7th June, 2016. A seven day padyatra (foot march) involving occupants of up to 112 of the remote villages of the Niyamgiri hills ended on Sunday in Jaganathpur (Lanjigarh). The padyatra, led by the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and indigenous leaders from the villages, amplified demands to decommission Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery and celebrated the recent victory when the Supreme Court turned down Vedanta’s appeal to the decisive 2013 referendums which had put an end to mining plans on the mountain, as well as protesting the ongoing harassment from the company and the colluding state government and police forces. Various local and national Indian media covered the major event which ended in a large rally on World Environment Day, 5th June. The Orissa Post reported that:
Coming down heavily on the government, Loda Sikaka, a member of the Samiti, said the government has unleashed a reign of terror on the foothills of Niyamgiri by deploying platoons of paramilitary forces and special operation group japans.
CRPF and SOG jawans, instead of checking Maoist activities and providing security to inhabitants, kill poor tribals under cover of encounters. They misbehave with tribal women, loot their houses, domestic animals and poultries, lodge false cases against innocent people by branding them Maoists. The most worrying factor us that the government is conspiring to snatch the livelihood of tribals by leasing out the hills to Vedanta for bauxite mining.
The procession aimed at gaining public support against alleged anti-tribal activities of the government. It also aimed at urging the government to ensure sustainable development of the region while keeping the ecology intact.
The fighting is not limited to this specific region. It is a struggle of the humanity to protect nature and civilisation, Dadhi Pusika, another member of the Samiti, said.
While one procession started from Biswanathpur under the block, the other started from Chatikana. The rally that started from Biswanathpur was led by General Secretary of Samajwadi Jan Parishad, Lingaraj Azad. Another rally that started from Chatikana was led by Satya Mahar, a senior member of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.
The rallies will cover areas like Kurli, Khambesi, Kunakadu, Lakapadar, Lamba, Dangamati, Tadijhola and Palberi.
These villages include the twelve which were chosen by the State government to vote in referendums in 2013 on whether Niyamgiri should be mined, and where it was unanimously rejected in scenes that turned these remote hamlets into a global stage filled with press and armed police. In 2013 a previous major padyatra had made villages aware of the upcoming precedent palli sabhas (village referendums) on whether the mountain should be mined for bauxite.
On day two of the march Kshetramohan Pradhani, a ‘land looser’ from Gopinathpur who lost his land to Vedanta’s railway, electric and water pipeline complained that he has neither been paid for the lost land nor fulfilled with the promise of a job in the company. Whenever he raises the question, the police picks him up and detains illegally for several days in false cases. “We have been beaten by contractor Ajit Das of Vedanta, who beat Madhaba Pradhani, a fellow land looser was almost killed by him”, he said. The Odisha Sun Times reported participants shouting slogans against Vedanta and oppression by the police working as agents of the company.
“We will continue our struggle for the protection of Niyam Raja. We will rather sacrifice our lives than allow mining in Niyamgiri. We will continue our struggle till Vedanta moves out from here,” said Dongria Kondh participant in the rally.
On day five villagers in Basantpada, Kotdwar, Dengasargi and Bandhaguda near Jagannathpur (Lanjigarh) exposed the atrocious corporate social responsibility record of Vedanta, testifying that they have also lost their land but never received jobs or replacement land. They celebrated the breaking of a wall built by Vedanta which had blocked access to their village for more than ten years, and declared that they are finally building a road to their village.
On day seven Vedanta funded groups started a parallel padyatra for World Environment Day claiming ‘Zero tolerance for illegal wildlife trade’. The final rally declared Niyamgiri a ‘no mining zone’ in which no bauxite mining should be allowed, and participants vowed to continue fighting to protect the mountain. The rally included various NGOs from nearby cities who also made statements to the press claiming their involvement in the longterm struggle. A week earlier Dongria Kond Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti youth leader Subash Kulesika made this statement about the involvement of NGOs, academics and film-makers who have capitalised on or taken credit for their movement:
“I would like to bring to everyone’s attention that the Niyamgiri movement has become a point of great attraction for all sorts of NGOs and professional saviors. These NGOs didn’t create this movement and have rather always tried to destroy it. We have built this movement with our blood, sweat and tears. We live in great financial difficulties and it is a complete mockery of all our efforts to see some people making a project out of our lives and sacrifices to make money. They don’t want to help us in getting bail for our arrested activists. They are never around when our leaders fall unwell. They have not made any contribution ever to our movement but they come running to attend our Ghati Parbo to take pictures, write project reports and what not. We don’t want their solidarity or their sympathy or their outrage. We don’t want to be turned into their art projects either. They should stop this drama and if they want to help at all they should ask us what we need and not use our movement to fulfill their own needs.”
The NSS said as long as Vedanta Group continued to operate alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, the police would target innocent tribal youths by branding them as Naxalites to break the unity. “We demand the refinery complex of Vedanta Group at Lanjigarh, which does not have law material source and is operating in violation of environment norms, be shut down,” said Lingaraj Azad of the NSS.