Niyamgiri: Stories of the Struggle

By Arundathi Vishwanath,

Fascination and curiosity got the better of me and I booked my tickets to attend the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti’s annual festival this year in February.  The festival is organized annually by the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti with the help of donations from villagers, social activists and supporters who’ve taken the stance that the Niyamgiri hills must be saved from being mined by the Vedanta mining company.

I was insanely excited and eager to experience first-hand the world of a small group of people – some 10,000 of them, who have for various reasons ensured that Vedanta, a bauxite mining company, is stopped from mining in Niyamgiri: the hills in which Kutia and Dongaria Kondhs have been living in and conserving for centuries now.

Dongaria in Odiya means hill-dweller and true to their words, the Dongaria Kondhs in Niyamgiri are a community that depends on the hills for their livelihood and spiritual and social needs. This co-existence with the hills, has in a fine way become the fabric of the lives they live. While circumstances have forced this group of tribals to claim Niyamgiri as ‘theirs’, ideologically, they see themselves not as owners, but as a natural extension of the hills itself. Lado Sikaka, one of the leaders of the anti-Vedanta movement in Niyamgiri, when asked who Niyamraja (the god of Niyamgiri) was, pointed at the rocks, the trees, the fallen dried leaves, at the chirping of the birds and eventually at himself and his community to answer the question. Niyamgiri_Arundathi

We reached Muniguda railway station early morning on the 21st of Feb 2015. As we waited by a small hotel at the station to get some breakfast, two Dongaria Kondh women came from around the corner, each with a heavy load of firewood on their heads. The load would have been at least one and a half times their body weight. The firewood was sold to the hotel and the women were asked to unload the firewood inside. Since the hotel had a low, slanting ceiling, both women had to squat on their haunches, with the load of firewood on their heads, and duck walk their way through the shop and dump the firewood inside.

I was awestruck and admired the strength of their thigh and leg muscle to exercise that sort of controlled movement of the limbs, under that much weight, expends a lot of energy. An activist friend who observed my awe, pointed out the absurdity of the entire scene. He told me that such strain to the body had deteriorating effects on the health of the women. To think about it, these women had trekked up to the forests around their villages, gathered firewood, piled it on their heads and walked down the mountains and squatted their way through the low ceiling shop. Something that they do not require to do in their own natural habitat. And all this, for a mere 100 INR per person. It is essential to consider that these sorts of dealings were highly uncommon before Vedanta stepped foot in Niyamgiri in 2007 and grabbed the land of many villages to set up their refineries.

Diametrically opposite to the hotel, at the entrance of the railway station was the largest (many times over) hoarding in the vicinity showcasing Vedanta’s attempt to ‘Partner in Development in Odisha’. The hoarding claimed that Vedanta’s motto was ‘Zero wastage. Zero Discharge. Zero Harm Plant’.  And that they were developing Odisha by providing free literacy classes, ambulance services, helping farmers with commercial vegetable cultivation and so on and so forth.

Vedanta (or Sesa Sterlite) is a bauxite mining company that set up alumina refineries in Lanjigarh in 2007. These refineries were then worth Rs. 5000 crores. It is safe to assume that this huge investment was made envisioning the bauxite mined in the Niyamgiri hills to directly feed into the alumina refineries in the valley (Lanjigarh). That the people in Niyamgiri weren’t consulted while making this decision back in 2007 showcases complete negligence and disregard of the constitutional rights of the people by both the government and the corporates.

Unfortunately for Vedanta, the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti led a battle well enough to hold them off from this extraction. The people’s struggle grabbed much attention from activists, academicians, the press, and even that of the Supreme Court – which on 18th April 2013 gave a verdict asking Vedanta to get the permission to acquire land for mining from the Gram Sabhas of the villages in Niyamgiri.

Though the Supreme Court’s order was nothing ‘out-of-the-box’ so as to speak, but just a simple reiteration of the rights of the people covered by the PESA and FRA Acts, it was welcome and celebrated worldwide as a victory of an indigenous people’s movement.

All 12 village Palli/Gram Sabhas unanimously and vociferously voted against Vedanta. A huge victory that consequently made the Corporate versus People battle more intense.

Drinju Krushaka
Drinju Krushaka

Drinju Krushaka, a young tribal leader explains how during the Palli Sabha meeting in his village, there were hundreds of armed policemen positioned around his village, hidden in the hills, ready to shoot. This was apparently done for the protection of the Magistrate present for the meetings. They also destroyed so much of our crops, he says. I got very angry at the policemen who used to sleep on the crops ready to be harvested. I used to say “hatt! Move away from the crops” exclaimed Drinju, sweeping his hand in exasperation. ‘Idiots!’ he concludes. There have also been instances of the police having burnt the harvest during the time of their guard in this period.

