The Woman and the Mountain

Kado Dei’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about the day her husband didn’t come home. Her small child angrily tries to find her breast through a dirty, faded sari.

“… My husband had gone to distribute leaflets for a meeting against The Company… he had gone to five or six villages… When I put on the rice water to boil, I got a message that there was a dead body in the road, so we all rushed there… it was Sukru, my husband”.

Her husband had been run over by a car that was allegedly driven by employees of Vedanta, a company that her husband, and it seems much of the whole area, was campaigning against.

“Before, the Company people had come and asked us to vacate the village asking how much money would we take for our acres of land but we said that we would not leave our Mother Earth… ”.

“The Company has come here to kill us - they are not worried about killing people… the driver bribed the police and the matter was dropped… ”.

“Now for food, I have to go from one door to another… I don’t have food all the time and I am dependant on the village every time they are eating, they call me and give… ”.

According to Bratindi Jena, an activist who works closely with what the Indian government call ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ to whom Kado and her husband belong, there have been several incidents of violence against those vocal in opposition to “The Company”.

Near to Kado’s village, a man and his son wash their water buffalo in a stream. The animals lurch and turn with languid pleasure in the clear mountain water as they are gratefully scrubbed with grasses and leaves.

The stream is part of the Vamsdhara River, one of two that flows from the Holy Mountain of Niyamgiri in the Karlapat Hills in Orissa - one of India’s least developed states.

The area is home to an extraordinary and varied range of wild and largely endangered species. Lions, tigers, elephants and all manner of rare flora and fauna can be found in the dense forest. It is an area of extraordinary natural beauty that is protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act. The area is also home to several tribes of ‘Original Peoples’ (pre-Aryan) that have special status under Indian law. The Dongaria Kondhs, Kutia Kondhas, Majhi Kondhas and Jharania Kondhas live here in about 200 villages near the forest and the streams. They worship the Mountain as a living God.

Indeed, according to Mukul Rohtagi, senior counsel for Vedanta Alumina Limited (VAL) at the Indian Supreme Court earlier this year, the bauxite reserves in Orissa and Niyamgiri Hills are the largest in the world… which is why they have spent the last several years building an enormous aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh village right in the Niyamgiri plains and now plan to mine bauxite from the mountain.

Vedanta Resources, a UK registered FTSE-100 company headed by an non-resident Indian Anil Agarwal, has so far spent in excess of £400m on the project and the company claims to have invested heavily in the local community through training schemes and schools and even a resettlement village where those who lost their land to the development were re-housed.

The Vedanta ‘village’ is a compound of mostly empty concrete two room houses surrounded by a barbed wire fence where displaced tribal people were resettled after their land was acquired for the initial building work at the plant. On a recent visit it is clear that the occupants have simply left, unable to cope with their loss of land and traditional way of life.

Lanjigarh itself is now a dusty company town and at the guarded gates of the plant, tin shack liquor stores sell local hooch to the villagers. Heavy earth moving equipment pushes tons of soil above a ridge overlooking the smelter chimney that already coughs a steady flow of black smoke across the surrounding hills. Inside the perimeter wall you can see a huddle of tree tops - all that’s left of the patch of forest once used daily by the Lanjigarh villagers.

In Kankasarpa village, Dabu Majhi, a formidable woman in her fifties sits with other women in her mud and straw home. It is a large airy building, its floor cool and smooth. A chicken and her young are shooed away while the women crouch around the painted porch.

“When the factory starts, the company will take over our forest… the smoke will fill our skies”.

She and her son recently travelled to Damonjordi, (NALCO) an area in Orissa near to another Aluminium factory.

“There was flying ash falling on the fields and the people did not sleep well because of the noise. I saw skin diseases on the children and the adults… ”.

“We know that there is a lot of property (sic) inside the mountain that the company has come to loot. They will kill the lions and the tigers and destroy the forest to get into the mountain… ”.

“We do not know exactly what is in the mountain but we know that it is precious… ”.

“This is our place, we have been here for ten generations… if we leave, where will we go? Who will take us? We will become beggars”.

At present, there is enough food here. The Tribals enjoy a symbiotic relationship with their mountain based on low intensity farming and gathering fruit and flowers, especially the Mahua which can be eaten or used medicinally.

Damba Majdi is a widow. In the shade of her porch she sits on her haunches with a neighbour’s child, turning her grinding stone, milling flour. She has the distinctive nose jewellery of the tribal peoples and composure of one who is proud of her faming talents.

“I grow makka (maize), beeri (black gram), mandia (ragi) and paddy (rice).”

“I plough the land nearby - I used to have more but the company took some of the land away; that land was much more fertile. We had really good paddy there… ”.

“If the factory starts operating we cannot stay here anymore; our streams and forests and crops will be destroyed and we are dependent on Niyamgiri for water.”

“Company people came here with papers they wanted us to sign: they promised us houses, roads, money and water… they promised us showers and toilets inside the houses! But this is how we live we are happy with this life… look at all this” and she pulls back a tarpaulin that covers her grain store with a flourish “I harvested this from my land - can the Company guarantee this?”.

“What will happen to our children? Will they get jobs? They know how to plough, grow food and collect from the forest and what jobs will the women get? And if they give us money how long will that last?”.

Indeed, as Arirudha Dutta, a senior investment analyst with the CLSA, a leading equity brokerage has said the problem in India has always been between to create industrial growth against decades of government indifference to its people:

“Tribal people do not have the education to get jobs at these plants. They sell their land at government determined prices and then end up working as contract labourers”.

