By Anjali George
Odisha (previously Orissa) is one of the most resource-rich states located in the eastern part of India. Reserves of bauxite, iron ore, chromite, nickel, coal and the recently-discovered diamond, are quite abundant in the region. Despite having such a vast variety of minerals at its disposal, Odisha continues to remain one of the poorest states, with 32.59 per cent of the population below the poverty line. To increase the state’s productivity and to cash in on the treasure chest of resources, the Government of Odisha signed 79 MoUs with various companies to setup mineral-based industries, with a total proposed investment of US $606.95 billion.
One such agreement was signed with Vedanta Aluminum Limited (VAL); a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources plc, for the development of an alumina refinery and a bauxite mining plant in the most environmentally diverse region of the Niyamgiri Mountains in Odisha. This project was meant to aid the state’s industrial growth and to enhance the public’s economic standard. However, the Government and Vedanta, both failed to consider the detrimental impact of the project on one major segment of the community – the Dongria Kondh tribe.
The Dongria Kondh
The 8000 strong Dongria Kondh tribe have resided in the lush green environs of the Niyamgiri Mountains for generations. They have a harmonious, sacred and symbiotic relationship with nature. A wealth of information regarding the secrets of the forests and the plants and wildlife they host, have been passed on from generation to generation. One of the mountains in the Niyamgiri hill range, Niyam Dongar, is regarded by the tribe to be the abode of their divine god, Niyam Raja (The King of Law). The tribe’s religion is based on respect for nature and they observe traditional rules of restraint known as ‘niyam’, regarding everything that is acquired from nature. As a part of these laws, felling trees on mountain tops is considered taboo and as a sign of disrespect to their supreme deity.
The peaceful existence of the tribe, where they practiced sustainable agriculture based on the forest produce, was brought under threat, when on June 7, 2003 VAL signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Odisha for the construction of a 1 MTPA (one million ton per annum) alumina refinery, along with a 75 MW coal-based power plant in the Lanjigarh region of Kalahandi district. For the purpose of obtaining bauxite for this alumina refinery, Vedanta-owned Sterlite Industries also entered the picture, with plans to construct an open-pit, 3 MTPA bauxite mining plant at the top of the sacred Niyam Dongar Mountain.
The Dongria clearly understand that the 70 million tons of bauxite reserves at the top of the Niyam Dongar act as a sponge that soak up the monsoon rains and then hold deposits of water throughout the hot summer months. These reserves ensure the continuous flow of perennial streams across the Niyamgiri hills, which are vital to the existence of the Dongria Kondh as they provide water for drinking and irrigation purposes. Any mining activity at the top of the mountain would cause these perennial streams to dry up.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) states that “for projects requiring clearance from forest as well as environment angles, separate communications of sanction will be issued and the project would be deemed to be cleared only after clearance from both angles…”. As per these guidelines, before beginning any construction activity, Vedanta was required to obtain environmental clearance for both the alumina refinery and the mining plant.
On August 16, 2004 Vedanta submitted an application to the Forest Department of the MoEF for the reallocation of forest land. This was in direct contrast to the company’s environmental clearance application for the alumina refinery, submitted on June 3, 2003 which stated that its forest land requirement was ‘nil’. It also proclaimed that there were no reserve forests within a 10 km radius of the project site, which was contrary to the facts on record.
Earlier, on March 24, 2004 the MoEF had informed Vedanta that the mining proposal was crucial to the refinery and therefore it would consider the environmental impacts of the two projects together. Six months later, on September 22, 2004 the ministry surprisingly reversed its decision and granted environment clearance for the construction of the refinery, independent of the mining project. The MoEF laid down the condition that Sterlite Industries should obtain clearance for mining on Niyamgiri before putting the alumina refinery into operation. The ministry letter also stated that forestland would not be involved in the project, although another department of the ministry was processing an application for the reallocation of forestland for the same project. Despite these many inconsistencies and violations, the ministry granted the operation environmental clearance and construction of the alumina refinery began in 2004.
