The tribal people of Niyamagiri has once again won a crucial battle against the multinational mining giant Vedanta by unanimously rejecting its proposed mining plan in Niyamagiri. From Serakapadi to Jarapa all the twelve Gramasabhas (Pallisabha in Odisha) have not only vehemently opposed mining but also unanimously made their claim over all the hills and forests of entire Niyamagiri as their habitat and also their only source of live and livelihood. These historical pallisabhas were held after the supreme court on the basis of FRAct-2008 and PESAct on 18th April 2013 ordered the state Govt. to conduct pallisabhas among the villages going to be effected by the proposed mining. The Supreme court’s mandate was to settle the individual, community and religious-cultural rights of local tribals and other traditional forest dwellers staying in Niyamagiri and to decide whether the religious rights of the tribal people is going to be effected by the proposed mining in Niyama Dangar, one of the mountain in the Niyamagiri hill range. To make these pallisabhas transparent and fair, the Supreme court even ordered to depute a district judge as an observer and to vedeograph the whole proceedings.
From July 18th to August 19th, the monsoon of 2013 will go down in the history of India for hosting the country’s first of its kind of referendum on mining. Deep inside the forests of south-western Odisha, in the Niyamgiri hills which is situated on the border of both
Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, the tribal people of Niayamagiri were asked to voice their opinion on the proposed bauxite mining in their habitat. Contrary to the demand of Niyamagiri Surakshya Samiti, the organization of Niyamagiri people for conducting pallisabhas in all the 112 villages falling in the Niyamagiri range, the state Govt. which has been acting as an agent of Vedanta has conducted pallisabhas by selectively choosing only 12 villages. Amid heavy presence of police and paramilitary forces, the unlettered forest dwellers—Dongria Kondhs, Kutia Kondh tribals, and non tribals like yadavas and dalits—spoke of a religion embedded in the hill’s pristine ecology. The unanimous voice of resistance came not only from tribals but also from the people of two non tribal villages like Tadijhola and Ijurupa where people from Yadav caste stay. Even people from Phuldume considered as a CSR village of Vedanta unanimously opposed Vedanta’s mining plan. The most important thing was that the voice of anger and anguish coming out from these poor people manifests their reaction to exploitation, deprivation and repression carried out by the ruling classes on them for ages.
They told in the presence of the district judge, appointed as an observer to the meetings by the apex court, that Niyamagiri is like their father and mother. They get their livelihood from the forest and land of this mountain. The 35 perennial streams coming out from it saved their lives from ages. So mining will destroy their god and their source of sustenance, fruit trees like those of orange, pine apple, jack fruit and mangoes, spices like turmeric and ginger, wild roots, tubers and mushroom, apart from the land for shift and burn cultivation, dongar, where they grow an enviable mix of native millet, pulses and oil seeds.
“Jharna, pani, paban, patra… sabu sesh hei jiba (streams, water, air, leaves… everything will be lost),” said Tunguru Majhi, a Kutia Kondh tribal at the Kunakadu palli sabha. “We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi (both Munda and Majhi led tribal uprisings against the British) if you don’t give up now. “Your temples are made of bricks and cement; ours are these hills, forests, leaves and streams. If you dig these, we will die with our gods,” says Bejuni, village priestess of a Dongria Kondh tribal hamlet in Kesarpadi. “Like the Brahmans and the Kayasthas worship Lord Jagannath, we worship our Niyamraja,” said Majhi. The people stressed that the Niyamgiri hills, spanning 250 square kilometres, is abode of their supreme deity and ancestral kin Niyamraja, who is the protector and preserver of Niyamgiri, the mountain of law.
The thounderous outcome of the pallisabhas has not only frustrated both Vedanta and its promoter state Govt. but also created some sort of panic in the corporate world particularly those companies which are thirsting for mining and mineral based industry in tribal areas. The presence of special representatives of all most all the business newspapers in the pallisabhas and their manufactured reporting s were the pointer to this angle. But while the corporate world and their paid intellectuals were arguing that this kind of referendum on development projects and the use of religion on the way of development will jeopardize the investment climate, people in different parts of the country fighting against displacement welcomed the outcome with joy.
