With the verdict in the first-ever environmental referendum being conducted on bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills on the directive of the Supreme Court written on the wall, uncertainty clouds the future of Vedanta Aluminium Limited (VAL)’s Rs.40,000-crore investment plan in Odisha.

Dongria Kondhs, the primitive tribal group who live on top of the lush-green Niyamgiri hills spread over backward Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Odisha, have voted against mining in the hills – which they consider the abode of their ‘ista debata’ (presiding deity), Niyamraja.

Eleven palli (gram) sabhas held so far in the two districts from July 18, have adopted unanimous resolutions against mining. The last will be held at Jarapa, 25 km from here on August 19.

The gram sabhas are being held, following a landmark judgment by the apex court on April 18, to find out from the Dongria Kondhs and other forest-dwellers whether mining in Niyamgiri was an infringement on the religious, cultural, individual and community rights of the indigenous tribe.

The convener of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti,  Kumuti Majhi,  who is leading the decade-old agitation against Vedanta’s plan to source bauxite ore from Niyamgiri, said that with the tribals and other forest-dwellers categorically declaring that it was their birthright to live on the hills and stating that they would shed blood if bauxite was drilled by force, the Centre should reject mining applications by the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) and VAL.

VAL (earlier Sterlite), part of the U.K.-based mining major Vedanta Resources, signed an agreement with the Odisha government for $1.7 billion open-pit mining in Niyamgiri on June 7, 2003. Vedanta made its one million tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh of Kalahandi, on the foothills of the hills, operational in 2007. Due to difficulties in sourcing raw material from Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Jharkhand, the company shut down its refinery for eight months and reopened it on July 11 after downsizing the workforce.

Rayagada District Collector Sashi Bhushan Padhi told The Hindu that based on the reports being compiled by the judicial officials attending the gram sabhas in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, they would forward it to the government for necessary action.

He said that following objections to the presence of two Englishmen at the Lakhpadar gram sabha on August 7, he instructed police not to allow any foreigner to attend the meeting.