As the sun sets on the lush hills above Serkapadhi, a village of just 22 families and about three kilometers from the nearest motorable road, nervous excitement creeps up like shadows. In a huddle of villagers, veteran Lingaraj Azad of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and young Sibram Ulaka of the Congress take centre-stage. Extraordinary times forge unusual alliances and the two leaders are here to “ensure that the simple tribals speak their mind and don’t feel intimidated”.
A few women start a fire away from the two solar lights under which the men sit in circles. Further up the slopes, invisible CRPF jawans form a ring to stave off Maoists who have not made clear their stand on mining these hills yet. Volunteers arrive to camp for the night in solidarity with the Dongria Kondhs. The stage is set for the people’s court to decide on the fate of the Niyamgiri hills and Vedanta’s Rs 40,000 crore bauxite mining project.
Following the 18 April Supreme Court order that asked the state to honour the ancient tribe’s religious and other rights within three months, the state government notified on 2 July that palli sabhas would be held at 12 villages in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts between 18 July and 19 August. Once accepted, the claims of rights will be sent to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests which will take a call on allowing mining in these hills. Serkapadhi will be the first village to decide on Thursday.
Despite severe criticism of its selection of only 12 out of 162 villages in and around Niyamagiri for holding palli sabhas, the state government stuck to its decision after Odisha’s Advocate General (AG) backed the decision. Even Union Minister of Tribal Affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo was overruled. He had written to the state government, arguing that limiting Gram Sabha proceedings to only 12 villages was not in accordance with the Supreme Court order and directions issued by his ministry under Section 12 of Forest Right Act (FRA).
“The list of villages where rights of forest dwellers are guaranteed under the FRA or where cultural and religious rights are likely to be affected cannot be arbitrarily decided by the state government. It is to be decided by the people (Palli Sabha) where claims would be filed through a transparent manner so that no genuine Gram Sabha which has a legitimate claim is left out of the process,” Vibha Puri Das, secretary, MoTA, had written to the state chief secretary.
Many see a deliberate ploy in the state’s selection of a dozen tiny hamlets to settle the Rs 40,000-crore issue. “It may not be without reason that a few smaller villages have been chosen, leaving out the bigger ones. We do not know what the government is up to. For example, Ijiurpa, one of the selected villages in Kalahandi district, is non-existent. It has only one non-residential family and no voters,” claims Samajwadi Jan Parishad’s Azad.
This is intriguing because the SC appointed two district judges of Rayagada and Kalahandi as independent observers to ensure that “only registered voters are present during the palli sabha”. Says Rayagada district judge Sarat Chandra Mishra, “I will have no say in the proceedings of the palli sabha or how it is conducted. I will just observe and send the minutes to the SC.” All the palli sabhas will be recorded on camera.
Many fear that heavy security and a large contingent of state officials may intimidate the Dongria Kondhs who are known to be reclusive and shy. “Of the 300-odd families in these 12 villages, more than 80 percent are very clear in their mind. They will never support Vedanta but they may simply get overwhelmed by so many outsiders during the meeting. Also, a lot will depend on the interpreters because most of them speak only Kui, their tribal language, that no official will understand,” says Azad.
In fact, given their experience with Vedanta and a high-handed administration, activists here are never short of conspiracy theories. Sibaram Ulaka, Rayagada Youth Congress president and son of former state minister Ramachandra Ulaka, claimed that the government deliberately chose 18 July for the first gram sabha anticipating that the media and public attention would be focused on Lord Jagannath’s Bahuda yatra. “The first meeting may set the tone for the entire process. We hear a lot of money has already changed hands. We are alert to every possibility and trust the villagers not to walk into any trap,” says Ulaka.
On the eve of D-day at Serkapadhi though, there is little indication of any prevarication. Brandishing
his new cycle, Damodar Kardarka dismisses the possibility that “the company” may manipulate any support here. “Young or old, we would rather die than give away our mother,” he says, thanking “the hills for giving him everything – food, water and shelter”. Young Kardarka’s boldness is infectious as even Serkapadhi’s women open up to strangers. “Nobody messes with our god. Tomorrow we will show them the door,” snaps Rupa Jakesika, who, with her grandson in the lap, listens in rapt attention to the men.
Since the April judgement, Vedanta has been maintaining a cautious silence. Terming the proceedings as “issues between the state and the central governments”, Vedanta Alumina chief operating officer Mukesh Kumar refused to comment on the company’s expectation from the forthcoming palli sabhas. However, the company’s 1 million tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi resumed production last week after seven months of closure.
The Maoists, known for their influence in the region, have not spoken either. “That is one veto power that can swing anything here,” warns a Kondh villager, “We hope they stay out of it.”