If the police could manage to burn and ill-treat the harvest of the villages in Niyamgiri, especially during the palli sabha and despite knowing that there was a lot of attention on them, it isn’t difficult to imagine the sort of arbitrary power that the police are otherwise equipped with in the area at hand. This is a reality far away for people like us, who are cosy in our own spaces, undisturbed by inquisitive, fault finding cops with arbitrary powers in hand.

A sort of anxiety and nervousness that is omnipresent on these hills was rather evident as we started trekking up to the hill where the annual festival was to take place. One of our guides, who had only heard from here-say that we are ‘friends’ of the movement got increasingly curious and anxious as we started talking to him more about the movement, the people, the leaders, the villages and so on. There were several definitely awkward moments during the trek in which my friend and I were at a loss for words or actions to assure the man that we were on his side.

This reality became stronger for the two of us as we entered the festival area. Having worked for years in the ‘Development Sector’, this was the first time I was in a village gathering without having anything to ‘offer’ professionally. I’ve always stepped into a village where people have ‘known’ about the likes of me in advance vis-à-vis the NGO I’m working with and the kind of work it does. I have worn the burden of this identity as well as celebrated the kind of access to spaces, people and smiles afforded by virtue of this identity. To an extent, I might have taken the pros for granted, and unconsciously churned them into stereotypes too.

It was definitely a challenge to walk into a space and be met with cold and suspicious stares of men and women whom you’ve heard of, read about and celebrated in the context of the struggle.  While I smiled like a goof, the women and kids around just looked at me with doubt, some fear and lots of questions in their eyes.

In the midst of all this aloofness, Drinju Krushaka came forward. Head held high, dressed in a yellow full sleeves shirt and a blue lungi. He wore three gold rings, pierced through the septum of his nose and either nostril. Golden and other colourful hairpins adorned the hair on either side of his forehead, two bright yellow flowers on his hair and an axe resting casually on his shoulder. He gave each of us a firm handshake of welcome and smiled ever so briefly before quickly, yet assuredly walking away. It was only later we learnt his name and that he was one of the younger leaders of the movement. A man with an amazing sense of humour, an inquisitive eye for anything new, and harsh experiences of being tortured by the police for taking a peaceful, constitutional stand against Vedanta.

The experience of the festival highlighted how close the struggle is to the lives and realities of the people living in Niyamgiri. And how the struggle itself has become an extension of their daily lives.

Say for example, it was as if as a society we all came together to celebrate the struggle against an issue troubling all of us. Rape, for example. By demarcating a day of the year to cook good food, light lamps, visit our friends, talk about the challenges and realities of fighting for an equal opportunity world and exchanging sweetmeats. Like a festival for a cause? Beautiful, but yet so hard to imagine as real, right? That is exactly what the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti Festival is all about. Celebrating the togetherness in the struggle, the joys, sorrows and stories.  A day to hang around, dance, celebrate, cook together, eat together, catch up with friends from other villages and enjoy yourself.

The spirit of the fest was unmistakeable. WE WILL NOT LEAVE NIYAMGIRI was written boldly and in blood red across a yellow cloth in both English and Odiya. This cloth was hung against the small mud hut, a sort of temple for Niyamraja, which was the epicentre of the festival.

This 2 day festival brought villagers from nearly 100 villages together in dance, celebration, prayers and community feasting. On the evening of the first day was when the festivities began: there was a small prayer meeting for Niyamraja followed by dancing and singing. The songs were in essence praises for Niyamgiri’s richness and the people’s unity to stand against forces keen on destroying these hills.

The evening was mesmerizing. A bright star-lit night, groups of people singing and dancing in semi circles accompanied by men playing drums. Another group of men and women cooking food for everyone gathered. Smaller groups of young and old women sitting around fire and chatting away to glory. Catching up, gossiping and keeping themselves warm around cosy bonfires on a cold chilly night.

We came across a group of women intensely watching something on a 6 inch wide mobile screen. Intrigued, I looked closer, only to find the American blockbuster King Kong playing on the mobile screen! The mobile on which these clips were saved belonged to a young man. After a while, they got bored of watching King Kong and asked for some songs to be played. The movie clip was replaced by Bhojpuri song videos.

