Setback for Vedanta again at second palli sabha

Date of publication: 
22 July 2013

Bhubaneswar – In yet another setback to Vedanta Aluminium Ltd’s plans to source bauxite from Niyamgiri hills, villagers of Kesarpadi in Rayagada district unanimously disapproved the proposed mining project at the second palli sabha, claiming community and religious rights over the entire hill range.

The proposal to mine bauxite atop Niyamgiri hills had received a big jolt at the maiden people’s council meeting held at Serkapadi last Thursday when 38 eligible voters of the village opposed the move.

At the second palli sabha meeting too, the Dongaria Kondhs of Kesarpadi under Muniguda block articulated the same view as those of their counterparts of Serkapadi. Of the 36 eligible voters of the village, 33 inclusive of 23 eligible female members, turned up for the decisive meeting, the start of which was delayed by 40 minutes due to heavy rains.

“The Niyamgiri hill range is our resource and the Niyam Raja is our God. The hills offers us food, water and livelihood throughout the year and we are not going to quit it”, Dundu Kutruka, a tribal said.
Before the commencement of the palli sabha, the Dongarias clad in their traditional attire, were seen shouting slogans in favour of preserving Niyamgiri hills and vowed to protect the hills at any cost.

The meeting was presided over by ward member Siram Garadia in the presence of Rayagada district judge Sarat Chandra Mishra who oversaw the proceedings.

“The meeting passed off peacefully and the claims that they had filed earlier were discussed. As many as 19 individual and one community claim were filed under Forest Right Act (FRA) from the village”, said nodal officer Gorachand Gamango.

The palli sabha stretched for over two hours amid tight security with four platoons of police forces deployed to prevent any untoward situation. Activists of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), a committee formed to safeguard the rights of tribals viewed the proceedings from outside.

The NSS members were upbeat the outcome of the palli sabha and claimed that similar results will be observed at the remaining 10 palli sabha meetings. “We expect the tribals to present the same views at the forthcoming palli sabhas”, said NSS advisor Bhala Chandra Sarangi.


Dongaria Kondhs say no at first meeting

Verdict to decide fate of Vedanta Aluminium’s Rs 40,000-cr projects in Odisha that will source bauxite from Niyamgiri

Jayajit Dash –

19 July 2013

Serkapadi (Rayagada) – The Dongaria Kondh tribe of this hill village has given a thumbs-down to the proposed bauxite mining project atop Niyamgiri Hills, a natural resources treasure trove the tribals consider too sacred to part with.

The project is crucial for raw material for Vedanta Aluminium’s one-million-tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, as well as its aluminium smelter upstream projects and power complex at Jharsuguda, with a combined investment of Rs 40,000 crore.

In the first palli sabha (gram sabha) conducted here to decide the fate of the project, the Kondhs unanimously voted against it.

“No Dongaria Kondh of this village would back bauxite mining atop Niyamgiri Hills” was the refrain, as 38 of the 46 eligible voters who turned up for the assembly meet, conveyed their opinions. This followed 20-odd participants of the palli sabha feverishly pitching for safeguarding the rights of the Kondhs. (REFERENDUM)

‘Niyam raja zindabaad’
Slogans of “Niyam Raja (worshipped by the Dongaria Kondhs) zindabaad” filled the air at the end of the sabha, held in the presence of police personnel. The proceedings were overseen by Rayagada District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra.

The proceedings were initiated by Indra Sikaka, president of the forest rights committee of Serkapadi. “We are not going to surrender Niyamgiri Hills to anyone — company, government or individual. The entire Niyamgiri range offers us shade, quenches our thirst and is the source of our livelihoods. That is why we are fighting for our rights,” Sikaka said.

Representatives from the joint venture partners of the proposed project — state-run Odisha Mining Corporation and Vedanta Aluminium — were conspicuous by their absence at the sabha.

Members of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti stood outside the barricaded space.

This was perhaps the first time the Dongaria Kondhs got a chance to air their grievances in public and assert their rights.