Central Empowered Committee (CEC) Report
While Vedanta’s dubious methods for construction of the alumina refinery were being ignored by the MoEF, three petitioners subsequently filed applications with the CEC, appealing to the authorities to look into Vedanta’s suspicious environmental clearances. The CEC is a quasi-judicial body set up by the Supreme Court in 2002 to look into forest and environment issues. Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa (known for his campaign to save the Olive Ridley turtles) filed an application against Vedanta in November 2004. Following this, environmentalist Prafulla Samantara and Delhi-based geologist R. Sridhar filed two other applications. The concerns raised in the applications were regarding the discrepancies in the environmental clearance obtained for the alumina refinery. The petitioners pointed out the devastating impact of the proposed mining project on the forest, wildlife and the Dongria Kondh. They also suggested that a fact-finding team be sent to the region to delve deeper into the issue.
After conducting hearings and making visits to the disputed region, the CEC, on September 21, 2005 submitted a scathing report to the Supreme Court, questioning the ineptitude of the local authorities and the savagery of the proposed project. It recommended that the environmental clearance granted to Vedanta for setting up the refinery be revoked, the company be directed to stop further work on the project and mining on Niyamgiri Hills be banned. It also pointed out that Niyamgiri came under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits the transfer of tribal land to a non-tribal group. The CEC found that the Environment Ministry had wrongfully given clearance to Vedanta and it had ignored the various environmental threats that would arise from the proposed project. It criticized the MoEF for de-linking the mining project with the alumina refinery, as both projects were essential components of each other. The committee also questioned the extreme amount of lenience shown by the MoEF towards the profit-hungry Vedanta.
On August 8, 2008 the Supreme Court completely disregarded the CEC’s recommendations and approved the clearance of forestland for mining in the Niyamgiri Hills. This judgment was met with mass-scale protests and objections, with tribals and activists condemning the court for displaying an acute sense of apathy regarding the plight of the people, for showcasing indifference towards environmental concerns and for ignoring laws and essential guidelines. Despite the vociferous protests, environmental clearance was granted to Sterlite Industries in April, 2009 for mining operations; a decision which spelled doom for the Dongria Kondh.
The industrial process of refining bauxite to produce alumina, results in a solid waste product known as ‘red mud’. Since it is not easy to dispose off, red mud is pumped into holding ponds by most industries. Improper disposal of red mud can cause devastating environmental hazards, as it can neither be used to build on, nor can it be used for farming purposes. In case of the Lanjigarh alumina refinery, the discrepant disposal of this alkaline mud is a major environmental concern. The escape of caustic soda (used to extract alumina from raw bauxite) into the ground water is a highly likely scenario, which will increase the sodium concentration of the well water. A high sodium level in potable water is undesirable, as it can lead to hypertension, heart disease and stroke.
The proposed mining plant is located at the top of the Niyamgiri Hills and the alumina refinery is situated at the foothills, near Lanjigarh. The construction of an approach road to the mining site and conveyor belts for transporting ore from the mine to the refinery requires the felling of numerous trees and massive deforestation drives. Open pit mining, as proposed on the hills, causes loud noises during the excavation, drilling, blasting and crushing operations. The sanctity and serenity of the mountains will be destroyed and will lead to the destruction of the rich ecosystem of the Niyamgiri Hills and the displacement of the natural wildlife habitat. The Mountain of Niyamgiri is protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act and due to its rich wildlife population, it was proposed as a wildlife sanctuary by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1998. In 2004, the Orissa government declared the region an elephant reserve. The relentless mining activities will cause the numerous endangered species in the hills to abandon their homes.
Mining for bauxite on top of the hills will cause the streams, the underground water resources and the Vamshadhara and Nagarbali rivers to dry up. The Dongria Kondh, terribly dependent on these water resources, will also lose their sole source of sustenance. It is interesting to note that Vedanta had initially decided to source its water requirements from the Vamshadhara River; however, the company changed its decision midway and began the construction of a barrage over the Tel River, as it realized that the Vamshadhara would be severely polluted by the mining activities and would not be able to ensure the continuous supply of water.
