While the Thoothukudi protest recently made it to the headlines, the Niyamgiri tribes from Odisha too have been struggling against Vedanta for a long time now, to protect their livelihood. Raising the slogans – ‘Polluter and killer Vedanta, quit India. Tribute to martyrs of Tuticorin’ – the tribes and activists have gathered at Lanjigarh village in Niyamgiri ranges of Odisha to collectively oppose the bauxite mining by Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills in the state.
The struggle and campaign of people from Niyamgiri to close the aluminum refinery in ecologically sensitive Niyamgiri, which has been continuing since 2003, gained a momentum after the killing of 13 people – who were protesting against the copper smelter Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of Vedanta, in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi – by the state police.
“We will shed our blood for Niyamgiri, we will die for Niyamgiri,” told Lado Sikaka, a tribal leader, to a crowd at a rally near the refinery in the remote town of Lanjigarh. Niyamgiri hills are home to more than 15,000 Kondh tribes (Dongria and Kutia) living in 160 villages spread across the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of the state. The tribes consider the hills as sacred and worship the hill, calling it ‘Niyam Raja’.
Watch the Video: No to Vedanta Project in Niyamgiri Hills
“Vedanta can give jobs to only a few, but Niyam Raja has given us everything,” the leader said. “We will keep fighting till the end. We will intensify our agitation.”
The residents of Niyamgiri fear that the company, which depends on imported bauxite, would tap the high-quality bauxite deposit beneath the Niyamgiri hills. Accelerating the fear of the people, one of the executives of the Vedanta was quoted that mining in the Niyamgiri is its long-term aim.
The state government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation was supposed to provide the bauxite extracted from the Niyamgiri hills to the Vedanta refinery. The hills reportedly contain a deposition of bauxite of more than 80 million tonnes. However, on April 18, 2013, the Supreme Court had maintained that the village councils would decide whether the state-owned mining corporation could mine the hills for the bauxite or not. In the wake of the apex court’s order, all the village councils or gram sabhas had voted against the mining.
On the other hand, in a statement to Reuters, Vedanta maintained that they would participate in any auctions of new bauxite mines in Odisha. The company has already bagged environmental clearance and other clearances to expand the capacity of the refinery to produce 6 million tonnes of aluminum a year. Eyeing at the large-scale bauxite reserve in the Niyamgiri hills, the company had already spent more than $9 billion to build the refinery and an aluminium smelter in the state that has 70 per cent of the country’s total bauxite reserve.
So far, a number of struggles by the locals for their livelihood have been seen in the Niyamgiri belt, while the state has been making attempts to disrupt the struggle of the people. In April 2017, Union Home Ministry had come up with a decision to link the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) to the Maoists. In its annual report, the ministry wrote: “In Niyamgiri Hills area (Districts Rayagada and Kalahandi, Odisha), the outfit [the Maoists] continued to guide the activities of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti”. The environmental and social activists across the country had opposed the move and termed it as baseless.
Besides, the home ministry had also branded the Jharkhand’s Visthan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJVM) as “a front of the CPI (Maoist). VVJVM works for the rights of the displaced farmers in the state.
Amidst the strong opposition to ministry’s decision, in May 2017, the daughter-in-law of the co-convener of the NSS had been arrested by the Odisha police. Before and after as well, several tribals and activists, who work for the rights of the tribals, have been arrested owing to their alleged link with the Maoists. On October 30, 2014, Haribandhu Kadraka, a member of the All India Kishan Mazdoor Sabha that works for the land rights of tribals was arrested for allegedly being a Maoist.