RAJARAMAN SUNDARESAN 25 Nov 2021
For 15 years, in lush, bauxite-rich Koraput, thousands of locals, mainly Adivasi and Dalit, have opposed Hindalco’s now-defunct Mali Parbat bauxite mine. In 2019, Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik government renewed the mine lease to 50 years. Ahead of a crucial public hearing for environmental clearance, it jailed 28 villagers, including a class-eight Adivasi school student, on a raft of charges & deployed police across the area to illegally block villagers from attending the hearing.
Bijoy Khillo, president of the Mali Parbat Protection Committee with locals en route to a 22 September public hearing for the proposed Mali Parbat bauxite mine. Days later, he was arrested along with 27 others, including a class-eight Adivasi school boy/RAJARAMAN SUNDARESAN
Semiliguda, Koraput district, Odisha: “In Mali Parbat we grow rice, mandia, kaangu (millets), harvest roots, tubers. Because of its mountain streams, our paddy ripens, our millets ripen. We are able to collect firewood and produce to take to the market and sell. How can the government give away our jungle like this to the company?”
Laxmi Khillo, 22, was angry as she explained how she should have been at a 22 November public hearing called by the state government. That hearing was a legal requirement, supposed to give a voice to locals as part of a process by which the ministry of environment, forests & climate change would decide if it should grant a new environmental clearance to a now-defunct bauxite mine.
The company Laxmi referred to was Hindalco Industries Ltd, a part of the Aditya Birla Group and India’s largest aluminium company. The project in question was the Mali Parbat mine, which had already violated environmental laws and sparked widespread unrest, despite running at only 2.2% of its capacity in the years it did mine bauxite here in this southeastern Odisha district.
The mine is spread over 268.11 hectares (the equivalent of 375 football fields) of a bauxite-rich mountain top leased by the government to Hindalco. In 2019, the Naveen Patnaik government renewed Hindalco’s lease for 50 years.
On the morning of 22 November, Laxmi and scores of other furious locals were stopped at police checkpoints set up across a land of lush hills topped with grasslands, more than 600 km southeast from the state capital of Bhubaneshwar.
The state government had organised a public hearing, as the law required, for the Mali Parbat bauxite mine, but it prevented the public from Laxmi’s village of Maliguda and at least 11 others like it from reaching the venue in the village of Kankadamba. Photographs by local journalists show drones flying overhead, ostensibly to help police monitor protestors.
The Odisha state government’s unlawful move to keep locals out of the public hearing came after weeks of what villagers said was State intimidation aimed at quashing opposition to the mine.
Such government action to stop the public from attending public hearings has evolved into a common strategy over the last 20 years by state governments in largely Adivasi-dominated, mineral-rich regions across Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Telangana and Maharashtra, leading to anger, conflict and, sometimes, death.
There are 740 such conflicts affecting more than 7 million people across India, according to Land Conflict Watch, a research and reporting project that maps land conflicts across India.
The original plan was to hold the Mali Parbat hearing two months ago, on 22 September. As locals struggled to reach the venue that day too, this reporter witnessed police and paramilitary forces impeding them. That hearing was called off amid widespread protest, after officials began it ahead of schedule. The Odisha government announced a new hearing on 22 November.
‘Why Are We Barred From The Hearing?’
In the days after 22 September, the Koraput police arrested 28 locals across Mali Parbat, including a class-eight Adivasi school student on a series of criminal charges, including attempt-to-murder, criminal intimidation, rioting and “obscene acts and songs”, all of which a lawyer for several of the accused told Article 14, were “false”.
Many of those arrested were at the forefront of a 15-year-long mining resistance movement across Mali Parbat. One of those was Laxmi’s husband, Bijoy Khillo, 27-year-old Dalit president of a 15-year-old grassroots group in the area called Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti (Mali Parbat Protection Committee or MPSS).
On the morning of 22 November, as villagers in Maliguda faced-off with the police stopping them from heading to the hearing, Bijoy’s wife, Laxmi shouted: “How is the government holding the hearing with dalals (middlemen) and eating bribes, while our people are in prison? Why are we being barred from the hearing?”
