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This Tribe In Odisha Stands To Lose Everything, Thanks To The State Govt. And Vedanta

By Shalu Singh:

A tribal woman sits with her child in the forest village of Phuldomer near the mining site of Vedanta Alumina refinery. Source: Reuters

If you are battling capitalism, it’s never going to be easy. And who knows this better than the Dongaria Kondhs: a vulnerable tribe with approx. 8000 population residing in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha have had a decade-long fight against London-based Vedanta Resources and there’s still a long way to go.

The battle for survival becomes tougher when the state turns against its people. The Government of Odisha is no different. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri hills should have the consent of gram sabhas. Odisha Government identified 12 out of 105 villages which would get directly impacted by the open-pit mining. In what is known as the country’s first environmental referendum, all 12 villages unanimously said ‘NO’ to the project, but it seems Vedanta still couldn’t resist the temptation of bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills.

On Feb 25, 2016, Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) filed an interlocutory application in the Apex court seeking reconvening of gram sabhas to attain mandate to mine bauxite atop Niyamgiri hills. The Joint Venture agreement between OMC and Vedanta stood cancelled, and since the mining would now be solely done by OMC, the state undertaking said that it should be seen as a fresh proposal. Though Vedanta’s name is not mentioned in the petition, it is rather apparent who will benefit from this deal the most. The court refused to entertain the petition asking to first make the Dongarias party to it.

Speaking to Lingaraj Azad over the phone, one of the founders of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti(NSS), reveals a grim picture. “After failing in legal procedure, the State Government is resorting to illegal means by intimidating tribals and arresting activists on charges of Naxal links. Police killed a 20-year-old boy on Feb 27, 2016, in a fake encounter. Vedanta officials try to lure youth of the community by offering them money.”

Recently, 300 Dongaria Kondhs of Muniguda, Kalyansingpur and Bissamcuttack blocks of the Rayagada district staged a protest in front of Muniguda police station demanding the immediate release of Dashuru Kadraka, an activist who was fighting to save the Niyamgiri Hills. Tribals led by Ladda Sikaka, convener of NSS submitted a memorandum to the Governor seeking intervention in the case.

This battle began in 2003 when Sterilite Industries Limited, a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources signed a MoU with the Odisha Government to set up alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, Kalahandi. Bauxite, which they were planning to mine atop Niyamgiri hills, serves as a raw material of alumina. Mining bauxite and processing it into aluminium is deadly to the environment. A solid waste product ‘red mud’ which is an environmental and health hazard is produced during the refining process and is not easy to dispose. Niyamgiri due to its environmental diversity comes under Section 18 of Indian Wildlife Act. Construction of road from hill top to refinery will cause large scale deforestation disturbing ecological balance of the area. Liquid and gaseous effluent emissions, deposits of fly ash on crops, water bodies, and trees will also make survival difficult.

Niyamgiri stretches across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha. Approx. 150 million tons of bauxite reserves at the top of Niyamgiri hills soak up monsoon rains and is the source of hundreds of perennial streams and the Vamshadhara river. Dongaria Kondhs depend on these streams for drinking, irrigation, and other purposes. Dongarias revere Niyamgiri as they consider it the abode of their presiding deity. The tribe completely relies on the forest for their sustainability and has very little to do with the world outside.

Vedanta built an aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh even before receiving permission for bauxite mining. After petitions from various activists, in 2005, the Supreme Court formed a five-member Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into the affair. CEC in its reports recommended SC to scrap the mining project stating that there have been violations of environmental norms by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) while granting a permit to Vedanta. It stated that Niyamgiri is listed under Schedule 5 of the constitution which outlaws transferring tribal land to non-tribals.

The Supreme Court overlooked the committee’s recommendations, showing a green signal to the mining project in 2009. Large-scale protests and demonstration stemmed from this verdict. Dongarias maintained round-the-clock vigil on the road that led to their hills. Their mass movement drew the attention of International Environmental Committees, which compelled MoEF to send another team of experts to Niyamgiri.

The team reiterated the same facts that were earlier stated by the CEC. Finally, in 2010, the Ministry denied Forest Clearance to the company and in 2011, Vedanta’s Environment Clearance was nullified. This decision was challenged by the Odisha Government in SC against which came the landmark judgement of seeking the approval of gram sabhas.

The Niyamgiri region has been under paramilitary occupation for seven years. The government claims to have deployed forces for tackling Naxal menace, but there is evidence of the state using security personnel to brutally suppress voices of dissent; While the Maoists tap tribal resentment and dissatisfaction with government to spread their influence.

Under the garb of development, tribals are being uprooted from their culture. Suddenly throwing vulnerable tribes whose traditions date back millennia into so-called mainstream society will make them vulnerable. Development is a gradual process, so why doesn’t the Government start from scratch, like building schools and hospitals.

As far as rehabilitation and resettlement are concerned, Vedanta’s refinery in Lanjigarh displaced hundreds of Majhi Kondh. According to Survival International, “They were shifted to ‘rehab colony’ which is a walled compound of concrete houses, circled with barbed wire. Residents have no farmland, and although some work as labourers for Vedanta, most survive on handouts.”

Niyamgiri movement is not the only one in the state. Kashipur movement against Birlas, Kalinganagar movement against Tatas have seen years of barbaric suppression in the name of development as well.

“Though all the attention on Vedanta for Niyamgiri is more than welcome, Tata and Birla have managed to escape bad publicity despite the killings of Adivasi people in their project areas because they are good at managing media.” says Surya Shankar Dash, an activist and documentary film-maker from Bhubaneshwar.

Tenth President of India, Late K. R. Narayanan said: “Let it not be said of India, that this great Republic in a hurry to develop itself is devastating the green mother earth and uprooting our tribal population.” Maybe the man knew where India was headed and was delivering a much needed and well-meaning advice to its visionaries, activists, and dissenters.

The author sought Vedanta’s response on this but did not receive a reply.

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