“My battle wasn’t unique; it wasn’t something that was unheard of. It was for a simple cause – for something that was right.”
As someone who has won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the ‘Green Nobel’, Prafulla Samantara believes that the honour is only a fuel that will assist his cause further.
Samantara, 67, fought to protect a community and its forest land from being consumed by mining activities. He educated the indigenous population of Dongria Kondh of their rights and protected them against massive bauxite mining by Vedanta Resources. He has lived among the tribals of the Niyamgiri hills, battling with them at every step and risking his life.
Samantara’s legal battle is one of the most historic stories of activism in our country. In an exclusive interview with The Logical Indian, he talks about the struggles of the tribe and the role he played to alleviate them.
The cause of the Niyamgiri hills
Niyamgiri is a sensitive ecological part of the eastern ghats of our country which habitats primitive tribal populations. “It is the soul of the indigenous people,” said Samantara.
The hills are a rich source of bauxite, which not only sustains the life of the tribals but also keeps the rivers perennial.
“Bauxite feeds the people of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. It is the reason for the green cover in our forests. Niyamgiri has rich flora and fauna because of this resource – it is the source of livelihood for thousands of people. This is why it was essential that we fight for its sustenance,” said Samantara, elaborating on his inspiration behind protecting the Niyamgiri hills. “Mining would have entirely destroyed its ecosystem, so we united the tribals and the local leaders who fought for their rights by starting a historic movement.”
“Niyamgiri not only needed to be protected for the interests of the tribe, but for the interest of the climate, the rivers and the ecological balance between nature and human beings,” he added.
A struggle of twelve years
Samantara had moved the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2004 to stop bauxite mining in Niyamgiri. A year later, the CEC recommended in his favour and said that construction of the aluminium plant in Lanjigarh be stopped as Vedanta did not have permission for forest clearance. It also pointed out that Niyamgiri came under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits the transfer of tribal land to a non-tribal group. But mining continued with help from the state government as the Supreme Court also revoked the CEC’s recommendations in 2008.
Two years later on 21 August 2010, the Dongria Kondh emerged victorious when a review of the mining project carried out by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) exposed the violation of a number of environmental regulations by the company. A year later, Vedanta’s environment clearance was revoked by the MoEF.
Following these setbacks, the Orissa Government – through the state-owned company, Orissa Mining Corporation – petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the mining ban on Vedanta and to allow six-fold expansion of the alumina refinery. However, the Supreme Court gave a landmark decision in 2013 by rejecting the appeal on the mining ban and decreed that the Dongria Kondh would have a decisive say in giving the go-ahead to Vedanta’s mining project.
“Niyamgiri needs to be kept alive with all its rich ecological properties and its perennial water resources,” said Samantara. “And bauxite plays a crucial role in this. It absorbs the water and springs in out in the summer. It is the soul of Niyamgiri, and Niyamgiri is the soul of the Dongria Kondh tribe,” he added.
“But the battle for Niyamgiri came with a lot of hardships,” Samantara admits.
From the beginning, there were efforts to prevent his movement from taking shape. “The locals were continuously attacked as the police kept silent, and sometimes, even assisted the corporations,” he said.
Samantara used to travel a distance of 300-400 km to Niyamgiri, but he was disallowed from accessing the main road or the local buses. He recalls being stopped and attacked by company supporters and hired goons of the corporates while taking a different route. In the course of time, when his movement grew stronger, the attacks became more frequent.
He received death threats and was physically assaulted thrice. Even his supporters and other local activists were vulnerable to the growing harassment.
“The state and the corporates branded me and my associates as anti-development,” Samantara said. “But we knew that our fight was for something that was right. We created opinions through social media, leaflets and literature. We were successful in mobilising all-India activists, experts and environmentalists who supported our cause. This helped us a lot to overcome the obstacles and the negativity.”
While speaking to a man who has devoted his life to the cause of the indigenous population of our country, a question kept persisting in my mind was – ‘after all these years of protests, has the struggle of the Dongria Kondh finally ended?”
“The protest for the rights of Dongria Kondh wasn’t just a struggle, it was an ideological movement. And an ideology, especially one which demands fair treatment, will always be opposed. Though mining has stopped, the struggle continues,” Samantara explained.
A conspiracy theory
“Innocent tribals are put in jail and false encounters take place,” said the activist.
Last month, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) in Odisha which has been vigorously campaigning against bauxite mining by Vedanta group in Niyamgiri hills was linked to Maoists organisations by the Home Ministry.
The allegation was made following NSS’ efforts in 2013 to hold as many as 12 gram sabhas of Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kandha spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts to oppose any mining activity in the area and safeguard the livelihood of the tribal people.
Two weeks ago, a 20-year old tribal woman, Kuki Sikaka was picked up by the police from her in-laws’ house at midnight on allegations of being an armed cadre of Bunty group under BCN division of outlawed CPI (Maoist) organisation. She, along with her husband, father-in-law and three other relatives, was also made to surrender as Maoists.
“Our struggle started in 2003 and after 2010, there was no presence of Maoists in the area. So how can the Orissa government or the police brand any of the tribals as Maoists? This is nothing more than a conspiracy to instil fear in the minds of the people. It is a way to tell them that the police has the ultimate power. They have been continuously trying to suppress a democratic movement to force the Dongria Kondh out of Niyamgiri,” said Samantara. “Kuki was also arrested because she is the daughter-in-law of an NSS leader.”
“Letting corporates mine in the area is not even profitable for the state government as bauxite is not sold at market price, but sold as royalty. It is not for profit, but for a political agenda. Corporates run our politics now, thus political parties want to fulfil their own agenda to hold their position of power through corporates.” he added.
The need of an integrated national policy
When asked if he believes that winning the Goldman Environmental Prize will assist his cause, Samantara said, “the only thing that will help my cause is a change in government action. Yes, the award gives global recognition to our movement, but that is not enough.”
“Even after independence, we had failed to care for the tribals because a change was not brought in the forest policy. Their rights and their forest were taken from them. Due to people’s movement’s in 2006, we got the forest act which recognises that the forest belongs to the tribals. But because of a corporate friendly government, the state acts as an agent of the companies instead of giving protection and security to the people and the nature,” he added.
Samantara says that the victory in Niyamgiri makes him even more determined to take up other causes as well. Due to constructing thermal power plants and huge dams on rivers, there is displacement of people, degradation of forests and threat to the rivers. As his future goal, Samantara has decided to take up these issues along with the National Alliance People’s Movements.
“We will also campaign to liberate agricultural practices in India from chemical farming,” he said. “But the one thing that will assist all our efforts is a national integrated policy. The government should push for the use of renewable sources of energy like solar and wind power, instead of depending on hydroelectricity. There is a need to protect the environment for our future generations.”
When most of us read or hear about the violence faced by our indigenous population, we feel disheartened, and sometimes, outraged. We question government policies and wonder why, as a country, we remain apathetic to the plight of those who are protecting the nature for us.
But how many of us decide to dedicate our lives to this cause?
Prafulla Samantara believes that a change can only be brought about when our thinking changes. He has risked his life, and continues to do so, to support what he believes in. A man who fights selflessly for the good our country, not only needs to be revered, but needs to be seen as an example of what can be achieved through self-determination.