A Mountain That Will Not Bow Down To Corporate Loot: The Fight Against Vedanta

Editor’s Note: This year International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on 9th August, had the theme- Indigenous Languages. The UN Permanent Forum On Indigenous Issues was formed to cater to the issues raised by indigenous peoples across the world.

Lakhpadar village in Niyamgiri

On 15th May 2019 Dadi Kadraka, an activist with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti that has put up a relentless fight against the corporate takeover of their revered God Niyamraja, was arrested from the Muniguda market. Human rights groups and local activists have condemned this, saying that the charges he was booked under including the Arms Act and allegations of links to Maoists are baseless and that Kadraka was a resident of Dhamanpanga village in Munikhal Gram panchayat. A memorandum protesting the arrest was submitted to the SP Rayagada by local activists on 27th May 2018. Kadraka’s friends and family are worried given the torture Kadraka had to face when he was arrested in October last year when he was brutally tortured for four days making it difficult for him to walk for days later and was left near a police station.

It is such random arrests that the villagers, affected by the corporate giant Vedanta, fear as the state police succumbs to the pressures of corporate interest. The arrest of Kadraka precedes the unexpected and brutal death of Dani Batra, a forty-year-old Dalit rights activist and a contract worker of Vedanta refinery, and the arrest of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti leader Lingaraj Azad on 18th March 2019.

We had gathered to demand the promised education and jobs by the company.  We gathered around 6.30 in the morning at the gates of the refinery and concluded our peaceful strike by 9.30 after assurances by a company official”, said the villagers of Rengopalli and Chhatrapur villages to members of a fact-finding team from WSS (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression) to the area.  This writer had accompanied the team.

Dani Batra, who received severe beatings in the lathi-charge, ran into a pond nearby to escape further beatings, however, the OISF personnel allegedly dragged him out of the pond, and broke his hand and legs and crushed his private parts and threw him back into the pond leading to his death, according to villagers in Chhatrapur.  “I am yet to receive the declared compensation of Rupees 25 lakhs, education expenses for my sons and a permanent job for me, which was promised to me in a written assurance on behalf of Mr. H K Bhatia, HR Manager of Vedanta who met me on 18th March 2019 after Dani’s death”, says Dani’s wife Sayindri Batra. The death of an OISF personnel, Sujit Minj has further complicated the matter, with fingers being pointed at the workers for getting violent. The Lanjigarh police have reportedly arrested six people and named the villagers of Chhatrapur and ‘others’ as suspects according to human rights fact-finding teams who visited the area.

Image Credit: theecologist.org

A History Of Struggle In Protecting Their Revered Hills

The particularly vulnerable tribal group (PTG) Dongria Kondh has tried all forms and ways of safeguarding their most revered mountain god, Niyamraja. Trouble started brewing for the Dongria Kondh and other forest-dependent communities of the hills of Niyamgiri in 1997, when Odisha Government signed an MoU with Sterlite Industries India Ltd. and Vedanta Aluminium, subsidiaries of Vedanta Resources, headquartered in London. In 2006, the aluminum refinery at Lanjigarh was set up and started functioning despite non- consent of villagers in and around the area and flouting environmental laws. Not only did the companies reportedly ‘ignore community concerns’ but in connivance with state and union government blatantly ‘breached’ state and national regulatory frameworks and overlooked adherence to international human rights standards.

Rights groups reported violations of the rights to water, food, health, work, an adequate standard of living. After much agitation, the Dongria Kondh got respite from the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2013 as it upheld the rights of the forest-dwelling Adivasi and other forest-dwelling communities over their deity Niyamraja and upheld the power of the local gram sabha as supreme, to decide how their forests and natural resources could be used. Gramsabhas held in July and August 2013, unanimously rejected the mining proposals. However, in Lanjigarh, the fear of the refinery being expanded further and attempts to mine the Niyamgiri range and adjacent hills looms large as companies have stealthily encroached their land. Amnesty International’s report on the deaths and alleged excesses committed by the police forces states that 118 families were fully displaced and a further 1,220 families sold their farmlands to the refinery, however in November 2004, the government of Odisha found that the company had encroached on 4.162 hectares (10.41 acres) of village common land for operations without the required regulatory clearances.” The report goes on to say that “In February 2005, the MoEF had issued a notice to Vedanta Aluminium in relation to the clearing of forest land without regulatory permission. Subsequently, on 23 May 2005, it ordered construction work at the refinery to stop.” Nevertheless, in 2005-2006, the company commenced some aspects of the mining project construction including clearing of the ground and erecting of pillars for the conveyor belt that would link the mine and refinery, but had to suspend the work following complaints of forest law violations” quotes the report by Amnesty International.