The highlight of the sabha was the views articulated by Gobind Sikaka, a young Kondh. “The Niyamgiri is our revered God; we have been worshipping it for thousands of years. We are worshipping the trees and every spot of the hill range. If anybody takes away Niyamgiri Hills from us, it will undermine our religion and faith and the Dongaria Kondh tribe will perish.

“The forest officials are trying to hoodwink us; they have collected fake signatures. But in no case would we quit the hills…we are prepared to fight till the last drop of blood is shed,” he said.

Another speaker, Dongu Sikaka, said, “Niyamgiri Hills will be converted into a desert if bauxite mining is allowed. Even if 10,000 tribals have to give up their lives, they are not going to quit the hills.”


Dongria say emphatic no to mining in first Palli Sabha yesterday!

On 18th July 2013 the first of 12 village council (Palli Sabha) meetings was held at Serkapadi village on the Niyamgiri Hills, and the 36 registered voters from the village who attended voted unanimously to oppose the Vedanta mine, a resounding NO which sets the tone for the following meetings.

Supporting the attendees were hundreds of Dongria and Kutia Kond from other villages on and around the mountain some of whom had camped overnight to ensure they would not be stopped by the four platoons of CRPF police forces stationed on the mountain, on their way. With bystanders looking on from the edges of the meeting, the 36 participants gave defiant speeches against the mine and after much argument with the district judge.

Gobind Sikaka’s speech answered categorically the Supreme Court’s central question on whether the proposed mine would affect the rights of the tribal population to worship their mountain God, which has been portrayed by the Odisha State government and the media as residing in one spot at the peak of the mountain. He said:

“The Niyamgiri is our revered God; we have been worshipping it for thousands of years. We are worshipping the trees and every spot of the hill range. If anybody takes away Niyamgiri Hills from us, it will undermine our religion and faith and the Dongaria Kondh tribe will perish.

“The forest officials are trying to hoodwink us; they have collected fake signatures. But in no case would we quit the hills…we are prepared to fight till the last drop of blood is shed,” he said.

A Dongria woman, Rupa Jakesika, stood up and interrupted the administrators when they began to use legal language regarding the process and the settling of individual and community claims. Refusing to be confused into any compromise she stopped them mid track saying:

“we don’t want any of these complex arguments. We have already discussed and decided between ourselves that we won’t give Niyamgiri.”

On the eve of the meeting she told members of the press: “Nobody messes with our god. Tomorrow we will show them the door.”

At the Palli Sabha the villagers gave this statement to a local journalist: “We the villagers of Serkapadi declare unanimously that the entire Niyamgiri Mountain Range is ours. We the Dongria tribals and forest dwellers are rightful community owners of these mountains, the water, the soil, the trees and the stones etc of this mountains. It is our God. As you can not chop down a person’s nose, hand, or any other body part, you can not say that this mountain is not sacred or that river is not ours… We commonly own all these. We can not live outside these mountains. We have been living here since ages. It will be sharp attack on our religious belief and practices if you try to separate the entities. We can not tolerate any harm to our god, and if required we will shed our lives together like fish taken out of water, if any part of our mountains are given out.” Source: Amitabh Patra.

Serkapadi’s Palli Sabha sets a fantastic tone for 11 remaining meetings. Despite all the efforts of the legal system, the State Government, CRPF forces and the district judge to manipulate and obstruct democracy, the council was held transparently and the villagers opposition was registered by the press, and (hopefully) the administration.

Not taking any chances Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti are still organising parallel Palli Sabha’s in many of the 120 or more villages not consulted by the official proceedings. These will be held once the 12 official palli sabha’s are complete and resolutions submitted to the state government.

Foil Vedanta send heartfelt congratulations to all the Dongria and Kutia Kond, and all those who worked so hard to make this Palli Sabha fair and transparent against all odds.


Niyamgiri, in bits and pieces

Sayantan Bera –

21 July 2013

As Odisha government confines the claims of Dongria Kondh to small patches of forests around their hamlets, the second palli sabha at Kesarpadi village may reject skewed settlement of habitat rights carried out in a hurry

Suku Kutruka is perplexed that the government can limit a perennial stream running kilometres across forested hills to a mere 0.5 acre (one acre equals 0.4 hectare). He is also angry that the state government duped him into signing the document that limits his community’s rights to the streams, forests and places of worship.

