The Dongria Kondh tribe’s struggle against Vedanta Resources began in 1997 after the first agreement was reached between the Odisha government and a subsidiary of Vedanta for a mine to extract 78 million tonnes of bauxite from beneath the Niyamgiri mountain forests. The plan was the brainchild of Vedanta boss Anil Agarwal one of India’s richest men who started his business in Mumbai in 1976 as a scrap-metal dealer. When Vedanta started to build a vast aluminium refinery at the foot of Niyamgiri to process the bauxite, protests erupted after many Dongria were forced to leave their homes and their traditional lifestyle to make way for the construction. The evictions infuriated the Dongria who feared for their way of life that was inextricably linked with ‘Niyamraja’, the sacred hill they worshipped as their provider and deity. The protests led to a series of legal challenges to halt the mining plans which culminated with a Supreme Court order for the villagers themselves to decide on the £1 billion mine investment in a series of votes. The Daily Telegraph commissioned me to accompany their journalist, Dean Nelson, to Lakhapadar village in the Nyamgiri Hills on the 7th August 2013 to witness the final vote at the tenth and largest of 12 village council (Gram Sabha) meetings. The several hundred Dongria Kondh tribespeople who attended the meeting confirmed the trend of earlier polls and unanimously voted to reject the mine plan and in January 2014 India’s environment ministry officially rejected the proposal by Vedanta Resources to mine in Niyamgiri. It was a privilege to be present at this final stunning victory and I can only agree with Michael Palin who was quoted later as saying “I hope it will send a signal to the big corporations that they can never assume that might is right. It’s a big victory for the little people.”
On the day of the vote we trekked through the thick forest along with several hundred heavily armed paramilitary police there to protect the judge appointed to record the decision after the government alleged the area had become ‘infested’ by Maoist insurgents. The tribesmen say the claim is false and the government has used it to justify a campaign of intimidation against them. This accusation appeared to be corroborated when the Telegraph reporter and I were detained by police intelligence officers and a local campaigner was summoned to their headquarters in Bhawanipatna for questioning and denounced as a ‘foreign agent’ for assisting us. Happily the detention was not for very long and we were finally allowed to leave.
Thanks are due to Dean Nelson for his kind permission to borrow from his report which can be found here and below are more images from the day.
Kumti Marji (60), head of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Association for the Safeguard of Niyamgiri Hills), in Lakhapadar village