|All pictures by Sudha Ramachan|
In February, hundreds of Dongria Kondhs congregated for their annual festival atop the Niyam Dongar Hill in the Niyamgiri hills. This year, however, the mood among the Dongria Kondhs was hardly celebratory. The threat posed by Vedanta being imminent, slogans warning Vedanta to stay out of Niyamgiri rent the air. ‘Niyamgiri is ours’, the assembled Dongria Kondhs chanted, vowing to lay down their lives to protect the Niyamgiri Hills from Vedanta and other mining companies. Their opposition to bauxite mining is rooted in environmental and livelihood concerns. Bauxite is water-retentive and its extraction will dry up more than 30 perennial streams in the area, leaving no water for their crops. Two large rivers, the Nagavali and the Vamsadhara, also depend on the Niyamgiri Hills for water flow. Mineral extraction would therefore destroy forests and devastate local ecosystems, wiping out the Dongria Kondhs’ means of livelihood and driving them out of their home.
Matters are made more complicated, given the fact that the Dongria Kondhs consider the Niyam Dongar Hill to be the abode of their presiding deity, Niyam Raja (literally, the King of Law or the Universal Lawgiver).‘We will not sell our god to provide our exploiters with profit,’ declares a leader of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, a mass organisation which is leading the resistance to Vedanta. ‘If Niyam Dongar Hill is dynamited to facilitate bauxite extraction, the home of our deity will be destroyed.’
Lessons from the past
The Kondhs’ fears, meanwhile, are based on experiences from nearby Lanjigarh, where a bauxite refinery set up by Vedanta led to the displacement of over a hundred Majhi Kondh families.
As such, while the Dongria Kondhs consider the Niyamgiri hills vital to their survival as a distinct people, to Vedanta, these hills are a $2 billion deposit of bauxite that needs to be extracted to feed its Lanjigarh refinery. This is key to the success of its ambitious business expansion strategy.
The Dongria Kondh, however, don’t have to look too far to get an idea of what lies ahead if Vedanta succeeds in its mining plans. Less than a hundred kilometres south lie the thickly forested hills of Koraput district, where Adivasi communities have been devastated by development projects [How?] and mining companies – private and government-owned – that are operating there.
A few kilometres out of Koraput town, the destruction of the environment and Adivasi lives is even more apparent. The government-run National Aluminium Company Limited (NALCO) has been extracting bauxite from the surrounding Panchapatmalli hills and operating a bauxite refinery at Damanjodi since 1985. The operations brought huge profits for NALCO – and devastation for the Adivasis, affecting 26 villages directly and more than 690 villages indirectly. When the refinery was set up, it displaced 597 families of which 254 were Adivasi and 56 Dalit. Several of these families were provided rehabilitation packages; some got financial compensation, others were provided land – but these were far from adequate. Some received nothing.
Many affected families have claimed that the land demarcated for them was ‘often uncultivable’. Even the employment that NALCO promised for the displaced, benefited only non-tribals, and Adivasis were found to be lacking in the skills the company required, says Damodar Jani, a NALCO displacee and former sarpanch of Littiguda. Moreover, while some tribal people got jobs, only one male member per family was employed – if he died, the family was left with nothing.
The displacement of Adivasis from Damanjodi, which began in the 1980s when NALCO took their land to set up its mining unit and refinery, has not stopped. Twenty-five years later, the exodus continues as the land around NALCO has become a near-desert. Stretches of forest atop the Panchapatmalli hills have been dynamited and the greenery is gone. Bauxite extraction has dried the streams. Although the NALCO factory has an ash pond and a red-mud pond, effluents are regularly discharged into the Kolab River, the polluted water wrecking havoc with lives in villages downstream from the plant. ‘Our crops are affected and cattle are dying,’ says Jani. The air in several villages like Kaspiput, Kutudi, Karadiguda and Bhitarguda is thick with fly-ash from the blasting and mining sites. The ash settles on land, crops and the water and causes skin diseases, the villagers complain, adding that the incessant noise from the conveyor belt at the factory has affected their hearing.
To get away from this devastation, hundreds of Adivasis have moved out of Damanjodi in recent years. Some have gone to Andhra Pradesh, others to nearby villages around the Mali Parbat. It is a matter of time, however, before those living around Mali Parbat, a bauxite-rich area, will also be forced to move. Mining giant Hindustan Aluminium Company (HINDALCO) has acquired rights to extract bauxite from Mali Parbat and is pressuring the Paroja tribe of Maliguda, Tentuliguda and the surrounding areas to give up their land which HINDALCO plans to use for a road to the hill.
Arjun Khilo, an Adivasi from Maliguda, fears that HINDALCO’s arrival will bring the Parojas suffering similar to that endured by people in Damanjodi. ‘The streams enable us to cultivate vegetables throughout the year,’ Khilo says, pointing to the lush vegetation around Maliguda. ‘That will change when HINDALCO begins mining, because the water table will go down when bauxite is removed. If the mountain goes, where will our cattle graze? What will we do for medicinal plants when our land turns into a desert?’
The possibility of Mali Parbat being dynamited by mining companies fills the Paroja tribe with sadness. ‘Mali Parbat is home to our gods and goddesses. It is where our Jakordevta, Gudidevta and Patkondadevi live,’ Khilo says. In his view, HINDALCO will not just plunder his land; it will destroy his way of life.
