Interview: Anthropologist Felix Padel on Life and Struggle in Niyamgiri

Anthropologist Dr. Felix Padel works with the tribes of Odisha in eastern India, including the Dongria Kondh, for whom Survival International has campaigned for 10 years. Felix is the great great grandson of Charles Darwin and lives in a remote village in Odisha. In this interview with Survival International, he talks about the Dongria Kondh’s relationship to their mountains, their heroic struggle against Vedanta, Darwin’s evolution theory and the experience of walking over hot coals.

What inspired you to start working and living with the Dongria Kondh?

It’s hard to explain how such associations start. The beauty of the landscapes and streams drew me, as well as the humour, dances and beauty of the people.

Can you explain the Dongria Kondh’s relationship to Niyamgiri?

The Dongria observe ‘niyam,’ which are the traditional rules of restraint about what is taken from nature. Tribal religion is based on respect for the natural world. The Dongria taboo on cutting forest on mountain summits, and in particular felling trees on the mountain top under dispute, Niyam Dongar, is a brilliant example of this.

The Dongria’s supreme deity is Niyam Raja – the ‘King of Law’. To them, observing the law involves preserving nature and in particular preserving the forests on top of Niyam Dongar, Niyam Raja’s abode. They understand, perhaps better than most scientists, that the forests on top of the mountain hold deposits of water, which ensure the flow of the perennial streams that are such a striking feature of the Niyamgiri range. The bauxite deposit at the top of Niyam Dongar acts as a sponge that soaks up the monsoon rain, holding it and releasing it slowly throughout the hot summer months.

A Dongria Kondh boy, Kalia, stands in front of the Niyamgiri hill range. © Lewis Davies/Survival
A Dongria Kondh boy, Kalia, stands in front of the Niyamgiri hill range. © Lewis Davies/Survival

When the bauxite capping of a mountain is mined, as has happened at Panchpatmali in Odisha, to the south west of Niyamgiri, all the perennial streams dry up.

When the British first surveyed Odisha’s bauxite deposits in the early 1900s, they called the base rock ‘Khondalite’ in honour of the Kondhs’ connection with these mountains.

Every one of the thirty or so bauxite-capped mountains in the region has tribal communities living on it, (mostly Kondh), who are prepared to die to protect their mountains.

In the 1940s, a census official was reliably reported as asking the Dongria their religion and getting the answer ‘Dongar’ – ‘the mountains.’ Many other indigenous people, such as those in North America, feel this soul-connection with their mountains, understanding them as sources of fertility and life.

As a Dongria woman put it, “We need the Mountain, and the Mountain needs us!”

What do you consider to be the greatest threats facing the Dongria Kondh?

Recently the Odisha Government banned ‘tribal tours’, which had regularly come to Niyamgiri from Puri on the coast. This ban was first demanded by Maoists, when they kidnapped a couple of Italian tourists.

The tours were highly demeaning – Dongria were paid to dance, and tourists took photos despite a rule against this. But as soon as the ban was in place, Dongria villages were visited by the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), ostensibly searching for Maoists, but actually intimidating people into accepting Vedanta’s mining plans.

CRPF personnel have since fired at or near villagers, terrifying them. They have frequently placed huge pressure on the Dongria, even tying them to trees while interrogating them in theCRPF camp, they have visited Dongria villages repeatedly, treating them with great disrespect.

It is reliably reported that Vedanta provided feasts for the armed police when they visited Dongria villages. The government needs to ensure that the police respect Adivasis, and end the impunity of those who mistreat or act unfairly towards them.

As for tribal tours, many tourists would love to interact with tribal people in a way that has integrity. Effort should be put into building a system where Dongria (and other tribes) have control over how this interaction happens.

After their historic vote, the threat of mining has receded. But we know from experience that mining companies tend to wait and watch and manipulate situations to divide local indigenous communities.

The Dongria know this now, and hopefully have developed considerable confidence and unity.

What would the construction of an open-top mine do to the Dongria Kondh?

The Dongria understand the consequences as well as anyone. Vedanta themselves took several Dongria to see the Nalco bauxite mine at Panchpatmali. As you drive up to the mine on a long ascending road, you see dozens of lovely slogans exhorting the preservation of nature and the ‘rehabilitation’ of the forest post-mining. Despite these slogans, no-one who sees Panchpatmali can have any illusions.

The ‘rehabilitation’ of the forest is nearly all eucalyptus, when before it had been lush forest. And yet the mining company had promised that the forest would be ‘better than before’!

Kondh villagers just below the mountain at Panchpatmali are emphatic that the perennial streams they depended on have dried up. Their life has become hell. They walk up the mountain to work in the bauxite mines for very little money. The forest for miles around has disappeared.