The most severe effect of mining will be on the Dongria Kondh. The Dongria - whose social, cultural and economical life is deeply interlinked with the Niyamgiri Hills – will be uprooted from their sacred home. Cutting and felling of trees on this mountain top is considered a taboo activity by them and a mine blast on the mountain would be an attack on their deity. The Dongria Kondh’s way of life was adopted as a means of surviving on these sacred mountains. Owning land on the Niyamgiri Mountains is a critical element of declaring a person as belonging to the tribe. Implementation of the mining project will cause the Dongria Kodh to lose their precious homes, their culture and heritage, and most importantly, their identity.
The Mass Movement
As an aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the environmental clearances of both the alumina refinery and the mining plant, the Dongria Kondh rose together to protest this decision. Around 40 tribesmen blocked a road leading into the hills with tree trunks and held banners that read ‘We are Dongria Kondh. Vedanta cannot take our mountain.’ They stood together and prevented workers from Vedanta from entering their sacred hill. Previously, the Dongria Kondh had held numerous protests, appealing to the Government and the Supreme Court not to grant forestland clearance to Vedanta.
On May 7, 2008 hundreds of members of the Dongria Kondh marched through Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha and staged a sit-down protest on Mahatma Gandhi Street, which leads to the state assembly. The tribe’s continuous protests were often met with threats from Vedanta’s employees. On October 8, 2008 after hearing that Vedanta intended to start survey work for the alumina refinery, 150 people blocked the road leading to their hill and erected barricades. Vedanta’s employees repeatedly visited the blockade and threatened the protestors. Two days later, under pressure from the police and hired thugs, the protestors were forced to dismantle the barricades. However, about a 100 people still remained at the site and erected a wooden gate, blocking the traffic when the company’s vehicles approached. Over 800 Dongria Kondh staged round-the-clock peaceful vigils on the road.
October 20, 2008 witnessed hundreds of Dongia Kondh members dancing and singing along the streets of Bhubaneshwar, armed with traditional weapons. The huge procession marked their opposition against Vedanta, which had received the Supreme Court’s permission to mine aluminum from Niyam Dongar. Reminiscent of earlier protests, on January 6, 2009 around fifty protestors mounted blockades and prevented the midnight entry of Vedanta workers into their land. The tribesmen stood against the imminent danger of bulldozers and faced off the harrowing threat of eviction. However, the tribe’s biggest show of strength was when within 10 days, the Dongria Kondh gathered for two of their largest demonstrations. On January 17, 2009 up to 7000 demonstrators; including people from various tribal groups, women, farmers and day laborers, marched to the gates of the alumina refinery. Many protestors, carrying bows and arrows, destroyed the Vedanta branded sign boards spread across the Niyamgiri area. Subsequently, on January 27, 2009 more than ten thousand men, women and children formed a 17 km long human chain around the Niyamgiri Mountains, preventing the Vedanta bulldozers from demolishing the mountain. The protestors carried placards bearing the slogans ‘Vedanta, go back’ and ‘Stop mining in Niyamgiri’. October 5, 2009 marked the end of a week long march around the villages of Niyamgiri. The crowd of over 3000 demonstrators brought the town of Muniguda to a standstill, shutting down the main road for several hours. These increasing protests showed how far the government had failed the people.
The movement against Vedanta was not only lead by the local tribes, but it also gained massive support from international communities. Organizations like Survival International, Amnesty International and Foil Vedanta visited the protest site in India regularly and also organized mass rallies outside the company’s London office. For seven years, Survival International organized demonstrations at the Annual General Meeting of the company in London. The organization also launched an international campaign, encouraging major shareholders of Vedanta Resources to disinvest in the company until it removed its operations from Niyamgiri. Witnessing the company’s atrocious treatment of the Dongria Kondh and its involvement in the blatant violation of human rights, many international investors like the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, Martin Currie, the Church of England and Marlborough Ethical Fund sold their stocks in the company.
The Government’s Awakening
Fueled by the continuous protests of the Dongria Kondh and the outpouring of support for the tribe, the Government of India sent a team of experts to the Niyamgiri Hills in 2010. The team was asked to submit a report on the effect of the mining project on the Dongria Kondh. The team of experts, in their March, 2010 report, concluded that Vedanta’s proposed bauxite mine would be detrimental to the existence of the Dongria Kondh; a consequence which was too serious to ignore. The report also recommended the government to deny the diversion of forest land to the company. The team’s report to the MoEF was crucial as it was important for the consideration of Final Forest Clearance for Vedanta.
