The God of the Mountain: Vedanta’s Assault on Niyamgiri

Odisha, in Eastern India, is an ecologically rich and diverse landscape. Adivasis (‘original dwellers’) constitute around twenty percent of the population in Odisha but almost half of those displaced by development projects. With foreign companies eager to exploit the vast mineral reserves hidden beneath the soil, in 2009, of fifteen areas of interest demarked by extractive industries in Odisha, thirteen were in adivasi areas.

In the Niyamgiri Hills of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts one adivasi group, the Dongria Kondh, maintain distinct livelihoods, values and cosmologies, entwined with the landscape. The tallest mountain, Niyam Dongar, is the abode of Niyam Raja (the giver of law), their primary deity and source of all life. Deities reside in all aspects of the Niyamgiri landscape; ‘gangi penu’, ‘situ penu’, and ‘donger penu’ are all said to reside in trees, ‘penu’ meaning god in local kui language. It is from the hilltops (penu-basa) that the life-force (jui/jela) emanates, if disrupted then streams would cease to flow, forests and animals would die; the Dongria Kondh see themselves as Jharnia, the protectors of streams. In the lower regions around Niyamgiri, Kutia Kondh communities also maintain a sacral and lived connection to the mountains. The connection is evident in the artwork of Kondh communities, triangle motifs symbolic of the sacred mountain.

“My friends and brothers, we are from the forest…our relationship to the forest is like a fingernail to flesh, we cannot be separated, that is why we are adivasi”

 Kondh elder cited in (Kapoor 2010:17)

The Niyamgiri Hills contains an array of wild foods of which the Dongria Kondh, skilled horticulturalists, harvest over 200 species including mangoes, pineapples, jackfruit, turmeric, ginger and an abundance of medicinal herbs. The forested mountains are important breeding grounds and act as migration corridors for tigers, leopards, sloth bears and elephants. From the plateau hundreds of perennial streams provide essential water supply for drought prone Kalahandi district, surrounding lowlands and the Vamshadhara River.

“We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri”.

 Kondh man cited in (Saxena et al. 2010: 34)

However it is the distinctive deep red soil that gives clues to a huge wealth spurring the influx of mining companies into this area. The Niyamgiri range and many of the mountain plateaus in eastern India contain large deposits of bauxite, the raw material needed to support the growing and increasingly resource scarce aluminium industry. In 2003 Niyam Raja was demarked as part of a 7 sq km mining lease by Vedanta Aluminium, a subsidiary of London Stock Exchange listed Sterlite Industries, in conjunction with the Orissa Mining Corporation. Vedanta also announced the construction of a 1.5 million tonne alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, at the foot of the Niyamgiri range.

Yes to Life, No to Mining: Resistance to Vedanta

India has a number of legal provisions intended to safeguard adivasi land; the Dongria Kondh are classified by the Indian government as a ‘Primitive Tribe’ requiring special protection as a vulnerable group. Schedule V of the Indian constitution grants powers to ‘Scheduled Tribes’ to govern land and resources in scheduled areas. The Samatha Judgement in 1997 recognised the right of scheduled tribes to land and the Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Area Act (PESA) (1997) recognised the right of local communities to mandatory public hearings before any acquisition of land. Others including the Forest Rights Act and Environmental Protection Act are intended to recognise customary claims and subscribe autonomy to local communities in governing land. However despite wide ranging protective measures, land acquisition continues under the veneer of ‘public purpose’.

“No-one, I repeat no-one, will be allowed to stand in the way of Orissa’s industrial development and the peoples progress”

Naveen Paitnak, Odisha chief minister, addressing Odisha assembly in 2004

Opposition to Vedanta’s activities started in 2002 following a land acquisition notice to twelve villages in the path of the proposed Lanjigarh refinery. Early stages focused on the refinery and its effects on Kutia Kondh communities and less so upon the proposed mining in the mountains, although as the movement developed information began to reach the Dongria Kondh. In 2003 following the acquisition of land, the bulldozing of the site and displacement of many families, resistance grew and spontaneous mass protests became common.

“This area does not form part of any national park, wild-life sanctuary and natural/biosphere reserve. It does not contain any features of archaeological/ historical, and cultural/aesthetical importance”.

Vedanta EIA report n.d.

The resistance movement was continually evolving, beginning amongst localised community networks, until the formation of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samittree gave structure and a grassroots base. National and state-wide activists linked the Niyamgiri case to larger critiques of governmental industrial policy; the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and the Lok Sangram Manch articulated distinctive opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The resistance to Vedanta also drew the attention of international NGOs including Amnesty International, Action Aid and Survival International.

