The Niyamgiri tribals’ rejection of the State Government’s plans to mine the hills for bauxite should lead to a rethink on the current notions of poverty and development.

I have never been to Niyamgiri in Odisha. But what is playing out there since July 18 is a drama that has people like me mesmerised even at this distance. For in those thickly forested hills, where under the rich and diverse plant and animal life above the soil lie valuable deposits of bauxite underneath, an environmental battle of an epic scale is being fought. On the one side are some 8,000 Dongria Kondh and other tribals, sometimes referred to as “primitive” tribes. On the other is the State of Odisha and one of the most powerful multi-national companies in the world, Vedanta. In the face of this apparent inequality, is it even possible for an outcome that favours the outnumbered minority?

Such an outcome is a very real possibility. Because from July 18 until August 19, these so-called “primitive” people — who have lived for centuries on the slopes of the Niyamgiri hills, drunk its clear waters, eaten its fruits, hunted some of its animals, grown small crops and merged with the natural resources abundant around them — have been asked to speak. A Supreme Court ruling in April this year, ordered the Odisha government to hold gram sabhas, or palli sabhas as they are called, in all the villages that would be affected by the State government’s plan to mine the hills for bauxite. While the court’s order has clearly stated that all the villages affected should be consulted, the Odisha government has cleverly chosen only 12 out of an estimated 112 villages that want to have a say. Perhaps it thought that a dozen villages could be “handled” easily.

Instead, the State government was in for a rude shock as one palli sabha after another unanimously voted against the mining project. These unlettered men and women stated without hesitation that any mining in the region would disturb what the Dongaria Kondh regard as their deity, Niyamaraja. The apex court had clearly stated that this is what the palli sabhas should examine and decide upon — whether mining would impact their traditional beliefs. At the time of writing, six out of 12 have unanimously reiterated that the mining project would disturb their deity.

It has been truly inspiring to read the reports about these palli sabhas, covered in detail by Down to Earth, the environmental magazine produced by the Centre for Science and Environment (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/battle-niyamgiri) and some mainstream media. First, the very fact that such a process of consultation is even taking place is extraordinary. It has never been done before. Second, the circumstances are particularly difficult. There are no motorable roads to many of the places where the palli sabhas are held. The district magistrate deputed to be present during the meeting has had to trek uphill through treacherous terrain for several kilometres to reach the place. That experience in itself should be transformative for people who otherwise are used to the aggrieved trekking long distances to offices in urban centres.

More than that, the unambiguous language in which people have spoken, without any fear, should stir the conscience of even the most stuck-in-the-mud bureaucratic type. Surely, no one can dictate to Gata Majhi, a woman of over 70 years from Palberi village in Kalahandi district where the fifth palli sabhawas held, when she says, “We only buy salt and kerosene from outside. Everything else we need is here. My God is spread over all these hills. No one messes with him” (reported in Down to Earth).

The palli sabhas should make all of us pause and think what we mean by “development” and “poverty”. Both these terms are linked. The poor, we are told, need development to get them out of their poverty. Yet, no one asks these so-called poor people what they think, whether they consider themselves poor, whether they want development, and if they do, of what kind.

The people living in Niyamgiri have more than once stated in clear terms that they do not want the kind of development that gouges out their precious hills, the inevitable outcome of open cast mines. They do not want roads blasted through forests that have survived as repositories of precious biodiversity. They do not want people stomping through their villages and hamlets bringing “development” of a kind they reject.

Also, do they think of themselves as poor? Not if you listen to the words of the woman quoted above or others like her. They have testified how the hills, the forests and the land, satisfy all their needs. They live by rules that ensure that no one hunts more than they need, no one cuts more trees than are needed, no one pollutes the natural springs and streams. These might be “poor” in the ways in which calculations about poverty are made by economists, but they are richer than most people in the world in their ability to live off the bounty that their natural environment provides. Of course, if you take that from them, destroy it in the name of “development”, you will succeed in making them “poor”.

So even as our media obsesses over what various world-famous economists believe is the way forward for this country, let us pause and listen to the wisdom of the people of Niyamgiri. In a world threatened every day by natural calamities that are a direct consequence of destructive “development”, the philosophy of the inhabitants of Niyamgiri takes on an urgent relevance.

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