Mukuna Sikaka, 32, is a visitor to the health camp held by the local administration at Sakata village in the Rayagada district, around 30 km from here, the site of Vedanta's alumina refinery.
Such health camps exclusively for particularly vulnerable tribal groups like the Dongaria Kondhs were unheard of in 2013 when the tribes unanimously nixed the plan to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, which was meant to feed the Lanjigarh refinery. On the hill range resides their revered deity, Niyam Raja, whom the Dongaria Kondhs consider too sacred to part with.
Of late, these health camps have become frequent, informs an official of the Dongaria Kondh Development Agency. Some see it as a part of a softer approach to get the tribes to allow mining. Their opposition has badly hurt Vedanta's investments in Odisha, and, along with the Posco affair, threatens to tarnish the state's reputation as an investment destination: a resources-rich but business-unfriendly state.
For Sikaka, the experience is the first of its kind. He has travelled 15 km from his village, Salpajala, along with 80 other tribesmen who squat with anxious faces, and knows this is an exercise to win him over.
"The government has been assuring us free health check-up facilities, free medicine, roads, water and all. However, these promises are yet to be delivered," he says. "Our villages lack the basic amenities of life - roads, drinking water, electricity and medicine. If the government is now serious on offering them, we welcome it."
His presence at the camp heralds a change in the Dongaria Kondh community. For centuries, the tribe has shunned the mainstream.
A change of heart
To expect him to do that would be too premature, given his tribe's long, entrenched opposition to industrialisation. "We are not going to allow mining over Niyamgiri at any cost - not for all the developmental efforts of the government."
Sikaka's voice of dissent seems an echo of the gram sabhas in 2013 which favoured all round rejection of the mining project. Odisha Mining Corporation lost its mining bid comprehensively when 12 gram sabhas in the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts voted against the plan in July and August of that year. For the Dongaria Kondhs, their belief in Niyam Raja reigns supreme and no inducement is enough to give it up.
"Mining in Niyamgiri will flatten our hills, destroy our livelihoods and wipe out the abode of our Niyam Raja. The Dongaria Kondhs will lose their identity if we give up Niyamgiri hills for mining," says Sukom Pushika from Ganjapaisa village (also in the Rayagada district). The state government is bracing up to hold gram sabhas afresh to solicit the vote of local tribes for the Niyamgiri mining project.
Stakeholders feel the time is not opportune to organise the sabhas. Any hasty move to convene them now will only scuttle the mining plan, they point out. "Before organising the gram sabhas, the government needs to declare a special package for the overall development of the Dongaria Kondhs. Interventions are needed in key areas like education, health, drinking water, roads and employment", says Sridhar Pesnia, president, Lanjigarh Anchalik Vikas Parishad.
Influence of the NGOs and intimidation by local political leaders are factors that can't be discounted yet, feels Dhana Majhi, president, Niyamgiri Adivasi Vikash Committee. "The government needs to weigh these factors and accordingly chart its plans. Wooing the local tribes for the mining project is not going to be easy."
Stuck in the debate over Niyamgiri mining is the viability of Vedanta's one million tonne Lanjigarh refinery - and the fate of 10,000 people directly or indirectly dependent on the plant. As it finds it economically unviable to run the refinery on externally sourced bauxite, Vedanta has cut refinery capacity by 50 per cent, putting 600 jobs at stake.
"Vedanta's refinery has run into losses and this has raised a question mark on the survival of the dependent families. The company has contributed considerably towards peripheral development. The government needs to take swift action to arrange bauxite from local sources," says Pesnia.
On the Lanjigarh refinery alone, Vedanta has invested Rs 4,500 crore. It is losing Rs 3-4 crore every day by sourcing bauxite from states like Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh and from overseas markets like New Guinea. The crash in global aluminium prices has only exacerbated the situation, straining Vedanta's aluminium operations.
Vedanta has an agreement with Odisha Mining Corporation for supply of 150 million tonnes of bauxite, but getting the mineral has remained a pipedream. For Vedanta, sourcing bauxite from Niyamgiri promises to reverse its business equations. An overwhelming trust vote from the tribes can make the difference.