Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Despair looms over Sijimali, as tribals continue 365-day struggle to save their hills

Lilen Majhi, a 35-year-old tribal woman from Tadadei village of Kalahandi district, expressed her concern during the public hearing on October 18 last year.

Odisha’s tribal community finds itself in a rut in its decades-long fight against private players that seek to mine minerals in the Niyamgiri hill range. For the past 365 days, the people of Sijimali have been protesting to protect their land from corporate giants’ takeover.

Its dense forest cover has piqued the interest of London-based Vedanta Limited which emerged as the leading bidder for the Sijimali Bauxite Block in an auction conducted by the Odisha government on February 15, 2023, according to a press release by Vedanta Limited.

Odisha holds over half of India’s bauxite reserves, 95% of which lie in the state’s southwest districts of Rayagada, Koraput, and Kalahandi. They are home to around 8000 Dongria Kondh tribes — Particularly vulnerable tribal groups, as per official records. The Sijimali area which is located close to Niyamgiri, consists of a tribal group known as ‘Kondh’ (a subsidiary community of the larger ‘Dongria Kondh’ tribe), Praja (another tribal community) and Dalits.

Labanya Nayak of Banteji village of Rayagada district, says, “Sijimali is the only source of our life and livelihoods. We can’t imagine our status without the Sijimali hills. We are against the government’s decision to hand over the hills to Vedant for mining purposes. So we are opposing such an anti-people policy of the government through peaceful movement”.

The situation in Sijimali got intense by August, last year, when there was a huge deployment of police forces in the area.  Earlier, on 6 August, last year, nine leaders associated with an anti-mining protest were booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and were later released on bail. 

“We think they are using the police force to prevent Sijimali people from gathering support from the Niyamgiri movement. Since the hills are sacred to both communities, they share a common culture and historically Niyamgiri has successfully defeated the same Vedanta company in the past,” said Yerumai Rajan, a political activist. 

2013 marked a historic moment for tribal communities as locals vetoed Vedanta Resources Limited from mining minerals in Niyamgiri in a referendum. This was backed by a Supreme Court judgement that gave precedence to the rights of tribal people. 

The amendment of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 on August 4, 2023,  has only aggravated the situation for the tribal community due to its exclusion of ‘deemed forest’ areas, thus altering the definition of ‘forest’ set by the Supreme Court of India in 1996. This opens up as much as 25% of the nation’s forests to urbanisation, mining, polluting industries, and infrastructure development, making them more susceptible than ever to corporate purchase.

As per an estimate, 95% of land in the Niyamgiri hills is not classified as ‘forest’ in government records, reported The Hindu.

As the Anil Agarwal-backed company is on the cusp of acquiring Niyamgiri Hills, other major corporations are now entering the mining market after the NDA government relaxed Forest and Environmental restrictions. According to Dalit activist Sharnya Nayak, NALCO, Utkal Alumina International Limited, a metals flagship of Aditya Birla Group and Adani Group are leading the race to establish aluminium refineries in the hills.

Lingharaj Azad, Dalit activist and leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, was charged under the UAPA in August, last year. Azad said that two other Dalit activists– Krishna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka– were forcibly abducted by plainclothes police officers from Sijimali’s Lanjigarh Haat in the same month. This fuelled a protest at Kalyansingpur police station, demanding the release of unlawfully detained activists. The day after, the Odisha police filed an FIR under the UAPA and various other IPC sections against the nine Adivasi activists including him, connected to the NSS.

They were later released on bail.

“The Centre and state government are not truthful to the people. They are aggressively using repression to deter the tribal people from asking for their rights. The government favours these mining companies in the expectation of funds ahead of the 2024 general elections,” said Azad.

On October 16 and 18, a public hearing was held in Sijimali by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board at Sunder High School premises in Kashipur Block of Rayagada district and Kurpai High School premises in Thuamul Rampur Block of Kalahandi district respectively. Residents claim heavy police deployment on October 15 on the roads leading to the villages, including women from Banteji village being beaten up by police on their way to the public hearing.

Activists claim that there was a lot of ruckus created by police and company officials on the days of the hearing to deter the villagers from attending the hearing. Villagers pointed out that Vedanta’s Environmental Assessment Impact (EAI) report does not mention the sacred abode of the supreme deity Tiji Raja revered by Kandha and Damba communities and the annual rituals and festivals the local people perform at Sijimali hilltop in December every year.

They also pointed out that the report makes no mention of the 200-odd perennial streams that emerge from Sijimali, or the dense forests on the hilltop that are home to a variety of tree species such as sal, tamarind, piya sal, amla, harida, and bahada. The report also fails to include the primary source of revenue for locals: the collection of Siali leaves and honey.

Some of the most important caverns, including Parapar and Baghpar, which are venerated as the abodes of animals and where every year ceremonies are done to invoke animal spirits, are also not included. All those who testified stated unequivocally that the EIA report makes no mention of the local peoples’ cultural heritage, generations-long relationship with nature, or the traditional community forest governance principles that they use to protect the land in Sijimali.

Lilen Majhi, a 35-year-old tribal woman from Tadadei village of Kalahandi district, expressed her concern during the public hearing on October 18 last year.

“How can we destroy our mother (Dharani Maa)? We all have been really worried for the past few months. These forests and mountains were protected by our ancestors. These mountains do not belong to the government or the company”.

She further said, “Today the company may have bought off the collectors, policemen and civil servants out of vested interest, profit and greed, but what will happen to the people of this country and its future generations? The government must immediately return the money received from the company and cancel the lease”. 

According to a press statement issued on December 10th and signed by 36 activists and leaders, on December 8th, nearly ten buses of armed police forces were dispatched around villages in the Sijimali hills to help the district administrations of Rayagada and Kalahadi to jointly hold gram sabhas.

The goal was to compel indigenous people to attend hastily scheduled gram sabhas to legitimise the diversion of forest lands for Vedanta’s Sijimali Bauxite Mining Project. The statement also alleged that the police and company officials have managed to conduct gram sabhas forcefully in a few villages like Chulbadi village (Kalahandi district) by threatening the villagers, and by giving Rs 1000 as a bribe.

Narendra Mohanty, an activist from Bhubaneswar says, “ After the public hearing, there has been no response from the government regarding the fate of people in Sijimali. They are still protesting to get back their land”. He further says the government and company officials are trying to coerce the people by every hook and crook. “They are distributing rice, blankets and other materials to get people’s mandate. None of the political parties are supporting us, they are all corporate-friendly, not people-friendly,” says Mohanty. 

Tushar Das, an advocate for forest rights, explains the condition in Sijimali as a clear violation of the Forest Rights Act, of 2006. “FRA applies to all forests. Whenever there is any diversion of forest land for non-forest use, the state government should fulfil two conditions. They should ensure that any proposal entailing the diversion of forest land comes under the clauses of FRA 2006. Further, they should take the consent of gram sabhas for the said proposal.”

Das said that both these prerequisites were ignored in Sijimali. “FRA should be taken into account since it defines both notified forest area and deemed forest area,” he added.

Vedanta Limited? the Odisha government and the Union Government didn’t respond when reached out for comments.

Huda Ayisha is a freelance journalist and a student at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.

Huda Ayisha
Huda Ayisha
Huda Ayisha is a student of Kirori Mal College Delhi University and en editorial intern at Maktoob.

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