Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the tribals have preserved their resilience and love for nature.
I visited the Niyamgiri hills last year and witnessed the Dongria Kondh and other adivasi community’s annual celebration of their forests and hills, which they worship as the most important part of their lives. The lessons that these communities have to offer to the world, about sustainable living and respecting nature, needs to be experienced to be understood.
Vedanta Limited, a British MNC, has invested Rs 5,000 crore to set up an alumina refinery with a capacity of one million tonnes a year at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Odisha. The refinery planned to source its minerals from the Niyamgiri hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.
Projects like these have little consideration for environmental impact, social impact assessment and legal rights of people who own these lands, and disregard provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which are safeguards at least to some extent, for thousands of communities living in natural resource-rich habitats, which they have protected and preserved over generations.
Given the potential strength of these laws, it comes as no surprise that governments, toeing the line of greedy corporates, make all possible efforts to dilute these laws and create an environment that is easy to exploit, with no regard for local communities and their rights.
The forest clearance for the proposed project at Niyamgiri was rejected following a directive of the Union ministry of environment and forests in August 2010. The Odisha Mining Corporation challenged this in the Supreme Court. Following this, the Supreme Court ordered the state government to organise gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, to take a final decision on the issue based on public opinion.
Gram sabhas were held in 12 villages of the Niyamgiri hills between July and August of 2013. The proceedings of the gram sabhas, as specified in the court order, were attended by a district judge, nominated by the chief justice of the Orissa High Court.
Despite the fact that the proceedings were held under strict scrutiny by the state, it did not leave any doubt that the people did not want the project in their hills. While scores of women and men came forward and articulated their love, worship and respect for their hills and forests which is their home and asserted their legal rights over the entire expanse of the Niyamgiri hills, it was a huge defeat for Vedanta and the Odisha Mining Corporation.
Meanwhile, there were instances of adivasi people from the Niyamgiri hills being accused under various cases and arrested. The people alleged that these were pressure tactics to silence them and their struggle to preserve their forests.
Haribandhu Kadraka, a tribal leader was arrested in October 2014. Drika Kadraka, who had represented the struggle and resilience of the people of the Niyamgiri hills in many public fora, was intimidated by the police and picked up without any charges being filed. Soon after, he managed to get back to his village and committed suicide in November 2015. People say that it was because of the trauma that he was subjected to while in custody.
There have allegedly been many more cases of false encounters and intimidation, which have hardly been reported or acted upon.
Dasru Kadraka, another active youth leader who was at the forefront of the pepole’s movement to protect Niyamgiri was arrested in April 2016.
The progress of these cases hardly interests the national media. Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the people of Niyamgiri stand tall, with their resilience and love for nature, which cannot be quelled. Their resolve to safeguard their homes, not just for themselves but for generations to come, is as strong as ever. Their belief in constitutional and legal forms of struggle is evident in their persistent efforts.
The Odisha Mining Corporation, in an effort to undermine the rights of the adivasi communities residing in Niyamgiri, once again, filed a petition challenging the 2013 resolutions of the gram sabhas. The Supreme Court scrapped the petition on May 6, 2016.
The people of Niyamgiri have won again and they continue to inspire thousands of such struggles across the country for assertion of people’s rights over their resources. Hopefully, this will be a lesson well learnt by corporates and entities that look at ways to undermine people’s rights in their lust for profit.
Or is it still a far way off? Meanwhile, let’s hope there is more solidarity for people’s struggles across the country and we have the courage to stand up and speak, despite all odds.