Tribal community takes on a global industry

Parvinder Singh

Living in a forest zone halfway between Kolkata and Chennai, the Kondh tribe of India’s Orissa State are trying to preserve their sacred hills from the ambitions of a large mining company 

A long-running battle by a determined local community living in Orissa, to prevent a major mining conglomerate from developing the bauxite that lies under their sacred hills has become a kind of extended David and Goliath saga. Most of the story has unfolded in the small town of Lanjigarh, but several key episodes have also taken place in New Delhi and London. 

Sterlite Industries, the Indian arm of UK-based Vedanta, recently went to the Supreme Court of India with a petition. It wants a reversal of the Indian environment ministry’s order withdrawing environmental clearance for mining at Niyamgiri. Last year’s order by the environment ministry had raised hopes that the Niyamgiri hills – a forest reserve with rare biodiversity, fast-flowing streams and a population of elephants – would be left untouched. 

The local Kondh tribe, which regards the hills as sacred, is not alone in this predicament. It is estimated that around 8 percent of India’s indigenous populations live in some of the country’s highly resource-rich areas. 

Bratindi Jena, an activist who has had close links with the campaign since 2003, describes last year’s decision as another positive moment in a long series of successful and not so successful encounters.

Jena was instrumental in bringing Kondh representatives to London for Vedanta shareholders’ meetings. This representation brought to life the stories of an indigenous community and its struggle to save their gods. 

The existing alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, built to process the raw bauxite, continues in business, despite repeated criticisms from NGOs and state agencies over infringements of the rights of people and of environmental laws. However, several of the group’s shareholders have withdrawn since the issues hit media headlines. The peaceful but dogged Niyamgiri struggle is rare in a democracy that leaves many unrepresented as the government continues to promote industrial growth at all costs. The campaign has continued to draw in supporters and sympathisers. 

In June, at the onset of monsoon season, there were reports of a breach in the containment pond at the refinery, which is a red mud pond of toxic residue. Local people took photos on their mobile phones that were splashed across the news channels and social media. The risk of contamination and claims of years of exposure were highlighted once again. As the Niyamgiri struggle has survived, it has only grown in strength as an example of a fight against those who put profits before the rights of people. 

Survival International

About the author:

Parvinder Singh is the Head of Communications of ActionAid, India


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November 22, 2011 9:50 am

It goes without saying that there is an excessively ingrained and unequal hierarchy of power and wealth in India, it would just be such a huge and momentous acheivement if the KOndh tribe could retain their rights in the face of a multinational corporation. As we watch, wait and hope, there remains the opportunity for the Indian govcernment to do the right thing and send a strong message to the rest of the Commonwealth that its people still hold some worth against industrial growth.

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