Natives of Niyamgiri feel that the police is acting as an agent of the Vedanta group, playing dirty tricks to help the company go ahead with its plans to mine bauxite from the sacred hills

Bibhuti Pati
Lanjigarh (Odisha), Tehelka

Photo: Bibhuti Pati

ONE OF the world’s most controversial mines is back in the spotlight after hundreds protested against renewed efforts to mine Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills. Dongria Kondh and Niyamgiri supporters held their own ‘public hearing’ in Odisha state, where they restated their resolve not to allow mining on their sacred mountain.

A public hearing on Niyamgiri Hills was conducted by hundreds of Dongoria, Jharnia and Kutia tribes under the banner of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti with the active participation of Kalahandi and Rayagada tribes at Jagannathpur village of Lanjigarh block where the tribals did not include any government staff and company officials.

On 9 April, the tribes participated in a public hearing and said that they (tribes) have a birthright on the Hills and they won’t allow mining to their sacred mountain whatever the repercussion may be.

President of the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti, Loda Sikoka welcomed the tribes on the pandal (stage) and said that the Hills are neither the property of the Odisha government nor do they belong to the Central government. Loda said if mining was allowed in favour of Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL), they would be continuing the protests till their last breath. “We are fighting neither against the police nor VAL. We are fighting for our human rights,” he added.

Kalahandi Lok Sabha MP and founder of Green Kalahandi organisation Vakta Das says, “As a public-elected representative I have great regards for the apex court of India. I think I do not find any ground on which the apex court would give grant for the mining in Niyamgiri.”

Activist Prafulla Saantra from the National Alliance of People’s Movements said, “I hope the Supreme Court endorses the government’s ruling of not mining in Niyamgiri. This is in the interests of protecting natural resources and the tribal people.”

Dongria leader Dodhi Sikaka said, “Those who are fighting for their rights are beaten up and put behind bars in the name of stopping Naxals. Now, we Dongrias and Jharanias are together in resisting this. We are fighting for our own people, for our ancestral land, for our Niyamgiri.”

“It is better to die than to live in hell. Living with a demon is like living with death”
Niyamgiri Villager

London-based social organisation Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said, “On Sunday, 9 April, the Dongria held their own day of judgment — a public hearing — in which they vowed to protect their sacred mountain. In the Niyamgiri Hills, the Dongrias’ decision is clear.”

Senior leader of the Dongria and Kutia tribes Kumuti Majhi said, “When the industry had not come here at Lanjigarh, we were leading a peaceful life, but after the establishment of the factory, many innocent tribes were sent to jail for their alleged involvement with Maoist groups. After the mining, all of us are going to face life-long troubles.”

“Do not kill our hills; we will never leave our maa maati (mother earth) for mutation! They are using the police to abuse. The police kidnapped Lodo and tortured him mentally and physically. They just come and beat us up, abuse our girls, take away our poultry and axes”Niyamgiri Villager

When contacted, Vivek Sinha, senior public relations officer, VAL, said he was busy with some prior commitments and would reply to queries later.

Senior advocate Abhaya Bhatta said, “It is difficult to get mining permission in Niyamgiri. Around 10 primitive tribal villages have the community rights to the Hills. Forest and environment experts, including the environment ministry, have already given reports and opinion on how mining will devastate these areas. So legally, it is difficult to get mining clearance in Niyamgiri.”

In this public hearing, hundreds of tribals joined together and heavily protested against the mining, vowing not to leave the mountain.

A Few Smiles Ruin Their Day

WE DREAMT that our village would develop, we would get gainful employment, our agricultural land would be full of crops, greenery would come to our village and all the villagers would lead happy lives. But our dreams were shattered. The greenery faded away from our villages. Our agricultural lands became barren. Our groundwater level touched rock-bottom. Our air got polluted and we experienced unprecedented acid rain in our villages. The biodiversity and atmosphere of the villages were destroyed. We have lost our means of livelihood!” These are the emotional reactions of the villagers at the Lanjigarh Road Panchayat, where multinational Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL)has been established.

“If it is a good company, the company has to leave and if the elected government is people’s government then they must work for us, not for the company”Niyamgiri Villager

“When Vedanta came to Lanjigarh, the government of Odisha, district administration and Vedanta officials assured the local inhabitants that poverty would be alleviated. Agricultural production would increase. Irrigation, drinking water, health and sanitation, education and communication facilities would develop. Youth would get employment. The poor innocent tribals believed them. But, in reality, after a few months, the villagers find that they have been taken for a ride,” said Pitabas Khiringa, a local youth.