“We have rights, you cannot just take our jungle away!”she said. A large group of villagers around her shouted slogans in Odiya: “Mali Parbat Banchi Thaau, Banchi Thaau ( Let Mali Parbat Live! Let Mali Parbat Live)!”
The locals of Mali Parbat—predominantly Adivasi and Dalit communities–have struggled to stop Hindalco’s renewed attempt to widen mining in the biodiverse and ecologically fragile Mali Parbat region.
In Semiliguda block, an estimated 2,500 families—who largely depend on agriculture and the perennial streams that thread the mining lease area—from 44 villages under four panchayats will be adversely affected by the bauxite mining project. These effects, the locals alleged, were barely acknowledged in the official process to clear the mine.
“Today’s public hearing was concluded successfully,” Abdaal M Akhtar, the collector of Koraput district told Article 14 on the evening of 22 November. “Nearly 300 people from affected villages of Mali Parbat attended it.”
The number mentioned by Akhtar is miniscule, given that the official environmental impact assessment report for the mine shows the affected population to be over 14,000, which is an undercount, since it uses 2011 census figures.
‘Allegations Are Agenda Driven Stuff’
The government held the 22 November hearing, which lasted little over an hour, at an open ground in Kankadamba village, guarded by hundreds of security forces.
Akhtar denied that villagers were prevented by the police from entering the public hearing venue. “These are all agenda driven stuff by people who want to cancel the public hearing,” he said.
Akhtar’s claim was contradicted by many villagers who spoke to Article 14, as well as by cell phone footage from the area that reveals villagers confronting police deployed at village exits and on roads to the hearing venue.
More than 1,500 villagers were prevented from attending Monday’s hearing by police at various checkpoints, according to the MPSS.
Banu Nandibali, a 39-year-old Adivasi farmer of the Paraja tribe—a scheduled tribe with settlements close to hill streams—from Ranikona Maliguda, whose husband Dasi Nandibali was among those arrested, said police detained them about a km from the public hearing.
“Many others were stopped outside their own villages,” said Nandibali. “How is this called a public hearing? Who are they hearing? The police or the barbed wires they put to keep us out?”
Arjun Kirsani, a 27-year-old from Kokriguda village was among scores of villagers who sat in protest over a km away from the hearing venue, after police stopped them from going ahead. A question that the police put to them, he suggested, made plain their bias.
‘Do You Support Parbat Or Company?’
“The police were asking, ‘Are you in support of parbat (mountain) or company?” said Kirsani. “People who said parbat or had come in large numbers as a group were stopped and detained. Are we living in an autocracy or democracy?”
Six from the village of Bhitarkota (Dasa Khora, Sani Khora,Lupo Khora,Bino Khora, Surendra Khora and Hindo Khora) were detained on the evening of 21 November and were kept in a lockup overnight at the Koraput Sadar police station. The police only released them the following evening at 4.30 pm after the hearing was over, said Dasa Khora, a 40-year-old farmer of the Kondh tribe on 23 November.
Others provided similar accounts. Kamla Pujari, a Paraja Adivasi farmer from Pakjhola village, said she and 12 other women were walking to the hearing venue around 8 am when a police bus drove up and offered them a lift to the hearing venue.
“We said ‘we are people of the soil, we will walk.’ But the police forced us into the bus and began driving towards the Semiliguda Police station,” Pujari said. “We protested loudly but they did not stop, and several of us jumped out of the moving bus.”
Pujari said those who jumped out had cuts and injuries. She said that the three women who could not, Heera Pujari, Phulu Jaipuria and Sitai Pujari, were taken to the police station and released by the police only after 2 pm, after the official hearing had concluded.
Over the past days, Article 14 made many attempts over phone and text message to seek comment from Varun Guntupalli, superintendent of police of Koraput District. We also sought comment from Sandeep Gurumurthi, group head, communications, Hindalco Industries Ltd, over email. We will update this story if they respond.