Vedanta did not remain silent; its public rhetoric was couched in narratives of social responsibility and sustainable development, claiming that the project was necessary for economic development and that public meetings were met with unanimous support1. However affected communities were often turned away or completely unaware of these meetings; in 2003 when Dongria leaders first attended a protest they were forced away by Vedanta staff and Odisha police2. From the beginning Vedanta had full support of the Odisha state government3.

Amnesty International received reports that in March 2003 a number of villagers were beaten following protests at Basantpada, on the 1st of April a member of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samitee was arrested, and the following day eighteen protesters were allegedly beaten by a youth club supportive of Vedanta4. The formation of ‘pro-Vedanta’ groups within villages exacerbated divisions within the affected communities5.

“Your temples are made of bricks and cement; ours are these hills, forests, leaves and streams. If you dig these, we will die with our gods,”

Bejuni, village priestess of a Dongria Kondh tribal hamlet. Cited in Down to Earth Aug 31 2013.

The Dongria Kondh became increasingly involved as road building and construction activity began to encroach on their ancestral lands. It was at this time that publicity of the Niyamgiri case spread across India. A number of Dongria Kondh members became spokespersons for international NGOs, allowing global dissemination of information. While in some cases the global representation of the Dongria Kondh carried issues, including a culturally insensitive mass worship event organised by Action Aid and local opposition to the influx of foreign journalists and NGOs, it was crucial in garnering international pressure against Vedanta.

Vedanta’s disregard for legal procedures, concealment of information and repression of resistance continued despite growing pressure. Pro-Vedanta groups became a ubiquitous presence in villages and weekly meetings, and there are numerous documented cases of physical assaults, the delaying of activists at train stations and the following of vehicles6. Despite resistance, the Lanjigarh refinery was completed and became operational in 2007; daily along the railway stretch between Rayagada, Muniguda and Lanjigarh, Vedanta freight trains ferry bauxite and coal from across India to ensure the operation of the refinery and its captive power plant7.

In 2009, to the dismay of local communities, the mining at Niyamgiri was given the go-ahead and preliminary environmental clearance was given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), on the basis that compromises for development need to be made. This announcement led to more widespread protests at the Lanjigarh site and a human chain of more than 10,000 people around the Niyamgiri proposed mining site. Additionally Vedanta constructed a conveyor belt leading up into the mountains without any necessary forest clearance between 2008 and 2010.

“…this Committee is of the firm view that allowing mining in the proposed mining lease area…may have serious consequences for the security and well being of the entire country” 

Recommendations of the Saxena Report (2010)

A turning point came with the publication of the Saxena report in 2010, commissioned by the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, which provided extensive documentation of the environmental and social impact of Vedanta’s activities, particularly violations of the Forest Rights Act. It stated that within the proposed mining lease area, over 1.2 million trees would be cut down, disrupting wildlife corridors and breeding grounds. Contrary to Vedanta’s claim that no villages lay in the proposed mining area, the report highlighted the marriage linkages between villages and livelihoods connected to landscape, such that the whole community would feel the effects.

Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) land is protected from destructive practices that threaten cultural and ecological heritage, without agreement from gram sabhas (village level meetings). For environmental clearance to be granted, the FRA procedure needs to be complete, community consultation needs to be adequate and the implementation of other legal provisions needs to be addressed. The Saxena report concludes that proposed mining and environmental clearance at Niyamgiri are illegal; the most sacred sites for Kondh communities would be destroyed, seven squared kilometres of sacred and rich forest would be flattened, forest based livelihoods would be endangered, and repercussions would be felt in other communities who depend on relationships with Kondh groups and the Niyamgiri Hills.

Following this report, the MoEF cancelled the forest clearance and refused to allow mining to commence, although this decision was challenged by Vedanta at the Supreme Court. In a landmark judgement in April 2013 the Supreme Court vested the decision for environmental clearance and mining with the gram sabhas of affected Dongria Kondh communities. Vedanta continued to maintain a clear presence in the area; along the main road that runs parallel to the railway, Vedanta trucks and ‘community ambulances’ traverse the bustling market towns of Bissamcuttack and Muniguda. With the Lanjigarh refinery operative and Vedanta’s mining plans hanging in the balance, local police and Vedanta security personnel were highly suspicious, keen to avoid documentation or influence of the proceedings.

