“A victory of democratic rights over the interests of the powerful”
“Niyamraja is like a parent to us; he is God. The hill has given us food, water, shelter and livelihood and we can die for it. We are neither urban people nor educated like you all, but to save our Niyamraja we can sacrifice our life.”
This was the clear message that the women and men of the Dongria Kond tribe gave to the world during the course of the 12 gram sabha (village council) meetings that were held in July and August 2013 in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, located in the shadow of the verdant and abundant Niyamgiri hills in Odisha.
Dongria women and girls on their way to a gram sabha (Photos: Sarada LahangirWFS)
By fearlessly exercising their democratic rights and freely participating in the gram sabha meetings, the Dongria women gave a big thumbs-down to the controversial Niyamgiri bauxite mining project mooted by Vedanta, a multinational corporation that wanted to mine bauxite ore in 660 hectares of the Niyamgiri hills to keep its alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi going.
“We worship Niyamraja. The sacred hills are owned by Niyamraja. It is the hill that provides us with fresh water, air and food. How can we allow anybody to destroy it?” says Chanchala Harijan, 50, a former Nayeb Sarpanch of Phuldumer village in Kalahandi.
It is among the five villages in the district where this first-ever environmental referendum was conducted on the directive of the Supreme Court. She goes on to emphasise, “This is not only a fight for our livelihood but a fight for our dignity, our divinity and our existence.”
In Kunakadu, another tribal hamlet in Kalahandi where the vote was held, when Kunji Sikoka, 50, started swinging an axe to express her anger, everybody in the gram sabha was taken aback. “I told them, ‘You may have money, power and guns but I have my axe and I will kill with it if anybody eyes our hill’. I am ready to sacrifice my life but I will not allow anybody to ravage this holly hill,” she says.
Judging from these vociferous reactions, it is quite clear that Dongrias, especially its women, are not to be brushed aside as unsuspecting, illiterate tribals who can be persuaded to give up their entitlements.
A major sect of the Kondh, a primitive tribe, they mostly stay in high hills known as Dongars, and call themselves the descendents of Niyamraja (The King of Law), the presiding deity of the Niyamgiri hills. Protecting the environment is their calling and they see themselves as the guardians of the hundreds of perennial streams that flow from these hills.
Dongria Kondhs have an estimated population of about 10,000 and they live in over 120 settlements around the cool Niyamgiri range, which receives 80 per cent of the total rainfall during the monsoon.
The forests here are not just rich in fruit-bearing trees such as jackfruit, tamarind, blackberry, mango and many citrus varieties, but are also known for valuable timber like Sal, Biza, Sisu, Asana and Haladu. Besides this, the hills have large deposits of bauxite ore and other minerals.
For sustenance, the Dongria Kondhs are primarily dependent on this natural habitat. “We mostly live in isolation and the hill is our only means of survival,” stresses Sitari Majhi, a tribal woman from Lakhpadar village.” Majhi’s family has been living here for generations and they grow millets, peas and beans to feed themselves.
The problem in the Niyamgiri hills began in 2003 when Sterlite (now Vedanta), a British multinational, signed an agreement with the state government to extract 70 million tonnes of bauxite from the mountain range.
As a first step they built a refinery in Lanjigarh village, which led to the displacement of 103 families there. Today, red mud swamps seen in this area are an indication of the devastation that was wrought in the name of development.
Large pipes from the processing unit discharge dirty water mixed with clay and other pollutants into the ground, even as bulldozers and earth diggers continue carving even more space to contain the ever-increasing waste. As expected, the water resources in the vicinity have now dried up and the land has been poisoned by toxins.
The Dongrias have witnessed this rapid destruction near Lanjigarh and have, therefore, opposed the proposed mining in Niyamgiri from the beginning. In August 2010, they had registered a small victory when the Indian government found Vedanta guilty of ‘total contempt’ for the rights of the tribals, and denied them permission to mine in Niyamgiri.
On April 18, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, directed the forest-dwellers of Niyamgiri ranges to take a final call on whether bauxite mining would indeed infringe on their religious and cultural rights.
Sitari Majhi, a tribal woman from Lakhpadar village, speaking at a gram sabha
While the court’s order clearly stated that all the 112 affected villages should be consulted, the Odisha government strategically chose 12 to hold the gram sabhas.
Of these, seven were in Rayagada and the remaining five in Kalahandi, home to the Dangaria, Jharania and Kutia Kandha tribes. In the first gram sabha that was held in Serkapalli village in Rayagada, media reports quoted District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra, the appointed supervisor in the district, saying that all the 36 members present – including 16 women – opposed the mining. And the trend continued in all the meetings.
The state administration had been under the impression that they would be able to manipulate the verdict in their favour. But thanks to the efforts of women like Parbati Gouda, 49, of Ijurupa village, who came out in large numbers to participate in the gram sabha meetings, the tribals were able to assert their democratic rights.
The total number of voters registered in the 12 selected villages is 518, and 404 participated in proceedings. Of these, 234 were women and 169, men.
According to Lado Sikoka, President, Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), a tribal body opposing mining, “Our women are our strength and this time they stepped out to quash Vedanta’s plans. They know that for our Kondh tribe, the Niyamgiri is much more than a mountain; it is a living God, a life source, thriving ecosystem. We do not even cultivate on the hilltop as a sign of respect for the spirit within the mountain so mining is out of the question.” - Women's Feature Service