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India – Niyamgiri adivasis’ victory against Vedanta is a landmark for land rights


Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the tribals’ have preserved their resilience and love for nature.

I visited the Niyamgiri hills last year and witnessed the annual celebration of forests and hills by the Dongria Kondh and other adivasi communities, who worship nature as the most important part of their lives. The lessons these communities have to offer to the world about sustainable living and respecting nature, need to be experienced to be understood.

Vedanta Limited, a British MNC, has invested Rs 5,000 crore to set up an alumina refinery with a capacity of one million tonnes a year at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Odisha. The refinery planned to source minerals from the Niyamgiri hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.

Such projects have little consideration for environmental impact, social impact assessment and legal rights of those who own these lands. They disregard the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, as well as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which are safeguards atleast to some extent, for thousands of communities living in resource-rich habitats that they have protected and preserved over generations.

Given the potential strength of such laws, it comes as no surprise that governments toeing the line of greedy corporates make all possible effort to dilute legal provisions and create an environment that is easy to exploit, with no regard for local communities and their rights.

In August 2010, the forest clearance for the proposed project at Niyamgiri had been rejected following a directive of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Odisha Mining Corporation had challenged this in the Supreme Court following which the apex court had ordered the state government to organise gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, and take a final decision on the issue based on public opinion.

At Niyamgiri Hills.

In 2013, gram sabhas were held in 12 villages of Niyamgiri hills between July and August 2013. The proceedings of the gram sabhas, as specified by the court, were attended by a district judge nominated by the chief justice of the high court of Orissa. Despite the fact that the proceedings were held under the scrutiny and vigil of the state, there was no doubt that the adivasis did not want the project in their hills.

Scores of women and men came forward and articulated their love, worship and respect for their hills and forests – their home – and asserted their legal rights over the entire expanse of the Niyamgiri hills, and a huge defeat was served to Vedanta and the Odisha Mining Corporation.

Meanwhile, there were instances of adivasis from Niyamgiri hills being accused under various cases and arrested. They alleged that these were pressure tactics to silence them and their struggle to preserve their forests.

Haribandhu Kadraka, a tribal leader, was arrested in October 2014. Drika Kadraka, another member of the community, who had represented the struggle and resilience of the people of Niyamgiri hills in many public forums, was intimidated by the police and picked up without any charge.

He managed to get back to his village and committed suicide in November 2015. The locals say that the psychological trauma he was subjected to while in custody pushed him to the extreme.

There are allegedly many such cases of false encounters and intimidation, which hardly get reported or acted upon. Dasru Kadraka, another active youth leader who was at the forefront of the people’s movement to protect Niyamgiri, was arrested in April 2016.

The progress of these cases is hardly heard of or followed up by national media. Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the people of Niyamgiri stand tall, their resilience and love for nature cannot be quelled.

Their resolve to safeguard their homes not just for themselves but for generations, is as strong as ever.

Their belief in constitutional and legal forms of struggle is evident in their persistent efforts.

The Odisha Mining Corporation, in an effort to undermine the rights of the adivasi communities residing in Niyamgiri, once again, filed a petition challenging the 2013 resolutions of the Gramsbhas.

The Supreme Court scrapped the petition on May 6, 2016. The people of Niyamgiri have won again and they continue to inspire thousands of such struggles across the country for assertion of people’s rights over their resources.

Hopefully, this will be a lesson well learnt for corporates and entities that look at ways to override people’s rights in their lust for profit.

Perhaps, that’s still a long way off? In the meanwhile, let’s hope there’s more solidarity for such struggles across India and we have the courage to stand up and speak, despite the odds.

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