Second palli sabha in Niyamgiri deals double blow to Odisha government
District judge Sarat Chandra Misra walks up the forest path to Kesarpadi, his “orderly” holding the umbrella, under a tight security cordon (Photos: Sayantan Bera)
Two days of pouring rain did little to dampen the spirit of the forest people of Niyamgiri. The second palli sabha or village council meeting at Kesarpadi in Rayagada district took a critical decision today: it cancelled Odisha state government’s proposed settlement of community and religious claims to the forests. The tribal hamlet also unanimously rejected the proposed bauxite mining inside the forest hills.
This double blow to the state government and Vedanta Aluminium Limited follows close on the heels of the first palli sabha at Serkapadi where residents rejected the mining proposal on July 18 last week . Following up on the Supreme Court order of April 18 , the Odisha state government selected 12 villages—seven from Rayagada and five from Kalahandi district—to take a call on the proposed bauxite mining inside Niyamgiri hill range and whether it will infringe on their religious and cultural rights.
A joint venture of the Orissa Mining Corporation Limited (OMCL) and Sterlite Industries, the Indian arm of the London Stock Exchange-listed Vedanta, wants to mine the forests for bauxite, to feed Vedanta’s alumina refinery on the foothills of Niyamgiri hills at Lanjigarh. At stake is 72 million tonnes of estimated bauxite deposits and an investment of Rs 40,000 crore by Vedanta in the state of Odisha.
The palli sabha at Kesarpadi started almost forty minutes late because of rains. District judge of Rayagada, Sarat Chandra Misra, appointed observer by the Supreme Court, had to brave the rains and walk on the narrow forest path to reach Kesarpadi. Of the 36 voters in the Dongria Kondh tribal hamlet, 33 were in attendance—23 women outnumbering the 10 men.
Right at the beginning, Dondu Kutruka a young Dongria Kondh demanded the joint verification report by the state government, that proposed to settle the villagers’ community and religious claims to the forests, be rejected. “You people wrote everything in the office and never came to the village to verify. Now write whatever we say correctly and read it out. You cannot make a fool of us every time,” he warned the chair.
On July 6, a team from the state government visited Kesarpadi to prepare a joint verification report to settle the villagers’ community and religious claims to the forests. The settlement report arbitrarily allotted community claims, for instance between 0.5 to 1.9 acres (one acre equals 0.4 hectare) for the five perennial streams in the village. The entire religious rights were settled with a mere 0.11 acres for local deities  (PDF of verification report).
Kesarpadi residents gave thumb impressions only after their rights over the entire Niyamgiri hills were recorded in the resolution
“The entire Niyamgiri spread over Rayagada and Kalahandi is ours. You can take our life but we will not give it for mining,” thundered Kutruka. “Your temples are made of brick and cement. Ours are made of earth, leaves and the forests,” said the bejuni, village priestess of Kesarpadi.
All the 33 residents of the village took the mike to reject proposed bauxite mining. “We get our Kosla and mandiya (minor millets) from the dongar (shift and burn cultivation plots on hill slope). These jungles are as much ours as it for the leopards and bears. We will not give it for mining,” said the village forest rights committee president Suku Kutruka.
Before signing the minutes of the meeting, Kesarpadi residents ensured that their religious and community claims to the entire Niyamgiri is recorded in the resolution. They also claimed the proposed bauxite mining site of Dhangrabhata or Niyamdongar—the mythical birthplace of their ancestral kin and principal deity Niyamraja—as part of their religious and cultural rights.
In an act of solidarity, Dongria Kondh women came from faraway villages and stood outside the Palli Sabha venue
“We don’t want land titles in portions of the forests. Why should we, when everything belongs to us?” asked Lado Sikaka, leader of the Dongria Kondh who walked over three hours to reach Kesarpadi in time for the palli sabha. As happened in the previous palli sabha at Serkapadi, this one also saw several other tribals arriving at the venue and sitting outside in solidarity.
“People today rejected the faulty government report that tried to limit their community and religious claims. The mood is upbeat and we are expecting similar resolutions from all the other palli sabhas,” said a jubilant Bhala Chandra Sadangi, CPI (ML) leader and advisor to the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, the local resistance group.
Tomorrow, Tadijhola, a non-tribal village in Kalahandi district will take a call on the mining proposal. The village can only be reached on foot, an hour’s walk through forest hills from the nearest docking point for cars and bikes. Hope the rains won’t play too much of a spoilsport.
NIYAMGIRI VOTES ON MINING
* Thirty-three of 36 eligible voters of Kesarpadi village, including all 23 women, voted against bauxite mining at the second palli sabha in Rayagada district
* Earlier, 38 villagers voted against mining at the first palli sabha in the district at Serkapadi last Thursday