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Fight against bauxite mining in Odisha: the view from the hill
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The red-brown soil of the bauxite belt in southern Odisha’s Eastern Ghats is seeing an escalation of interest in mining, with the government auctioning sites to private companies processing it into aluminium. Satyasundar Barik finds this comes at a cost — to the environment and the tribal people who have inhabited the land for generations

October 13, 2023 03:18 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:34 pm IST

Tribal villagers head home after collecting water from a nearby stream.

Tribal villagers head home after collecting water from a nearby stream. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Dibai Majhi, 22, cradles her month-old son in her sari, as she stands with about 30 others in the centre of Aliguna village, in Odisha’s hilly Rayagada district. They have gathered on the lower reaches of the Sijimali hill, in the Eastern Ghats, on a curvy road bordered by rich red-brown soil that defines the area. In this mineral-rich, biodiverse area stretching over 1,000 sq km, indigenous people have lived from a time before the oldest member of their tribe can remember.

Dibai is alert, not just to the needs of her child, but also to the tense conversations in the community of the Kondh tribe she is a part of. “This is very difficult for my children [a 5-year-old and the baby] and for me. My family is here, but they cannot replace my children’s father,” she says.

Dibai’s husband, Gopal, 27, was taken into custody on August 17, with seven others, just 25 days before their son was born. He was among the villagers booked by the Odisha police on August 12, after surveyors from the Mythri Infrastructure and Mining India (MIMI) Private Limited lodged a two-page complaint with the police, claiming that villagers armed with axes and lathis had waylaid them, abused and pelted stones at them, and taken them hostage.

The mining company has a contract from Vedanta Limited, the business conglomerate working with natural resources, including bauxite, in a State that holds 41% of the country’s reserves. Vedanta, which won the rights to mine the mineral at Sijimali through a government auction in March this year, plans to extract ore to feed its Lanjigarh alumina refinery in Kalahandi that became operational in 2007. Villagers feel mining will adversely impact their livelihood and damage the environment.

“Police action is a ploy to deter people from participating in the crucial public hearing for environmental clearance,” says Maska Majhi, a farmer from Kantamal village, also on the foothills of the Sijimali. These hearings are scheduled for October 16 at Trinath Dev High School, Sunger, in Rayagada district, and October 18 at the Kerpai gram panchayat headquarters, Kalahandi district. Here, residents from the 18 villages likely to be affected by the mining will air their views and raise objections relevant to the project. Company officials will be present, and all proceedings videographed in the presence of a magistrate.

Dibai Majhi, from the Kondh tribe, cradles her newborn in Aliguna village, on the foothills of the Sijimali, a proposed bauxite mining area.

Dibai Majhi, from the Kondh tribe, cradles her newborn in Aliguna village, on the foothills of the Sijimali, a proposed bauxite mining area. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Following the August 12 episode, the Kashipur police lodged an FIR under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 147 and 148 (rioting), 341 (wrongful restraint), 307 (attempt to murder), as well as Section 25 of the Arms Act, 1959. The villagers named were from Kantamal, Banteji, Sarambai, Sunger, Shagabari, Aliguna, Kutamal, Bundel, and Dumerpadar; 23 have been arrested, while 71 are in hiding. Gopal is among 100 unnamed “others” in the FIR.

Hundreds of villagers, mostly small farmers from Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in Odisha’s southern hilly area, had mustered the courage to question a group of men repeatedly entering their villages allegedly with police escorts in a flurry of SUVs. They came to elicit support for the mining project, hiring a few local young men to build support from within the community.

The villagers are wary. “We grow everything here, except salt,” Gobardhan Majhi, 45, from Kantamal village says. Majani Majhi, 60, gets involved in the discussion: “The government must take the whole region into account. Within 10 km from our village, the Kutrumali bauxite mine [the Adani Group won the bid this year] will go into production soon. The combined impact of bauxite mines will affect our water sources.” Vedanta did not comment on questions sent to them.

Currently, there are 62 tribes in Odisha. All of them have populations in the hilly regions of the State; 13 are from the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. Hills comprise over 50% of the State, and those who live here are mostly from the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes.