Prohibitory Notices & Undertakings
On 18 November 2021, P K Mohapatra, the inspector-in-charge of the Semiliguda Police Station issued notices under section 149 (prevent from committing a cognizable offence) and section 107 (keep security for maintaining peace) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) on 51 predominantly Adivasi & Dalit residents of 11 villages.
The notices warned recipients to “not create any public disturbance during the public hearing, and to maintain tranquility in the area”.
Over the weekend, several of those who were served notices were made to sign undertakings that they would not be part of any meetings or “unholy gatherings” or become “party to any act which is not in the interest of the common public, directly or indirectly”.
Akhtar, the district magistrate, said the notices were “normal procedure in a situation when there is a threat to people’s lives”.
“During the last public hearing we recorded videos of people indulging in criminal acts,” said Akhtar. “We identified them through their faces and based on that we sent notices to sign undertakings.”
Gupteswar Panigrahi, a Koraput-based lawyer representing those issued notices, said there was no law by which the police could demand such undertakings from citizens.
“The police drafted their own format and forced people to sign this undertaking, which is undemocratic and unconstitutional,” he said. “The notices are intended to suppress, terrorise and instill fear among the people for their opposition to mining.”
Living Atop India’s Richest Bauxite Deposits
Odisha holds over half of India’s bauxite, and 95% of the state’s total bauxite reserves lie in its south-east region in what the mines department calls the Eastern Ghats Mobile Belt (EGMB).
Over the last few decades, vast swathes of farms and forests have been cleared for mining in Koraput, Rayagada and Kalahandi, districts that make up the EGMB, resulting in large-scale displacement and migration of Adivasi and Dalit communities.
This displacement has led to water scarcity in the mining areas, environmental degradation and people being forced out of long-standing cultural systems and agroforestry practices —with few alternative livelihood options.
As far back as 2006, a report by the nonprofit Centre for Science and Environment found that Odisha had cleared more forests than any other Indian state for mining, with half a million displaced, predominantly Adivasis.
These precedents have led Mali Parbat’s residents to oppose mining in their hills. Local communities, which include the Paraja, Kondh, Gadaba and Mali communities, practice shifting cultivation and grow paddy, wheat, pulses, turmeric, ginger and vegetables through the year, thanks to water from a network of mountain streams.
The local Kundli haat or market, which is about 16 km from the mining site, is one of the largest vegetable markets in southern Odisha, used by thousands of locals to buy and sell produce.
Beyond the damage to agriculture, villagers also said they opposed the mine because the lease area consists of a sacred cave, the Pakuli Debi Gumpha, common pastures for livestock and is a major source of foraged foods, such as tubers, roots, mushrooms and medicinal plants.
A Determined Protest Over 15 Years
In 2007, the government of Odisha executed a 20-year mining lease across Mali Parbat to Hindalco, which got environmental clearance in 2006 and started mining in 2008. The MPSS, spread across about 40 villages of Mali Parbat, came together around this time.
Strong local opposition prevented Hindalco from running the mine at its full capacity of 600,000 tonnes per annum. When the clearance, which was valid for five years, expired in September2011, the mine was running, as we said, at 2.2% of capacity.
While the mine ran, its existence led to frequent unrest and violence. In 2014, nine locals were arrested after they tried to stop the mining, and did prison time before being released on bail or acquitted. Those arrested included Bijoy Khillo, the current president of the MPSS.
“The state administration and local police have been after us since we started mobilising for our rights over lands and opposing mining here,” Khillo told Article 14 in an interview in September. “False charges were slapped against us.” (On 5 October, following the cancelled public hearing of 22 September, the police arrested Khillo again on many charges.)
In January 2021, an expert appraisal committee of the ministry of environment, forests & climate change asked Hindalco for a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) report and to conduct a public hearing as per the law, the EIA notification, 2006.
The ministry also directed the Odisha government via the Odisha State Pollution Control Board to act against Hindalco under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, for mining between 2012 and 2014 despite expiry of its environmental clearance.
