Civilization, as most of us know it, ends at Phuldumer, a fivefamily hamlet in Kalahandi, Odisha. Beyond that is the trek up to the Niyamgiri hills, into the forest with raindrops glistening like sweat on trees, claustrophobic in its profusion. Stillness is a presence; the mist alone rolls around unmindful of the straining, watchful eyes of CRPF platoons combing the area for Maoist insurgents.
The heavily-armed men in camouflage are at the head of a procession that would be picaresque if it were fictional. There are young men and women, their earnestness marking them as NGO workers; a press posse that can only be described as rag-tag; to them, add a Block Development Officer, a tehsildar, local police, a district revenue officer with elaborate maps, a doctor, and lurking somewhere, an IB man posing as a journalist, but only just. At the centre of this retinue is the district judge, a diminutive man with his slicked-back hair, neatly trimmed moustache and crisply ironed shirt tucked into brown rain-proof plastic trousers that fail to dent his gravitas. An orderly walks ahead of him, wearing a red sash, the spotless white of his uniform defying the elements. Perched unseen on their shoulder is the precious and rather fragile burden of democracy being carried, huffing and puffing, up to a people on the outermost margins of existence.
The 19th century emigre naturalist Antonio Raimondi once described Peru as “a beggar sitting on a bench of gold”. That description could well apply to 21st century Niyamgiri. The hill range, spread over 250 kilometers of abundant forest and mineral wealth, straddles two of India’s most backward districts, Kalahandi, infamous for its famines, and Rayagada, battling a cholera outbreak at present.
The indigenous Dongria Kondh and Kutiya Kondh tribes live deep into these forests. They are hunter-gatherers believed to have descended from the Proto-Australoids who were the first group of people to have left sub-Saharan Africa 65,000 years ago.
They speak in Kui, a dialect little-heard outside Niyamgiri. They have no access to social media or mobile phones (no signal in the jungle), and yet the Kondhs, numbering but a few thousand, are winning a sophisticated battle against the 15 billion dollar company Vedanta Resources, which wants to mine the 72 million tonnes of bauxite that lie beneath.
That is our God you wish to desecrate, say the Kondhs. Everything in their eco-system is sacred – they don’t till the land for fear of hurting Mother Earth, and worship the hilltop near the village of Hundaljali as Nimmagiri – the God who protects them from the evil eye.
It would seem that He has been working overtime. In April this year, the Supreme Court, while hearing the Orissa Mining Corporation and Vedanta Resources Versus Ministry of Environment and Forest and Others, asked for a vote to be held across the remote interiors of Niyamgiri.
At each of the referendums held so far – tomorrow is the last of the 12 – ordered by court, tribals have said a resounding no to giving Vedanta any right over the 660 hectares it wants.
Vedanta promoter Anil Agarwal, himself a college dropout who once walked 10 kilometers to his school in Bihar but today flies around the world in private jets, had offered them a model of Corporate Social Responsibility: schools, roads, hospitals, jobs, connectivity. Such was his confidence in this paradigm of progress that even before all permissions were in, Vedanta went ahead and constructed a sprawling 1.7 billion dollar alumina refinery at Lanjigarh at the base of Niyamgiri. All he needs now is the ore that lies so tantalizingly close.
Agarwal’s come-uppance at these referendums goes right to the heart of the great debate of our times: what is it that we consider as developed? By spurning Vedanta and not wanting anything in return, the tribals of Niyamgiri – poor, uneducated, unexposed – have raised a Yaksha Prashna that will require equally imaginative answers.
At the referendum or pallisabha at Lakhpadar, a village that’s at a distance of 18 kilometers from the Vedanta refinery, a bewildered reporter from Daily Telegraph, London, asks one of the tribals, “But what about satellite television? And motor cars…Don’t you miss Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai?”
