Ask the adivasis...
Will the eco hot spot of Niyamgiri hills in tribal Orissa be ravaged by mining?
Bibhuti Pati Lanjigada (Koraput)
It's been almost a decade, but this non-violent movement is peaking amid the dense, pristine wild forests, mountains and streams, wildlife, flora and fauna of the remote Niyamgiri hills near Lanjigada in Koraput-Kalahari, inhabited by Dongria-Kondh tribals. The movement is eight-year-old and is in no mood to relent despite a Supreme Court judgement which has okayed the Vedanta project for mining. Not only does it draw its strength from its ancient indigenous ecological heritage, it has the backing of several expert committees, environmentalists and activists, who have pitch-forked the struggle against the British multinational owned by billionaire Anil Agarwal like the legendary 'Silent Valley movement'.
The Niyamgiri struggle has hit global headlines. And the fact is that truth is on their side - because Niyamgiri hills is one of the most precious ecological hot spot in the world, and this is what the massive propaganda by Vedanta just can't change. No wonder, Vedanta's ad slogan - 'A few smiles make a day', is actually being translated as, 'A few smiles ruin a day'.
Hence people here have blocked the road construction or entry of Vedanta officials. "We will defy court orders," they say. Documentary filmmakers are making films on life in the hills and how an apocalypse awaits this pristine piece of nature. Activists, academics, students and writers are coming from all over the country to register their solidarity. Wildlife lovers are pitching in. "Mining will ravage this ecological treasure protected and preserved by the tribals since centuries. Look what they have done at Lanjigada," says a local.
People in Lanjigada, who actually suffered the deadly consequences of mining, tell their story of condemnation - and people in Niyamgiri, still untouched from the catastrophe, are listening. "When the Vedanta company came to Lanjigada, they and the Orissa government assured the people that poverty would be alleviated and development would touch every home and individual. But in reality, the villages have been taken for a jolly good ride," says Pitabas Khiringa, a youngster.
The villagers are unanimous: "The greenery faded away from our villages as they are illegally cutting trees. Our water systems and streams were poisoned. Our agricultural land became barren. Our groundwater became dirty, touched rock-bottom. Our air got polluted and we experienced unprecedented pollution in our villages. Our biodiversity was destroyed. We were uprooted. Rehabilitation means pushing us in make-shift slums. We have lost our means of livelihood. We have lost our beautiful land."
Says Susanta Panda, a local journalist, "Whatever little Vedanta is doing for a few is being blown out of proportion by them and government officials with vested interests. Traditional agriculture and livelihood has been badly hit."
Sarpanch Fakir Majhee of Lanjigada recalls that when Naveen Patnaik visited Kashipur near Rayagada in this same region, he had declared that after the establishment of Vedanta Alumina, drinking water and unemployment problems will be solved, education and healthcare facilities will improve. This has predictably turned out to be a political gimmick. Old people, widows, ordinary folks in the area have no option but to silently tolerate pain - healthcare facilities are abysmal. This is perhaps one of the most backward areas in the poverty-stricken Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi region, where thousands of crores have been pumped in over the years. So where has all the money gone?
Says former Sarpanch Nilamadhav Mahapatra at Lanjigada, "They constructed a few shabby water cisterns which are not connected. They had earlier promised to construct a huge water cistern in Maheswaripur village - supposed to provide drinking water to all the villages. Thereafter, they surreptitiously took water from our river and streams and diverted it to their plant." Another local Chakradhar Majhi argues, "We asked Vedanta for some furniture for our Tribal Lower Primary School - they bluntly refused. Is this their development policy for the region?"
Clearly, there is lot of bad blood flowing out here. People in the entire area are terribly unhappy with the go-ahead given to Vedanta Alumina to do mining in Niyamgiri hills. The ravaged landscape of Lanjigada is a testimony to their intrinsic fears. And the struggle is becoming resilient by the day. As it is in Kalinganagar, Kashipur, and Jagatsinghpur - where Posco is still unable to start its multi-billion project.
In recent times there have been concerted moves to start the Tata project at Kalinganagar. There were reports and rumours that fresh surveys are being conducted, that armed forces will be used to forcibly start the project. That the movement will be coopted. However, the movement here, despite being quiet, has not lost its inheritance or inner resilience. Since the killing of 12 adivasis in police firing on January 2, 2006, and a history of failed promises, betrayals and shoddy rehabilitation of earlier industrial projects, the state government has not been able to succeed in its moves to re-establish the project. Here too, Munda tribes, inheritor of legendary tribal rebel Birsa Munda of Jharkhand, are holding fort. They have refused to move.
Similarly, in Kashipur, the struggle has reached a saturation point, but it has not declined, despite police brutality, long jail terms for locals, and regular harassment. A region which is so starkly poor and has few social security schemes, the government quickly assembles security forces to terrorise tribals. But the tribals have dug in and are refusing to accept defeat. Hence the bauxite mining project in these beautiful eastern ghats is yet to find a logical beginning.
In the last few weeks, there has been hectic political activity at Jagatsinghpur, where South Korean giant, Posco, wants to set up a massive project. The villagers have been divided, the anti-project leader Abhay Sahu was jailed for almost a year (now released), there have been repeated terror tactics and arrests, but there is no sign of a thaw. Even the prime minister's backing seems to have backfired.
Clearly, in this context, Vedanta's concerted move to ravage the forests and mountains of Niyamgiri will have to wait. Indeed, their bid to start an 'international Vedanta university' near Puri on a vast stretch of village land is facing resistance. "Look at the blasphemy. Next to an untouched and long sea beach moments after the world heritage site of Konark, with a wildlife sanctuary and forests along miles of the main road, a few miles from the busy tourist and religious hub of Puri -- giving away thousands of acres of precious land to Vedanta is like a dirty joke. Do you know the value of this land? And what it will become in the days to come? And how is this business group obsessed with making profits at all costs suddenly interested in higher academic pursuits," says an activist in Puri.
Surely, from Niyamgiri to Puri, Orissa is reaping its own winds of resistance. Non-violent resistance. Even while Maoists call the shots in almost every district of the poor state - so rich with hardworking people and natural resources.