For people residing in cities, forests are sources of fresh air and weekend getaways. For government and companies, forests are gold mines of raw materials and revenue. But for tribal communities, forests are their homes and their only sources of livelihood. For them, forests are an integral part of their lives. The importance and the faith which the tribal communities repose in their forests are best exemplified by the recent legal battle between the communities of Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha and the British MNC Vedanta. That most of the city dwellers and media were unaware of the whole saga until recently is also illustrative of our attitude and priorities as citizens.
A long battle:
The tribal communities including the Dongria Kondh Adivasis have been waging a fierce and lonely battle against the mining proposals of Vedanta in the forests of Niyamgiri Hills.
- In August 2010, forest clearance for the proposed bauxite mining project at Niyamgiri was rejected by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
- This decision was challenged by Odisha Mining Corporation (which comes under the State government) in the Supreme Court.
- In April 2013, the Supreme Court directed the government to hold gram sabha meetings to ascertain the opinion of the Dongria Kondh community. All 12-gram sabhas unanimously rejected the project, with scores of women and men coming forward and articulating their love, worship and respect for their hills and forests. This unequivocal verdict forced the MoEF to withdraw permission for mining.
- The Odisha Mining Corporation again challenged the decision of the gram sabhas in the Supreme Court in early 2016.
- On May 6, 2016, the Supreme Court rejected the petition of the Corporation and upheld the right and ownership of the tribal communities over the Niyamgiri hills and forests.
That the natives were able to engage a mighty state-backed corporation in such a long legal battle and were eventually able to come out victorious is indeed praiseworthy. But the side battles which they faced at the hands of police forces and sponsored goons are even more shocking and shameful.
Harassment by state:
From the time the gram sabhas gave there verdict, there were many instances of intimidation and harassment reported from the area. Drika Kadraka, a tribal leader, was intimidated by the police and picked up without any charges being filed. Soon after, he managed to get back to his village and committed suicide in November 2015. Dasru Kadraka, another active youth leader who was at the forefront of the people’s movement to protect Niyamgiri, was arrested in April 2016.
It calls for introspection that why the Dongria community had to suffer so much just to protect their homes and livelihood. Why was Vedanta so much oblivious to the plight of the local community that it engaged its people in such a long legal slugfest? Why did Odisha government openly back Vedanta in its bid to occupy the hills? And most unfortunately, how did the media manage to remain blissfully unaware of the entire episode and keep the people in dark until recently?
The Logical Indian thinks that these questions must be pondered upon by us so that we understand the gravity of the situation in Niyamgiri hills and remain aware of such happenings in future. The struggle of the tribal communities to protect their mere existence is inspiring on one end, but the fact that they were all alone in their struggle and were threatened at every step makes it shameful for us.