Sijimali and Kutrumali mines have been opened to Vedanta and Adani, respectively, with Baphlimali and Kodingamali mines, about 30 km away, operated by the Aditya Birla Group and the Odisha Mining Corporation, respectively.

Mundra Aluminium Limited, a subsidiary of the Adani Group, has secured bids for two bauxite mines in Rayagada and Koraput districts. A senior government official in the State’s Steel and Mines Department confirms that more areas will be opened for mining soon.

Social activists protesting in Bhubaneswar against mining for bauxite in Sijimali. 

Social activists protesting in Bhubaneswar against mining for bauxite in Sijimali.  | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The company they keep

The Vedanta Group has proposed an excavation of 9 MTPA (million tonnes per annum) of ore over an area of 1,549.022 hectares on the Sijimali bauxite deposit site. One of India’s largest aluminium producers, the company has a 2 MTPA capacity alumina refinery in Lanjigarh town, Kalahandi district, without any captive bauxite mines since 2007. The group plans to expand its alumina capacity to 6 MTPA, as per company communication. It currently gets some supply of bauxite from the Kodingamali mine, which is operated by the State-run Odisha Mining Corporation.

The company announced that the mine would contribute “₹2,511.6 crore per annum to the State and Central government exchequers by way of mining revenue”, besides generating employment for “600 personnel of various skills”. Allied activities would lead to the development of the area, the Vedanta Group said in its Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Report that has been circulated in advance for the public hearing.

“Had mines driven the growth of an area, people from Odisha’s Keonjhar district, with 20% of the country’s iron ore, would have been healthier and wealthier than those of other districts,” says Laxman Naik, 30, from Banteji village.

Tribal villagers at Kantamal village on the foothills of the Sijimali hill.

Tribal villagers at Kantamal village on the foothills of the Sijimali hill. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

A history of extraction

This isn’t the first time companies have come after aluminium ore. In 2013, the Dongria Kondhs had thwarted a mining proposal by the Odisha Mining Corporation, backed by Vedanta, through historic resolutions passed through their gram sabhas. All forest-dwelling communities are part of their village gram sabhas that take major decisions collectively. They function under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996, also gives the sabhas power, declaring them competent to safeguard and preserve the people’s traditions, customs, cultural identity, community resources, and community mode of dispute resolution. Exercising the power vested with the gram sabha, 12 villages in Kalahandi and Rayagada had passed a resolution rejecting a proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hill range for bauxite. The region, about 80 km from Sijimali, has an 80-million-tonne reserve.

Over 95% of the State’s bauxite reserves are concentrated in the East Coast Bauxite (Eastern Ghats Mobile Belt) region, particularly in the southern and western parts, including Koraput, Rayagada, Kalahandi, and Balangir districts, according to Odisha’s Directorate of Geology. The mineral results from weathering of khondalites (named after the Khonds) and associated rocks.

The region has 44 bauxite deposits, both small and large, all within 100 km of each other. The Gandhamardan hill, with 207 million tonnes of reserves, has been declared a biodiversity heritage site, a no-go mining zone. Deposits are typically found on plateaus ranging in elevation between 900 metres and 1,400 metres above sea level. The hills are steep, with limited vegetation at the peaks and denser growth along the slopes.

Rajendra Majhi, who has been in hiding in the jungle for the past three weeks to evade arrest in the August 12 episode that saw Gopal get thrown in jail, says, “When a top executive from Mythri asked me mockingly what I’d do with the red soil (bauxite ore) lying unused for decades, I asked what the company would do with it if it was of no use. The executive had no answer.”

Tribal people from Mayurbhanj district of Odisha protest in front of the State Assembly demanding to regularise the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, to give special powers to the gram sabhas for the management of natural resources.

Tribal people from Mayurbhanj district of Odisha protest in front of the State Assembly demanding to regularise the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, to give special powers to the gram sabhas for the management of natural resources. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Building up

On August 5, Krushna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka, both from the Dongria Kondh tribe, went missing in Lanjigarh town of Kalahandi district, 80 km from Aliguna, as they were mobilising people for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9. Family members frantically searched for them. When suspicions arose about police involvement, hundreds of Dongria Kondhs, carrying their traditional axes, surrounded the Kalyansinghpur police station in Rayagada district on August 6, demanding an investigation into the disappearance.

