Forest Rights Act delivers first victory; tribals’ right over the Niyamgiri foils Vedanta’s mining plans
Prasanna Mohanty | August 27, 2010
In our May 1-15 issue, we carried a report, “Tribals put faith in Gandhian humbug”, saying how two primitive tribes, the Dongaria and Kutia Kondhs of the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, were fighting a Gandhian battle for their rights against a corporate giant, Vedanta Alumina Ltd, by using the Forest Rights Act.
When environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh announced earlier this week that the proposal to mine the Niyamgiri was being rejected because the Kondhs had the “cultural, religious and economic rights” over the proposed mining area, this marked a victory for the Kondhs. This marked a victory for the Forest Rights Act too, without which this battle for survival couldn’t have been won.
What else does this reflect? That one need not fight every battle with a gun as the Maoists do and justify it by saying that there is simply no other effective way. The primitive tribes of the Niyamgiri has demonstrated how patently false that position is. Interestingly, the Kondhs never allowed the Maoists, who have a strong presence all around the Niyamgiri, to infiltrate their ranks or take any part in their fight.
Here we reproduce the report:
Tribals put faith in Gandhi’s humbug
Maoist apologist Arundhati Roy might debunk non-violent assertion of rights but the Kondhs are saving Niyamgiri without firing a shot.
Six years ago, when the government acquired his farmland to let a multinational corporation, Vedanta, set up its alumina plant at Lanjigarh in Orissa’s Kalahandi district, Kumti Majhi, a 50-year-old Kondh tribal, discovered a facet of his character he didn’t know existed. He turned to violence. He led mobs to attack the Vedanta officials and government servants who accompanied them. Even the policemen. He pelted stones at them and chased them wherever they went. He was jailed but that didn’t deter him. Once out, he led more such violent mobs until the cops swarmed his village and set up camps all around the alumina plant.
But when, in 2009, Vedanta started blasting a part of the Niyamgiri hills, the hills Kumti Majhi and thousands of other tribals call their home and worship as their god, he turned to violence again. He picketed at the spot and refused to leave his god to the designs of the multinational. He had to be forcibly taken away to the jail again. But he succeeded in stopping the company from completing its access road and conveyor belt to the hilltop which it wants to mine for bauxite.
Those were the worst days of his life. “I was scared. Vedanta will grab Niyamgiri like a monster. It will take away our dongar (hill), our stream and all the fruits, roots and herbs that Niyamgiri gives us. How will we survive? Niyamgiri is our very life!” Majhi recalls the disturbing thoughts that engulfed his heart and mind.
He has sobered down since then and seems more at peace with himself. He has found a hope that he can save his god and himself without taking on “the monster” physically. That hope came in the form of social activists and local politicians who told them about a new law the ‘sarkar’ had devised for them.
“They said we will get land. They said the forest will be ours, the dongar will be ours. We will not be harassed or taken away from our forefathers’ land. I didn’t understand it fully then, but it gave us hope,” Majhi recollects. That was mid-2008. A few months earlier, in January, the Forest Rights Act had come into force.
Once, as the founding president of Niyamgiri Surakhsya Samiti, Majhi led violent mobs. Now, he helps villagers in setting up forest rights committees to stake their claims and takes round of forest and revenue offices to expedite processing of these claims.
Sitting in his low-roofed hut in Kendubarali village that overlooks the particular hill that Vedanta wants to mine and located half a km away from the alumina plant, Majhi explains how his life is linked to the Niyamgiri: “It takes care of everything. I grow millet, sometimes rice on small patches of land in the area. My family and I go to the dongar to collect kanda (a root), kendu, jackfruit, amla, mango, mahula, honey and herbs. Niyamgiri provides us water and shelter. It sustains us and protects us.”
The Kondhs, like other tribals, worship nature and for them the Niyamgiri personifies their almighty Niyam Raja, the Law Maker. He is worshipped once a year, in February, for which all the Kondhs gather at a few sacred places and sing and dance for days together.
Nestled in a quaint corner of Orissa, the Niyamgiri hills span three districts – Kalahandi, Koraput and Rayagada. Part of the Eastern Ghats, these hills are green and a rich source of biodiversity. They are also the source of two major rivers of the area, Vamsadhara and Nagaballi, and 40 mountain streams that irrigate the flat plains below. These hills have been home to primitive Kondhs – the Dongaria Kondhs and the Kutia Kondhs. The Dongarias live on the hills and the Kutias at the foothill. Kumti Majhi is a Kutia Kondh.
The Kutias number around 6,000 and can be found elsewhere in the state but the Dongarias (close to 8,000) are found only on the Niyamgiri. Both tribes practice rudimentary jhum (shifting) cultivation and largely depend on the forest for survival. The Dongarias are more primitive. Once a week, they descend the hills to visit the ‘haat’ at the foothills for essential goods. The Kutias have more interaction with the world outside.
Though not too far from the district headquarters of Rayagada (40 km) and Kalahandi (60 km), the Niyamgiri and its people lived in another age, another time, largely untouched by the civilisation until Vedanta arrived here in 2004 and changed everything forever. The alumina plant robbed them of their pristine silence, their clear blue sky and the clean air. Lanjigarh is now covered with a cloud of dust and smoke. Hundreds of trucks carry bauxite every day from far off places like Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Now the companny wants to mine the Niyamgiri, threatening the very survival of its people.
