Guest post by KAMAL NAYAN CHOUBEY
On the 6th of May, 2016 the Supreme Court rejected Odisha government’s petition for conducting Gram Sabha meetings for a second time in villages near Niyamgiri hills for the extraction of bauxite. Earlier, in August 2013, following Supreme Court directions, the Dongria Kondh tribals of Niyamgiri clearly decided in 12 Gram Sabha meetings that they would not give any permission for mining in their place of worship. The Odisha government filed an interlocutory application in February 2016 and argued that situation had changed in that area because mining was now proposed to be done by Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) instead of a joint venture project between OMC and Vedanta. The Odisha government filed the petition to help the Anil Agrawal-owned Sterlite (formerly Vedanta Alumina) company, which wants to extract bauxite from Niyamgiri hill in Kalahandi for its Lanjigarh refinery. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the arguments of Odisha government and accepted the validity of August 2013 Gram Sabha meetings. Now, the Odisha government can claim that it wants to ensure the development of all groups of the state and create more alternatives for marginalized groups like Dongria-Kondhs. The question, however, is whether the Odisha government can claim, on moral grounds, that it has not been working as an agent of corporate capital? What can a marginalized group do when it finds that a democratically elected government is relentlessly working against its interest and violating constitutional provisions? Indeed the Niyamgiri experience has raised many questions not just about the violence caused by dominant ‘development’ model against marginalized adivasi groups, but also about the crisis of constitutionalism and the role of democratically elected government in using/misusing state apparatus for the benefit of capitalists.
Anti-Vedanta or Niyamgiri Struggle is started in the year 2004. The Government of Odisha signed an agreement with the Vedanta Aluminia, a subsidiary of ‘Sterlite Industries (India)’. As a result of this agreement Vedanta Alumina got the right for mining Niyamgiri hills in collaboration with the OMC. This agreement, however, overlooked various environmental and human rights issues. The Dongria Kondhas tribes are original inhabitants of Niyamgiri hills and they have been dependent on the natural resources of this area for their livelihood. Cultivation, fishing and small scale hunting have been basic source of their livelihood. It would not be wrong to say that they have a symbiotic relation with the Niyamgiri forest.
Obviously, granting mining rights to Vedanta Company was against the way of life and cultural and ecological surroundings of Dongria people. Since the project of Vedanta Company was infringing on their land and livelihood resources, the Dongria people began to resist this. They opposed the Rs 874 million project proposed to be established in the Lanjigarh of Kalahandi. Lingraj, the devoted Dalit activist, played an important role in organizing these protests and making Dongria Kondh people aware about the drawbacks and dangers of proposed mining. He visited many villages alone and tried to educate the tribals about the dangers of the Vedanta project. He and other activists like the workers of CPI (ML) – New Democracy formed a group, Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, to co-ordinate the resistance against the Vendanta project. The Odisha Government tried to suppress the movement violently and the Police tried to brand adivasi activists, like Ladda Sikaka of the movement as Maoist.
Local Adivasi activists approached to the Supreme Court in this matter and requested that the rights of adivasis and the forest resources of Niyamgiri hills be protected. On 27th September 2007 the Supreme Court ordered the Vedanta Company to stop mining in that area. It was, however, a temporary relief for the adivasis. In November 2007 and August 2008 the Supreme Court delivered two judgments and formulated its own conception of ‘sustainable development’ regarding the ‘diversion’ of forest land. It gave ‘clearance’ to the Vedanta project on the condition that the Vedanta would invest five percent or Rs ten crores for the development of irrigation and agriculture of this area. Tribal people continued their opposition against the Vedanta and they also used non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) as a basis of their opposition. In August 2009 the Odisha Government demanded final approval of the Central Government regarding the ‘diversion’ of forest land for the Vendanta project. Due to continuous opposition of the adivasis of this area, the then Minister of Environment and Forest, Jairam Ramesh constituted a four member committee under the chairpersonship of Dr. N. C. Saxena to study the different aspects of this project. The Saxena Committee underlined in its report that in this project the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and the FRA had been entirely violated. On the basis of the report of this Committee, the MoEF cancelled the Vedanta project.
The OMC appealed in the Supreme Court against this decision. The Supreme Court in its April 2013 decision made it clear that the implementation of the FRA and PESA should be followed before taking any decision about mining. It underlined that affected villages and Dongria people have the right to decide about the mining in this area and the Government must take the consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas. The State Government, however, narrowly defined the judgment of Supreme Court and convened the meetings of Gram Sabhas (or Palli Sabhas) only in 12 villages, spread in Kalahandi and Rayagara districts of the state. Ideally it should have convened the meeting in at least 100 villages. The basic idea behind convening meeting only in 12 Gram Sabhas was that it would be easier to control and manage the opinion of the adivasis at small scale. The State machinery also helped company people to lure the villagers and threaten the activists who tried to convince people about the importance of the meeting. Despite all the pressures from the state machinery and company goons, all twelve Gram Sabhas unequivocally rejected the mining project in this area. In January 2014, the MoEF finally decided to reject the project on the basis of its rejection by the Gram Sabhas.
It is worthwhile to note that the FRA and PESA played the role of an important tool in the struggle of Dongria people of Niyamgiri hills area and the Supreme Court based its final judgment primarily on the provisions of both these Acts. One should not forget the continuous efforts made by local organizations like Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and activists like Lingraj, who mobilized people to struggle against this project. This mobilization compelled political parties to extend their support to Niyamgiri struggle.
The role of the Odisha government has been highly questionable in relation to the entire Niyamgiri movement. In our democratic set up it is duty of all governments (Centre or states) to follow constitutional norms. In the case of Niyamgiri it was duty of Odisha government to conduct Gram Sabha meetings following the provisions of PESA and FRA. The government, however, used all kinds of repressive measures to break down the movement of tribal people. Finally, when people rejected the plan of mining, it again filed a petition in Supreme Court for fresh Gram Sabha meetings. This only underlines the impact of corporate capital in the decisions and activities of the state government. It is really a puzzling theoretical problem for any conception of a vibrant democratic set up. What can be done when a ‘popular’ government (like the Naveen Patnaik government of Odisha) prefers the interest of industrialists rather than poor adivasis, who are politically, socially and economically too weak to struggle against the combined force of big corporate houses and state machinery? What are the options for local adivasis, when the state is not ready to follow constitutional provisions and indeed collaborating in their rampant violations? There are hundreds of examples across the country, where state governments have clearly violated laws to help mining projects etc. Indeed there are cases when state governments just avoided the directions of the judiciary or arbitrarily interpreted them. The Odisha government did this in Niyamgiri case, when it decided to conduct Gram Sabha meetings only in 12 villages and the Chhattisgarh government clearly violated the Supreme Court judgment in Salwa Judum case. We can find many such examples.
The petition of Odisha government in Niyamgiri case also underlines that there is no serious and systematic attempt to work for an alternative model of development. The only acceptable model is based on resource extraction and heavy industrialization, which naturally leads to the destruction of the habitat of tribal people and also causes environmental degradation. There could be other development models based on small scale industries, which would, of course produce less than big industries. They, however, would cause no displacement of local communities but give them employment. The experience of Niyamgiri has clearly underlined that different state governments are not ready to think about any alternative paradigm.
Kamal Nayan Choubey teaches Political Science at Dyal Singh College of Delhi University