Arcelor-Mittal announced its pullout from Odisha, a tiny hamlet in the state’s Raygada district consisting of merely 48 Dongaria Kondh tribals dealt yet another blow when they rose to push Vedanta plant operating in their vicinity out of the Niyamgiri hills range. Empowered by Supreme Court’s landmark decision of April this year, when it asked gram sabhas to determine its religious and community rights in the Niyamgiri hills – where Vedanta was running a refinery and proposing bauxite mining plant, today was the first in a series of twelve village sabhas which will be held across the concerned areas to determine the sentiments of the tribals involved.
The dramatic meeting was held in an insurgency-infested valley under the security umbrella provided by hundreds of heavily armed state police, Special Operations Group (SOG) & Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, deployed in the surrounding hills. It lasted over four hours and was attended by, as an observer, by the District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra, as per the SC order. In addition, there were members of the Congress Party, several activists and tribal natives of nearby villages.
Proceedings got tense when on completion of the representation by the tribals, it was declared that their religious and community rights were confined to their villages and did not extend to the entire Niyamgiri hills range. Lingaraj Azad, organizer of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti said, “This amounts to cheating. We are traditional followers of our deity who not only resides in the Hundaljali but also elsewhere and this mining project will ruin their abode and also threaten our existence.” Hectic parleys and heated exchange of words between members of the village and other tribal leaders and the district judge ensured that in the end, the resolution passed mentioned that the rights of the natives extended across the entire hill range.
“Out of the 36 tribals present, 11 spoke in the sabha to tell us that all in the village have opposed the mining proposal here. We have noted it,” said District Judge SC Mishra.
Controversy over selection of villages
Those opposing Vedanta also alleged that the government was not talking to all the tribals, only selecting those villages where resistance was least expected. Sibasankar Ulaka from the Youth Congress in-charge of the Niyamgiri region said, “This is a fact. We had to therefore make arrangements to transport and accommodate tribals from nearby villages to Serkapedi last evening. Even they want to be heard but the government is not hearing them.” The Supreme Court order does not make any such selection, it infact asks for the opinion of the gram sabhas. Dr. SB Padhi, District Collector, Raygada said, “We are following the orders of our state government which has gone through the judgement and consulted law department as well as Advocate General.”
What the SC order said?
“We are, therefore, of the view that the question whether STs and other TFDs, like Dongaria Kondh, Kutia Kandha and others have got any religious rights i.e. rights of worship over the Niyamgiri hills, known as Nimagiri, near Hundaljali, which is the hill top known as Niyam-Raja, have to be considered by the Gram Sabha. Gram Sabha can also examine whether the proposed mining area Niyama Danger, 10 km away from the peak, would in any way affect the abode of Niyam-Raja. Needless to say, if the BMP, in any way, affects their religious rights, especially their right to worship their deity, known as Niyam Raja, in the hills top of the Niyamgiri range of hills, that right has to be preserved and protected.”
“Of late, we have realized that forests have the best chance to survive if communities participate in their conservation and regeneration measures.”
As mentioned in the order on writ petition (civil) 180 of 2011 by Justices Aftab Alam, KS Radhakrishnan & Ranjan Gogoi on April 18, 2013.