Kesarpadi is one of the 12 villages selected by the state government of Odisha to conduct palli sabha or village council meetings pursuant to the Supreme Court order on April 18 this year. The apex court empowered the forest dwellers to decide if bauxite mining within their habitat will infringe on their cultural and religious rights. The first palli sabha at Serkapadi on July 18 unanimously rejected the mining proposal on any portion of the Niyamgiri hill range.

Fooled by fine print

Two weeks ago, on the morning of July 6, a host of officials—revenue inspectors, foresters and welfare extension officers—visited Kesarpadi village on the forested hills of Niyamgiri range in Rayagada district. The forest dwellers were asked about their cultivation plots, water sources, places of worship, grazing land and cremation ground that are scattered around the village or stretches faraway into the hills. The state government was in a hurry to settle community claims under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, before the date of palli sabha, where the verification report was to be placed.

The state government verification report claims the community forest rights of Kesarpadi villagers were settled on that day. It also claims villagers were explained “lucidly” in their local Kui language, that places were demarcated and that none of the villagers present made any further demands on the forests. Crucially, the report claimed to settle religious and cultural rights of the village, based on local deities, within a mere 0.11 acres (see PDF copy of joint verification report).

The report ignores the forest dwellers’ broader claims on the Niyamgiri forests. The Dongria Kondh and other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers worship the entire Niyamgiri ranges as their source of sustenance. Over 100 perennial streams originate from the tropical forest hills which is also the source of nearly 273 varieties of uncultivated wild food. Alongside, the Dongria Kondh grow an enviable mix of local millets, pulses and legumes on the Dongar, shift and burn cultivation plots on hill slopes.

Suku Kutruka, president of the village forest rights committee, denies the government’s assertion. “We were only asked to show the streams and forests we depend on. They told we are giving you everything you asked for. So I signed the report.” Sitting at the entrance to his village, under the shade of a large jackfruit tree he recounts that none of the officials physically went to measure the plots. “Because we cannot read Oriya we were fooled again,” he laments.

The verification report is funny in parts. It has settled even the rights of wild animals like leopards and bears living around Kesarpadi. It allocates, for instance, 15.16 acre for wild cats (Baga gumpha) and a generous 23.9 acre for bears (Bhalu gumpha). It is a tradition among the Dongria Kondh to designate hills around their settlements for wild animals who they believe have an equal right over the habitat.

Deities circumscribed

The report limits the rights of worship to three local deities—Dharani Penu Mandir (0.01 acre), Jatrakudi Penu Mandir (0.05 acre) and Bhairon Gudi Mandir (0.05 acre). The supreme deity of the forest dwellers, Niyamraja, is relegated to a “temple located on the Niyamgiri Pahar”.

The report completely misses the significance of Niyamraja for the Dongria Kondh who consider him to be their ancestral kin and the keeper and protector of the forest hills. His territory spreads across and beyond the proposed bauxite mining site of Niyam Dongar. He is also the Dongria’s prime communicator with other forces of nature, the sun, the earth and the water.

What now? I ask Kutruka. “At the palli sabha on Monday we will reject the verification report. Our community rights extend over all the forested hills of Niyamgiri that we worship as the abode of Niyamraja. How can they limit us to small plots?” he asks while pausing between sentences.

After we finish talking, I share with Kutruka a packet of imported dates picked up on to the way to his village from the nearest market and railway station at Muniguda. I offer it to a motley crowd of kids and an old lady standing nearby. “We will plant the seeds here,” smiles Kutruka, brushing off his worries over the verification report. It was touching to see them neatly gather the seeds as I threw mine into a bush.

