Odisha: Dongria Kondh Tribals Take on Corporate Goliaths to Save Forests
Dongria Kondh, a tribe that lives in the dense forests of Niyamgiri Hills, is spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of southwestern Odisha. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
For the Dongria Kondh tribals, the Niyamgiri Hill in Odisha is the seat of their god Niyam Raja. Dongria Kondh means ‘protector of the streams’ and this is what they have cared for and nurtured in the past 2,000 years.
Every year, members of this tribal community go up to the Niyamgiri Hills and the Sijimali hills spread across the districts of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, where they pray to Niyam Raja who they believe is a protector of nature and of the forests that grow on these hills.
The Forest Conservation Act 1980 was amended two months ago with the specific intention of depriving India’s tribal communities, whose population is estimated to be around 12 crore, of access to the forests in which they have been residing since millennia. By diluting the term ‘forest’ to exclude deemed forests, no gram sabha consent will be required to commence mining and other `development’ activities in these Scheduled Areas.
A fall-out of this amendment has been that the Narendra Modi government has leased areas in the Sijimali Hills to multinational mining major Vedanta. No attempt has been made to take the religious and environmental concerns of the tribals into consideration. As a result, the community was completely taken aback to see the staff of the Mythri Infotech Company, a sub lessee of Vedanta, felling trees in the Sijimali Hills.
The affected area in Niyamgiri covers 112 villagers with a population of over 1.5 lakh villages. Sijamali has a population of over 50,000 people, while Kuturmali covers 80 villages with a population of over 80,000 people.
While one team from the Mythri Infotech Company began tree felling in early August 2023, a second team began conducting a detailed survey of the hills. As per reports, angry villagers immediately surrounded the company staff and stopped them from felling the trees.
Madhusudan Sethi, a Delhi-based activist with Muiniwasi Samajseval Sangh (MSS), who supports the tribal movement, said: “The police, invoking the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), have unleashed a reign of terror. On August 5, two youth leaders, Drenju and Krushna, who were helping organise the World Adivasi Day on August 9, were arrested.”
He said, “These boys were part of the civil rights group Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.” Laxman is a local activist with MSS who works on the ground at Niyamgiri.
On August 6, the Odisha police filed an FIR (First Information Report) against nine activists, including Lingaraj Azad and Upendra Bhoi, “who were not even present. They have been accused of attempting to kill the cops, whereas it is well known that on all cultural events, the Dongria Kondh men carry an axe,” Sethi told this writer.
FIRs have been lodged against the tribals here on August 5, 6, 8,12 and 13 with over 150 tribals
presently lodged in jail. An MSS team visited this region to interact with the tribals of the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. Sethi, who was part of this team, said he was “horrified at the ill treatment” being meted out to the tribals by the Odisha police.
“It seems as though the cops are acting as henchmen of these corporate houses. The entire place has been cordoned off. Every 500 yards, the police have put up pickets and the tribals are not being allowed to move about. They are not even being given access to drinking water even though the local administration knows that they depend on streams and the Vamshadhara river for their drinking and irrigation needs. This is all the more shocking because last year over 100 tribals died of cholera after drinking infected water,” said Sethi.
Laxman, a Niyamgiri Bachao Samiti local acitvist, said, “It is obvious both the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre) and the BJD (Biju Janata Dal) led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik are willing to go all out to help Anil Aggarwal (Vedanta owner) and other corporates. For them, the sufferings and the displacement of lakhs of people is of little consequence. But for us, Niyam Raja and the Niyamgiri Hill is the centre of our lives and our existence. How can we allow it to be destroyed before our lives?’
The Dongria Kondh tribals are amongst the poorest in India. Their fighting spirit and courage make up for their small numbers. Over a decade ago, they had fought against the Vedanta group who had wanted to extract $2 billion worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the Niyamgiri Hills.
The mining major wanted to create an open cast mine that would have destroyed the hills and polluted the rivers. The Supreme Court denied them permission to mine the bauxite as this would have destroyed the hill, but the Vedanta Group was given permission to build a refinery in the town of Lanjigarh on condition that they would not destroy the forests. This did not happen on the ground, where 60 hectare areas of forest land were taken over by the group. This also saw the displacement of over 100 tribal families who were living in Kinari village.
The refinery is throwing toxic slurry into the surrounding streams and this waste has also made its way to the Vamsadhara river, say local activists. The permission to start mining the bauxite will further destroy this evergreen forest and also the many streams that supply water to this entire region, they fear.
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who is planning to file a petition asking the government to repeal these amendments in the Act, told this writer, “How does it profit a nation to pollute its air, dirty its rivers, cut the trees and destroy its forests and good agricultural land for a small increase in GDP given that what is destroyed is lost forever?”
He said, “the villagers believe these amendments were brought in because the government was given Rs 74,000 crore for these mining rights. This money will help them in the upcoming Lok Sabha election,”
The Forest Conservation Amendment Act 2023 and the Forest Conservation Rules 2022 have opened the floodgates for massive deforestation.
Gonsalves points out, “The most exploitative aspect of these new rules, is that the Central government is now allowed to enter into a direct contract with the developer for this forest exploitation. The monies are handed over to the Centre and it is left to the state government to settle payments that are due to the individual tribal or the gram sabha, in settlement of the community forest lands which also the developer has now been given access to. This will be a fait accompli for the Centre, with the tribals being left with no compensation.”
Activists warn that the Central government is also working on repealing the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat Extension into Schedule Areas Act, which makes the Gram Sabha supreme. Already the Forest Rights Act case is pending before the Supreme Court, with the Central government having informed the highest court that 80% of the claims of tribals to plots of land have been found to be false and have been rejected.
Advocate Gonsalves said, “A perusal of those rejection orders show that they are just one-liners that give no reasons whatsoever as to why these claims have been rejected.”
Tribal communities fear that an amendment of the Forest Rights Act would finish off their rights over traditional forests, as this will allow easy transfer of their land to prominent industrial and corporate houses.
The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and the MSS are demanding the immediate recognition of Community Forest Rights and Individual Forest Rights of tribals to their forests, as mandated under the Forest Right Act 2006.
They are also demanding that Gram Sabha consent and a public hearing is a must so that the views of villagers be ascertained before a mining project be permitted in scheduled areas.
They also want the police to publish the names of grassroot activists who have been abducted by plainclothes policemen as also ensure their immediate release. Several of them are being tortured and have not been produced before a magistrate within the 24 hours period, as mandated by law, they alleged.
This is an unequal battle given Modi’s track record of riding roughshod over the aspirations and rights of indigenous communities. The last forest reserves of the Eastern Ghat seem set to face the axe unless state and money power relent and understand the rights of a community whose lives are deeply interwoven with their environment.
The writer is a senior independent journalist. The views expressed are personal.
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