Rayagada District Judge Sarat Chandra Mishra had to trek 10 km (to and fro) crossing two overflowing hill streams on Monday to conduct a palli (gram) sabha in this non-descript village in Sabapadar to know the views of Dongria Kondhs, a primitive tribal group, on proposed bauxite mining by the Orissa Mining Corporation and Vedanta.

Heavy rain notwithstanding, the gram sabha was held here, about 85 km from Rayagada, as per schedule on a directive given by the Supreme Court on April 18 to ascertain whether mining in Niyamgiri hills was an infringement of religious, cultural, individual and community rights of the villagers. Around 8,000 Dongria Kondhs, who live on the hills consider Niyamgiri as sacred as they believe Niyamraja, their ‘ista debata’ (presiding deity) lives on the tip of the hill spreading over Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of mineral-rich Odisha.

At the three-hour-long sabha, 33 of 36 adult voters from Kesarpadi attended, including 10 men and 23 women, who later unanimously adopted a resolution as per the Forest Rights Act, conveying their opposition to mining in the Niyamgiri hills.

The Odisha government has announced the conduct of 12 gram sabhas – seven in Rayagada and five in Kalahandi even as national convener of the National Alliance for People’s Movement, Prafulla Samantra, and others said that not holding meetings in all 112 villages in the hills was a clear violation of the apex court’s historic order.

Ready to sacrifice lives

As soon as the gram sabha commenced under a polythene sheet, the Dongria Kondhs in their traditional attire carrying axes and sticks, declared that to protect Niyamraja, they were ready to sacrifice their lives. “We are ready to be beheaded for the sake of Niyamraja, whose temple is in existence on the tip of the Niyamgiri hills since time unknown,” said Linga, a woman Kondh, in native Kui dialect.

Their speeches in Kui were translated into Odia by panchayat executive officer Pradhana Sabar. As the government decided to allow only genuine voters from the village, where gram sabhas are being held, over 200 tribals from neighbouring villages watched the proceedings with keen interest from a distance.

“No attempts to suppress our decade old agitation will be allowed. The tribals living in the Niyamgiri hills are firm against $1.7 billion mining project by the Odisha Government and Vedanta,” Lingaraj Azad, who is spearheading movement against mining under the aegis of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, told The Hindu.

Question mark

Resolutions in all 12 gram sabhas will put a question mark over the future of one million tonne refinery set up by Vedanta at Lanjigarh, which launched its production in 2007. Bauxite ore is now being brought from Gujarat.

Some of the social activists who attended the gram sabha later said Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi should come to their rescue in preventing bauxite mining. “As mining will be an attack on religious rights of Dongria Kondhs and Mr. Gandhi at his August 26, 2010 meeting at Lanjigarh had declared that he was a sepoy of Dongria Kondhs and had come to their area to salute their resolve against mining to protect the sacred hills, he should use his good offices to stop attempts to mine in Niyamgiri,” said Bhala Chandra Sadangi, a social activist.