Shobha. R, Human Rights activist
May 11, 2016
I visited the Niyamgiri hills last year and witnessed the Dongria Kondh and other adivasi community’s annual celebration of their forests and hills, which they worship, as the most important part of their lives. The lessons that these communities have to offer to the world, about sustainable living and respecting nature, needs to be experienced, to be understood.
Vedanta Limited, has invested Rs.5,000 crore to set up an alumina refinery with a capacity of one million tonnes a year at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district of Odisha. The refinery planned to source its minerals from the Niyamgiri hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Projects like these have little consideration for environmental impact, social impact assessment and legal rights of people who own these lands and disregard provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and (Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which are safeguards atleast to some extent, for thousands of communities living in natural resource rich habitats, which they have protected and preserved over generations. Given the potential strength of these laws, it comes as no surprise, that governments towing the line of greedy corporates, make all possible effort to dilute these laws and create an environment that is easy to exploit, with no regard for local communities and their rights.
The forest clearance for the proposed project at Niyamgiri had been rejected following a directive of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in August 2010. The Odisha Mining Corporation had challenged this in the Supreme Court. Following this, the Supreme Court had ordered the state government to organise gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, to take a final decision on the issue based on the people’s opinion.
In 2013, gram sabhas were held in 12 villages of Niyamgiri hills between July and August of 2013. The proceedings of the gram sabhas, was as specified in the Court Order, attended by a District Judge, nominated by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Orissa. Despite the fact that the proceedings were held under strict scrutiny and vigil by the State, it did not leave any doubt that the people did not want the project in their hills. While scores of women and men came forward and articulated their love, worship and respect for their hills and forests which is their home and asserted their legal rights over the entire expanse of the Niyamgiri hills, , it was a huge defeat for Vedanta and the Odisha Mining Corporation.
Meanwhile, there were instances of adivasi people from Niyamgiri hills being accused under various cases and arrested. The people alleged that these were pressure tactics to silence them and their struggle to preserve their forests. Haribandhu Kadraka, a tribal leader was arrested in October 2014. Drika Kadraka, who had represented the struggle and resilience of the people of Niyamgiri hills in many public forums, was intimidated by the police and picked up without any charges being filed. Soon after, he managed to get back to his village and committed suicide in November 2015. The people say it was because of the psychological trauma that he was subjected to while in custody. There are allegedly many more cases of false encounters and intimidation, which hardly get reported or acted upon.
Dasru Kadraka, another active youth leader who was at the forefront of the pepoles movement to protect Niyamgiri was arrested in April 2016. The progress of these cases is hardly heard of or followed up by the national media.
Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the people of Niyamgiri stand tall, with their resilience and love for nature, which cannot be quelled. Their resolve to safeguard their homes not just for themselves but for generations to come, is as determined as ever. Their belief in constitutional and legal forms of struggle is evident in their persistent efforts.
The Odisha Mining Corporation, in an effort to undermine the rights of the adivasi communities residing in Niyamgiri, once again, filed a petition challenging the 2013 resolutions of the Gramsbhas. The Supreme Court scrapped the petition on May 6th 2016. The people of Niyamgiri have won again and they continue to inspire thousands of such struggles across the country for assertion of people’s rights over their resources. Hopefully, this will be a lesson well learnt by corporates and entities that look at ways to over ride people’s rights in their lust for profit. Or maybe that’s still a far way off? In the meanwhile, lets hope there’s more solidarity for peoples struggles across the country and we have the courage to stand up and speak, despite all odds!