The Dongarias live mostly on the other side of the Niyamgiri that comes under Rayagada district. Like Majhi, they too are anxious. Sindhey Wadaka, a middle-aged Dongaria, lives in Khajuri village, about six km up the hill and about 10 km from the nearest traces of civilisation – Chatikona in Bisscum Cuttack block which has grown around a small railway station by the same name. “Mining will open up Niyamgiri from its head. The trees will die, the streams will die. Where will we get our food? Who will we worship?” she wonders aloud.
Travel a couple of km up the hill, on a road that was probably built by the British and has never been repaired, you reach Kurli, another Dongaria settlement on a hill. Its woman sarpanch, Subardani Wadaka, is worried about the developments. “The air is tense. The educated youth are demanding jobs. If Vedanta gives them jobs, they will not oppose mining,” she says, adding that her heart, however, is with their god, their protector. Literacy rate is very low among the Dongarias (8.9 percent) but the educated youngsters are demanding, and even aggressive, about what they want.
After the forest rights entered their consciousness, violent attacks on Vedanta are quite rare though. Both the tribals and their chief ‘tormentors’, the forest and revenue officials, are busy measuring and mapping the hills these days to settle the claims. Bharat Bhushan Thakur of the Janakalyan Sanstha, who has played a key role in educating and helping Kumti Majhi and others to claim their new rights, says it is possible to achieve their objective of preventing Vedanta from mining the Niyamgiri by using these rights.
“The tribals have historical and cultural possession of the dongars and the forests. They are not encroachers. They are the owners. This ownership will be legalised by the Forest Rights Act. Their main demand is no mining in Niyamgiri. If mining is allowed, the forests, the streams, the villages, the people and their culture everything will be destroyed”, he says.
He knows it is difficult for the primitive tribals to exercise their right. That is why his associate Gunasagar Nayak lives among Kumti Majhi and others in their village helping them to claim their rights. He tells them how as an individual they can seek the right to land on which they live, the forest patches where they do jhum cultivation and the surrounding forest in which they collect fruits and other things. He also tells them how collectively they can claim rights over a larger area – their places of worship, cremation ground, their kalubasa where they gather for social drinking, the dongars beyond their village which they collectively scout for their needs and the streams that gives them water.
Most of nearly 200 settlements in and around Niyamgiri have now claimed individual rights. The community claim has only come from 50 villages. Some of the claims have been partially settled. Majhi had claimed five acres of land individually and his village Kendubarali had claimed 300 acres collectively. He has got 26 decimil (100 decimil is equal to one acre) of the revenue land but the forest part of the land he has claimed is yet to be settled. The community right of the village too is pending.
Shindey Wadaka of Khajuri had claimed 72 acres but got only five acres. Neither she nor anyone from her village has claimed community right, because they don’t know about it. In Kurli village also, some individual claims have been settled partially. No community right claims have been made there yet.
Implementation of forest rights is certainly tardy in the Niyamgiri. But Kalahandi district collector RS Gopalan says he has already granted 995 individual rights and 90 community rights elsewhere in the district. Under the community rights, he says he granted over 10,000 acres of forest land to 90 villages--that is an average of more than 1,000 acre of forest to each village!
He promises to do the same for Niyamgiri too. “We will do the field surveys and check the records. Even a scrap of record showing that they have been living there will be enough.”
The tribals haven’t had it easy so far. For one, the officials play tricks. Majhi points out how in his village the local officials granted only the revenue land, not the forest land. So, the villagers got small plots ranging from 25 to 27 decimil each.
But the Janakalyan Sanstha stepped in and pressed for the forest land too. This will now be granted after the mapping.
Poor knowledge of the forest rights, both among the tribals and the officials, and absence of forest surveys and records have also proved to be the stumbling blocks. Rayagada sub-collector Ravindra Pratap Singh admits his men are not yet familiar with the subject. “That is why even in individual cases we are not rejecting any claim. We are sending them back for re-verification. We will soon start a gram panchayat-wise awareness campaigns. Once the individual claims are settled, we will take up the community claims.”
As far as official records of habitations are concerned, especially in the forested areas, Orissa has very bad reputation. A government report, “Draft Final Report on the Survey and Settlement Operation in Lanjigarh Ex-zamindary area of Kalahandi District, 1976”, makes a telling point. It says: “In the current settlement operation, all areas other than reserve forests and the protected forests demarcated for reservation have been surveyed.” As is quite clear, the state blindly declared forests “reserved” without checking for human habitations and so the tribals became “encroachers” of their own homes overnight.
This callousness has endured. Even when the Vedanta project came up nobody cared to consult, let alone take the consent of nearly 18,000 people living in and around the Niyamgiri who are directly affected by it – as the law of the land requires. The Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 specifically provides for mandatory consultations and consent for anything that affects the tribals and their environment.
The truly heartening aspect of all this, however, is that these tribals--Kumti Majhi, Sindhey Wadaka and Subardani Wadaka--have not taken up arms to fight for their survival. They have put their faith in the law of the land, howsoever flawed its implementation may be.
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