A senior OSPCB official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Article 14: “Yes, we know of the violation. But we have not received any clear instruction from the MoEFCC (the environment ministry) what action should be taken.”
“Hindalco’s permission for extracting water from Kundli Nala (a tributary of upper Kolab River Basin) has also expired since 2009,” said Shankar Pani, an environmental lawyer in Bhubaneshwar. “Therefore, along with environmental impact, there is a requirement of fresh assessment of the water needs vis-à-vis the needs of other competing users in the area like for agriculture and drinking water.”
While the violations go unaddressed, authorities are pushing ahead with the new clearance process for the mine, sparking the current wave of protests in Mali Parbat.
Silent Impact Assessment Report
In August this year, MPSS members and Mali Parbat locals sent over 300 objection letters to OSPCB officials and the local administration.
The letters pointed out how the EIA report made no mention of perennial streams flowing from the Mali hills or the sacred cave and how it misleadingly categorised the mining lease area as barren land lacking vegetation.
Collector Akhtar dismissed villagers’ concerns, telling Article 14 after the 22 November hearing that “bauxite hill tops do not even have trees. How can any stream arise out of them?”
Akhtar is incorrect. Anyone travelling through Mali Parbat will see many streams, as this reporter did.
“Every child in our area knows that there are more than 36 perennial streams which originate from the Mali Parbat hills” said Gobardhan Khillo from Maliguda village, speaking to Article 14 a few days before he, too, was arrested on 5 October. “We have their Kui and Paraja names too, like Patdebi Jharna, Mali Jharna and Patripakaan Jharna.”
The link between grassland mountaintops that hold bauxite in the Eastern Ghats and perennial flow of fresh water is well documented. Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist and managing trustee of an environmental research and advocacy group called Environics Trust told Article 14 that bauxite was porous, allowing it to retain water.
“These mountains act like sponges, retaining monsoon water and slowly releasing it over the year, enabling lean season flow,” said Ramamurthi. “Blasting and digging up mountains like Mali Parbat will form fractures, and is bound to have an impact on the biodiversity and rivers of the area.”
The EIA report ignores the impacts of mining in the district, said Sharanya Nayak, a Koraput-based researcher and environmental activist, who is among the 51 people on whom the police served prohibitory notices on the eve of the 22 November hearing. For example, reports assessing the environmental impacts of older mines in Koraput district already point to drying up of perennial streams.
“The government opened up Koraput’s Panchpatmali (Asia’s largest bauxite mine in the 1980s), which has a vast reserve of over 300 million tonnes,” said Ramamurthi. “Why do they want to open up smaller reserves in areas like Mali Parbat with high biodiversity at a time when the climate crisis is escalating?”
Hindalco’s EIA report glosses over the destructive nature of bauxite mining and states that “it can be ascertained that there is no significant or direct impact due to change in land use on the nearby communities”.
An Aborted Hearing. Multiple Arrests
Even though 300 objections were raised against the faulty EIA report, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board went ahead with the 22 September public hearing on 22 September at 11 am. The events that unfolded, witnessed by this reporter, made the government’s bias and local anger and frustration apparent.
Over 2,000 villagers from across the hills made their way towards Kankadamba that morning, only to find all three entry points to the hearing venue blocked a km away by paramilitary personnel and local police force.
At one of the main entry points, Tentuliguda Chowk, villagers asked police why they were not being allowed to reach the venue. Dumbe Khora, a 32-year-old Kondh woman farmer from Bhitarkota village, asked the police angrily: “We have come here to save our mountains, our agriculture. Who are you to block us?”
As villagers pushed past and reached the venue around 10.15 am, about 30 to 45 minutes prior to the scheduled time, they found the public hearing already underway. Villagers from Kankadamba, a pro-mining village, were present at the venue, an open ground with makeshift tents. There were loud chants of “Hindalco Zindabad (long live Hindalco)”, while officials and company staff were seated on the stage.
“The company has hired goons, staff have brought in their supporter group of villagers much before and begun the public hearing process ahead of the official time of 11 am. Is this not a violation?” Bijoy Khillo, the president of the MPSS asked the officials and police personnel present at the hearing. “Who is the government representing here?”
