Dongria Kondh Adivasis at Niyamgiri mountain fear displacement and disruption of their centuries-old culture

Dongria Kondh Adivasis

adivasis.com

 
 
Niyamgiri in Orissa is all set to become a scene of local community resistance to corporate interests. The hills of Niyamgiri, a Fifth Schedule area under the Constitution of India and home to Dongria Kondh Adivasis, are allegedly under threat from the proposed mining activities of the Mumbai-based Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL), a subsidiary of the British mining giant Vedanta Resources Plc, which owns the majority stake in the now privatised BALCO. VAL is awaiting the second stage of clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for its Niyamgiri project. It got the first-stage clearance from the MoEF in September 2004.

 

The company has already started operations at its refinery in Lanjigarh, a town downhill from the Niyamgiri forest. The bauxite for the refinery is brought chiefly from Vedanta's mines at Bodai-Daldali in Chhattisgarh. The refinery requires three million tonnes of bauxite a year. Naturally, Niyamgiri is extremely important for Vedanta because getting the required amount of bauxite transported from outside would not be viable for the company.

 

The clearance granted to the refinery is also fraught with controversy. The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court following a complaint of environmental violations against Vedanta, in its report submitted to the court in September 2005, accused Vedanta of deliberate violations. The committee's member secretary, M.K. Jiwrajka, belongs to the MoEF. The CEC observed that “out of the requirement of 723.343 hectares for the alumina refinery and 721.323 ha for the bauxite mining, 58.943 ha and 672.018 ha, respectively, are forest land” and “since the project involved the use of the forest land for the alumina refinery itself, the environmental clearance could have been granted by the MoEF only after the use of the forest land was permitted under the F.C. [Forest Conservation] Act”.

 

 

 

 

 

The CEC concluded that “M/s Vedanta has deliberately and consciously concealed the involvement of the forest land in the project… so that environmental clearance is not kept pending for want of the F.C. Act clearance”. It further stated that in violation of the Act the project was split into alumina refinery and bauxite mining although the latter is an integral part of the project and that although the MoEF was “fully aware that the use of the forest land for the mining at Niyamgiri hills is absolutely necessary if the alumina refinery is to be established at Lanjigarh, the environmental clearance to the alumina refinery has been accorded by the MoEF by overlooking these facts”.

 

According to information provided by VAL, the mines of Niyamgiri belong to the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC), with which the company has signed a memorandum of understanding for the procurement of bauxite on a long-term basis – 150 million tonnes from the Lanjigarh bauxite deposits and other nearby mines of the OMC. An MoU was signed by the OMC and Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd, also a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources Plc., in 1997. However, in October 2004, the OMC signed another MoU with VAL for mining bauxite in Lanjigarh and Karlapat. For this mining, the OMC entered into a joint venture with VAL, in which it would hold 26 per cent equity and VAL the rest.

 

Around 8,000 Dongria Kondh Adivasis, who are a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) notified by the Union government and who revere the Niyamgiri mountain as their king and god, fear displacement and total disruption of their centuries-old culture once the company gets the clearance to mine the hills. However, the company dismisses all such concerns.

 

“It has already been clarified by the State's Minister of Steel and Mines in the Assembly that there is no habitation in the mining lease area and as such no displacement is involved there,” VAL's chief operations officer Mukesh Kumar told Frontline.

 

Three-member team's report

 

The MoEF, in December last year, constituted a team comprising Usha Ramanathan, a law researcher from the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies; Vinod Rishi, former Additional Director General of the Wildlife Institute of India; and J.K. Tewari, Chief Conservator of Forests (Central), Bhubaneswar, in view of the allegations regarding the violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and to address concerns regarding tribal rights and wildlife. The team submitted its report to the Ministry on February 25, highlighting, among other things, the gross violations of the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) by the “user agency”, VAL. According to Usha Ramanathan's observations in the report, which has the most scathing indictment of irregularities and violations committed by the company, the Dongria Kondh people feel that although there is no habitation in the mining area, over 200 villages on a hillside will get affected by the road, vehicles, mining activities and the drying up of perennial streams and that the dongar (hill), which they worship as their king and god, will be dug up and blasted.