Clash of two worlds

The previous evening I watched intently as the Jani, village priest of Kesarpadi Adu Kutruka worshipped Amba Tanku, mango kernels, with generous offerings of rice, dried meat and Mouli, a local wine. The end of the mango season marks the beginning of eating the kernel made into gruel. Seeds have a special significance in the lives of these forest people—before they prepare the Dongar plots for cultivation, the entire village gathers for the ‘bihan parab’ or the seed festival. Little inside the Niyamgiris is owned as personal property: the seeds, fruits trees, wild roots, tubers and the entire forests are owned by the community. The rights of the community extending over the dense swathes of Niyamgiri is essentially fluid, a reality sorely missed by the state.

On July 18 this clash of world views played out starkly in Serkapadi village—the venue of the first palli sabha meeting. The event had no parallels in India’s history. The judiciary had come down to the doorstep of the Dongria Kondh to record their decision on proposed mining by Orissa Mining Corporation Limited and Sterlite, a subsidiary of mining and metals giant Vedanta. The national and local media were present in large numbers: cameras intruded at will for a sneak-peek at the otherwise shy and reclusive Dongria Kondh. The Central paramilitary and state police’s special operation group combed and guarded the small hamlet from all sides.

District judge of Rayagada, Sarat Chandra Misra, was visibly agitated. Ever since the meeting started at 11 am, the forest people raised a series of objections. “We don’t want the meeting to be chaired by an outsider. You have to conduct the proceedings in our language, Kui. Here is a list of our demands, please have someone read it out.”

Misra tried to pacify them by saying the proceedings will be impartial and that he has been specially appointed by the Supreme Court of India to oversee that decisions are made in a fair and impartial manner. One by one, the 36 villagers took to the mike and said they cannot give away any portion of the forest hills to the company or the government. Between breastfeeding toddlers, Dongria Kondh women, huddled together, ears towards the mike. Tribal forest dwellers from far away hamlets—women carrying long sticks and men with shining axes perched on their shoulders—walked three to five hours to reach the venue and sat in solidarity outside.

Hell broke loose when the verification report on the community forest claims and rights to worship were read out. The forest dwellers led by the forest rights committee president Indra Sikaka told Misra he was duped into signing the verification report and that it be rejected. “All the forests and hills belong to us. We do not agree with the bit and pieces given to us.”
It is at this point that district judge Misra sidestepped his role as the Supreme Court appointed observer, tried to convince the Dongria Kondh and even threatened to call off the meeting. “Are you ready to relinquish your community claims? How can you claim all the hills of the Niyamgiri ranges? How is that possible?” asked an animated Misra while vigorously nodding his head.

The heated debate brewed even as a young state police recruit spoke to the Dongri Kondh metres away. He could speak Kui and heartily chatted with the young tribals. Misra after a point threatened to call off the meeting and made a costly faux pas he might be regretting now, “all of you are acting very smart despite being illiterate. You would have sold the country were you educated”.

The words were lost on the tribals but drew angry reactions from the media. “There is a gap in communication but you cannot call them murkhya (stupid),” snapped an agitated correspondent from Delhi.

The Serkapadi villagers signed the minutes of the meeting only after a paragraph was inserted at the end, asserting their their religious, cultural and community rights over the entire Niyamgiri hills. A loud cheer followed as the final words were read out. Perhaps a little worried, Misra travelled the narrow forest path from Serkapadi village to the nearest town of Muniguda, 17 kilometres away, after putting on a bullet proof jacket.

“The strong presence of the tribal community weighed heavily on the security forces. The state government’s strategy to intimidate people was effectively neutralized,” Bhala Chandra Sadangi, a leader of the CPI-ML and an advisor to the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, told me soon after.

Women from faraway Dongria Kondh villages watched the proceedings of Serkapadi palli sabha from outside the meeting venueWomen from faraway Dongria Kondh villages watched the proceedings of Serkapadi palli sabha from outside the meeting venue

“The district judge tried to barter the religious rights of the Dongria Kondh. He asked them to give up their claims on the entire Niyamgiri hills and instead settle for local deities inside the village,” remarked Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, a researcher from Amnesty International who was present at the venue.

Despite the apparent victory, next time round, the tribals want to make their case fool proof. On Monday, July 22, residents of Kesarpadi have decided, they will reject the community claim verification report. How this will play out on stage remains to be seen.