Similarly life for the Baiga and Gond living around the bauxite mines in Chattisgarh where Vedanta has been sourcing much of its bauxite, has become incredibly degraded.

The Dongria are already affected by the loud noises and lights from the Lanjigarh refinery the other side of Niyam Dongar. If bauxite were mined on Niyam Dongar it would be a momentous invasion of the carefully managed ecosystem that is Niyamgiri.

What would be the environmental impact of such a mining venture?

The streams would start to dry up without question. The dust, and the impact on wildlife would have an immense effect on the Dongrias’ way of life. They are very articulate about this.

Can you tell us about the Dongria Kondh’s knowledge of their environment, and their horticultural skills?

It has been estimated that the average Dongria man and woman knows at least 400 wild plants for their food and medicinal properties. When you walk between Dongria villages it is often hard to tell what is forest and what is garden or field, since fruit trees merge into the forest.

There are jackfruits, mangos, bananas, papayas, oranges, and beneath these trees, loads of pineapples. Some of these fruits were apparently promoted by Gopinath Mohanty – a famous writer from Odisha, who wrote wonderful novels and short stories about tribal people, and who was appointed as a government administrator in the Dongria area in the 1960s – a post he fulfilled with great sensitivity.

The Dongria practice shifting cultivation and grow an immense variety of crops on the steep hill slopes (but never the summits). From the cultivation and sale of fruit and many other products, the Dongria maintain a good standard of living.

As an anthropologist, what are the your key insights into Dongria Kondh culture?

It is clear the Dongria have maintained an attitude of restraint towards nature and what they take from it. This is the key to real, long-term sustainability with our natural environment. It needs to be based on restraint.

As Lodu Sikoka said in a public hearing a few years ago, “some people see the minerals at the top of Niyamgiri as millions of rupees lying ‘unutilised’ up there – but it’s not money, it’s our “Maa Baap” [mother and father] that nurtures us, and we’ll die defending it!”

The Pauri Bhuiya

There is another tribe that is struggling to save their mountain, and their story haunts me. The Pauri Bhuiya are a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’, like the Dongria Kondhs. They live in a mountain range called Khandadhara in Sundargarh district of north Odisha, where Posco and other steel companies want to mine iron ore and manganese. In Khandadhara Odisha’s tallest waterfall falls down the face of a mountain – the single most beautiful place I know.

But the Pauri Bhuiya are much shyer than the Dongria and less aggressive in the face of intrusion. They have very similar forest gardens of fruit trees to the Dongria, yet the Forest Department has been trying to move them down from the mountains for years, resettling them in miserable plains villages, on the grounds that their shifting cultivation is destroying the forest.

The reality is actually quite different: over the last few years a company called Kalinga Commercial Corporation Ltd has set up what is probably Odisha’s biggest mine, Kurmitar, in the hills. Hundreds of diggers extract iron and manganese ore every day, which is exported to China and South Korea.

One of the 24 peaks in the Khandadhara range has been stripped completely bare of forest and topsoil – what they call “mountaintop removal” in the US. The Adivasis in Khandadhara need to learn from the Dongria Kondhs’ movement and gram sabha decisions.

To what extent do you believe the Dongria Kondh will resist outside invaders?

They have made it clear that this is their territory, their mountain, and I’m sure they won’t accept Vedanta’s ‘development’.

The women’s place in Dongria Kondh society is unique from that of the rest of India – how would you explain this?

Yes, you see this difference in how they dress – the ‘niyam’ they believe in is visible in their gold nose-rings and other ornaments, and the tattoos on their foreheads. When you meet Dongria women you understand that this is not something imposed on them by men – the women are in fact the key carriers of tradition. They do a lot of the cultivation of plants, and sell their produce themselves.

Dongria Kondh protest against Vedanta Resources, Niyamgiri, India © Survival
Dongria Kondh protest against Vedanta Resources, Niyamgiri, India © Survival

Women have been very strong in the Niyamgiri movement – as in every movement defending communities’ land and resources throughout India.

Because women literally carry the next generation in their wombs, they often understand better than men how the well-being of future generations depends on preserving their land and environment intact, and they often say this in different ways.

What rituals are performed at the “Harvest Festival”?

Like the annual Hindu cycle, the Dongria year is punctuated by over a dozen major festivals. Dongria take part in several of the major Hindu festivals, congregating in the towns to participate in the festivals of Shiva, Jagannath and other deities, whom they consider their own. Their tribal festivals are connected to the natural agricultural cycle of ‘first fruits’.

