They opposed mining in 'sacred' Niyamgiri hills at all 12 gram sabhas held in the region

Eight thousand-odd Dongria Kondhs and a few hundred Kutia Kondhs and other forest-dwellers living in the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts have shown the way to others on the supremacy of vox populi in a democracy.

By raising a peaceful decade-old protest against mining by the Odisha Mining Corporation and Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL) to supply bauxite ore to Vedanta’s one million tonne alumina refinery set up at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi, on the foothills of Niyamgiri hills, they finally scored a decisive victory on Monday.

The 12 and last gram sabha held at Jarapa in Rayagada district also adopted a unanimous resolution strongly opposing mining in Niyamgiri hills – which they said was the abode of Niyamraja, their ‘ista debata’ (presiding deity).

The gram sabhas were held following directive by the Supreme Court on April 18 to ascertain whether mining in the hills was an infringement of religious, cultural, personal and community rights of Dongria Kondhs and other traditional forest-dwellers.

Vedanta signed an MoU with Odisha government for $1.7 billion open-pit bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills to source raw material for the alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, which went into commercial operations in 2007 with an investment of Rs.4,500 crore.

Incidentally, the last gram sabha coincided with the anniversary of another heroic struggle against mining in Western Odisha by the Gandhamardhan Suraksha Samiti in Sambalpur on August 19, 1985. “We wanted to be a witness to the historic proceedings here,” Siddharth Nayak, activist of Gandhamardhana Suraksha Samiti said.

After the gram sabha’s resolution was read out at Jarapa – one has to trek a distance of eight km from Panimunda to reach the place – a tribal troupe from Kalahandi celebrated the occasion with a dance, braving heavy rain, much to the joy of Dongria Kondhs, who thronged Jarapa in large numbers from neighbouring villages to be part of the historic occasion.

“Vedanta chapter is closed now. We want the government to order closure of Lanjigarh refinery, which also poses pollution threat to the Niyamgiri hills. We also want gram sabhas to be held in all affected villages in Niyamgiri hills as a matter of principle. We will oppose Vedanta’s bid to obtain mining leases in Korlapeta and other nearby hillocks, which form part of Niyamgiri hills range,” National Alliance of People’s Movement convener Prafulla Samantray, told The Hindu.The anti-mining activists, who attended all the gram sabhas, said they would not rejoice with all the meetings opposing mining. “It’s a struggle for us to safeguard the livelihood rights of hilly tribes. We will continue to champion the cause of their rights over education, health and welfare programmes,” said Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti leader Lingaraj Azad.