The Supreme Court on April 18 ordered the villagers be provided with basic forest rights in form of the land titles
A recent show on a local Doordarshan channel about Dongria Kondhs, indigenous people who inhabit the plateaus of the Niyamgiri hill ranges in Odisha, ended with a scene where a young member of a tribe throws away some rupee coins given by a government official, asks for a matchbox instead and quickly vanishes into the jungle.
The show, depicting the lifestyle of the Dongria Kondhs, had a subtle message that one of the oldest tribes of the country is indifferent to the urban growth story.
Scantily dressed, with axes hanging from their shoulders, it is hard to imagine that these people will decide the fate of a bauxite mining project at the Niyamgiri hills.
The project is crucial for India-focused British firm Vedanta Group’s Rs 40,000-crore investment in Odisha in bauxite refining, alumina making and power production.
The quiet and calm Niyamagiri hills, a chain of 4,500-ft high mountains spread across 20 km in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts and inhabited by about 2,000 Dongria Kondhs, now see a rush of government vehicles and officials at its footsteps, nearly two years after the state prohibited the entry of foreign tourists into the tribal areas.
These teams, comprising official from the state revenue, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes development and forest departments, are busy these days recording the forest rights claims made by the 12 villages, where Palli Sabhas will be held between July 18 and August 8 in phases.
“We have recognised all the claims made by the villagers and sent them to the village forest committees, which, after validation in Palli Sabhas, will be sent to the Supreme Court. Even their demand of land for tigers and bears have been taken into consideration,” said Tapan Kumar Satapathy, the tehsildar of Muniguda, under whose jurisdiction Dongria villages of Rayagada district come.
The apex court on April 18 this year had ordered the villagers would have to be provided with basic forest rights in the form of land titles and they alone can decide whether the proposed bauxite mining project would cause harm to their religious right of worshipping Niyam Raja at Hundaljali, about 10 km from the identified mines area.
After the top court order, the state government has selected 12 villages, seven in Rayagada district and five in Kalahandi district, where Palli Sabhas, under the observation of district judges, will deliberate on their concerns.
So far, we have received about 27 claims from nine villages and have sent them to the respective village committees. The last date for sending the claims is July 14, but we will receive their request after the deadline as communication to these village is very difficult since they stay in hill tops,” said Trinath Rao, head of state-run Dongria Kondh Development Agency (DKDA), which oversees the forest rights claims of Dongri villages.
The task of recognising fresh claims made by the tribals, after the Supreme Court direction, is meant to authorise them as legal user of the land. A six-month-old circular of the Odisha government says titles received under forest right claims are entitled to get adequate compensation and jobs for one person per family whenever land acquisition takes place. But will the Dongrias leave the hills in exchange for compensation and job? That’s the Rs 40,000-crore question.
The Dongrias, who still have to walk miles for any sort of contact with the civil society, depend entirely upon the hill for living. They get fruit, woods, drinking water and sometimes grow vegetables and cereals on hill slopes. If mining is started in the area, they all have to come down to the footsteps or look for other areas, something they are not ready to agree.
“We will not leave Niyamgiri. This is our place,” said Lada Sikaka, (45), headman of Lakhapadar, a Dongria village, four-hour long walk away from the foothills.
So far, none of the claims made by the villagers contained objection regarding mining, but the matter will surely come up during the Palli Sabha, said local government officials.
Duryodhan Majhi, adviser of the Lanjigarh Development Council, a pro-industry body, alleges that the Dongria Kondh tribals have been motivated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil right bodies, mostly sponsored by competitors of Vedanta, to stall the project. The one-million-tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district has remained shut since December 2012 for want of bauxite.
“The NGOs are not campaigning overtly, but are helping the tribals secretly in drafting forest rights claims and motivating them against the government,” said a government officer in Rayagda.