ByÂ Mahitha Kasireddi:
The south of Orissa and the north border of Andhra Pradesh is a rich preserve of ethnic India. There exists thick greenery over a vast stretch of oldest mountain ranges under which lived generations of aboriginal occupants. This is the story of the ethnic tribe Dongria Khond and their religious deity, a mountain, The Niyamgiri Hill.
The Rayagada district of Orissa, where lies the long mountain stretch of Niyamgiri, is home to a million tribal people collectively called the Konds. They live in a number of communities called Kutia, Khond, Dongria Kond, Desia Khond, Kui Khond etc. They are majorly dependent on agriculture for a living. Their religion is a major factor which primarily dominates their economic, cultural and social life. These Adivasis are true sons of soil who worship the mother earth and offer sacrifices in return of the prosperity she brings them.
They live a peaceful life in the lap of nature and know of no treachery and misdeed. But life was not always smooth for these pure conscious beings. Their land has been invaded by mining companies aided by state government agencies.
It has been found that the land in the districts of Rayagada and Kalahandi are reserves of abundant Bauxite. In 2003, a British based Indian Mining Company, Vedanta Resources signed an MoU with the Orissa government and setup a refinery, the mining project, Sterlite industries at Lanjigarh. Initially, the people welcomed the company as they were lured with promises of development,Â modernizationÂ and improvisation. The company had made false promises to bring up schools, colleges and health care facilities for the Adivasis. Gradually, they had witnessed an encroachment and stripping them off their resources, belongings and livelihood. Vedanta had already mined a good deal of Bauxite. The greedy capitalists who already setup a one-million-tonne-per-annum capacity refinery, were later resorting to expand their business to six million tonne per annum.
The company forced the tribes to evacuate the place and take money in return. But, the tribes who were living there for generations refused to leave their ancestral home land. Since then, the demonic firm had resorted to terror to accomplish what they wanted. The people were manhandled by police, security forces and goons. Their houses were mercilessly uprooted by bringing in bulldozers in the middle of a dark night and some lost lives in frequent confrontation with the police. The people here are fighting tirelessly to protect their forests from loot and plunder. Their leaders were abducted, beaten and detained. The company is now facing grave accusations of violation of human rights and corporate governance.
The refinery setup in Lanjigarh is responsible for an irreparable environmental and ecological disruption in the region. A number of perennial rivers flow down the Niyamgiri which are being polluted due the Bauxite mining. The refinery releases poisonous substances into the river Vamshadara. The soil which was rich due to the fine compatibility of Bauxite and water is now loosing fertility. The tribes practice shift-cultivation and grow two varieties of crops by rotation on a piece of land. This is not possible now due to the mining activity. The Vegetation of Niyamgiri consists of a wide variety of food crops such as ragi, millets, wheat, sweet roots, bananas, palm trees etc. The forests of Niyamgiri are a habitation to wildlife with which the tribes live in harmony. The waters of the perennial rivers are home to a variety of aquatic life. All these would suffer if the Vedanta is allowed to carry on mining. If the mountain is deracinated from there the major effect would be on the climate of Lanjigarh. The rainfall would decrease, temperatures could go up and the normal course of the wind could be disturbed. Above all, the Khonds of Rayagada held the summits of Niyamgiri to be sacred to their principle deity Niyam Raja. They are mainly being deprived of their theistic rights by snatching away their god from them.
The spirit of nature is sacrosanct and omnipotent in front of selfish plot of mankind. The Dongria Khond tribe did not step back but continued to protest and fight. They went about blocking the ways to the mountains by not allowing the bulldozers and vehicles of the company to reach there. They were not alone in the fight. They were joined by national and international support. Ministers like Jayaram Ramesh and Rahul Gandhi expressed their concerns and advocated the rights of the tribes. Survival International, a protest organisation, held demonstrations in front of the head quarters of Vedanta Resources in Britain. They filmed the lives of the tribes and their agony against the plunder which was viewed by a large audience. This resulted in massive support and thousands of letters were written to the government and courts to stop Vedanta from mining in Orissa.
The Sterlite industries brushed aside accusations and claimed that there was no ecological damage. The company did not cooperate with the British government in the investigations regarding the treatment meted out to the Dongria Khond tribe and the whole issue. Not satisfied by the conduct of Vedanta group in this matter, the Church of England, few activist firms and banks withdrew support and refused to invest in Vedanta. Yet, the company is backed by major banks.
On April 18th 2013, the Supreme Court passed a landmark verdict in the case. The court upheld that the rights of community, culture and religious rights were to be decided by the gram sabha. That brings the company back to the place where proper consultations were not made. The gram sabha has 3 months time to settle claims and entire process would be supervised by an independent judge from the Orissa High Court. However, the final decision lies in the hands of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) which is to decide in 2 months from the time of submission of gram sabha’s decision.
Many have applauded the SC’s decision which fend off a cultural genocide. But, the crux overlooked in the matter is, that the SC has awarded a 10 km limit to the tribe. Apparently, people living beyond the limit have no say. This shows that the court has not completely prohibited Vedanta but left the options open for the company. Tribal activists say that formation of gram sabha is nearly impossible in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Thus, the SC verdict is a phony victory.
The battle does not end here. The international activists in London have demanded that the Vedanta be removed from the list of companies in the Stock exchange market on ethical grounds. The Dongria Khond people have pledged their lives in protecting their deity mountain from usurpation by anyone. Their women and children are also an active part of their sacred procession. They have appealed for outside support to drive the mining companies away from their periphery and for fighting for their right to survival and dignity. The Niymgiri is not just a property right, it is something beyond that which capitalists and industry inclined governments cannot comprehend.