The recent agitations in Kalahandi and Lanjigarh Road Panchayat reveal the pathetic scenario of Lanjigarh. An educated village girl, Manashree Kar said, “The Vedanta advertisement slogan is ‘A few smiles make our day’. But if somebody sees the reality of the Lanjigarh area, Vedanta’s advertisement slogan is only a contradiction in terms. It would be more appropriate to say ‘A few smiles ruin our day’. She added, “What Vedanta is doing and highlighting in the name of peripheral development of Lanjigarh is very little in comparison to what they have been destroying incessantly in the local area.”

The villagers say Vedanta is damaging the environment, to the detriment of all — which is quite apparent from the deplorable condition of local roads. “The less said about education and health, the better,” said a tribal. “Our traditional agriculture has come to a virtual standstill. On the contrary, Vedanta is propagating that the tribals are growing strawberries. This does not hold water at all, as the prevailing climate does not permit it.” They note that the company seems to be flush with funds, organising ‘beach festivals’, but is least concerned about promoting the traditional art, culture and folk dance of the Dongaria Kondhs.

“It’s so funny when these outsiders come and give us lessons on development and environment. If it is a good company, why they are using the police?”Niyamgiri Villager

The drinking water problem and the unhygienic condition of the Lanjigarh Road Panchayat stand as evidence to the miserable condition of the local areas. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s pompous declaration that with the establishment and entry of MNCs into Odisha would overnight bring positive change in the lifestyle of the locals is just a political gimmick — much to the chagrin and dismay of several local inhabitants of Lanjigarh Road Panchayat. Sunil Jain lost his mental balance after ‘guaranteed’ employment did not fructify. Sasmita, the widow of late Sesadev Mahaptra who died in a road accident by a Vedanta vehicle, is still awaiting a source of sustenance for her and her daughter. These are the few instances of Lanjigarh’s ‘prosperity’ vis-a-vis the tall claims of Vedanta and the Patnaik government.

Sarpanch Fakir Majhee and the then Sarpanch Nilamadhab Mahapatra of Lanjigarh recall that when Patnaik visited Kasipur, he had declared at a public meeting that after the establishment of VAL, the drinking water and unemployment problem would be solved and education facilities would improve. Nila and Fakir are now a much disillusioned duo. They say, “Apart from a few shabby water cisterns which are not as yet connected with pipes, we have nothing.”

“The Vedanta people said they would construct a huge water cistern in Maheswaripur village. This cistern would provide drinking water to all the villages and 16 people would get employment there. Thereafter, the Vedanta surreptitiously took water from our river and streams and diverted it to its own plant. After a great deal of chaos and confusion over employment, only five of the 16 villagers got jobs as daily wage labourers. This is a cruel joke.”

Question Mark Over Vedanta’s HonestyDUE TO construction of ‘red water pond’ by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, water flow from Niyamgiri Hills is blocked. Consequently, not only are people deprived of drinking water but agricultural lands have become barren since 2006. The streams and springs are polluted. The normal life of 199 villagers is disrupted. Vedanta claims it has provided health facilities in the locality. If so, how could 16 persons died of cholera in the adjacent village?At the time of constructing the pond, Vedanta officials had committed to pay a sum of Rs 8,400 per annum per acre towards compensation. But now it has reneged from its commitment. In 2006, it paid Rs 8,400, in 2007 Rs 4,200 and in 2008 the amount came down to Rs 1,100. Villagers are not allowed by securitymen to enter into offices when they try to meet the concerned authority in this regard. After taking the land of many tribals and downtrodden like Bhika Majhi and Kango Majhi of Kendubarad village and Subas Durga of Gopinathpur village, Vedanta is not paying the price for it. Subash Durga, who is a constable, staged a sit-in on the road in protest, says Dukhu Ram.It is to be mentioned here that the then RDC, Sambalpur Madhusudan Padhi, inadvertently exposed the irregularities and forcible massive expansion by Vedanta in a seminar at Bhubaneswar that ‘due to the unethical work of Vedanta, it is difficult for the progress of other proposed projects in the state.’

Central government officers who had been to Niyamgiri have mentioned that if the mining continues in Niyamgiri, then the oldest tribal civilisation along with the jungle, environment, medicated plants, animals, birds, will vanish forever. Despite this, why the state government is in so much of a hurry to oblige Vedanta is a million-dollar question.

The Dongria, Jharania and other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta operations and are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland. Other Kondh groups are already suffering due to a bauxite refinery built and operated at the base of the Hills.

The Hills are home to the more than 8,000 Dongria Kondh, whose lifestyle and religion have helped nurture the area’s dense forests and unusually rich wildlife.