ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Voices from Niyamgiri

Manipadma Jena (manipadma.jena@gmail.com), a senior environmental journalist, writes for Thomson Reuters Foundation and IPS-Inter Press Service.

The unanimous vote by 12 gram sabhas in Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, rejecting Vedanta Aluminium Ltd and the Odisha Mining Corporation’s plan to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills, is a historic and significant precedent that could determine the course of similar developments in other tribal areas in India.

The recent assertion of religious and cultural rights over their habitat and habitation, recognised by the Supreme Court under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – better known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 -- by 12 villages of indigenous Dongria Kondh communities in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha is a landmark development. Not only will it negatively impact the course of global mining giant Vedanta Aluminium Ltd, the Indian arm of London-based Vedanta Resources Plc’s Rs 50,000 crore investment in bauxite mining and an alumina refinery, it also lays the legal ground for many more communities in India to fight displacement on religious and cultural considerations. 1

This development also brings to the fore, the importance of the little known and less practiced Human Rights Impact Assessment under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – the “protect, respect and remedy” framework.2 And it will remind future investors of the implications of turning a blind eye to undertaking such an assessment and sharing it with the affected communities, before putting a project on the ground. This is the costly omission that the roughly 400 forest dwellers brought forcefully to the notice of Vedanta and the State’s Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) at the 12 gram sabhas (village councils) that took place over two months, the last of them on 19 August 2013.

The general mood of the Dongria Kondh community at all the gram sabhas can be summed up in what elderly Sikaka Teladi of the last gram sabha in Jarapa village told the presiding panel of district judge and panchayat office bearers in the Kui dialect that few outsiders understand: “Niyamgiri is ours; we won’t leave the place at any cost. We don’t know how to work as a paid labour. If government forcefully displaces us, where then we will go for the work? We won’t like to be a bonded labour of any one, we would prefer to be shot dead but we will not leave our Niyamgiri.”

In remote Bathudi village, considered a Naxal stronghold in Rayagada, where there are no roads and which can be reached by foot, crossing hills and one stream, the village priest Dasru Jasesika echoed this do-or-die attitude towards vacating their homes for mining: “There is unbreakable unity among Dongrias.”

In Khambesi, the villagers said, "Write what we say (for the official documentation) and give it to your court. Niyamgiri is our hospital; he gives us medicine. We do not have any facility, only now you are coming saying you will give us hospitals. Niyamgiri is our God. We won’t give it to anyone. Leave us."

Battles over bauxite

While Vedanta Aluminium has been embattled with Supreme Court cases since 2004 when it sought 720 hectares of land in Phase I for its refinery in Lanjigarh, Kalahandi district, the recent series of gram sabha referendums were directed by the apex court3 after OMC challenged the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)’s decision not to clear 660 hectares of forest land for Vedanta’s phase II mining expansion. The mining of bauxite deposits is being sought from Niyamgiri hill range that covers 240 sq km straddling Kalahandi and Rayagada, two of the most underdeveloped districts in the whole of the country.

On 18 April, the Supreme Court asked the Odisha government to seek consent of the villages on the legal ground under the FRA, that “primitive tribal groups” have a customary right to worship the mountains. The Supreme Court specifically said the villagers would decide whether the proposed mining would cause harm to their religious rights of worshipping Niyam Raja at Hundaljali hilltop, about 10 km from the identified mining site.

The apex court further said that the FRA has been enacted conferring powers on the gram sabha constituted under the Act to protect community resources, individual rights, cultural and religious rights. Underscoring the legal imperative for the recent gram sabha referendums, the court cited the “religious freedom guaranteed to Scheduled Tribes and the Traditional Forest Dwellers under Articles 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution”.

On the basis of this court order, the Kalahandi and Rayagada district administrations, under whose ambit the 12 villages come – five in Kalahandi and seven in Rayagada -- notified the villages in June this year to submit claims over and above the individual and village community claims under the FRA that had already been submitted and settled with land tenures. While most villages had submitted Form C of the FRA covering their claims to forest resources, livelihoods, traditional forest boundaries, Form B relating to communities’ cultural, religious, habitat and habitation rights had been largely overlooked.

The district administrations formed an inter-departmental joint verification committee on community rights and community forest resources, and hastened to finalise these village common claims -- some of which run into 79 items -- within the four weeks before the gram sabhas were scheduled.

According to the inter-departmental verification reports, some of which are available with this writer, the Dongria Kondh’s Niyam Raja has been granted a small land-space inside each of the villages instead of on top of the Niyamgiri hills where he is traditionally believed to reside and from where they believe he governs the rains clouds and the clean air, the hill streams and the vegetation. Other questionable allocations were also made. For instance, in Jarapa village, two acres is what the Tikapadar stream gets to flow down from the hill; the “bear cave” or their habitat gets six acres while the “tiger cave” gets 11 acres. In Bathudi village, on the other hand, the porcupine is allotted eight acres under the FRA.