Bijoy was surrounded by women from various villages who demanded the hearing be cancelled. They accused government officials of being in league with Hindalco.
“Is the government trying to stage-manage the entire public hearing process?” shouted Danmati Khora, a Paraja woman leader. “This is cheating!”
As villagers surged onto the stage to stop the meeting and clashes broke out, district officials and company staff fled. Angry villagers broke empty plastic chairs, pulled down the roof of the tent. Officials called off the hearing.
Over the next few days, the police arrested 28 people from villages in Mali Parbat, including a 16-year-old class-eight school student from Bhitarkota village, 2.5 km from the mining area. The boy has since been sent to a juvenile centre, 330 km away in Berhampur.
The student’s mother, a Kondh Adivasi women farmer, said she worried for her son who was attending school and was now in jail “far away”. We are withholding her name so her son cannot be identified, as the law requires.
“They are taking away anyone who is speaking against mining,” she said. “It feels like my world has shattered. At our Dongar fields, we are harvesting millet now. I really hope he will return before the harvest gets over.”
Asked why a minor had been arrested, collector Akhtar texted this reporter on 23 November saying: “It’s absolutely fake”. He later sent a second text. “That is from September,” wrote Akhtar. “He had been produced before the Juvenile Justice Board and remanded by them as per law.”
Silencing A Protest
The police has charged all of the 28 arrested under section 307 (attempt to murder), section 147 (rioting), section 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapon), section 427 (mischief casuing damage to the amount of Rs 50), section 323 (causing hurt), section 332 (hurt to deter public servant from his duty), section 326 (grievous hurt by dangerous wepaons or means), section 379 (punishment for theft), section 294 (obscene acts and songs), section 506 (criminal intimidation), section 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offense committed in prosecution of common object) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and section 25 & 27 of the Arms Act,1959.
The police themselves are the complainant in the FIR, which describes abuse and threats against “public servants” and claims protestors inflicted a “deep cut” to the head and chased a Hindalco official “in order to kill him” and attacked government officials.
This reporter, who was present at the venue on 22 September shot a video of the proceedings, which shows the staff in question being escorted away by the police without any head injury.
Panigrahi, who represents many of those arrested, denied that his clients attacked anyone on the day of the 22 September hearing. He pointed to discrepancies in the police case.
“The medical report submitted to the court by the police of the alleged victim shows the medical examination was done at the Kundli Community health center at 11 am on 22 September,” said Panigrahi. “How is that possible? The center is nearly 12 km from the public hearing. How could the time of medical examination, the official time of the commencement of the public hearing and the arrival of so-called agitators be the same?”
On 4 October, nearly 500 women from different villages marched with MPSS leaders to the collectorate and gave Akhtar a letter alleging that the police were arresting villagers to favour Hindalco. They demanded a stop to the arrests. On 17 November, the women’s committee of MPSS again met the district administration and demanded that the 22 November hearing be cancelled and those arrested be released.
Saptagri Sankar Ullaka, Koraput’s Lok Sabha member of parliament from the Indian National Congress told Article 14 on the evening of 23rd November that he had received “many complaints” from his constituents. “I am speaking to the people from Mali Parbat region to know what exactly happened,” said Ullaka.
Article 14 made several attempts to seek comment from Pitam Padhi, member of state legislative assembly (from Pottangi constituency), from the ruling Biju Janta Dal, who also hails from Pakjhola village in the Mali Parbat region. We will update this story if he responds.
Manjula Khillo from Maliguda village, whose husband Giri Khillo is among those arrested, said things would have been different had her husband supported the company, or accepted money from them to mobilise villagers in their favour.
“We would not be standing outside the Collector’s office writing petitions,” she said, “And begging him to release our people.”
Additional reporting by Chitrangada Choudhury.
(Rajaraman Sundaresan is an independent researcher and special correspondent with Samadrushti, an Odisha-based media house. Chitrangada Choudhury is a member of the Article 14 editorial board.)