Wednesday, Oct 04, 2023

Development At Cost Of Human Lives? Revisiting Adivasi Resistance In Mali Parbat, Niyamgiri Hills

Development At Cost Of Human Lives? Revisiting Adivasi Resistance In Mali Parbat, Niyamgiri Hills

Throughout history, the sacred geography of Adivasis has been taken away by organised discord and state machinery. And the ongoing land conflict in Mali Parbat is an extended string of what followed in the fights to save the Niyamgiri Hills.

Locals of Mali Parbat during a protest march.
Locals of Mali Parbat during a protest march. Rajaraman Sunadersan

The locals of Mali Parbat --- predominantly Adivasis, Dalits and Bahujans --- have had one unified demand for the past two decades, “We shall die, but not allow Mali Parbat to be mined”.

Located in the Pottangi tehsil in the Koraput district, Mali Parbat sits on mines of bauxite rocks, a source of ‘profit and development’ for big corporates. Hence, the surrounding forested lands, rich with vegetation and a source of 36 perennial rivers, have been eyed by the Aditya Birla Group-owned Hindalco since the early 2000s.

In 2003, the mining giant received its mining lease from the Odisha State Government to carry out bauxite mining over 268.11 hectares of land, which is almost equivalent to 375 football fields, with a capacity of 6 lakhs tonnes of bauxite per annum. The industry also received its first Environment Clearance Agreement (ECA) in 2006 which lapsed in 2011. However, since then chains of events --- illegal mining, protests, court cases, violence, and criminal charges --- have gripped the villages and lives of locals struggling to save their native and sacred holy land. 

Odisha holds over half of India’s bauxite reserve and 95 per cent of it lies in its southeast region in what the mines department calls the Eastern Ghats Mobile Belt (EGMB) --- a reason why vast swathes of forests have been cleared for mining in Koraput, Rayagada and Kalahandi resulting in large-scale displacement and migration of Adivasi and Dalit communities from this region. In 2006, a report by the nonprofit Centre for Science and Environment found that Odisha had cleared more forests than any other Indian state for mining, with half a million displaced, predominantly Adivasis.    

Throughout history, the sacred geography of Adivasis has been taken away by organised discord and state machinery. And the ongoing land conflict in Mali Parbat is an extended string of what followed in the fights to save the Niyamgiri Hills. The state’s failure to recognise the rights and interests of tribal minorities protected under the Fifth Schedule is a reflection of the politics of sacred geography or more precisely politics of rights.

The sacred land of Mali Parbat 

Atop the Mali Parbat is the abode of Pakuli Devi, the supreme ancestor of Adivasis, Dalits and Bahujans. “Right at the centre of the proposed mining area is a huge cave, Patripakhan, that can almost house around 2,500 people at a time. Inside it, there is a massive stone mound which is worshipped as Pakuli Devi, the deity of the locals of Mali Parbat,” Sharanya Nayak, an activist based in Odisha tells Outlook. Every summer (April), holy rituals along with religious festivals are held around Patripakhan by the locals which include Paraja, Kondh, Gadaba and Mali communities

With the mining into effect, the symbol of their religion and faith will be completely wiped away. “Mali Parbat is sacred to us. Our deities reside there. It is literally impossible for us to think, live and work without our Mali Parbat,” often says Bijay Khillo, Dalit leader and President of Maliparbat Surakhya Samiti (MPSS).

From 2012 to 2014 Hindalco carried out illegal mining and tried to build an access road from Kankadamba village, in the foothills of Mali Parbat to the cave. Locals saw this as a major threat to losing their sacred place as if the mining giant wanted to begin by uprooting the soul of their faith. 

Resisting the destruction of their sacred land, the locals cry, “You can relocate the idols of your hundreds of gods and goddesses but can you relocate nature and its resources? Can you relocate an ancient cave that has been a source of faith for thousands of people?” 


Locals of Mali Parbat holding a protest march.
Locals of Mali Parbat holding a protest march. Rajaraman Sundaresan

The battle so far: Public hearings deemed unfair 

On January 7, 2023, for the third time in a row, the mining proposition has been rejected by the locals of 41 out of 44 villages of Sorishapodar, Khudi, Dalaiguda and Pakhajhola panchayats in Similiguda block, resisting a loss of identity, lands, home, culture and ecology. 

Running at only 2.2 per cent of its capacity in the years it mined bauxite, Hindaloco Industries lost its ECA in 2011. However, the mining giant resumed its bauxite mining through illegal means but the same had to be halted due to stiff protests from the locals. 

In 2007, the government of Odisha executed a 20-year mining lease across Mali Parbat to Hindalco, which got environmental clearance in 2006 and started mining in 2008. Around this time, the Mali Parbat Surakshya Samiti (MPSS), spread across about 40 villages, came together around this time and their strong opposition led to the halting of mining in 2010. 

A decade later, in 2020, Hindalco once again applied for the renewal of the ECA following which in April 2021, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change permitted a public hearing for environmental clearance on the project.

In September 2021, the Odisha Pollution State Control Board (PSC) held a public hearing in Kankadamba village, one of the pro-mining villages, making it the first public hearing. However, it was disrupted by protests from locals who alleged that barricades were put up to bar entry and the meeting was held by unfair means in the presence of around 30 platoons of paramilitary forces. Nearly 30 youths, including a minor, were arrested and taken into custody to break the “community’s will”. 

Eventually, the hearing was officially deemed cancelled by the Koraput district collector following clashes between pro and anti-mining protestors as the meeting started before the time at 9:30 am and many locals were not allowed to enter the venue after that.

