Dongria Kondh tribals in Odisha are in news for their successful struggle against the multinational corporation, Vedanta, seeking to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite, needed for its copper refinery in the state. An Oxfam-sponsored study, “The Niyamgiri Story: Challenging the Idea of Growth Without Limits?” by Meenal Tatpati, Ashish Kothari and Rashi Mishra of Kalpavriksh, Pune, Maharashtra, points towards how the model of ‘economic development’ being followed in the region has resulted in adversely affecting the community, obliterating its diversity, culture and livelihood. Excerpts:
Although the Dongria Kondh way of life has always been experiencing changes due the increasing interaction with the outside world, the market economy and the onslaught of the threat of an extractive industry has brought about stark change in the Dongria Kondh world. They also acknowledge that while they have been successful so far in keeping the ‘company’ away from mining the Niyamgiri hills, there are other forces that they identify as similar to the company, that are rapidly changing their way of life.
Through the years of the struggle, they have been articulating their interdependence with the Niyamgiri hills. Several reports show that they consider their way of life allied to the ‘sacred law’, as prescribed by Niyamraja which disallows unsustainable exploitation of the forest and the land at the behest of greed; theirs is an ‘economy of restraint’. They refer to Niyamraja as provider and keeper of the forests. Alongside Niyamraja, the most important deity is dharani penu (earth goddess).
The entire cycle of sowing and harvest is controlled by dharani penu who is to be revered before and after the farming season. Natural elements, water, stones, rocks, animals are all thought to have a soul, which is to be revered. Thus, the polytheist, animist belief is guided by the proximity to the moods and rhythms of nature, commanding respect for and cooperation with natural forces. This is reflected in the way of life practiced by the community and in their socio-cultural relationships. The Niyamgiri hills, abode of Niyamraja are thus entirely sacred, and the daily practices of life, habitation and subsistence are thus deeply integral to the sacred life-giving capacity of Niyamgiri.
Losing Niyamgiri has been likened by many Dongria Kondh to losing their identity. The Dongria Kondh culture and identity is intricately linked to them being Niyamraja’s kith and kin. The name Dongria is an Odiya term for people of the hills. But, the Dongria identify themselves as Jharnia, the protectors of the many streams of Niyamgiri. This deep belief of being guardians is manifested through their unique forest management techniques employed in the agricultural practice. The trees at the top of the hills are never cut, since they consider these to be the abode of the pantheon of gods and goddesses, and these are also the origins of streams and protect the loss of soil and water during the monsoon.
They cultivate over 20 varieties of millets on their podu fields, apart from lentils and oilseeds. In the 1970s, they were introduced to horticulture and have started growing pineapple, oranges, lemons, and bananas on a large scale, which they sell in the markets41. They believe that this bounty is provided by dharani penu, the earth goddess, who must be worshiped before sowing and after harvesting the crop. Before sowing all the villagers bring their seeds to a kutumba gathering where the bejuni offers these to dharani penu.
They also collect a variety of forest produce including siali leaves (Bauhinia vahlii), bamboo shoot, wild ginger and turmeric, mushrooms and tubers, a variety of green leafy vegetables and fish and mollusks from the numerous streams; this included till recently, several hundred wild foods. Some of these are sold. The community practices traditional forms of healing, with herbs and other substances available in the forests. The community has traditional healers who have a deep knowledge of nature cures. In Niyamgiri, as is the case in almost all tribal tracts, livelihoods and culture are thus intricately linked to and inseparable from nature; a trait of the submission to and management of hill dwelling tribes of their natural terrain.
The Dongria consider the whole of the Niyamgiri hills to be their territory, presided over by Niyamraja. Traditionally, the Dongria Kondh territory was divided into distinct geo-cultural landscapes called padars belonging to each clan. However, with independence, much of the area of the Niyamgiri hills has been classified as reserved forests, without the actual process of ‘settlement’ of rights being carried out. Due to this, there are no clear tenurial rights over the forest.
In this context, juxtaposed with the struggle against the mining of the Niyamgiri hills, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act or FRA) emerged as a strong tool with which the community could articulate their identity and way of life as being linked inextricably to Niyamgiri and the forests of Niyamgiri. In the landmark judgement of April 2013, the Supreme Court hailed the provisions of the FRA and upheld several constitutional provisions regarding the protection of schedule tribes in Indian law. The court pointed out that the religious and cultural rights of the Dongria Kondh as recognized under the FRA, were not put before the community over the land to be mined for bauxite, for their ‘active consideration’. Thus, it ordered the state of Odisha to place these issues before the Dongria Kondh.