Buffalo sacrifices are performed at several of these ‘harvest festivals’. At a buffalo sacrifice, the male shamans dress as women in red, holding a sword in each hand, which perhaps represents Darni Penu, the earth goddess. In a way, blood sacrifice is conceived as an offering of blood to Mother Earth, and all domestic animals that are eaten tend to be sacrificed – a better death than the slaughterhouse deaths customary in ‘civilised society’!

The custom of walking over red hot embers is practiced by ‘holy men,’ and by many members of the community, and in nearby Hindu villages. I’ve done it myself, in a tradition learnt from Native Americans. It’s an amazing feeling – to find when one relaxes and focuses, one can walk over red hot embers without getting burnt.

As the Native American tradition teaches it, walking over hot embers helps focus one’s intent in many areas of life.

The Dongria Kondh and tribal peoples in general in India are perceived as “backward.” What are your thoughts?

This is an unfortunate legacy of colonial era anthropology, which produced the first ethnographies of India’s tribal societies, but always analysed them as primitive in terms of being ‘superstitious’, ‘uneconomic’, ‘pre-literate’ and so on. Slowly, perceptions among some educated people are changing, for instance the category of ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ was recently changed to ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’.

But it’s interesting that when some of us challenged Vedanta in calling Dongria ‘backward’ at a London AGM, one of the Directors, Naresh Chandra, defended the word on the basis that it appears in India’s Constitution, e.g. in the category of ‘Other Backward Castes’ (OBC – a group that complements Adivasis and Dalits). So there is a way to go, even in terms of official perceptions.

As a descendent of Darwin, I feel very strongly that the whole application of evolutionary theory to society was applied wrongly: Darwin demonstrated how thousands of species developed in relation with each other along separate, distinct paths. When this was applied to society though, it was always in a monolithic framework, as if tribal societies represent a ‘primitive stage of development’, and most ‘educated’ people still believe this, even though the evidence, when you look at it, does not support this view! Looking at tribal peoples as primitive and backward actually shows a very backward mentality! It is a way of looking at other people that has not developed since colonial times.

It needs to be understood that tribal societies such as the Dongria are extremely developed in certain areas where mainstream society is itself backward or underdeveloped.

For example, in maintaining restraint and respect towards nature, which is the basis of real or long-term sustainability; in the tradition of dance and song through which tribal people actively entertain themselves, instead of becoming passive consumers of media-promoted ‘stars’; and in a value system which emphasizes sharing instead of competition.

If you attend a tribal council you will find these are models of real democracy – people speak their minds fearlessly, and the aim is consensus. This is very different from the mainstream idea of democracy where you have two or more main political parties that remain locked in constant competition and argument, in a system where elections depend largely on massive funding. It’s interesting that it’s recently come out that Vedanta has given huge funds to both the Congress and BJP!

As for Adivasis’ legal system, instead of the combative system customary in mainstream society, where one side loses and the other wins, and the outcome often seems to depend on huge lawyers’ fees, the Adivasi system allows contestants to speak their mind freely before fining both sides (usually), and using these fines to pay for a feast of reconciliation. Could you have a more civilised legal process than this?

12 village council meetings (called gram sabha) were recently held, in which the Dongria Kondh unsurprisingly unanimously voted ‘No’ to mining in their hills What do you expect to be the final outcome?

The 12 meetings were such a stunning example of grassroots democracy at work that I would hope and expect that the Ministry of Environment and Forests will honour their outcome and ban mining in Niyamgiri once and for all.

It is highly commendable that the Supreme Court ordered this referendum, and that the Odisha Government carried it out – though it was not held in as many villages as the Dongria and activists would have liked. However, the basic impartiality that allowed the unanimous votes should be acknowledged and commended.

What was remarkable too was that Dalits by and large voted alongside the Dongria, when in other areas there has been a split between these communities. The Dongria also rejected individual patta (land ownership), which is much easier to apply for under the Forest Rights Act. In village after village they insisted that all the land is theirs, including the mountain – in other words, they insisted on communal ownership, which is the traditional tribal ownership pattern.

It is to be hoped that this landmark example of grassroots democracy will be replicated in other places, and will inspire other movements where people are struggling to preserve their ecosystems intact.

In my latest book (Ecology, Economy: Quest for a socially informed connection, with Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni), I highlight ‘Adivasi Economics’ for its emphasis on restraint towards the environment. It may be the Dongrias’ grassroots democracy will even inspire a large-scale shift throughout India towards an economic system that is based on ecological principles.

First appeared on Survival International website, republished here with Felix Padel’s permission. 

  • Ramit Basu

    Wonderful eye opener. I wish the nation as a whole respects such peoples’ mandate and cease to threaten their existence by favouring a handful of greedy and insensitive power mongers.