On a lighter vein, no one know as to how the district judge will navigate the difficult forest path to reach remote tribal hamlets like Lakhpadar, Lamba and Khambesi, scheduled to hold palli sabhas in the beginning of August. It takes between three-four hours of strenuous climbing uphill or gliding downhill inside the dense forests to reach these hamlets from where the motorable road ends. A friend I made here quips, “maybe a helicopter” while I argue “a pilgrimage doli sounds more plausible”.


Attempt to manipulate gram sabhas’


16 July 2013

KORAPUT: An organization spearheading the anti-mining movement in Niyamgiri hills, on Monday accused the state government of trying to manipulate proceedings of gram sabhas much before the meetings are held.

“The Rayagada district administration has manipulated the process of claims and recognition of rights under the Forest Rights Act to influence the proceedings of gram sabhas,” Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) adviser Bhalachandra Sarangi told the media here.
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Lok Shakti Abhijan leader Prafulla Samantara said the district officials are taking thumb impressions from illiterate tribals and signatures from semi-literate people on papers, which mention about the tirbals’ religious rights confined to select pieces of land, so that the government can easily hand over Niyamgiri hills for bauxite mining to Vedanta.

The NSS said one of the 12 villages selected for the gram sabha has just one family while the government has ‘manufactured’ around eight names to favour Vedanta.

Government authorities termed the allegation as baseless. “There is no attempt on our part to influence any body. We are strictly adhering to the Supreme Court guidelines in conducting gram sabhas,” said collector (Rayagada) Sashi Bhusan Padhi.

The fresh accusation came even as the Rayagada district administration has geared up for smooth conduct of the first of the 12 gram sabhas on Thursday. While the first gram sabha will be held at Serkapadi under Muniguda block, the remaining meets will be held at select villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts on different dates till August 19.

“The gram sabha will be conducted under the supervision of the district judge and its proceedings videographed. The gram sabha will start at 11 am and will continue for one hour where the villagers will place their views and objections, if any ,” Padhi said.

“For the quorum we need at least 50% of total voters of the village to hold the gram sabha. And one-third among them should be women. If the quorum is not met then the gram sabha will be cancelled and conducted on some other date which will be decided later,” the collector said.


State government out to rig gram sabhas: Niyamgiri Manch

By Express News Service –

16 July 2013

BHUBANESWAR – With the conduct of gram sabha scheduled to start from July 18 to establish religious and cultural rights of the Dongria Kandh, the State Government has yet again found itself at the centre of controversy.

The Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), which has been opposing the bauxite mining project in the hills, on Monday alleged that the Government has been rigging the process to benefit Vedanta Group.

Ignoring the directions issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and concerns of local communities, the NSS said the State has gone ahead with notifying dates of gram sabhas in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts in July and August claiming that it is in accordance with the Supreme Court order, which is a blatant lie.

The anti-bauxite mining group said the district administration had conducted meetings from July 6 to 12 in Serkapadi, Kesarpadi, Batudi and Jarapa, where gram sabhas are scheduled, for verification of the process of claims under the Forest Rights Act.

The administration, it said, has fraudulently manufactured reports of the meetings on status of claims which will be presented in the gram sabhas.

The meetings have been conducted by a team of government officials from the Revenue, Forest and SC and ST Development departments who have signed on the reports.

NSS president Lada Sikaka said it is a blatant violation of the Supreme Court order and is a clear case of subversion of the legal process for benefit of Vedanta.

The notified gram sabhas are the only legal authorities to deliberate on cultural and religious rights and prior interventions by government and local administrations reveal a sinister design to influence the process.

Activist Prafulla Samantaray said the Supreme Court had categorically stated that the proceedings of gram sabha must take place independently and completely uninfluenced either by the project proponents or the Central or the State governments.

In Ijurupa village, he said, gram sabha cannot be held as per norms since it has only one migrated non- tribal family living there. One household cannot be treated as gram sabha since village committee needs at least 10 members for quorum.

Seeking cancellation of the gram sabha process, the NSS has warned that it will approach the Supreme Court, if necessary, and has also sought the Governor’s intervention.