This experience made me revisit my stereotypical assumptions of hill-tribes as being far-away and cut off from mainstream influences. A group of Dongaria Kondh women were viewing King Kong, featuring Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody, sitting in a festival celebrating their struggle against a powerful corporate! In itself, it was a charming representation of the struggle and nuanced reality of Niyamgiri.

KingKong

The struggle to save Niyamgiri started in 2007, almost immediately after Vedanta set up the alumina refineries in Lanjigarh without following constitutional procedures. The community affected were not consulted in advance and were forced and bribed to part with their lands. Some were relocated to small concrete houses in colonies, far away from their lands, rivers and jungles. Having learnt the hard way, the tribals in Lanjhigarh started opposing Vedanta and used this opportunity to reach out to the villages lying in the hills and educate them about the vicious ambitions of the company and the government.

It didn’t take long for people like Lado Sikaka to realize that a movement against such powerful forces wouldn’t survive long if they depended on external leadership. During the initial years, people were scared of losing their lands and homes. There was little understanding of the constitutional protection that they had. It took a while to differentiate between the government’s actions and the word of law. While the law protected the people, the government harassed them.

Today, the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti is aware of their constitutional rights and the laws that protect their struggle. On the second day of the festival, the leaders of the movement along with other activists burnt copies of the Land Ordinance Act and gave speeches about the regressive nature of the act; that it was a direct attack on democracy and how the present government was against its own people and protected the interests of the corporates instead. It was indeed a powerful expression of dissent against the government.

Interestingly though, the Gram Sabhas were conducted in Kui (the local language of the Dongaria tribes) with an official Odiya translator for the benefit of the government officials. But the speeches made by the leaders and activists in the annual Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti festival were all in Odiya, clearly excluding a number of people (especially women) from understanding the political discourse. Do we as activists ignore these nuances when the limelight is on us? Do we tend to sit on a high horse and only point at others and forget our own learnings in the journey? Some questions linger on.

My friend and I were lucky enough to be introduced to Lado Sikaka at the festival. We shared with him our wish to visit and stay in his village of Lakhpadar for a couple of days. Our intent to visit was to understand more about the struggle and just really enjoy ourselves amidst these amazing people. He agreed and welcomed us to Lakhpadar.

The walk to Lakhpadar was through the gorgeous, picturesque hills of Niyamgiri. The men and women carried vessels and baskets on their heads as we walked back, cracking jokes, singing songs and chatting away. As we entered the valley of Lakhpadar, all of a sudden the air filled with the chirps and songs of hundreds of birds. It felt like a warm welcome, a hearty reunion.

Lakhpadar is a village by the river, on the lower slopes of one of the hills of Niyamgiri. The settlement is 4 parallel rows of houses. Each row shares a sort of common roof made of tin sheets and haystacks. This seemed to signify a sense of communal living.

The concept of private ownership is alien to the people of Niyamgiri says Lado Sikaka. ‘We work together and share the harvests. We don’t need much money. The forests give us cereals, fruits (oranges, jackfruit, mangoes) turmeric and vegetables…it gives us everything we need. I have no land. All of us work together on these lands and equally distribute all produce. We actually have very little need for money.’

It makes no logical sense to Lado and his people to trade these hills for money. During the initial years of the struggle, agents from Vedanta tried to bribe people into parting with their lands. People then were scared and unaware of the politics of the government and the company. Lado recalls that the initial years were challenging. It took immense efforts by a few people to convince more than a hundred villages to come together for this cause. People felt helpless and found it difficult to imagine how they could take a stand against the government. ‘It took us time to convince everyone that the government was not with us, but hand in glove with the corporates’, he says.

Slowly the people of Niyamgiri started becoming more conscious of the nature of conflict that was upon them. There were some villagers who were bribed Rs. 2,500 to allow Vedanta to build roads across their villages. These people not only accepted the bribe, but also donated that money to the movement and did not allow the roads to be constructed. Lado laughs as he mentions this. ‘In a way, Vedanta too has funded our struggle against them’, he says. NiyamGiri

Once the company realized that bribing and coaxing didn’t have the effects they desired, they started sending goons to intimidate the villagers into agreeing to part with their land. The villagers too united and destroyed the roads leading from Lanjigarh to the hills in order to prevent the goons from entering the villages.

It is untrue that the government wants to build roads for our benefit’, says Sikaka. ‘All we require is 3 feet wide mud-paths to walk on. But the government insists on 6-8 feet wide tar roads. These roads are not for us, it is for the company to have access to these hills so that they can mine’, he says. The Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti actively campaigned against the construction of roads.

