Tension prevails in tribal areas of Rayagada and Kalahandi; unprecedented security arrangements

Tension gripped the tribal areas of Rayagada and Kalahandi as the Odisha government will hold the second palli (gram) sabha on Monday at Kesarpadi, near here, as per the Supreme Court directive to ascertain whether the proposed mining by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. (VAL) was in violation of religious, community and individual rights of the hilly tribes under the Forest Rights Act.

Even as the Kasipur-Niyamgiri division committee of banned CPI (Maoist) along with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), the People’s Alliance for Democratic Movement and others opposed the holding of gram sabhas in just 12 villages instead of 100-odd villages affected by the proposed $1.7-billion mining by VAL and the Orissa Mining Corporation, the government is going ahead with its original schedule amid unprecedented security. Several platoons of the CRPF along with local police are manning areas leading to the Niyamgiri hills.

The grama sabhas are being held from July 18 — to meet the three-month deadline set by the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on April 18. Niyamgiri hills — home to over 8,000S Dongria Kondhs — a primitive tribal group which worships hills as their presiding deity and considers tip of the hill range as Niyam Raja, or the king of the mountains.

The villagers are so apprehensive that they are refusing to talk to outsiders suspecting them as government officials or agents sent by Vedanta. When The Hindu approached them at Serkapadi, where the first gram sabha was held, they refused to speak. After repeated requests and production of identity cards, Damodar Kodrak, a farmer said they were totally opposed to mining on the hill, which they consider sacred and they had no other comment to offer to media or anybody.

“The gram sabhas are being held defying the letter and spirit of Supreme Court order. For instance, such meeting is being held at Ijrupa in Biswanathpur panchayat of Kalahandi district on July 30, where only one family has a house with one voter as per old records. They also stay in a village named Chatrapur — 7 to 8 km away after finishing their farm work,” said Bhalachandra Shadangi, adviser to the NSS.

Sacred mountain

“The mountain region and the hillocks are the centre of our identity, our culture, our religion, our history and our society, as members of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Kutia Kondhs are also among us in several villages,” said Kumuti Majhi and Lada Sikaka, tribal activists who have been fighting for nearly a decade against bids to convert the sacred mountain into an industrial wasteland.

In a memorandum to Odisha Governor S.C. Jamir, they said the government selected the villages, which were not accessible to Dongria and Kutia Kondhs.

The Odisha government signed an MoU on June 7, 2003 with Sterlite for extracting three million tonnes of bauxite per annum on top of northwest ridge of the Niyamgiri hills. Later it (Sterlite) was changed into VAL, which has already made operational a one million tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, on the foothills of the mountain. The VAL belongs to Vedanta Resources Plc, a London-listed mining company.

Rayagada Collector Sashibhushan Padhi said they were conducting the grama sabhas as per government instructions after wide publicity to enable more tribals from the hills to voice their opinion.