Hill dwellers, nature lovers

Hill dwellers, nature lovers


Hill dwellers, nature lovers

Exercising their democratic rights, the Dongria women gave a big thumbs-down to the controversial Niyamgiri bauxite mining project, finds out Sarada Lahangir

By fearlessly exercising their democratic rights and freely participating in the gram sabha meetings, the Dongria women gave a big thumbs-down to the controversial Niyamgiri bauxite mining project mooted by a multinational corporation that wanted to mine bauxite ore in 660 hectares of the Niyamgiri hills to keep its alumina refinery going.

Pro-eco tribals

It is quite clear that Dongrias, especially its women, are not to be brushed aside as unsuspecting, illiterate tribals who can be persuaded to give up their entitlements. A major sect of the Kondh, a primitive tribe, they mostly stay in high hills known as Dongars, and call themselves the descendents of Niyamraja (The King of Law), the presiding deity of the Niyamgiri hills. Protecting the environment is their calling and they see themselves as the guardians of the hundreds of perennial streams that flow from these hills. For sustenance, the Dongria Kondhs are primarily dependent on this natural habitat.

Power intervention

The problem in the Niyamgiri hills began in 2003 when a British multinational, signed an agreement with the state government to extract 70 million tonnes of bauxite from the mountain range. Today, red mud swamps seen in this area are an indication of the devastation that was wrought in the name of development.

The Dongrias have witnessed this rapid destruction near Lanjigarh and have, therefore, opposed the proposed mining in Niyamgiri.

Tribal triumph

On April 18, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, directed the forest-dwellers of Niyamgiri ranges to take a final call on whether bauxite mining would indeed infringe on their religious and cultural rights. The state administration had been under the impression that they would be able to manipulate the verdict in their favour. But thanks to the efforts of women like Parbati Gouda, of Ijurupa village, who came out in large numbers to participate in the gram sabha meetings, the tribals were able to assert their democratic rights.

Women of the hills

It is the Dongria women who bear the major burden of keeping the family and the community going. They work in the fields, do household chores, take care of the children and, when required, find the time to get together to raise their voice for what they believe in.

An emotional Gouda recalls the gram sabha that was held in Ijurupa in end-July, “I told the government officials and the district magistrate present quite clearly: Where will we go if the hills are mined? And even though you may shift us to a city to make way for the mines, where will our wild leopards and bears go?’”

Democratic victory

According to Lado Sikoka, President, Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti (NSS), a tribal body opposing mining, “The Niyamgiri is much more than a mountain; it is a living God, a life source, thriving ecosystem. We do not even cultivate on the hilltop as a sign of respect for the spirit within the mountain. So mining is certainly out of question!”

Concludes Bhalchandra Sarangi, advisor to the NSS, “The unanimous voting by the Dongrias, the overwhelming number being women, could have been the only logical end to their protest. It’s a victory of democratic rights over the interests of the powerful.”