 

Concern is also expressed over the disregard for the forest rights of the Adivasis under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. According to section 5(c) of the Act, it is to be ensured that “the habitat of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage”.

 

“Until these [forest rights] and allied rights are recognised, recorded and settled under the FRA, it would be unconstitutional and in breach of the FRA to disturb their [the Dongria Kondh] habitat,” Usha Ramanathan notes in her report. The report also observes that “disruption of the habitat and the way of life of this PTG cannot be remediated nor compensated, and may lead to the destruction of the Dongria Kondh”.

 

The report also expresses concern over the receipt of material assistance and benefits by the district administration from VAL. It says that “two rooms have been added to the BDO office [Block Development Office] in Vishwanathpur and furnished by VAL as a resting place for the Collector when he travels on duty”.

 

J.K. Tewari's observations point towards violations of the Forest (Conservation) Act by the company in the construction of 47 pillars for its conveyor belt. Tewari has observed that the area calculated by the State government (45.6 square metres) over which the pillars are constructed is faulty and that the actual area of construction and operation would be much larger. He has also observed violations of MoEF guidelines in the construction of an incomplete mine access road. Apart from environmentalists, human rights activists, the CEC and the MoEF's three-member team, Vedanta has also faced ire from its own shareholders. In February this year, the Church of England withdrew its £3.8-million share from the company citing no “level of respect for human rights and local communities” on the part of the company. Earlier, in 2007, the Norwegian pension fund, the world's second largest sovereign wealth fund, sold off its shares worth $13.2 million owing to alleged environmental and human rights violations by the company's Indian subsidiaries.

 

Legal ambiguity

 

There is also a lot of ambiguity regarding whether VAL or Sterlite Industries is the core representative for the mining activity. The Supreme Court order of August 8, 2008, which allowed the diversion of 660.749 ha of forest land for mining, was “in matter of M/s Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd (SIIL)”.

 

In an earlier order dated November 23, 2007, the court had expressed doubts over the credibility of VAL and noted that “keeping in mind the totality of the above factors (a series of facts and circumstances in relation to M/s VAL having caused environmental damage and human rights violations), we are not inclined to clear the project”. In this order, the court gave the liberty to SIIL to move the court if it agreed to comply with the modalities suggested by the court and categorically stated that “such an application will not be entertained if made by M/s VAL or by Vedanta Resources”. However, all communications with Usha Ramanathan, as mentioned in the report to the MoEF, were handled by representatives of VAL. This, the report has observed, is a violation of the Supreme Court orders. All communication with this correspondent too was by VAL representatives.

 

REINHARD KRAUSE/REUTERS

 

Members of The Dongria Kondh tribe dance in a ceremony on top of the Niyamgiri mountain on February 21 to protest against plans by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd to mine bauxite from the mountain.

 

The Supreme Court's decisions too have come in for criticism. The new Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia, has been criticised for hearing cases relating to Vedanta while being a shareholder of its subsidiary, SIIL.

 

“When I brought up this issue of conflict of interest of Justice Kapadia, I got served with a contempt notice,” says Prashant Bhushan of the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reforms. Justice Kapadia responded by stating that he had declared that he was a shareholder of Sterlite and had invited objections, and when none was raised, he went ahead with the hearing, and thus acted according to the code of conduct.

 

The forest and its people

 

Five kilometres on a bicycle, 10 km on foot, and five streams of water to cross along a steep, rocky passage through dense forest in sweltering tropical heat, often 45 {+0} Celsius or more, means that getting to Jarpa, like most villages of Niyamgiri, is not easy. Rajulguda village at the foothills serves as a night halt, from where Lenju, an activist leader of the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Committee), leads one to the villages uphill the next morning.

