Niyamgiri Palli Sabhas Say NO to Vedanta

A historic event has occurred thanks to the struggle of the Niyamgiri Dongria Kondh adivasis against the mining MNC Vedanta. 12 villages held a referendum to decide whether or not they wanted Vedanta to mine the Niyamgiri hill range and its forests for bauxite. And the answer has been unequivocal. All 12 villages have said a resounding NO to Vedanta.

In 2010, the MoEF cited violations of the Forest Rights Act, Environment Protection Act and Forest Conservation Act to refuse environmental clearance to a joint venture between the Odisha Government’s OMCL and Vedanta’s company Sterlite, eeking to mine bauxite in Niyamgiri for Vedanta’s alumina refinery in Lanjigarh. OMCL appealed to the Supreme Court against MoEF’s decision in 2011. On April 18th this year, the SC ruled that according to the laws in question, the gram sabhas must vote to decide whether or not Vedanta could be allowed to mine in Niyamgiri, and ordered the State and Central Governments to facilitate this.

The Supreme Court had upheld the cultural and religious right of the Dongria Kondh adivasis, who worship the Niyamgiri hill as their deity – Niyam Raja. Of the 162 villages dependant on the Niyamgiri hills, 102 of which are Dongria Kondh villages, the state Government scheduled palli sabhas only in 12 villages (7 from Rayagada and 5 from Kalahandi).

A reporter for the Down to Earth magazine, Sayantan Bera, reported on Tunguru Majhi’s speech during the palli sabha at Kunakadu village in Kalahandi district:

“‘Jharna, pani, paban, patra... sob loss hai jibo’ (streams, water, air, leaves... everything will be lost)... Niyamgiri is our medical centre... our ‘jani, bejuni’ (village priest and priestess) collect medicinal plants to treat our children. Do understand before you leave that the government has no right over these hills…Like the Brahman and the Kayastha worship lord Jagannath, we worship our Niyamraja. We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi (both Munda and Majhi led a tribal uprising against the British) if you don’t give up now. We are a ‘murkhya jati’ (illiterate lot) who will never listen to you.” In some of the villages, people braved heavy rains to vote at the palli sabha. The non-tribal village Tadijhola rejected Vedanta as decisively as the tribal villages.

In the statements of the villagers at the palli sabhas, it is clear that for them, there is little distinction between ‘worship’ and ‘means of survival.’ Worship of Niyamraja, for them, is tied up with Niyamraja, the mountain, providing all their basic needs. Bera reports that one of the participants in the Tadijhola palli sabha mocked at Vedanta’s claims of ‘mining happiness’ and providing development: “I have never studied in a school, never been to a hospital and am alive today only because of these forests and streams.”Another villager told Vedanta where to get off: “We have lived here for hundreds of years. We are happy in our mud huts and don’t need brick houses. Vedanta can go back to London and mine there.”

A detailed report of the palli sabha proceedings in The Hindu quotes Lado Sikaka, leader of the anti-mining struggles: “Our God lives in open space. You keep your God locked with a key. We won’t leave Niyamgiri. If the government and politicians ask for it we will fight. Why do police destroy our fields and crops in the name of combing Maoists? Withdraw them immediately.”

Sayantan Bera quotes more voices from the palli sabhas. One village priestess says “When there is no rain, we pray to Niyam Raja. He calls Bhima debta, the rain god. Without Niyam Raja who will convey our request to Bhima debta?” Another villager says, “Niyam Raja protects our forests while Dharani debta (mother earth) looks after us. What does the government do for us? It is only interested in our signatures.” Eighty-seven year old Sugri Gouda declared “Niyamgiri dibu nai” (won’t give up Niyamgiri) to rousing cheers, as she signed the resolution.

The Vedanta still hopes to circumvent the palli sabha decisions, claiming that they do not prove that the mining site would affect the worship site Niyamraja (which the State Government claims is at a particular spot, Hunjdijali). Whereas the villagers declare that they worship the entire hill range.

The Environment Ministry will interpret the palli sabha decision. The Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre has been playing a game of balancing the repressive pro-corporate Operation GreenHunt with an ‘Operation Greenspeak’ where Rahul Gandhi chose to declare himself a soldier of Niyamgiri tribals. The UPA will perhaps find it difficult to backtrack from its posture on Niyamgiri now. Vedanta officials make no bones of their hopes from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A senior Vedanta official told Bera quite bluntly: “Narendra Modi as the next prime minister will ease us out.”

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