An Odisha Tribe Is Fighting The Government To Save Their Sacred Mountain

An Odisha Tribe Is Fighting The Government To Save Their Sacred Mountain

The Dongria Kondh of Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills are among India’s oldest tribes. A region of dense forests and rolling streams, the Niyamgiri hills are worshipped by the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh who survive by farming on the fertile slopes of the hills. A relatively primitive tribe, the Dongria Kondh worship the mountain god Niyam Raya and his presiding hills, that includes the mammoth Mountain of the Law, Niyam Dongar, which has been under threat of mining by Vedanta Resources, a Britain-based mining giant.

A landmark ruling was made in 2013 that was for the tribespeople and activists a wave of relief after long public protests and demonstrations, called by some the ‘Save the real Avatar tribe’ campaign, referring to the popular film. The largest of the twelve Dongria tribes that inhabit the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri region, Lakhapadar, unanimously rejected Vedanta’s mining plan in a vote. It was a historic moment for Indian democracy, as for the first time tribal people were allowed to make such a major decision which hugely affected their lives.

The Vedanta group set roots in Odisha in 2006, building a multi-million-pounds worth aluminium refinery right at the foot of the sacred mountains with hopes of being granted access to the rich natural resource the mountains provided. But with the ban on mining, they relied on international importing of raw materials to function, a process which ended up being very expensive. The entire matter seemed to be coming to a final end when, in 2015, Vedanta shared plans of shutting down their facility, including the hospital and school built by the corporation, blaming the rise in global metal prices which increasingly drove the company into loss, hinting as well to “the absence of access to bauxite from within the state,” as reported by The Telegraph.

Vedanta’s CEO confronted by a large number of protesters from various NGOs. Image source: Survival International

Allowing mining in the region would heavily pollute the thirty-six streams that flow through the plateau and irrigate the tribes crops, on which they rely for sustenance. Unfortunately and shockingly, trouble continues to brew for the Dongria as a new petition in court calls for the upheaval of the previous verdict. A copy of the petition, as stated by the Sunday Telegraph, calls for the historic victory of the tribe to be overturned as it was “not lawful” and “very unfortunate for the growth and development of the state of Orissa as well as the country.” The Odisha government’s petition calls for another vote, for the new, younger members of the tribe who have now come of age since the 2013 voting process to be included in the verdict. The previous voters from the tribe have now been passed away, states the Odisha government, “No finality can be attached to the decisions taken by the gram sabhas [village councils]”, states the petition. Several activists and critics have pointed out the absurdity of such a claim, stating that it has been only three years since the previous vote, in a country which holds general elections every five years, more so pointing to the bias the government may have for Vedanta who have filled the state’s coffers with huge investments--the government’s real fear being that the firm, and its money, would leave unless the ban be lifted; Vedanta’s name is not included anywhere on the submitted petition and they deny any connection to the events currently unfolding.

“It’s shocking that the Orissa state government is trying to overturn this and alarming that the supreme court hasn’t immediately thrown it out,” said Survival International, an NGO that campaigns for tribal groups’ rights. “Attempts to resume this project are not only undemocratic and illegal, but also deeply immoral,” the group added. These turn of events are outrageous, to say the least, but it sadly wouldn’t be the first time that the government bended laws in favour of mining companies. We previously saw a similar case in Chhattisgarh when the state’s government revoked tribal rights to pave way for mining. Decisions like these really bring into focus the status that tribals hold in Indian society as second-class citizens, and how easily traditions, practices and communities are broken in the name of ‘economic growth’ and the exploitation of natural resources.

Feature image courtesy Reuters via The Telegraph