Anyway the unanimous resolutions passed in all the 12 pallisabhas will be sent to the MOeF by the state Govt. and the MOeF is authorized by the apex court to take decision regarding giving stage II clearance to Odisha Mining corporation and Vedanta’s mining project within two months time. In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected the stage II clearance given to Odisha Mining Corporation Limited (OMCL) on the ground that mining in Niyamgiri violates the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. OMCL, the state government company, is slated to supply bauxite to Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery on the foothills of Niyamgiri. OMCL challenged the rejection in the Supreme Court in 2011. On April 18 this year, the Supreme Court ruled that gram sabhas will not only consider fresh claims under FRA but also decide if mining will infringe religious and cultural rights of forest dwellers.
But what we are seeing today has not fallen in all of a sudden. It is the outcome of a long processs under the leadership of Niyamagiri Surakshya Samiti which has united the entire population of Niyamagiri. We can say that Niyamagiri become some sort of sentiment among the local population and they are determined to save it from Vedanta. For the last 10 years there were many activities and mobilizations carried out by the people against mining. People have bravely resisted the entry of Vedanta into the hills. The legal intervention to protect its biodiversity and the contradiction between the two ruling class parties leading state and central Govts has added more advantage to the movement.
Niyamagiri struggle has not only halted the mining plan of the ruling classes but also exposed the hollowness of the so-called development propagated by the ruling classes to loot our resources by establishing extractive industries. Those in the Govt. are arguing that for the development of tribals, mining is needed. They are shedding crocodile tear about the development of tribals only to extract the bauxite from Niyamagiri. Who had prevented the Govt. to carry out the real development of Dongarias in the last six decades. Govts. in the past whether of Congress or the present BJD have not only deprived all the 112 villages of Niyamagiri from getting their basic needs like health services, education, drinking water, electricity, roads etc., but also never thought to develop their existing economy. The ruling classes are only considering the minerals present inside the mountains as resources but not the forest, land, streams and of course the manpower as resources. They want to extract the underground resources at the cost of these overground resources. Development of tribals can be done not by uprooting them or not by devastating their present economy but by enriching the existing one. There could have been industries set up by the Govt. in the periphery of Niyamagiri to process the forest and horticulture items like leaf plates, tamarind, ginger, turmeric, oranges, pineapples, mangoes, lemons etc. produced by the tribals. It could value added their products and also could enrich their present economy and create sustainable employment. But instead of doing this development the Govt. is thinking their development by devastating their present economy and livelihood.
Again Vedanta has not set up its one million ton Alumina refinery only for Niyamagiri. Because Niyamagiri has a deposit of 75 mn tn of bauxite. If Vedanta been allowed to expand its refinery capacity from 1 MTPA (million tonnes per annum) to 6 MTPA , the bauxite deposit in Niyamgiri would have lasted not more than four years. Actually for Vedanta, Lanjigarh and Niyamgiri mark a toehold in the bauxite-rich Eastern Ghats of Odisha, which has bauxite reserve of over 1.8 billion tonnes. That’s about 25 Niyamgiris put together. The expansive deposit owes its origin to weathering of base rocks known as Khondalites, named after the Kondh tribes in 1902 by British geologist T L Walker. “The high quality gibbsite can be processed into alumina at a low temperature i.e. at only 100 degree centigrade, greatly reducing the energy cost,” the official says. For Vedanta, the largest producer of Aluminium, Odisha is the best bet as the largest deposit occurs in Guinea, a West African nation fraught with political instability. The company is unlikely to give in to the tribals’ cause because its competitors are already in the bauxite belt where they have been allotted mines.
Utkal Alumina project, a subsidiary of Aditya Birla group company Hindalco, secured 197 million tonnes of bauxite reserves in Baphli Mali hills in Rayagada. It took the company 21 years to acquire this because of people’s resistance, popularly called the Kashipur movement. NALCO, the state-run Aluminium behemoth, has been mining in the Panchpatmali hills in Korapat district since 1987. The hills have a deposit of 314 million tonnes bauxite. Kodingamali, with a deposit of 81 million tonnes is tied up for Aditya Alumina, also a Hindalco subsidiary.
Anyway the outcome of these historic pallisabhas has a long term consequences both for the ruling classes and for the people. Whatever be the interpretation the Govt. and Vedanta may do in the coming days the people of Niyamagiri have politically won their battle against mining. Their protest against Vedanta now became legitimized after the unanimous outcome of the pallisabhas. CPI(ML) New Democracy and its mass organizations like Lok Sangram Manch have always remained in the forefront of this onslaught on Niyamagiri. Our party has been a major driving force behind this movement.