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Niyamgiri vs Vedanta: Tribals learn to film as state may bar media

The morning after the first palli sabha at Sekarpadhi, a few villagers in neighbouring Kesarpadhi intently scanned some Odiya dailies. Not the headlines but the photos to check how familiar faces look in print.

In a corner, one made a lively fire to cook chicken and rice for the visitors. The rest debated their options for the second palli sabha on 22 July. A morning tippler emerged from a hut and ambled across the common yard, rehearsing his spirited speech aloud. A couple of youngsters, worried that the perpetually drunk elders would mess up the palli sabha, vowed to axe the salaf trees – a variety of palm prized for its intoxicating sap -- of the village.

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Villagers in Kesarpadhi scanning local Odiya dailies. Image: Jay Mazoomdaar

In an instant, the can’t-touch-our-Niyamgiri speech changed to a can’t-deny-me-salaf protestation. After all, it is the ‘national drink’ of Niyamgiri. Within minutes, others chose sides. Some would have come to blows had a few activists not intervened. But the edginess hung in the air. Within 24 hours of rejecting Vedanta and staking claim to the entire Niyamgiri hills, the Dongriya Kondhs are worried that Serkapadhi village stopped short of scrapping altogether a recent government verification report that restricted their cultural and religious rights to village peripheries.

“They agreed to sign when a sentence was inserted at the end of the resolution to record that villagers claimed religious and cultural rights on the entire hills. But the resolution also validated a report that claimed to have settled all such rights by identifying areas within the village boundary. We don’t know if the government or the court will misinterpret that. We cannot afford to give Vedanta any excuse to sneak in,” an activist of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) translated, as Dongriya Kondh villagers discussed the issue animatedly in Kui, the tribal dialect.

Guttu Sikaka, husband of Parsali sarpanch Telo Sikaka , who was picked up and detained by cops for five months as a suspected Maoist, knows anything is possible. “They asked me to show them the Maoist hideouts. Later, my wife and I were threatened with dire consequences if we did not sign the papers notifying these palli sabhas when we opposed the selection of just 12 villages. They also offered us Rs 2000,” alleged Sikaka, accepting that he took the money because “a panchayat office holder was anyway bound to follow government orders”.

The state officials, however, are equally worried. A Rayagada district official, who was not authorized to speak to media and did not want to be named, regretted the pressure created on the judge by a media overdrive and the presence of too many activists and tribals from other villages at the first palli sabha. The administration, say sources, is hoping that the Bhubaneswar and national press will not stick around. Anyway, it plans to bar outsiders by barricading access routes before holding the remaining palli sabhas. Several officials have already gone on record blaming the activists and politicians for tutoring and instigating the tribals.

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An elderly villager at Ijirupa, a desolate Kalahandi village. Image: Jay Mazoomdaar

That seems to be a loaded charge because not a single Dongria Kondh this reporter spoke to wanted mining in their sacred hills. But, being illiterate and shy, most of them are hesitant to speak before strangers. Even the few vocal ones talk mostly in rhetoric without claiming specific rights or articulating how mining activities will affect those. In all fairness, they need a little handholding and encouragement to express themselves in an intimidating formal set up. “We are here to ensure that the tribals are not cheated. They are very clear in their mind but need help to make their points in ways that are legally effective. Calling this tutoring is sheer paranoia,” says Bhala Chandra, a CPI-ML leader.

But with Rs 40,000 crore at stake, and the life, livelihood and religion of several thousands, that paranoia seems infectious. As news arrives that three alleged Maoists were killed in an encounter in the district, an NSS activist claims that this is one of the state’s ploys to intimidate the Dongria Kondhs. “When they hear such news and see so many cops in their village, it makes them worry about the consequences of their fight,” explains Bhala Chandra.

Another activist claims that the govt is building houses at Ijirupa, a desolate Kalahandi village with no inhabitants, to get the palli sabha there rigged. But then who did Rahul Gandhi meet when he famously flew down to this very village in 2008? There was a family there at that time, comes the answer. This reporter found the same family still living at Ijirupa later in the day. Lavanya Gaur, the eldest, emphatically dismissed Vedanta as a “fondi (fraud) company” and his wife Srimati echoed the popular sentiment: “nobody touches our hills”.

There are indeed two new structures in this village of four hutments. Gaur claims that he, not the government, got those erected for family use. The numbers do not add up, though.  Gaur said there were “six more families who keep visiting” and his granddaughter Sulochana counts the total population as 27. While Srimati remembers Ijirupa had eight voters in the last election, an NSS activist claims that the local press reported 80 voters on government records for the Ijirupa palli sabha.

A few kilometres away, Phuldumer village is also preparing for its D-day: 29 July. Vedanta has brought piped water to this village surrounded by massive mango trees but the villagers are not impressed. Young Tongra Majhi went all the way to Sekarpadhi on Thursday to watch the first palli sabha. He claims the experience will help him. “I will say at our palli sabha that we don’t want mining anywhere in Niyamgiri hills. Wherever you slash the body, eventually, it will bleed to death,” he says.

Aware that outsiders, including the media, may not be allowed at palli sabha venues anymore, NSS volunteers are ready with Plan B. At Kesarpadhi, they teach village youths how to use a video camera so that they can record the proceedings on Monday. As for the fight over those salaf trees, the elders have apparently bought peace by promising moderation. “Nothing awakens the confident speaker in Dongriya Kondhs like a tipple or two,” assures a veteran activist, “as long as they watch their limits”.

On Monday though, Kesarpadhi will be more worried about the state machinery crossing the line.