The tribal, Kumti Majhi of the Save Niyamgiri Council, is equally bewildered: he has never seen them. Like the rest of the world’s indigenous people, the Kondhs too have a self-sustaining economy – they live in the forest, grow their own produce through shifting cultivation and go down to the towns only to buy salt and sell fruits. Each time someone leaves the village to go to the plains on an errand, they leave a twig outside the headman’s door. “This way, we know just how many people have gone and we await their return,” says Majhi. This communal solidarity is coupled with rare independence of spirit, especially visible in the women. The Kondhs have a skewed sex ratio with 1,348 females for every thousand males. The single largest expenditure a Dongria Kondh man will make in his life is at the time of his wedding – in the form of the dowry that he pays to his bride and the feast that he organises for the community. Oftentimes men cannot come up with a suitably attractive dowry (anything from Rs 50,000 to one lakh) leading to, “a spinster culture,” in the words of Special Officer for Tribal Development, Trinath Rao.
Under a makeshift tent a few yards away, at the meeting presided over by a simply-dressed Sikoka Kone, her village folks take the mike to vehemently reject the march of ‘progress.’ They speak in one voice using the same words leading to allegations that they have been tutored by the Maoists. They ask questions that are profoundly unanswerable. “We’ve heard people in cities are not finding employment. As long as we have this forest, its air and water and fruit, we’ll never go hungry, so why bring change?”
“If the machines begin mining they will no doubt also bring dust and water pollution…Who will pay for the ailments arising from those?”
Voter after voter then surrenders individual and community claims to specific tracts of land. Not this much, not that much…the whole of Niyamgiri is ours, they say, getting off the negotiating table and rendering the revenue officer’s maps useless.
This worries Trinath Rao who has stayed back at Lanjigarh because the Supreme Court has forbidden any of the project proponents (including the state government) from being present and possibly vitiating a fair vote. “The tribals are innocent,” says Rao. “The Niyamgiri surface is theirs but what is under that belongs to the government. By rejecting individual and communal claims they are squandering the chance to get title claims. Opportunity, when it comes, you have to take it.”
But back at the Lakhpadar referendum, Kudunji Sikoka, a fierce-looking woman of indeterminate age, waves her axe around wildly to make the point that tribals would not shy away from violence if the state and its security apparatus do not stop troubling them. This stirs district judge Sarat Chandra Misra who has been observing the proceeding patiently so far. He rebukes her mildly, “Just say whether you are for or against the mining. Use words, and not your axe, everything is being video-recorded and you could get into trouble.”
There is a warning within the warning. Stories of coercion by state police and other security agencies are as common in Niyamgiri as fallen fruit in the forest. In a widely-reported instance, men around the villages, where the Vedanta refinery eventually came up, were abducted by police for a day-long excursion to Puri to ‘purify their souls’. Upon their return they found the perimeter wall of the refinery had come up. At other instances, tribals were bribed with local brew and dried fish and made to sign over their land in exchange for paltry sums.
Which was when Rahul Gandhi, in an uncharacteristically specific act of politics and eloquence, stepped in to tell the Kondhs they have a “sipahi in far away New Delhi, and his name is Rahul Gandhi”.
For 30 years, the people of Kalahandi had voted against the Congress, leading to the area’s criminal neglect by the Centre. But a year after Gandhi’s speech at Lanjigarh, Congress candidates won from Kalahandi in the 2009 election. Jairam Ramesh, then minister of environment and forest, taking Rahul Gandhi’s cue, invoked a provision of the Forest Rights Act and denied Vedanta permission to mine the hills. This decision led Vedanta and its partner, state-run Orissa Mining Corporation, to the Supreme Court which ordered these referendums. “The circumstances leading to these pallisabhas have been fortuitous,” says retired English professor and PUCL activist Bhagwat Prasad Rath, 81. “Rahul Gandhi was looking to steal political mileage from the ruling Biju Janata Dal and an enlightened bench heard the matter in the Supreme Court.”
So, an act of political opportunism has alchemized into democracy’s gold. India’s first ever open environmental hearings are being conducted with bureaucratic exactitude. The most marginalized of people have found centre-stage.