Consequently, some villagers were randomly arrested by the police under false charges and taken into custody. This now was Vedanta’s strategy to intimidate the villagers into allowing their hills to be mined. Lado was in jail and tortured by the police some three years ago. He was accused of being a Maoist. ‘I am not a Maoist’, says Lado. ‘Just because I say that the forests need to be saved, does that make me a Maoist? If we are going by that logic, the jungle is also a Maoist, the trees are Maoists. The air, the land, the birds and fruits of Niyamgiri: they are all Maoists. Maybe that is why the government wants to destroy us all?’ he muses sarcastically.

22 year old Drinju, also from Lakhpadar, was picked up by the cops a couple of years ago. He was stripped naked, tied to a tree in the forest and tortured for three days before he was let go. He says that he denied being from Lakhpadar. If not, he would not have returned home. Lakhpadar is one of the epicentres of the movement in Niyamgiri. Though he was scared, he put up a brave face. At one point he even mentally prepared himself to be OK with going to jail, beaten more and maybe even killed. But luckily, he was released. A few years ago, his father was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and admitted to the hospital in Rayagada. While on his way to meet him, Drinju was met by a police informer on the train, who was dressed in casual clothes. When asked for his tickets, Drinju asked him if he were a TT to be asking him for tickets – but showed him the tickets nevertheless. The presence of mind to immediately distance oneself from the truth of your reality and cover it up with lies when confronted by the cops, is a skill learnt the hard way for many in Niyamgiri. The police are always on their heels, on the lookout for people who are involved with the movement. To avoid unnecessary police attention, Drinju takes off all his jewellery, hairpins and the traditional attire and wears pants and shirts when he goes out of Niyamgiri.

I was a child when I got involved in this movement. I didn’t go to school, this movement is my school’, he says. Drinju has bought and uses two workbooks to learn Hindi and English from Odia. He’s learnt to read Odia all by himself and with that now aims to learn Hindi and English too. His keen eyes construct the letters in Odia to read what it says in English. ‘B for bat’ he says, ‘C for cat’. When we reach the advanced lessons in the textbook, ‘P for ploughing’ he reads with some difficulty land with an ox. ‘We don’t do this to our lands’ he says. ‘We work with our hands only ’.

Drinju also plays the mouth-harp, which he had made himself with the stalk of a straw. It’s called gonohhi in Kui and hearing him play it is most mesmerizing.

A fierce and verbose Lado Sikaka breaks into a shy grin when we try to coax him into tapping some Salaf for us. Salaf is a delicious beverage tapped from the young stems of the Salaf tree (of the date-palm family). Some of the women of the village taught me how to demand Salaf from Lado in Kui: Mada kallu tachyadu dada! A sentence enough to send him blushing away to the Salaf tree, to tap some fresh frothy Salaf.

I was utterly happy with how delicious the food in Niyamgiri was. We had kosla (a local minor millet), kandool daal (lentils) and some gorgeous mushroom curry. Words wouldn’t do justice.

Lado makes his stand clear by saying that the 10,000 people of Niyamgiri are citizens of this country as much as anyone else is. ‘The government needs to take care of us before preaching to us to part with our resources for the ‘development’ of the rest of the country. Let them take care of the thousands of homeless persons on the streets of Mumbai and Delhi first’. The Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti is also against NGOs who want to work with them on issues of education, health, water & sanitation, etc. ‘Let them first help us with throwing Vedanta out of here, and then we can work on other issues too’ he says.

While the struggle and stories were truly inspiring, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of women leaders spearheading the movement. While I absolutely do not deny the role of women in keeping the struggle going, the Dongaria Kondh community is essentially a patriarchal one – with a massive set of its own challenges and barriers. An issue that the movement does not seem to acknowledge or prioritize.

The realities, dreams and aspirations of the people of Niyamgiri are distinctively different from how the government aspires growth for the country. ‘Development for us is protecting these forests, not mining them. Mining would mean destroying them’ says Lado Sikaka. People of Niyamgiri deserve to be chief stakeholders of their resources especially given that for centuries now they have conserved their natural resources and continue to do so. In a world where greenery is fast disappearing, with threats of long-term irreversible damage to the planet, voices like those in Niyamgiri must be heard, respected and celebrated. Not beaten, tortured and jailed. It’s time the government wakes up. And us too.

The writer is a human rights activist and an avid traveller.