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Tribals at Niyamgiri feel only half the battle won

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There is an unusual combination of fear and fortitude on show, as the fight over finally draws to a close.

Even though Vedanta Resource’s proposal to mine bauxite at the sacred mountain in Orissa’s is rejected, for thousands of like Laksa Majhi, who for countless generations have lived in the shadow of Niyamgiri, the insecurities persist.

“I, like my forefathers, have served Niyam Raja,” Laksa says, referring to the revered tribal deity said to reside on the mountain above. “But if the government wants to sell Niyamgiri, they should kill us first. Otherwise, we will slowly die even as we live. We are born of this earth, and this earth is ours. Niyamgiri belongs to us.”

It isn’t that the adverse reaction towards Vedanta Resources is perfunctory. The Anil Agarwal-owned entity is a known quantity here. Vedanta has already established a one-million tonne per annum (mtpa) alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, right below Niyamgiri.

But there is resentment at the way Vedanta has gone about its business here, and consternation at its treatment of local stakeholders.

Trust deficit
A clutch of men in Simlibhatta, a village on the outskirts of Lanjigarh, sit idle under the morning sun. Beside them, the verdant fields that line the slopes of Niyamgiri are tended to by an array of farmers. But these men claim they have no where to go, and not much to do. “We all had a few acres of land each, which we cultivated. Now, it has been taken over by Vedanta. We were promised that we would be paid, but we have got nothing in return,” explains Popu Majhi.

The locals say all required papers are with them, some of which have even been presented to the district officials, but little happened.

Like Popu Majhi, for hundreds who live by the surrounding hills, agriculture is as vital as access to their forests. For about half the year, these tribals tend to their fields and the remainder, depend on the Niyamgiri hills for forests products, which contribute 30-40 per cent of their annual income.

Vedanta’s mining plan would have ‘severely’ degraded the Niyamgiri hill eco-system, the Saxena panel report had suggested. If Vedanta is allowed to mine the Niyamgiri hill, some murmur, there will be violence. The frustration is palpable.

When the company’s Lanjigarh project was announced in 2003, locals had hoped for development and employment, none of which have seemingly arrived in expected quantities.

Instead, as Dhaneswar Hial of Chattrapur village contends, there are few openings at the refinery for local inhabitants.

The tribes
The experiences of those around the Lanjigarh refinery have percolated across the mountains, where the tribes, who would have been affected by the proposed bauxite mine atop Niyamgiri, remain afraid and apprehensive.

For the Dongria Kondh, a primitive tribal group, protected under Schedule V of the Constitution, who populate the steep slopes of the Niyamgiri hills, the danger is real and immediate. But the stalling of Vedanta’s hilltop mining plans is validation of what they have believed for long.

“Without the jungle, I have no hope for living. If they (Vedanta) come here, our air, water and forests will be polluted. The first right to the jungle is mine, and I am happy that they will not be coming here,” Barih Majih, a from Pal Beri village, says.

Vedanta’s proposed mining lease area would have required the axing of 121,337 trees, apart from affecting over 20 per cent of the total Dongria Kondh population, the NC Saxena panel had assessed. But a similarly significant, if indirect, impact would also have to be shouldered by the primitive Kutia Kondh tribe, which inhabits the lower reaches of the Niyamgiri hills.

Vedanta’s version
The company, however, feels its corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions are among the best in the country.

“Our is seen as a model to be replicated not only in but also all over India. In fact, we have been recognised by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) for our work in Lanjigarh,” explains Mukesh Kumar, COO of Vedanta Aluminium.

With the refinery expansion included, the company has invested aboutRs 12,000 crore at the Lanjigarh facility, of which only aboutRs 100 crore has been spent on CSR.

An additionalRs 20 crore has been set aside by Vedanta for the apex court directed special purpose vehicle, the Lanjigarh Project Development Area Foundation, for undertaking developmental work.

When asked whether the shelving of its Niyamgiri bauxite mining plans would mark the end of the road for Vedanta Aluminium in Lanjigarh, Kumar reveals the alternative. “Within 50 sq km of here, there is between 500-600 million tonnes of bauxite. The viability of the Lanjigarh plant will be affected, if we are not allowed to mine at Niyamgiri. But there are other options.”

And that is exactly what local tribal leaders like Kumuti Majhi are afraid of. “We are happy that the mining won’t be allowed, as many would suffer for one man’s profit. But the refinery should be closed down, otherwise they (Vedanta) will keep trying to takeover our land,” feels Kumuti.

This time, the tribes of Niyamgiri have triumphed. But the trepidation remains.

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