Dongaria Kondh’s Niyamgiri under threat again: Odisha government moves to SC for fresh Gram Sabha

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The Dongaria Kondh tribe have to be ready for another battle against bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills, as Odisha government moves to Supreme Court seeking fresh gram sabhas.  In 2013, Dongaria Kondhs had unanimously voted against the project in referendum held at all 12 gram sabhas. In Adivasi movements history, it was a major and successful legal battle that also led to cancellation of the project.

Dongaria Kondhs, one of PVTGs (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) listed under the constitution are natives of Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. They not only rely on it for the source of their livelihood but also consider Niyamgiri Hills or Neba Horu (in Kondh language) to be their sacred ancestral homeland. Niyamraja is one of their Penu (deity) who they believe resides in these hills, therefore they must protect it.

Supreme Court had given the way ahead for mine in 2008, but after Dongaria’s resistance movement, it had to be stopped. Despite this, Vedanta has been operating it’s Alumina Refinary at Lanjigarh, by importing bauxite from other states. “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.”

The company has been making desperate attempts to win local people’s support by providing ‘health and education’ facilities to Dongaria Kondhs. 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. However, community’s commitment to protect their land are still intact and its a tough game for company if it remains as a threat to Dongaria’s autonomy. Dongaria have started speaking out against recent threats. As Mukuna Sikaka says: “We are not going to allow mining over Niyamgiri at any cost – not for all the developmental efforts of the government.”

In February, Odisha government, through its mining arm Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), has moved the Supreme Court for conduct of fresh gram sabhas for the jinxed Niyamgiri bauxite deposits, which is linked to Vedanta’s Rs 50,000-crore investment in the alumina/aluminium sectors in the state’. “While the Niyamgiri lease stands in the name of OMC, Vedanta is the major beneficiary of the mining operation there. Vedanta has built a five million tonnes per annum (mtpa) alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, and a 1.6-mtpa aluminium smelter and a 1,200-Mw captive power complex at Jharsuguda, on the assurance of bauxite supply from this deposit by the state government.”

According to Business Standard new report, “In its application seeking conduct of fresh gram sabhas at Niyamgiri, the state government has argued when the earlier gram sabhas were held, the mining was proposed to be done through a joint venture project between OMC and Vedanta.

As the state has since cancelled the joint venture agreement and decided that mining will be done by only OMC, the original lessee of the deposit, it should be treated as a new proposal, requiring conduct of fresh gram sabhas for forest and environment clearances.

Officials say there is scope to overturn the decision on Niyamgiri based on the resolutions at gram sabhas on technical grounds. The sabhas had turned out to be a referendum on Vedanta’s alumina plant at Lanjigarh, on the foothills of Niyamgiri. According to them, the Supreme Court mandate on holding of the sabhas was meant to protect the religious rights of the tribals over the Niyam Raja shrine located 10 km from the mining site, and ensure implementation of the tribal rights Act in the area.

Before moving the apex court, the state government had written to the Union ministry of environment and forests, proposing that gram sabhas in the area be again polled for approval. But, the ministry, which had cancelled the forest and environment clearance of the mining project, had asked the state government to file a fresh proposal for forest and environment clearances.”

Image Courtesy: Survival International

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Editorial Team of Adivasi Resurgence.

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