 

The residents of Rajulguda greet Lenju and this correspondent with a raised fist and a casual ‘Lal Salaam'. That, Lenju explains, is because of the leadership activities of the Lok Sangram Manch, a frontier organisation of the CPI-ML (New Democracy), which supports the movement in principle.

 

The entire interaction with the Adivasis is extremely secretive, and Lenju constantly cautions against asking the “wrong questions”. Bitter experiences with journalists and other visitors in the past have meant that the Dongria Kondhs do not allow anybody uphill without prior approval from the committee. Taking pictures is prohibited as they believe that several of their photographs clicked earlier have made their way into the market.

 

On the way up is Serkopadi village, also home to the Dongria Kondh. “Downhill, water- and air-related problems exist because of the company's presence. Our committee will make sure that the company does not enter the forest or it will be the same here,” says Indra Sikoka of the village.

 

Another difficult trek of around 10 km takes us to Jarpa, where the Dongria Kondh Adivasis wait for us. “Vedanta is an enemy, a foreign monster that has come here to destroy us,” says Lahadi Sikoka, a villager, sharpening a wooden stick with his axe. Thousands of others of his tribe, spread across over a 100 villages in Niyamgiri, share the same sentiment.

 

It is common for the Dongria Kondh to carry some weapon or the other at all times to survive against attacks from wild animals, which are aplenty in Niyamgiri. It could be an axe, a bow and arrows or even a crude gun. Niyamgiri means the mount of Niyam Raja, the law god of the Dongria Kondh, whom they also worship as their king and ancestor. While the company maintains that there is no habitation on the mountain top, which is the proposed mining area, the Kondh people believe it to be the abode of Niyam Raja.

 

According to the residents of Jarpa village, Niyamgiri is a sacred place for them, a bank that provides them with everything they need. Salt and oil are the only things they need to get from outside.

 

The CEC report to the Supreme Court in 2005 strongly recommended against allowing mining in the Niyamgiri hills. It observed, among other things, that the rich biodiversity of Niyamgiri (which also happens to be an elephant reserve) would be under serious threat from the company's mining activities. According to the report, the forest “contains sambar, leopard, tiger, barking deer, various species of birds and other endangered species of wildlife…it has more than 300 species of plants and trees, including about 50 species of medicinal plants”.

 

Nalli, which is the Kuvi (the language spoken by the Kondh) word for bauxite, is a precious resource necessary for the survival of the forest and its 36 perennial water streams because of its water-retaining characteristics.

 

In late February, the Kondh held an oath-taking ceremony on top of the hill where they resolved not to allow Vedanta to enter the forest even if it gets the clearance, which they fear is imminent. In such an event, says Lenju, the tribal people will run short of options. “Once they get the final clearance and come here for mining, we will have no option but to fight them tooth and nail,” he says. “We have started preparations for the confrontation and that is when the government will declare us Maoists and unleash CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] troops on us. But we have nothing to lose. We will fight it out and die but will not let go of our forest,” he says.

 

In an exclusive conversation with Frontline, Union Minister Jairam Ramesh said the Ministry was not in any hurry to give the clearance. “The team sent by us found that Vedanta has violated the terms and conditions under which the approval was given to them. The project involves forest and non-forest areas. These guys have already started work in the non-forest areas, which is a violation,” he said. The Minister admitted that mining would spell doom for the mountain and its people and also expressed surprise at the fact that the Supreme Court overlooked the recommendations of the CEC.

 

“If they manage to get the clearance, Niyamgiri will be destroyed forever. But there is no hurry and we are exploring all options. The Supreme Court has given its approval, but I have to say it seems strange as it is the only case where the Supreme Court has not accepted the recommendations of the CEC,” he said.

 

Frontline, Volume 27 – Issue 12 :: Jun. 05-18, 2010
 

Dongria Kondh Adivasis

adivasis.com

 
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