Sumanti Mohanty, the police inspector in-charge, filed an FIR charging nine persons under the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA), 1967. Many of them were associated with the Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), which had been at the forefront of the movement against the proposed bauxite mines on the Niyamgiri hill range.

Lingaraj Azad, convener of the NSS and one of those implicated but in hiding, claims he was not even present at the gathering.

However, Vivekanand Sharma, the Superintendent of Police, Rayagada, says, “We have withdrawn the sections imposed on nine members linked to the Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti after review.” He says two arrests were made in connection with earlier cases, and the drive is now not to arrest people but to ensure maximum participation in the public hearing.

On August 29, Prafulla Samantara, a 2017 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize awarded to grassroots environmental activists, was forcibly taken from his hotel room in Rayagada by the police. He was scheduled to address a press conference a few minutes later. They temporarily seized his mobile phones and dropped him in Berhampur town, 180 km away. Samantara has advocated for tribal rights for two decades now.

“The world has recognised the monumental effort of the Dongria Kondhs in saving the Niyamgiri hills from bauxite mines. Their involvement in the current resistance could turn public opinion against mining, so the district police at the behest of project executants have created a threatening mechanism,” says Samantara.

However, Rayagada District Collector Swadha Dev Singh says, “The unrest in villages is motivated and created by vested interest groups. Police forces are deployed as per the threat perception.”

A tribal villager heads back to his hamlet after collecting firewood in Rayagada district of south Odisha.

A tribal villager heads back to his hamlet after collecting firewood in Rayagada district of south Odisha. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The alluring aluminium market

Aluminium prices are bouncing back after the turbulent COVID-19 period. At the peak of the pandemic, prices plummeted as low as $1,800 per tonne. Today, it is back in the range of $2,200 to $2,600 per tonne.

S.K. Patnaik, the former group general manager of the mineral division at the National Aluminium Company Limited (NALCO), a Central public sector enterprise, says the post-pandemic landscape has witnessed a global resurgence in developmental activities. “While China was once the primary driver of aluminium demand, we now see India and south-east Asian nations entering a phase of remarkable infrastructure boom and accelerated economic growth,” Patnaik says.

He says there are indications that the metal price will ascend to $3,000 per tonne by 2030, judging from the continued expansion of development projects and escalating consumption. The demand for aluminium remains robust across four key sectors: transport (including automobiles), electrical, construction, packaging.

Tribal hamlets on the foothills of the Sijimali hills in Rayagada district of south Odisha.

Tribal hamlets on the foothills of the Sijimali hills in Rayagada district of south Odisha. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Water worries

In Kantamal, Dhanmat Majhi, 70, does not comprehend either fluctuating aluminium prices in the international market or the fierce competition among companies vying to establish a foothold in the region for bauxite mining.

“Since my childhood, we have never faced any shortage of water for growing rice in our fields. Dozens of streams flow down from Sijimali, as if the hill itself is guarding our village. We grow enough food to sustain ourselves for a year without external assistance,” she says.

Activists say the issue extends far beyond Vedanta’s mining aspirations in Sijimali. Unlike the well-researched Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats have received relatively little attention in terms of studying their ecological importance.

Sreedhar Ramamurthi, a geoscientist based in New Delhi, warns, “People fail to recognise the downstream impact of bauxite mining. Over a period of time, farming will undoubtedly be affected.” He explains that if the Damanjodi area (NALCO’s mine area) in Koraput district were to be studied, locals would say that some springs have vanished. “There has been no baseline study on water resources originating from the Eastern Ghats. Bauxite deposits are known to store water, and if these sources are destroyed, it will unquestionably impact the lives of the local population.”

Recognising that the future is at stake, Kantamal resident Rajendra, who has evaded the police, declares, “I will participate in the public hearing, even if it means getting arrested.”

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