“We’ve lived here for hundreds of years and are happy in our mud huts. Vedanta can go back to London and mine there”

Gajendra Gouda at village sabha. Cited in Down to Earth Aug 31. 2013

However, in August 2013 the twelve affected villages all voted unanimously to reject the mining, in India’s first environmental referendum, and four months later the MoEF reiterated a final refusal of the project. This was a historic victory for the Dongria Kondh, setting a precedent across India. The sacral and lived connections between local communities and the Niyamgiri landscape were recognised by governmental bodies, drew huge global support, and demonstrated that local communities still maintain a powerful position in resisting the assault of large-scale industrial development.

 

Search the ‘Niyamgiri’ tag for more news and information as resistance continues

 

Endnotes

  1. Vedanta Resources plc. (2009). VALVOICE: Vedanta Aluminium News and Insights. Vol.1, No.5, Pp.1-8. Available here 
  2. Amnesty International. (2010). [Online] ‘Don’t Mine us out of Existence’: Bauxite Mine and Refinery Devastate Lives in India. Available here
  3. Kraemer, R., Whiteman. G., Banerjee, B. (2013). Conflict and Astroturfing in Niyamgiri: The Importance of National Advocacy Networks in Anti-Corporate Social Movements. Organization Studies. Vol.34, No.5-6, Pp.823-852. 
  4. Amnesty International (2011). Generalisations, Omissions, Assumptions: The Failings of Vedanta’s Environmental Impact Assessment for its Bauxite Mine and Alumina Refinery in India’s State of Odisha. Available here 
  5. Padel, F., Das, S. (2010). Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel. Orient Blackswan India. Pp. 1-139, 179-266, 557-600.
  6. Kraemer, R., Whiteman. G., Banerjee, B. (2013). Conflict and Astroturfing in Niyamgiri: The Importance of National Advocacy Networks in Anti-Corporate Social Movements. Organization Studies. Vol.34, No.5-6, Pp.823-852. 
  7. Amnesty International. (2010). ‘Don’t Mine us out of Existence’: Bauxite Mine and Refinery Devastate Lives in India. Pp.69. Available here.

 

References:

Amnesty International. (2010). [Online] ‘Don’t Mine us out of Existence’: Bauxite Mine and Refinery Devastate Lives in India. Available here:

Bera, S. (2013). Niyamgiri Answers. Down to Earth Magazine. August 31 2013. Available here

Jena, M. K., Pathi, P., Dash, J., Patnaik, K. K., Seeland, K. (2002). Man and Forest Series 2: Forest Tribes of Orissa Vol.1: The Dongaria Kondh. eds: Seeland, K., Schmithusen, F. DK Printworld Press LTD New Dehli (2002). Pp.1-74, 133-176, 177-269.

Kraemer, R., Whiteman. G., Banerjee, B. (2013). Conflict and Astroturfing in Niyamgiri: The Importance of National Advocacy Networks in Anti-Corporate Social Movements. Organization Studies. Vol.0, No.0, Pp.1-30.

Kapoor, D. (2009). Adivasis (Original Dwellers) ‘in the way’ of State-Corporate Development: Development, Dispossession and Learning in Social Action for Land and Forests in India. McGill Journal of Education. Vol.44, No.1, Pp.55-78.

Kumar, K. (2013). The Sacred Mountain: Confronting Global Capital at Niyamgiri. Geoforum. [Article in Press]. Available here 

Mathur, H. M. (2009). Investor-Friendly Development Policies: Unsettling Consequences for the Tribal Population of Orissa. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology. Vol.10, No.4, Pp. 318-328.

Padel, F., Das, S. (2010). Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel. Orient Blackswan India. Pp. 1-139, 179-266, 557-600.

Sahu, S. K., Dash, M. (2011). Expropriation of Land and Cultures: The Odisha Story and Beyond. Social Change. Vol.41, No.2, Pp. 251-270.

Saxena, N. C., Parasuraman, S., Kant, P., Baviskar, A. (2010). Report of the Four Member Committee for Investigation into the Proposal Submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri, August 16 2010. Submitted to Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India, New Dehli. Pp. 1-119. Available here

Temper, L., Martinez-Alier, J. (2013). The God of the Mountain and Godavarman: Net Present Value, Indigenous Territorial Rights and Sacredness in a Bauxite Mining Conflict in India. Ecological Economics. Vol.96, Pp.79-87.

Vedanta Resources plc. (n.d.). [Online]. Lanjigarh Development: Vedanta’s Perspective. Available here

Vedanta Resources plc. (n.d.). [Online]. EIA Report of Expansion of Alumina Refinery from 1Mmtpa to 6 Mmtpa Capacity. Report prepared by Global Experts Bhubaneswar. Pp. 1-50. Available here 

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The God of the Mountain: Vedanta’s Assault on Niyamgiri

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