Continued Violation Of Land And Forest Rights

CRPF Camp At Trilochanpur:

Currently, the villagers of Trilochanpur are resisting the new CRPF camp in their area that is being set up against the resolution of their local gram sabhas by forcefully evicting four Adivasi families who were cultivating on that land for generations. Vedanta Alumina Company had apparently acquired around 3,000 acres of land in 2004, in Rangopali, Potagada, Bundel, Bandhuguda, and other villages, with promises of giving jobs and education to their children but has not yet done so. Villagers said, “The elected representatives and activists of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (NSS) were summoned to the Superintendent of Police’s office and told in no uncertain terms that their ‘opposition’ to setting up the CRPF camp would not be taken well by the administration.”

The series of gram sabhas held in Trilochanpur Gram Panchayat was concluded in October 2018, and the records substantiate the resolutions passed by the people rejecting the setting up of the CRPF camps”, says Prafulla Samantara, noted human rights activist and environmentalist based in Odisha.

Land Acquisition In Kenduburudi And Jagannathpur:

Villagers of Kenduburudi and Jagannathpur are opposing acquisition of 50 acres of their village land for setting up a rehabilitation colony for the displaced families of Rengopalli, Kotduar and Bandhaguda villages and a permanent CRPF camp. This is in addition to the forcefully acquired 1000 acres from this village in 2005-2006. The villagers say they are opposing as they have not still been adequately rehabilitated and compensated for the earlier forced land acquisition.

Construction Of Red Mud Pond At Rengopalli:

Between 2006 and 2009, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPB), in its inspection reports, highlighted the multiple instances where the company failed to set in place, pollution control measures and meet the conditions stipulated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and OSPCB, as prerequisites for the environmental clearance granted to the refinery project.

Several women at Rengopalli talked about the impending forced evictions and health hazards faced due to the construction of a red mud pond. “We face regular health issues like burning eyes and nose, skin infections, contamination of food and water, etc. due to the dust that flies into our village from the red mud pond that has been built by Vedanta very close to our village. We have not got any health facilities from Vedanta for the health problems we are facing”, said women from Rengopalli.

In 2009, the state government’s Lanjigarh Area Hospital was reportedly ‘contracted out’ to Vedanta Alumina Ltd (VAL). Women in Rengopalli village say that they have not got any health facilities from Vedanta for their health problems and that the company’s hospital does not have good doctors or medicines whenever they manage to go there.

Intimidation, Arrests, And encounters

The violations around the refinery area in Lanjigarh is only the tip of the iceberg. The violations around the Niyamgiri range of hills, are increasing rapidly. There have been cases of Intimidation, alleged false arrests and alleged false encounters that the villagers in Tadijola, Gorata, Dongamati, Kandel, Lakhpadar, Nisanguda, Ambadhuni, Nachinguda, Ningundi and Patanpadhar have testified against. There are allegations of kidnapping, illegal detention in forests, being beaten up and interrogated and accused of being Maoist supporters by the police and CRPF.

Villagers in Dongamati, allege that a young man, Manda Kadraka from their village, was killed in a false encounter. “It was the time of the Niyamgiri festival. On 27th February 2016, Manda had gone to collect some Sulfi (a local drink which is an extract from the palm tree) early in the morning. When he didn’t return, we went to the place where he had gone to collect the Salaf. Manda was not found there but there was CRPF personnel who told us, that they had not done anything and Manda had gone to the festival. In the meanwhile, it came out in the newspaper that the CRPF people had taken Manda’s dead body to Rayagada and declared that they had killed a Maoist. My brother was not a Maoist. He was a student of 10th standard”, recounted a shattered Drika Kadraka, Mando’s brother. The women who had gathered to once again listen to Drika, broke into a song to share his grief.  The song describes Manda Kadraka and other leaders of the Niyamgiri movement.

There have been cases where villagers have allegedly been accused of being Maoist supporters and arrested. Dasru Kadraka of Gorata village is one such case. “It was on 7th April 2016 that I was arrested from the Muniguda market. The police were in civil dress and had guns. They blindfolded me and kept me there for 2 days and beat me up badly. It was around 11’o clock in the night on the third day, when they took me to the forest in Bijepur area. They fired three shots in the air and said they would kill me in an encounter if I didn’t surrender. They then filed cases saying I have deserted my wife, a case related to creating disturbance in the Panchayat and a case for obstructing the road in Lanjigarh area, cases related to putting up posters of Maoists, rally in Singapur road village, a bomb blast in Muniguda, a murder case in Jagdalpur, Bissamkatak house blast case in Durgi road, etc. Four months after I was arrested, my lawyer got the chargesheet and informed me about the cases. Till then I didn’t know about it. I was tortured a lot by the police. They had kept me isolated in a separate cell continuously for seven days. I am out on bail but I do not go to Muniguda market anymore.” A complaint made about this to NHRC was reportedly closed solely on the basis of information provided by the police.

