The Dongria Kondh tribe who live in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa do not normally go to the top of the bauxite-rich slopes. The hilltop is considered sacred, the place where their presiding deity Niyam Raja (literally, the King of Law), or the Universal Lawgiver, is said to reside, and they leave it undisturbed.
But recently, the Dongria Kondh set aside custom and gathered in droves at the top of Niyamgiri in a special ceremony to harden their resistance to Vedanta, the London-based mining company owned by Anil Agarwal, which plans to extract 80 million tonnes of bauxite from their hills.
From Ijurupa village in the foothills, it is a two-and- half-hour climb to the top, a steep trek that winds through a richly-forested track littered with elephant droppings.
Outsiders are rarely allowed to enter the area, fiercely guarded by the tribes ever since the company made its first attempt to enter the hills in early 2009 for a demarcation survey.
A memento of that incursion is the surreal silhouette of a badly burnt vehicle of the mining company in the quiet forest setting after the Dongria Kondhs stopped a team from visiting their village.
Today, the mood is even more militant as Vedanta appears to be a whisker away from final approval for its mining operations. Angry tribesmen and women have made it clear that they are ready for battle – with both the government and the company.
On February 21, several thousand of the Dongria Kondh made their way to the hilltop (4,300-foot high) for a traditional sacrifice of goats and chicken to propitiate Niyam Raja and vowed that they would not allow Vedanta to mine their mountain. A tablet was also consecrated to mark the event, a grey and red stone structure with a simple inscription: “Niyamgiri is ours. Vedanta beware, we are the Dongria Kondh.” Angry speeches marked the three-hour ceremony and Kondh leaders declared they would not allow the mining even if it meant they were killed.
This is bad news for Vedanta Resources. The FTSE-100 metals giant (2009 revenues: $6.6 billion) desperately needs the bauxite from Niyamgiri to feed the company’s subsidiary, the one-million-tonne Vedanta Alumina refinery (VAL) in Lanjigarh, which is located close to the foothills.
VAL supplies the alumina for its smelter in Jharsuguda, also in Orissa, and is the lynchpin of its aluminium strategy, which is expected to be spun off into a separate company. Both the alumina refinery and the smelter have massive expansion plans.
Mukesh Kumar, VAL’s chief operating officer and the key official for Vedanta in the region, says without the Niyamgiri bauxite the outlook for the company is bleak.
“VAL is the feeder for Jharsuguda and Balco and bauxite from Niyamgiri is critical for our aluminium operations,” Kumar said in an interview to Business Standard.
The company contends that not a single Dongria Kondh will be displaced by the mining. It also says that of the 672.018 hectares of forest land allotted for mining, 390.25 hectares will be used for mining and auxiliary facilities.
However, the main concern of the local people, as that of environmentalists, is that the mining of bauxite at the hilltop on 661 hectares would lead to the drying up of the dozens of streams that make Niyamgiri verdant and is also the source of the Vamsadhara River.
With just the Stage 2 environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) to be given for mining, Vedanta is skittish about the rising tide of protest. It has successfully negotiated a series of challenges in the Supreme Court despite the court’s own Central Empowered Committee, especially since its image has received a battering after small but high-profile investors pulled funds out of the company in recent weeks, citing concerns about the consequences of mining on the Dongria Kondh. Another blow was a report by Amnesty International which listed several violations by the Lanjigarh refinery and the potential threat to the local community by the mining project.
Vedanta insists that “we have done nothing wrong” and that all its clearances come through “India’s robust regulatory system and have been looked at by the Supreme Court.” The Dongria Kondh rejects these assertions. Ladho Majhi, a fiery leader from Lakhpadhar village, says the process of consultation with the local community has been a charade from the beginning. “We were never told fully about what was in store for us,” says the bare-chested man who has an axe slung over his shoulder.
The mandatory public hearings on mining activity were a sketchy affair held in early 2003 when the issue was clubbed with the refinery’s proposed captive power plant. Legal experts say a public hearing is valid only for a period of five years and, therefore, a new hearing will have to be scheduled on mining in Niyamgiri.
The Dongria Kondh have been here for centuries and they have lived well from the richness of the Niyamgiri forest – its fruits and vegetables, its medicinal plants. “Our people know no other life and we will never leave our hill,” he says with finality. Others like Kumti Majhi, head of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (the association of tribes people to protect the hill), says there will be no let-up in the struggle.
Kumti had brought the woes of his people to international attention in 2007 when he was part of a protest organised outside the offices of Vedanta Resources during its AGM in August of that year.
For Vedanta, the hilltop ceremony is the clearest rebuff yet from the people on whom it claims to have lavished basic facilities that have been missing in the region from roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, drinking water and electricity to sustainable livelihood for the community at large”.
The latest setback is the adverse reports filed last Friday by a three-member fact-finding on the alleged violations of the Forest (Conservation) Act, specially with regard to the rights of the tribal people in the area. The final clearance for mining will be given by the Forest Advisory Committee of MoEF after going through the reports.
But Kumar said one of the reports by Usha Ramanathan of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies on tribal rights was “biased and should not be considered in view of Ramanathan’s past association with the foreign NGO Amnesty” and because she had “exceeded the terms of reference given by MoEF.”
The fate of the Dongria Kondh and Vedanta’s aluminium project will depend on what the FAC decides in coming days.