity and love for nature. This is reflected in their traditional wear and their ability to walk miles in the hilly terrain barefoot.
Millions of tonnes of bauxite lies beneath the Niyamgiri plateau, which is situated at an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet (1,500 metres). As many as 112 villages are strewn across the slopes of the range, spread over the districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada in the south-western part of the State.
Their opposition to mining in the Niyamgiri range for bauxite has got a shot in the arm in recent years with the age-old traditional cultural festival turning into a show of unity by the tribal people and other forest dwellers.
The Niyam Raja Parab, which used to be a low-key affair in the past, now attracts thousands of tribal people living in the hill range. The uprising started in 2003 against the proposal by Vedanta Resources plc to source bauxite for its alumina refinery, situated at the foothills of Niyamgiri.
The three-day Parab begins with hundreds of Dongria men and women draped in their traditional attire assembling on the plateau to sing and dance, sip salap (their indigenous brew), eat together, spend the night under the star-studded sky and worship and pray to Niyam Raja to protect them.
The festival culminates with a few animal sacrifices before Niyam Raja. The tribal people also sacrifice a buffalo to the deity once in three years. This did not happen this time as it was done only last year.
This year’s Parab, however, was different from the preceding ones. At the end of the festival on February 22, hundreds of tribal people joined a large group of anti-displacement activists from different parts of Odisha and burnt copies of the controversial Ordinance relating to the amendments in the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, recently promulgated by the Narendra Modi government.
The screening of a documentary film titled “The Referendum”, produced by Samadrusti Television, was also a major highlight of the festival. The documentary contained video recordings of the gram sabha proceedings in which the Dongrias vented their anger against the mining proposal in Niyamgiri in their mother tongue Kui. The tribal people relived their experiences after watching the documentary with rapt attention.
Spearheading the agitation is the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), an association of the tribal people who live in the villages in the hill range. The Samiti came into being after London-based Vedanta signed its first memorandum of understanding with the government of Odisha to establish a one million tonne per annum (mtpa) capacity alumina refinery at Lanjigarh.
In fact, the Dongria Kondhs did not initially realise the gravity of the situation when Vedanta started felling trees for laying roads to the hilltop. A clear picture only emerged when Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik laid the foundation stone for the proposed alumina refinery before the 2004 Assembly elections when environmental clearance for the project had not yet been obtained.
Soon, the agitation grew in strength after some tribal activists leading the rebellion were arrested by the police on false charges, while the Naveen Patnaik government went on defending the company’s refinery, claiming that the company had not violated any environmental laws. Progressive commissioning of the refinery started in 2007.
The State government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) and Vedanta had formed a joint venture company to extract bauxite for the refinery from Niyamgiri. While Vedanta has a 64 per cent stake in the venture, the OMC owns the remaining 26 per cent stake.
Subsequently, the company made plans for a phase-wise expansion of the refinery from one to six mtpa. Given that scenario, had the mining lease been granted, the 72 million tonne bauxite reserves in Niyamgiri would have lasted barely four years.
The N.C. Saxena Committee and the Usha Ramanathan Committee appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court had all documented the blatant statutory violations on the part of Vedanta. It was pointed out that the company had commenced construction work for the expansion of its refinery even before obtaining clearances from the MoEF.
Various other instances of violation and non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act, the Forest (Conservation) Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act and ancillary laws impelled the Saxena Committee to observe in 2010 that the proposed expansion was “an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land”. The CEC had made similar findings in its reports in 2005 and 2007, opposing the project.
However, the Supreme Court, ignoring the CEC’s recommendations, allowed Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, at present known as Sesa Sterlite Limited (a Vedanta subsidiary), to undertake mining in Niyamgiri in 2008. Later, in 2010, the Stage-II environment clearance given to Vedanta was rejected by the MoEF in the light of the findings and recommendations of the Saxena Committee. The rejection order was challenged by the OMC in the Supreme Court.
The apex court, on April 18, 2013, while recognising the rights of the Dongrias to worship their Niyam Raja, directed the Odisha government to convene gram sabhas in the affected villages to decide whether mining bauxite in Niyamgiri would affect their religious and cultural rights in any way. It directed that if the villagers decided that such rights would be affected, those rights must be preserved and protected.
What followed then made history as India’s first environmental referendum. The Dongrias and other villagers asserted their community rights over the entire Niyamgiri range.
“We worship and depend on the Niyamgiri for our existence,” said Lada Sikaka, president of the NSS. That was how the tribal people won the first major battle. But at the Parab this year, they vowed to strongly oppose any move by the Modi government to hand over Niyamgiri to Sterlite in the years to come.
Although the MoEF had made it clear that there would be no mining in Niyamgiri after the gram sabhas conducted in the 12 villages in the hills vehemently opposed the joint move, the tribal people now fear that the Modi government may take a pro-corporate stand by reviewing the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s decision on the issue.
In case the Modi government begins the process for handing over Niyamgiri to Vedanta, NSS leaders are prepared to approach the apex court, which had ordered the referendum.
The NSS is also thinking of approaching the court to seek the dismantling of the controversial alumina refinery being run by Sterlite since it adversely affects the ecology and causes severe health hazards for people living in the vicinity. The people also feel insecure because of the very presence of the refinery so close to their villages.
In the wake of their uprising, the peace-loving Dongrias have been living under threat of police violence as the police have already arrested a few tribal people, accusing them of having Maoist links. Lada Sikaka too was not spared by the police. He was taken into custody in August 2010 and physically tortured for four days before he was let off after they took his signature on a piece of blank paper.
In one such recent incident, Haribandhu Kadraka, an activist of the Lok Sangram Manch that supports the cause of the Dongrias, was accused of having links with left-wing extremists and was arrested by the Rayagada police on October 20, 2014.
After Kadraka was arrested, a large number of villagers staged a demonstration outside the Muniguda police station seeking his release. Three days after the protest, the inspector in-charge of the police station was transferred. Kadraka, however, continues to be behind bars.
At a time when combing operations for extremists are being carried out in the region, the helpless Dongrias are finding themselves sandwiched between the police on one side and the so-called Maoists on the other. This has forced the Dongrias to oppose even the laying of pucca roads to their hamlets. They fear that the construction of such roads will not only facilitate the police forces to terrorise them but also open the doors to bauxite miners.
All that they expect from the government is the procurement of the forest produce they grow or collect during the different harvesting seasons. “We are self-sufficient in foodgrains, which we grow on the hills in different months of the year. All we need is a little cash to meet our other needs and this can happen if the government agencies can procure our surplus produce such as pineapple, jackfruit, turmeric, neem and mangoes,” said Lada Sikaka.
With innocence writ large on his face, Sikaka wondered about the sudden eagerness of the government to ensure “development” of the Dongrias. “Where was the government in the past till Vedanta started eyeing our heavenly habitat? How can it take away our hills from us? Had it created these hills? These hills are ours. The soil is ours and it belongs to us, the people, and not the government.”
Sikaka wonders whether any government, by any model of development, can ensure what Niyamgiri has provided the Dongrias. “Niyamgiri has remained our lone source of life, livelihood and happiness. No government or company can ever replace it,” said Sikaka, adding that the Dongrias would never allow mining in the hill range.