The Dongria Kondh emerged victorious on August 21, 2010 when a review of the mining project carried out by the MoEF exposed the violation of a number of environmental regulations by the company. A few days later, Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh called a halt to the project. Two months later, the Environment Ministry also rejected Vedanta’s plans for a six fold increase in capacity at the Lanjigarh alumina refinery. The company was also warned to follow pollution guidelines closely and was reprimanded for starting expansion work without prior permission. After denying the company Forest Clearance in 2010, Jairam Ramesh delivered a final blow by revoking Vedanta’s Environment Clearance in July, 2011. The Dongria Kondh welcomed the Ministry’s decision with celebrations and processions throughout Niyamgiri.
Following these setbacks, the Orissa Government – through the state owned company, Orissa Mining Corporation- petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the mining ban on Vedanta and to allow the six fold expansion of the alumina refinery. With the Supreme Court’s ruling constantly being postponed, Niyamgiri became witness to a full blown showdown between Vedanta and the Dongria Kondh. The Dongria Kondh strengthened their movement against the power hungry company and organized mass-scale protests and movements. Public meetings were often held in the villages of Niyamgiri, where the residents were made aware of the dangers of mining and the threat of eviction. The tribe regularly organized rallies and even garnered the support of the other local tribes in the region. Vedanta retaliated by constantly threatening the demonstrators and tribesmen, abducting and beating up the protest leaders and even spreading wild rumors about the activists and NGOs that were supporting the tribe. In another momentous victory for the tribe, Vedanta Aluminum Limited declared the closing of the Lanjigarh alumina refinery in December, 2012 due to the insufficient supply of bauxite.
In a landmark decision for tribes’ rights in India, the Supreme Court on April 18, 2013 rejected the appeal on the mining ban and decreed that the Dongria Kondh would have a decisive say in giving the go-ahead to Vedanta’s mining project. The court recognized that the Dongria Kondh’s right to worship their sacred mountain must be ‘protected and preserved’ and that those with religious and cultural rights must be heard in the decision-making process. The court provided them with three months to come to a decision about the hazardous mining project.
A Resounding No!
12 Gram Sabhas (village councils) were chosen by the state government to make the crucial decision. In the three months after the Supreme Court ruling, amidst heavy police presence and persistent threats from Vedanta, 11 Gram Sabhas voted against the mining project and on August 19, 2013 the 12th and final Gram Sabha delivered a resounding ‘No’. In a decision unfamiliar in the present Indian democratic context, the Dongria Kondh demonstrated the power of the underprivileged, by spurning Vedanta’s advances. In January 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which had earlier aided Vedanta’s invasion of Niyamgiri, crushed the company’s mining ambitions by completely rejecting the project. In this sensational decision; gaining coverage even in the international media, the Dongria Kondh emerged victorious in the decade-long battle against Vedanta Aluminum Limited.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) established in 2006, prevents the usurping of forest dwelling communities from their rightful lands and ensures the well being and protection of tribals from wrongful land acquisition. It also gives traditional communities the rights to protect, manage and conserve their forests.
A key facet of the FRA is that forest dwellers cannot be removed from a protected area without the free and informed consent of gram sabhas comprised exclusively of the members of the community. However, in the case of the Dongria Kondh, the government terribly failed at receiving the consent of the people and ensuring their rights. The decade-long suffering and misery, the physical and psychological torture and the harassment at the hands of the police and Vedanta workers; all that the tribe faced, could have been avoided if the government had followed its own laws.
The case of Niyamgiri; where the tribals won over the mining giants, revealed the glaring inadequacies of the system in implementing the cultural, traditional and religious rights of tribals in India. It presented the need for an improvement in the present laws and guidelines, with a striking necessity to include tribals’ rights. The Dongria Kondh, who had peacefully existed in the forests of Niyamgiri until the arrival of Vedanta, have now presented a streak of hope to other tribals in the country fighting for days on end just for the right to survive on their own lands. The Dongria Kondh have lit a new fire in the hearts of other destitute tribes, with only one goal in their minds – to reclaim their stolen lands.
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