Vedanta has claimed that it has sent at least 40 youths to college. However, according to the locals, not one has subsequently found employment.

“They are making fools of the people,” says Sidharth Nayak, a local lawyer and chair of the Sachetan Nagarik Manch, a group of community representatives and local activists who are supporting their case

The United Nations Development Programme says that in Orissa perhaps 100,000 families have been displaced since Independence and about two million have been affected in varying degrees because of industrial development projects. In this bleak, post-displacement landscape, women and girls often end up working as daily wage labourers, domestic servants or prostitutes. The women also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.

These concerns are voiced by more than 40 women speakers who have gathered under the banner of the Adim Adhikar Surakshya Manch in a clearing near Bijapur.

Frail looking Tribal women take the microphone in turn and address the overwhelmingly female audience of perhaps several thousand squatting cross-legged under the midday sun. Some have walked 25 kms just to be here. The women’s shrill, weak voices cause the microphone to squeal and pitch but the messages are clear. Says Maladi Dei, 38, from Amguda village:

“Since the company came liquor has been flowing much more… many more liquor shops have come”.

Gater Dei, 40, from Palaberi village follows her: “We don’t have enough to eat because the men are getting drunk… ”.

Under a tree nearby, men cook lunch in huge vats for the women from the donations of food and money they have brought from their villages. The handfuls of rice and dahl and the odd tomato or potato soon add up. There is so much food three sittings have to be arranged.

Currently there are three separate complaints against Vedanta (trading as Vedanta Allumina Limited in the Supreme Court case and Vedanta Resources PLC in its’ Annual Reports) being heard by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of India’s Supreme Court. The CEC was set up by the Supreme Court in 2002 with the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Solicitor General of India. Its task is to monitor and ensure countrywide compliance of the orders of the Supreme Court on forest conservation issues.

Both the Wildlife Society of Orissa and Academy and Mountain Environics filed petitions towards the end of 2004. A third petition was filed by an activist, Praffulla Samantara. All the petitions allege environmental violations on a range of counts. Key amongst these is the illegal diversion of forestland and construction of road in a wildlife sanctuary for bauxite mining and questions over the initial “permission” for setting up the refinery violating Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.

The initial Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) permission indicated that there was no diversion of forest land for refining. Evidence however appears different on the ground. Fifty eight hectares of forest land has been diverted for the non-forest use of the refinery, for which the company has allegedly not sought clearance. Furthermore, the District Collector of the area, through a notification issued in 2002, has stated that in total 118 hectares of village forest land is required for the refinery project and steps have begun for its acquisition.

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 it is mandatory when forest land is involved in any project that clearance be sought from central government before the project commences. It seems that the Orissa state government had given the environmental clearance despite these violations. That Vedanta has constructed the refinery already may be in violation of the law. The mining, smelting and Aluminium Plant parts of the project are obviously linked (one feeds the others) yet Vedanta has sought separate permissions for all three thereby allegedly underselling the environmental impact of its plans.

Indeed, The Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee Report in September 2005 on Forests stated that: “The casual approach, the lackadaisical manner and the haste with which the entire issue of forests and environmental clearance for the alumina refinery project has been dealt with smacks of undue favour/leniency and does not inspire confidence with regard to the willingness and resolve of both the State Government and the MoEF to deal with such matters keeping in view the ultimate goal of national and public interest.”

Jagadi Maji Dei, 26 is an unlikely heroine to the story. A young woman married to a truck driver, she was elected because she says that: “I was educated to 8th standard” (in a region where people are generally illiterate) I was already married in the village so it was seen that I wouldn't leave… I said that I would do their work honestly and that we are working against the company… ”.

As Sarpanch (head) of her local Panchayat (governing body), when she takes over responsibility she plans to move a resolution in opposition to any further activity on the part of Vedanta to the local Parliament, the Gram Sabha which is responsible for making decisions about Tribal resource management. The resolution will be submitted to the Governor of Orissa, officially custodian of the tribal people, and it is his decision that will decide the outcome to the whole issue.

According to Babu Mathew, a law professor and director of anti-poverty agency ActionAid, the Vedanta case is part of a wider trend of evictions and displacement: “India has one of the world's best constitutions when it comes to protecting the rights of vulnerable groups but this seems to have been forgotten in the pursuit of industrial growth.

“While the national economy is booming and India has more billionaires than any other country in Asia, rural and urban poor are being displaced from their homes, land and livelihoods. Families who were once managing to eke out a living, now don't know where their next meal will come from".

“The encouraging thing is that these very same people - tribal groups, agricultural labourers, crafts people, fishing communities - are coming together to resist such attacks. In Orissa's neighbouring state of Chattisgarh for example, tribal women have prevented their forest from being felled and now have the backing of the courts".

“Communities resisting Vedanta have already enlisted the support of local and international lawyers and activists. Let's hope that we can soon celebrate similar success here".

Bratindi Jena, a local activist, has said that she can legally see no grounds for the courts to continue to accept “flouting of the procedures prescribed in the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, and the will of the people”. Further, “We are planning a huge interstate demonstration that even Delhi will hear… ”.

Kado Dei's child has begun to cry. “We worship Mother Earth by sacrificing goats and buffalo, and offering clothes to the priest… you see, Mother Earth is inside Nirangiri Mountain… and we want to stay here and to keep worshipping her".

It remains to be seen whether the courts will listen to her…

© Stuart Freedman