On 10 July 2013, nine days before the gram sabhas were to finally decide on these claims, the inter-departmental report was handed to villagers. According to the district administration, a wave of distrust swept through the 12 villages. They feared that after settling claims to these scattered fragments of Niyamgiri hill, Vedanta and the state government would take away their sacred hill forever and mine it as they wished, thereby destroying and polluting even the little land on which they could lay claim.

‘We want Niyamgiri’

Subsequently, in gram sabha after gram sabha all the villagers, vociferously said “the entire 240 sq km of the Niyamgiri hill range is ours” and denied they had ever made all the previous individual and community claims under FRA that they had submitted to their respective district administrations just weeks earlier. In the last gram sabha on August 19 at Jarapa village, Wanjelika Jambu, one of the 12 voters who participated spoke for all. He said, “We don’t need any land ownership deed from the government, we need Niyamgiri only.”

Not only was the government taken aback by this complete and unanimous about turn that occurred within a six-week period, but it was also at a loss to explain it. However, subsequently the district administration implied that the Dongria gram sabhas were misguided and voted “no” to “development”, because of the “tutoring” by some non-governmental organisations and the presence of “NRIs (non-residential Indians) and foreigners” at the gram sabhas. Accordingly, they screened such visitors at Panimunda village, the gateway to five of the 12 villages.

One official of Muniguda block alleged that a day or two before each gram sabha, the villagers were given a mock drill on what they should speak at the proceedings. He added that an international NGO also showed the villagers a video documentary of how streams had dried and tribal people in another mining site had died of diseases when they had allowed a mining company to operate in their land.

However, Sikaka Kunji, a 50-year-old widow swinging an axe to express her anger and angst and speaking for the community at the Lakhapadar gram sabha said in her native dialect, "We are not educated but we have the knowledge needed to live wholesome lives and we are not fools.”

The mining operations would affect some 8,000 Dongria, Kutia and Jharania Kondh in 112 tribal and dalit villages in Kalahandi and Rayagada district. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which administers the FRA, had earlier insisted that seeking the referendum from only 12 villages was inadequate and un-representative. However, the Odisha government, with the help of the OMC’s geological survey done at the beginning of the Vedanta project, first identified five foothill non-Dongria Kondh villages saying those were the only ones affected by the project. Later, under pressure from MoTA, it added seven more villages for the referendum.

The FRA -- whose rules were notified in January 2008 -- did not see much progress till 2010. It was around this time that the MoEF refused forest clearance for Vedanta’s Phase II. In February 2010, stepping up their resistance to the controversial project, hundreds of Dongria Kondhs trekked to the abode of their presiding deity Niyam Raja on the Niyam Dongar (hill slopes) and designated it as inviolate. They carried out religious rituals and then put up a totem pole in the area. Since then, over a two year period, the district government has tried to hasten the process and finalise individual claims under the FRA.

Important changes under FRA

Till the FRA came into force, millions of India’s traditional forest dwellers were in the same spot that they have been since colonial times: bereft of any rights on the forest land that they have lived off for generations. This is the situation that the FRA attempts to change. For one, it allows claims to individual family titles of land occupied or cultivated forestlands that are considered “encroachments”. For another, the law allows access to, as well as the use and selling of, forest produce that has been traditionally collected. This includes particular leaves that are used as leaf-plates, palm-tree juices, medicinal plants, and fruits. The forest rights law also gives a community — usually one village unit — the right to manage and protect forests it has customarily managed, even though these are government property.

The alumina refinery, capable of producing one million tonnes of alumina from bauxite per annum, has been operating since 2009 from the foothills of Niyamgiri. From 2007, Vedanta has been seeking clearance for a six-fold expansion of its refinery and 660 hectares of bauxite mining land over and above the existing 720-hectares granted in Phase I. This too has run into legal controversy, as it was granted clearance based on false information provided by Vedanta, namely that the land it wanted does not contain any forest land.

According to reports, with this latest unanimous rejection from the gram sabhas, Vedanta has signed agreements with the governments of Chattisgarh and Gujarat for ore to keep the Lanjigarh refinery-- which had been closed for months before reopening two months ago – running. The overhead costs of the present arrangement of ore transportation are huge and untenable. The company expects the MoEF’s final decision on the gram sabha outcomes by mid-October this year.

Request for a response on its future course of action, post the gram sabhas’ decision, to Vedanta’s corporate communication head by this writer has remained unanswered.

On 19 August, when all the 12 villages had said “no” to the mining project, Kumuti Majhi, secretary of the Niyamgiri Suraksya Samiti simply said, “The heavy rain is washing down the hills, Niyamgiri has chased away Vedanta.”

References

1.Jerapa becomes 12th village to reject Vedanta; Sub-head “Boost to Communities”; Down to Earth; Richard Mahapatra;http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/jerapa-becomes-12th-village-reject... accessed August 21st 2013;

2.‘Human Rights Impact Assessment under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’; www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf, accessed August 21st 2013

3.Supreme Court Judgement: Orissa Mining CorporationMC vs Ministry of Environment & Forests & others; accessed 21st August 2013 www.supremecourtofindia.nic.in/outtoday/judgements/180.pdf

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