Dozens of mining companies are streaming into Orissa to exploit its immense mineral wealth. The state has 28 percent of India’s iron ore and coal reserves, 69.7 percent of its bauxite and accounts for eight percent of India’s total mineral production. Neighbouring Chhattisgarh’s mineral wealth is even more impressive. The state is home to 28 varieties of major minerals, including diamonds and accounts for over a quarter of India’s iron ore and 80 percent of its coal reserves. In Orissa, as in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, Adivasis live on the mineral-rich land that the mining companies are eyeing.
|Toxic effluent from a NALCO refinery|
Besides mining, tribal families were also displaced when land was acquired by the government for water resource projects, industrial projects and hydel projects. Scores of tribal families were forced to move when the Machkund Hydel Project in Orissa’s Koraput district was completed in 1948. They were settled in Chitrakonda, Malkangiri, but were displaced again when the Balimela Hydel Project came up in 1964. Since then their villages have remained water-locked by the Chitrakonda reservoir.
According to a 2008 study, ‘Resource Rich, Tribal Poor: Displacing People, Destroying Identity in India’s Indigenous Heartland’ by ActionAid-India, Indian Social Institute and Laya, most of the land acquired in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand has been for mining projects. Over 280,090 acres were acquired in Orissa between 1991 and 2007, mostly from the tribal districts of Keonjhar, Jajpur and Sundergarh. In Chhattisgarh, 51744.61 acres were acquired for industry projects and 90798.64 acres for mining projects. The study draws attention to the fact that Adivasis figure disproportionately among those displaced or affected by projects in Andhra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. Between 1991 and 2007, around 808092 (out of a total 994,355) Displaced Persons (DPs) and 1724369 (out of 2214884) Project Affected Persons (PAPs) were members of tribal communities.
Besides having had to surrender land to development projects that have brought no improvement to their lives, Adivasis have also lost land to non-tribal landlords and moneylenders who have illegally grabbed their land.
In order to get back their land that has been illegally grabbed by non-tribal landlords or to resist the takeover of their lands by private and government-owned mining companies, meanwhile, thousands of Adivasis have come together to form mass organisations such as the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, the Mali Parbat Surakshya Samiti and the Malkangiri Zilla Adivasi Sangha. Reports in the media in recent years have drawn attention to tribals taking up arms to fight injustice and joining the Maoists to resist their oppressors. Indeed, tribals constitute a large portion of the fighting cadre of the Maoist outfits and increasing numbers of tribal youth are joining the Maoist ranks. Tribal-dominated districts such as Malkangiri and Koraput are often described as ‘Maoist hotbeds’. Intelligence officials say that in 2009-10 Malkangiri reported the highest Maoist recruitment.
A perception which equates tribals with Maoists, however, ignores another reality – more tribals are involved in non-violent mass organisations than in Maoist activity. While some of these mass struggles have turned violent on occasion, they have done so usually in response to State violence. By and large, they have been non-violent in their methods: mass organisations such as the Malkangiri Zilla Adivasi Sangha (MZAS), for instance, are revolutionary in their goals, but their means have been non-violent. For over three decades now the MZAS has been engaged in political education and mass mobilisation of tribals in order to help them reclaim land that has been grabbed illegally.
Security analysts, meanwhile, describe the MZAS and the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) as Maoist front-organisations. There is also a demand for banning the CMAS; these organisations are accused of taking the law into their own hands for reclaiming hundreds of acres of their own land. If they have taken the law into their own hands, it is because despite hundreds of petitions and appeals in courts, the government has not implemented laws that it had framed to protect tribal rights. The Constitution’s Fifth Schedule, an array of laws and Supreme Court judgments recognise the rights of tribals over ancestral land and prohibit their transfer to non-tribals. As such, by reclaiming their land, the tribals have not violated the law of the land.
Despite this, ‘any tribal who resists the corporate takeover of land is being labelled Maoist,’ says Sharanya Nayak, an activist working on rights issues with tribals in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Hundreds of activists – many still in their teens – from organisations such as MZAS and CMAS are being slapped with charges including sedition and waging war against the state.
While the Maoists have often come out in support of tribal causes, issuing threats to liquor mafia or moneylenders who exploit the tribals, their espousal of these causes is tactical. They need tribal support to be able to function in the forests. This, however, does not mean that the two co-exist comfortably. There are sharp, even serious differences between political activists and the Maoists, and neither is comfortable with the entry of the other into its turf. An MZAS leader in Tarlakota village in Malkangiri describes Maoist presence in the villages as a hindrance to their work because it brings in the security forces, who then harass MZAS activists and other villagers. The Maoists, on the other hand, do not want MZAS activists to work in the cut-off areas which are considered Maoist strongholds, he says.
By and large, therefore, tribal mass organisations are trying to engage in democratic forms of protest to protect rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. By criminalising democratic protest, the state is denying people the right to protest non-violently. In the process it is compelling them to pick up arms, and is driving them into the arms of the Maoists.
– Sudha Ramachandran is a Bangalore-based independent analyst.
Update 17 August 2010: According to an article published on 16 August on Guardian.co.uk, ´mining company Vedanta´s controversial project on sacred tribal land in India has been condemned by a government inquiry´.
´In a strongly worded report, a four-member committee set up by India´s environment ministry accused Vedanta Alumina… of violating forest conservation and environment protection regulations and displaying "total contempt for the law". The report also noted "an appalling degree of collusion" by local government officials with Vedanta.
´"This report is utterly scathing about Vedanta´s behaviour… The findings are unequivocal – mining will destroy the Dongria Kondh and should not be allowed. Let´s hope this is the final nail in the coffin for Vedanta´s plans." ~ Stephen Corry of Survival International.´