Suppressing Genuine People’s Movement In The Name Of Quelling Maoist Movement

Almost all the villagers who have faced intimidation, arrests, detention, kidnapping or murder have been active members of the Niyamgiri movement. “The police are going from village to village and scaring people. They are framing false cases on all those people who are fighting against the Company (Vedanta) for the sake of their people and country. They had picked me up and broken one of my fingers. The first time that they had picked me up, they took me to Rayagada and kept me there for four days and beat me up a lot. This time, they picked me up around Bhador month (September/October) 2018, when I had gone to Lanjigarh for selling oranges. They took me to Muniguda police station at 12 noon and kept me till 5 in the evening. They never told me why I was detained”, says Lado Sikaka, leader of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti from Lakhpadar village.

A young woman Kuni Sikaka who was forced by the police to surrender as a Maoist after kidnapping her from her home one midnight in 2017 says she didn’t want to sign on any papers and is angry with the entire intimidation that she and her family had to face. “I don’t know what was written in the papers that they wanted me to sign”, she says. “Dodhi Pusaka, my father in law and leader of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti was made to sign some blank papers. The police knew that I was NSS leaders Lado Sikaka’s niece. They said they thought Lado and Dodhi would surrender if they took me and that is why they have caught me. Why was I picked up at 12 o clock in the midnight?” asks Kuni.

LANJIGARH, INDIA � AUGUST 26: Dongria Kondh tribal Lado Majhi, who was beaten up mercilessly at a police station two weeks ago, shows the injury marks on his body at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Orissa on August 26, 2010. (Photo by Kaushik Roy/The India Today Group via Getty Images)

Building Insecurities For Women

Women particularly feel unsafe by the presence of the RPF in the forests. Kumodini Vadaka, a woman leader from Patanpadhar village says, “We are scared to go to the market or to our forests alone now. The CRPF people constantly comes and asks us if we have seen Maoists and whether we are protecting them. They even poked my elderly parents on their stomachs with their rifle butts”. Women in Lakhpadar, Patanpadhar, Ambadoni, Dongamati and Gorata, shared similar experiences. An elderly woman from Dongamati village says, “It was very nice, earlier. We were free. We could go to the forests and collect whatever we wanted. We were leading a very happy life. Now, when we go, there are a lot of police forces inside the forest. They question us as to whether we have seen Maoists.” Another woman in Dongamati, slowly speaks up, “The women used to go to take a bath alone, earlier. Now we are able to only go in groups. We are scared. We also feel scared to visit our people in other nearby villages when there’s a celebration, because the CRPF come and intimidate us.”

Not a single villager this writer spoke to, had seen a copy of their FIR, charge sheet or any other case documents pertaining to them even after spending years in prison. Siram Naik, a villager from Dongamati says, “In December 2018, when I had gone to welcome the Samvidhan Samman Yatra (Save the Constitution march) that NAPM had organized, I was called to the police station and told by the Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) that there is a warrant against me. We don’t know why they want to arrest us. We think it is because we are fighting for our land and forest rights and justice”.

Lawyers in Bhawanipatna town, on conditions of anonymity, who are familiar with the cases say that most of the people aren’t aware of the cases filed against them. They say lawyers are paid by the Vedanta Company, to take on such clients and ensure that they aren’t acquitted. Lingaraj Azad, one of the leaders of the people’s forest rights movement Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti while talking about the recent cases filed against him for protesting against the atrocities of Vedanta Company, says that the movement has no resources to employ lawyers who can keep track of the cases filed against their people. “I didn’t know the status of the cases filed against me, till I was recently arrested again in March 2019, pertaining to a case filed in 2017. I am being pressurised to stop protesting for our rights”, says Lingaraj Azad.

Diminishing Media Support To Highlight The Struggle Of The People

The Niyamgiri struggle has been one of the most powerful and inspiring ones in the country, with the Supreme Court upholding their demands. Despite this, the intimidation of the state and agents of Vedanta Company continue. “There are people who have been bought over by the company, to stop asking for their rights. We have lost lives like Drika Kadraka from Ambadhuni village who was detained and later committed suicide because of the police torture. However, we all will never stop fighting for our Niyamgiri. We will die if we don’t fight”, says Lado Sikaka.

The mainstream media hardly reports any of these testimonies of gross violations. Select media persons who want to maintain their freedom but face immense pressure, on conditions of anonymity, share their grievances and say that even the police give them strict orders not to report violations from Niyamgiri. Hope seems to be eternally alive in young leaders like Siram Naik who signs off by saying, “We are fighting against the Vedanta Company who wants to sell our mountains and forests. We will not leave our God, our, villages, forests and mountains”.
The Vedanta Company wants these rocks and what lies underneath to make a profit. However, they don’t realize that life-giving nature is more important.” quips Kadraka.

How far is justice for the people of Niyamgiri and neighbouring hill ranges rich in bauxite which is being hounded by profit-making corporates? “We had demanded Rs 50 lakhs as compensation and justice. We demand to know why they killed my school-going brother Manda Kadraka and on what basis they identified him as a Maoist? We did not get any justice from anyone till now”, says Drika Kadraka.

The WSS is a nationwide network of feminist human rights activists. For more information: https://wssnet.org/

This article was first published in The Citizen
Featured image credit: theecologist.org
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