Indian tribe defends hill god from foreign miner

Indian tribe defends hill god from foreign miner

Their thick, ancient forests shelter leopards, elephants and even the odd tiger, their slopes are home to an isolated tribe, but the “curse” of eastern India’s Niyamgiri hills lies beneath the soil.

Massive deposits of bauxite have brought Britain’s Vedanta Resources to this remote corner of the state of Orissa, where they have already built a $900 million alumina refinery.

Just a stone’s throw from its gleaming new facility, a few hundred people gathered in the shade of mango trees in Lanjigarh in mid-March for the latest protest against the company.

Among them, Dickcha Majhi, who walked for five hours from her remote village to the small town, a member of the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh tribe, who worship an Earth Goddess and revere the hills as their protector Niyam Raja.

“She is our mother and he is our beloved lord,” said the small 30-year-old woman, rows of colourful beads around her neck, golden rings through her nose and through her ears, her frizzy hair held down firmly with a dozen metal hair clips.

“If you hand the hill over, the hill god will eat us.”

As eastern India engages in a headlong but increasingly controversial rush to industrialize and exploit its vast mineral resources, Vedanta’s plans to turn the top of the Niyamgiri range into open-cast mines has emerged as a key battleground.

It is a battle not about whether to industrialize, but how to do it, and how to compensate the losers. And it is being waged in the courts and in the streets at the same time.

Conservationists say the miners could and should have chosen other hills, instead of risking the rich biodiversity of Niyamgiri, and have taken the issue to the Supreme Court.

On the ground, tribal farmers worry their traditional lands and livelihoods will disappear once mining begins. They are being coralled by local Congress party politician Bhakta Charan Das, who promises to stage a mass march on the site in mid-April.

“By the time they reach here, the site will be gheraoed (encircled) by 50,000 people and the administration will be paralysed,” he threatened.


An elephant corridor, and the only known home of the rare golden gecko in Orissa, the hills were proposed as a wildlife sanctuary in the 1990s.

The Wildlife Society of Orissa dismisses Vedanta’s pledge to spend millions of dollars protecting wildlife.

“How will they manage the wildlife? Take them out and keep them in five-star hotels?” asked Biswajit Mohanty.

“Seventy-three million tonnes of bauxite will be taken out. You can’t mitigate the effects of that.”

The Vamsadhara river rises from the range and more than 30 streams from the mining site, providing water which sustains hundreds of thousands of people, conservationists say. Mining will destroy those sources, they argue.

In September 2005, a Supreme Court committee recommended that “the use of forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like the Niyamgiri Hills should not be permitted.”

It also condemned the Ministry of Environment and Forests for a “blatant violation” of its own guidelines for the refinery to be built without getting clearance to mine in the hills, much of which is protected forest under Indian law.

But Vedanta, along with the state and central governments, have fought back hard. The company says the bauxite lies in the top 25-30 metres of the 1,000 metre-high hills, and promises to protect water sources lower down from contamination.

It will fill up pits with residues as it goes along, and plant new trees, said refinery head Sanjeev Zutshi.

The Supreme Court will now refer the case to the Forest Advisory Committee, an expert panel. But that will only happen when the court and the government resolve a separate row about who should sit on that committee.


In the meantime, Vedanta is forging ahead. The refinery carried out a test run in March. Some of the pillars to carry a conveyor belt from the mine to the plant have already been built.

Zutshi says 17 locals are working in the refinery and 50 more are being trained. Hundreds might get jobs from local contractors as shovel men, to sweep out spillage and drain slurry. But employment for all is simply not possible in an industry which requires small numbers of skilled workers.

“There is one big issue which is difficult to address, and that is the issue of employment,” he said. “These people unfortunately are not educated at all, most of them are illiterate.”

Instead Vedanta says it has sponsored health and education in local villages as well as alternative income-generating projects.

But the company’s claim to popular support was belied by February’s local elections, where Congress-backed candidates running on anti-Vedanta tickets dominated, Das said.

Two hours drive away on a rocky, dirt road, a few Dongria Kondh tribesmen and women sat outside their thatched roof huts, their filthy and malnourished children dressed in rags beside them, berries fermenting in the sun to make homemade liquor.

Vedanta says the mines will not affect the slopes on which these people live, only the summits and ridges which they worship. But already people here fear the worst.

“The earth is our mother,” said 26-year-old Verang Majhi, rejecting any talk of compensation to leave ancestral lands. “Would you leave your mother for money?.”

Later, as dusk drew in and the lights of the refinery dominated the night sky, Reuters visited the village of Bandhaguda, right up against the wall of the plant.

Daka Majhi said all 32 men of his village were arrested by police and jailed for seven days last year, with scarcely any food and water, for staging a peaceful protest outside the refinery.

Their women were threatened by police while Vedanta completed the wall around the plant, cutting the people off from their pond, cremation grounds and much of their fields, he said.

Zutshi contested that version of events, and said repeated efforts had been made to reach out to the villagers, even offering them resettlement at one point, only to be obstructed by a handful of people who wanted “heaps of money.”

Vedanta, he insisted, was not the bully that politician Das made it out to be. Nor could it afford to be.

“The days are gone when you can impose yourself, surround yourself with goons and policemen, and browbeat every Tom, Dick and Harry,” he said. “It’s not going to work, it’s not a long-term solution at all.”

Source: Reuters

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