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'Niyamgiri hills are our god. If you mine here, we will die'Debabrata Mohanty : Niyamgiri Hills, Thu Aug 01 2013, 23:53 hrsTanguru Majhi is normally reticent, but he spoke for 20 minutes in an emphatic speech before government officials last week. Clad in a lungi and a shirt torn at the armpits, his axe slung across his shoulder, he told the officials and Kalahandi additional district judge Pramod Kumar Jena, "We revere Niyamgiri as our god. Just as Lord Jagannath is God to you, so is Niyamraja to us."
Majhi, a Dongaria Kondh tribal in Kunakadu, a hard-to-access village on the Niyamgiri hill slopes, was the first of 21 speakers to tell the government officials why they didn't want bauxite to be mined from the hills.
It was the fourth of 12 pallisabhas organised by the Orissa government to determine whether the proposed mining by Vedanta Alumina for a 1-million-tonne alumina refinery would infringe on the religious rights of tribals and OBCs. The 12 villages have been selected along the 250-sq-km Niyamgiri mountain range in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
In August 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forest had denied final forest clearance to the bauxite mining project. Following a petition by the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation challenging the ministry's denial, the Supreme Court last April ordered that pallisabhas be held in the villages to find out whether mining can be allowed, and whether it would hurt the religious rights of 8,000-odd Dongaria Kondh tribals there.
At the Kunakadu pallisabha, Majhi told the officials, "You can write whatever you like, but we are not going to leave Niyamgiri. If you mine Niyamgiri, the streams there will dry up. We will then die." The Kalahandi additional district judge, sent as an observer by the Supreme Court, and the officials could only nod. The 20 other speakers echoed Majhi in saying they would rather die than leave Niyamgiri, their home for decades if not centuries.
The pallisabhas are being described as the first people's environment court in independent India. The first pallisabha, on July 18 at Serkapadi village in Rayagada, showed the shape of things to come, with the 36 tribal speakers claiming the entire hills were the abode of their deity Niyamraja.
Tuesday had a pallisabha at Ijirupa, a village Rahul Gandhi had visited in 2008 to promise tribals he would fight their cause in Delhi. Rahul made a quick trip to Lanjigarh, too, in 2010 after the ministry's denial of forest clearance; he made the same promise. Ijirupa's pallisabha had four non-tribal voters, who joined the four tribals in their opposition to mining the hills. "We are cultivating paddy, cauliflower, brinjal and tomato. Why should we leave? We are going to vote against mining in Niyamgiri," said Shrimati Gouda.
Eight of the 12 pallisabhas have been held, with the last one scheduled on August 19. The anti-Vedanta and anti-mining stance looks set to be echoed in the four remaining ones. "We are all going to say no. The hill is our parents, our god, our source of sustenance," said Lado Sikaka, an activist of Lakhpadar village, who has been spearheading the campaign against Vedanta for five years. Lakhpadar's pallisabha is on August 8. Dodi Jakesika says, "Where will we go if we leave? Can the company give jobs to illiterates like us?"
Vedanta Alumina, the single largest investor in Orissa with Rs 50,000 crore put in so far, signed an MoU in 2003 with the Orissa government for its 1-million-tonne alumina refinery in Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi district and commissioned it in 2007. Denied access so far to Niyamgiri's bauxite, it is now running on ore imported from other states.
Vedanta wanted to mine over 660 hectares on the Niyamgiri hilltop, known as one of the richest sources of Gibbsitic bauxite. Orissa government records say there are 2 billion tonnes of bauxite in and around Niyamgiri, with around 100 million tonnes having been mined during the last 30 years.
Last December 5, the plant had shut down for want of bauxite. It reopened on July 11 after it managed to get some supplies from Gujarat and other states.
A senior official said the company has run up a loss of about Rs 3,000 crore as it has had to transport bauxite from distant places since 2007, when the plant started operating. It has an aluminium smelter plant in Jharsuguda district with a capacity of 1.75 million tonnes per annum but it is running at 0.5 MTPA for want of cheap alumina. A 2,400-MW power plant, also in Jharsuguda, is running at half capacity due to lack of coal linkages.
Between December 5 and July 11, the employee strength has fallen to a third, from 3,700-odd to 1200-odd, though the company says none of the 536 employees on its direct payroll have been fired. Some of Vedanta's staff have left to join Utkal Alumina in Kashipur block of Rayagada district.
A Vedanta official, who was unwilling to be named, alleged that the illiterate tribals seem to have been tutored by NGOs and "busybody activists".
"Bauxite is present on the hilltop for the first 20 metres. Unlike what the activists claim, there are now trees growing on bauxite reserves," he said. "In fact, once the bauxite is dug out, there would be a better chance of vegetation on the hilltop. Besides, no streams would be affected by mining as they emerge from slopes downwards, not from the hilltop. If we leave, the tribals would perhaps remain as impoverished as they are now."
Distrust & difficulty
Despite what the tribals and NGOs claim, life is tough for the 8,000 tribals. At Phuldumer, where the seventh pallisabha rejected the mining proposal, Mamata Majhi was not sure whether the three-month foetus in her womb can survive the bout of malaria she is going through. "Who will take her to the hospital?" said her mother-in-law. "No doctor ever comes here. Let me see if my son can carry her to the Lanjigarh hospital."
All that the villagers in 100-odd hamlets around the hills get are subsidised rice from the local block office. Most of the villages have no roads, leave alone schools and health centres. The tribals get drinking water from streams as far as 2 km away. For cuts and wounds, the village medic treats them with medicinal plants, while malaria is the biggest killer.
At pallisabhas, tribals as well as NGO activists questioned why the state was so interested only for one company.
"All these years, no official came. And even if they came, they just treated the tribals like dirt. Now the tribals are hitting back," said Bhalchandra, an activist of the CPI(M-L).
Lanjigarh BDO P K Nayak agreed that the state should have developed the area long ago, but alleged that tribals were being brainwashed by NGOs from allowing any development.
At the first pallisabha, Rayagada district judge Sarat Chandra Mishra, appointed to oversee the proceedings, had angered the already distrustful villagers after they had asked for a copy of the resolution.
"You people are acting too smart despite being illiterate," the judge told them. "Had you been literate, just imagine... you would have sold the country."