Few knew about the Dongaria Kondhs in Odisha until the State decided to mine their hills for bauxite a decade ago. The tribals resisted the move but a massive aluminium refinery came up in the foothills. By then, the prospect of lush hilltops being ripped open by miners attracted many counter-stakeholders. NGOs and activists quickly adopted the ancient tribe’s cause. The Dongaria Kondhs and their Niyamgiri became an international symbol of an indigenous people’s fight against State coercion and corporate greed.
But life has not changed for these tribals. And for all its romance, life in Niyamgiri is far from idyllic. There are no roads, no health centres, no schools, nothing. The state provides 7 kg of rice to each tribal every month. The hills provide the rest, at a steep cost. Drinking water has to be fetched from streams. Basic healthcare is taken care of by traditional medicines. Anything bigger usually means death. In most villages, women outnumber men who often die young.
Though the involvement of so many non-governmental players has not made life any easier in Niyamgiri, the leadership of the anti-mining movement blames the government for abandoning these tribals. Decades after Independence, when the State finally reached Niyamgiri in the beginning of a new millennium, it did not bring healthcare or education along. “It came to rob these tribals on behalf of a company for money. I hope they (the tribals) give a fitting reply tomorrow,” said Lingaraj Azad of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti on the eve of the first palli sabha that was held at Sekarpadhi, a hamlet of 46 voters, on 18 July.
Azad has not been disappointed. Allowed by the Supreme Court to decide if mining will violate their rights, the Dongaria Kondhs have unequivocally rejected Vedanta Aluminium Ltd (VAL). The pro-mining lobbies pinned their hope on the only non-Dongaria village among the 12 selected by the Odisha government. But on 23 July, even the Goud community, traditional herdsmen who are OBCs, of Tadijhola said no to mining. With the first four palli sabhas setting the tone, it is unlikely that the remaining eight will buck the trend. Guiding me to Sekarpadhi, a candid village youth claimed that “nobody supported the company” and “if anyone did, the rest would tear him into pieces”.
What strikes one the most at Niyamgiri is the unanimity among the tribals. In most other similar campaigns, the younger generation, or at least a section of it, aspires for the so-called good life and fights their elders’ resistance to giving up traditional livelihoods. This generational shift in attitude is usually triggered by the youth’s exposure to modern education and gadgets. A pro-development non-tribal resident of Lanjigarh, where VAL has built its mega refinery, rued that “the State and the company were in a hurry and did not push education and modern amenities such as gas cylinders”. Simply building roads and setting up grocery shops, he claimed, could make a difference.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official in the Rayagada district administration agreed that the State missed its chance. “NGOs have a reason to discourage education and keep them (the tribals) in those remote miserable villages. This way, the Dongarias remain wary of the outside world. We have started working. But by the time the State schemes make any difference, it may be too late for the project,” he said.
While a number of Dongaria Kondhs complained about the highhandedness of the security forces, they were not really worried about lack of education or infrastructure. Emotionally attached to the Niyamgiri, they are doing everything in their power to defeat the mining plans. But the dilemma about their future remains. Mining is not the cost they should have to pay for the basic development every community deserves. Yet, if and when it reaches Niyamgiri, will development with all its trappings make them feel differently about their hills? Or will the Dongaria Kondhs find a way to escape the worst of two worlds?