In July and August 2013, gram sabhas were organized in 12 villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts by the state, and all the 12 villages rejected the mining proposal. Prior to the palli sabhas, in 2013, the Odisha state government illegally prepared a report of the community claims over minor forest produce, grazing land, podu fields etc. The reports were placed before the villagers during the palli sabhas ordered by the SC. The villages however, rejected the community claims and individual claims over minor forest produce, grazing land and podu fields that were placed before them. This was because the claims over land and resources put forward by the officials were divided, classified and measured into measured categories like grazing land, sacred spots, streams.
Changes in the way of life
The Dongria Kondh are aware that to a large extent, money has become a necessary factor to live in the Niyamgiri hills and interact with the outside world. The Dongria Kondh explained that their need for money someyears ago was only for a few essentials such as cloth, salt, oil, weddings, community festivals, etc. They acknowledged that the dependence on money has increased over the years, largely owing to the inflated prices of cloth and other commodities and in some cases to keep up with the increased need for money, young men have started to migrate in search of jobs, while in others, there is an increase in cultivation of cash crops and horticultural produce, and in the sale of firewood to establishments in near-by towns.
Another aspect of the challenges they face comes from the influence of the outside culture and ‘modern’ living which is increasingly alluring the youth. As discussed earlier, the increasing inroads of the monetary economy has created needs that were not significant earlier.
The effects of the bauxite refinery in Lanjigarh have also begun to be felt in the Niyamgiri hills. The Dongria elders believe that the Langigarh refinery that spews smoke is affecting the local climate. Elders also complained of streams drying up and the pollution affecting the weather patterns in the region. Earlier, swidden fields would be on hills some distance away from the village. But, insecurity and harassment at the hands of security forces (who regularly ‘comb’ the area using the pretext of ‘naxalite’ activities) has to some extent derailed their traditional patterns of agriculture; since they are loath to wander far now, they have had to increase cultivation of hills near the village, in turn leading to large-scale deforestation.
Locals also admit their helplessness at the largescale felling of trees for sale by both the Dongria Kondh themselves and outsiders as well in nearby markets to meet the need for money. There was an attempt to prevent tree felling by outsiders some years ago by creating protection teams from different villages, but the immediate need to prevent the mining from taking place did not allow the community to take this forward.
Easy access to certain ‘goods’ and ‘services’ through government schemes has begun to change their way of life. Rationed goods, especially rice through the Public Distribution System has changed their food consumption pattern, away from millet production and consumption, which they have been self-sufficient in. The Dongria Kondh once had 45 to 50 varieties of millets, now they are down to less than 10, due to completely stopping or reduced cycles of shifting cultivation, increase in cash cultivation, and partial replacement by rice.
This and a gradual reduction in consumption of wild forest foods, could also be leading to nutritional deficiencies, which are becoming apparent in villages closer to the towns compared to those deeper in the forest. Ever since the refinery went into operation in 2002, the active local opposition to the refinery and the mines has heightened the presence of para-military and police personnel. The Central Reserve Police Force has been playing a major role in intimidating the community, restricting its members’ movements and disrupting the communities’ way of life. Such threats are intertwined with all aspects of their lives.
Since early 2015, the government of Odisha under the agenda of anti-maoist enquiry has been using the para-military and the local police force against the Dongria Kondh. Three serious cases of police atrocities and unlawful arrests have emerged. On the 28th of November 2015, Drika Kadraka of Dhamanponga village, a member of the NSS committed suicide after being repeatedly picked up and tortured by the local police.
On the 27th of February this year, during the annual gathering of the community to celebrate the Niyamraja parab (Niyamraja festival), Mando Kadraka, a 20 year old student was murdered in cold blood, allegedly in combact with para-military forces. The state of Odisha is yet to provide any evidence of Mando being involved in any maoist, anti-state activity. On the 7th of April 2016, Dasru Kadraka of Gorota village was arrested from Muniguda town on charges of arson, murder, attacking para-military forces during combing operations. Such threats and coercion of the community with a population of less than ten thousand people raises serious doubts as to whether it is being purposely done to break their continued resolve to oppose the mining of the Niyamgiri hills and fragment their movement.
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