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Vedanta vs Niyamgiri: How a tiny tribal hamlet said no to mining

Serkapadhi, Odisha: If anything, this morning failed to show the day. Neither the routine nor the festive in the build-up could anticipate the acrimonious drama that was soon to follow. In the end, the historic day that saw the first ever palli sabha taking a call on a Rs 40,000-crore mining project was saved, literally, by the sheer resolution of a tiny tribal hamlet.

The build-up was elaborate. Along the two and a half kilometer walk across a stream from Panimunda to Serkapadhi, it was impossible to spot gun toting camouflage in the lush hills flanking the trail. But the CRPF jawans were there, all five platoons of them, positioned early to create a security cordon around Serkapadhi that hosted a pack of officials, including the district judge.

The irony of this sudden over-representation of the state was not lost on a village where the only symbols of sarkar have been a tubewell, two solar poles and a defunct primary school room. What struck a balance was the presence of a larger contingent of politicians, activists, volunteers, media-persons and big support from other Dongria Kondh villages.

Image by Jay Mazoomdar.

Image by Jay Mazoomdar.

Sarat Chandra Mishra, the district judge of Rayagada and the court-appointed independent observer, reached early, wearing a bullet-proof jacket and riding pillion. Cops rested with boxes of tear gas shells under their feet in the shadow of a jackfruit tree weighed down by its bounty. Then, the solidarity march began. More than a hundred Dongria Kondhs from neighbouring villages arrived, walking single file and carrying axes and sticks, to follow the proceedings that commenced sharp at 11 am with 36 of the village’s 44 “alive voters” making up the quorum.

Immediately, Gobinda Sikaka, an angry village youth in a red T-shirt with ‘Max India’ written on it, launched a sharp-tongued attack on a local official, accusing him of betraying the tribals’ cause in the past, and set the tone for the day. After Mishra assuaged Sikaka promising fair play, more than 20 villagers, majority of them women, expressed themselves like probably none in their habitually shy tribe ever dared. They spoke of Niyamgiri as their god and mother, the source of their physical and cultural sustenance, and vowed to die rather than watch it being ravished.

But the stage for confrontation was already set. On 7 July, local revenue and forest officials had conducted a joint verification of the individual and community rights of the villagers and identified areas of religious importance in and around Serkapadhi. Activists held a press conference in  Bhubaneswar last week, alleging that the villagers were tricked by officials in to sign this report that restricted their rights to the village periphery. As the report was scheduled to be endorsed by the palli sabha, the villagers pressed Judge Mishra to reject it in acceptance of the Dongria Kondh’s community right to the entire Niyamgiri hills.

Policeman resting in Image by Jay Mazoomdar.

Policeman resting in the shadow a jackfruit tree in Serkapadhi.  Image by Jay Mazoomdaar.

As Mishra insisted that rejecting the report would amount to relinquishing all the rights recorded in it, the meeting hit the first roadblock. After some heated negotiation, villagers gave up the demand for scrapping the report and agreed to a resolution that would note their additional rights. While the resolution was being drafted, someone demanded that the villagers were entitled to a photocopy of the signed minutes, drawing a hasty refusal from Mishra.

Then, Mishra made a costly faux pas. “You are acting too smart despite being illiterate. If you had some education, you would have sold the country,” he snapped. Spoken casually, the words angered an already distrustful crowd. A section of the press contested Sharma while some villagers complained of upper caste prejudice. It was chaos.

Meanwhile, the resolution was ready and was read out aloud. It noted the gist of individual speakers’ statements, highlighting their dependence of Niyamgiri, and also validated the state government’s 7 July report. None objected immediately. Before the draft was offered to the villagers for signing, the judge wanted that the details of the quorum be mentioned in it. In those few minutes, Serkapadhi put its foot down.

Insisting that the resolution mentioned their “additional rights”, Mishra got into an argument to persuade the villagers who refused to budge. At this point, a village elder suggested that the villagers would calm down and agree to sign if the judge left the resolution at the table and waited elsewhere. “How long should I wait,” shot back Mishra, “I’ll have to cancel the palli sabha if they don’t sign.” The final round of argument centred on Mishra demanding geographical specifications of the areas where villagers were to claim their right. “You cannot claim the entire Niyamgiri,” he repeated several times.

With tempers fraying, just when it appeared that the proceedings had hit a dead end, someone in the melee shouted that the villagers were not claiming individual but collective right to the entire hills, a point that was made by others several times before. In an anti-climax, Mishra said he was fine with community rights and added a line at the end of the resolution. The villagers, led by headman Indra Sikaka, queued up in relief. All signatures in place by 2-45 pm, a visibly hassled Mishra shouted at the media for trying to photograph the resolution and left in a hurry.

As the exhausted crowd dispersed, the villagers consulted their leaders in nervous excitement. To many, it was still not clear if it was just a technical confusion that delayed the resolution for over an hour. “All’s well that ends well,” I heard a fellow journalist congratulate a bunch of activists. “Wait until all ends well,” one of them waved back with a wry smile. “There are still 11 palli sabhas to go.”

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