Hence, a second hearing was necessitated on November 22, 2021, which was however saw a repeat telecast of the scenes from the September hearing. In a report by The Bastion, a local Adivasi said that the public hearings in September and November felt “more like police-sabhas rather than public sabhas,” where the crowd was overpowered by military forces. 

Following this, a writ petition was filed by a few Mali Parbat villagers along with environmental activist Prafulla Samantara based on which the Odisha High Court, on December 1, 2022, stayed the November public hearing as well.  

A two-person bench headed by Chief Justice S Muralidhar and justice MS Raman at the high court in Cuttack said the district judge will supervise the next public hearing on the case to ensure free and fair proceedings and would be held on January 7, 2023.

Although the state machinery, PSC, reported to the media that hearings were concluded with peace, in the days ahead of the meetings, platoons of police and paramilitary forces would enter into 20-25 villages till late at night to make “public announcement” for the upcoming hearings.

“It was evident that it was a mere act of intimidating people in the guise of public announcement,” the locals tell Outlook.

In one incident, on November 18, 2021, P K Mohapatra, the inspector-in-charge of the Semiliguda Police Station issued notices under section 149 (prevent from committing a cognizable offence) and section 107 (keep security for maintaining peace) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) on 51 predominantly Adivasi and Dalit residents of 11 villages, reports Article 14. The report adds that over the weekend, several of those who were served notices were made to sign undertakings that they would not be part of any meetings or ‘unholy gatherings’ or become ‘party to any act which is not in the interest of the common public, directly or indirectly’. 

Two days ahead of the third hearing, on January 5 the police drafted their own format and forced prominent leaders of the community to sign an undertaking, which was deemed ‘undemocratic and unconstitutional’. Again, the same act was repeated in November 2021. 

On January 7, nearly 70-75 out of 85 locals, who spoke at the hearing, protested against the mining proposition and the minutes of the report have been sent to the HC. However, leaders of the movement fear that the court will now conclude the same as a ‘free and fair hearing’ and the minutes would be sent to the PSC for further decision on the matter. 

“But does that mean a roadway to mining? No. Despite a 20-year-long opposition, if the Ministry consents to the ECA, we’ll take this up with the National Green Tribunal, the Supreme Court,” Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Prafulla Samantha tells Outlook. Adding along similar lines, Sharanya says, “As long as the hills are there, as long as Hindalco is there and as long as people are there, resistance will continue.”


Locals raising slogans during a protest march to resist mining on Mali Parbat.
Locals raising slogans during a protest march to resist mining on Mali Parbat. Credit: Rajaraman Sundaresan

Uncanny similarity with Niyamgiri Hills 

Despite the existence of special constitutional and legal provisions for safeguarding the rights of tribals to land and also special affirmative action provisions for the STs, they continue to remain the most displaced, most vulnerable, and most impoverished of all groups in India. And another example of it is the resistant movement to mining in the Niyamgiri Hills in the districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada in the southwest of Odisha. The Niyamgiri case is one of the most infamous industrial projects plagued by land-related conflicts, alongside South Korean company Posco’s abortive steel project in Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha.

Niyamgiri Hills is home to Dongria Kondh, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, who had unanimously voted against a project by state government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) and Sterlite Industries which wanted to mine bauxite. The villages’ decision followed a landmark Supreme Court verdict on April 18, 2013, that vindicated the decade-long movement. The court said forest clearance for the mining project, which had been withdrawn by the Environment Ministry in 2010, could be given only after taking the consent of the gram sabhas, or village councils, in the region in tandem with the Forest Right Act (FRA). Meanwhile, Samantara filed a petition with the Supreme Court’s panel governing mining activities, becoming the first citizen to use the legal system in an attempt to halt the Vedanta mine.

Following the chain of resistance and justifying the reason for resisting mining in Mali Parbat, Samantara says that it is a clear violation of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act has not yet been implemented in the region. 

“Where is the political agency of the Adivasis? Although the region falls under the Fifth Schedule, people’s rights here are consistently overlooked. And it’s an outright violation of PESA and how the government is consistently turning a blind eye to even basic protections is a concerning trajectory,” Samantara tells Outlook. 

Development at the cost of human lives

“What ‘development’ are you talking about at the cost of human lives? Why is the idea of development deeply rooted in labour-driven, class-driven, wage-driven industrialisation? Isn’t agro-based activities that have flourished livelihood for centuries, not development?” asks Sharanya, who reinstates that the idea of development in the name of profiteering stems from a belief system opposed to a “self-sufficient, dignified” livelihood.

The rivers of the lush-green lands of Mali Parbat, often called the ‘vegetable bowl of Odisha’, nourish the Kolab River, which is the lifeline of the locals. Along the lands, people heavily engage in cultivation and agro-activities that are their source of livelihood. 

Mali Parbat is also said to be the home of the endangered population of Pangolin and over 100 species of birds that would be detrimentally impacted by the mining project. Hence, recognizing the importance of this land, since 2003,  the Adivasi communities, Dalits and Bahujans of the Koratpur region have begun their resistance, matched by MPSS, to oppose the mine and assert their constitutional rights.

Samantara points out the environmental degradation that comes with the idea of ‘development’ and how, over the years, the government has been auctioning bauxite mines without the knowledge of mine dwellers. There are 740 such conflicts affecting more than 7 million people across India, according to Land Conflict Watch, a research and reporting project that maps land conflicts across India.

“Why do you want to impose your packaged profit as development on native dwellers while undermining their way of lifestyle,” he tells Outlook sighing at how the issue around land conflict and displacement has failed to become a political agenda. 


Jema Pujari at a public hearing.
Jema Pujari at a public hearing. Rajaraman Sundaresan

Raising her voice in one of the public hearings, Jema Pujari, a Paraja elder women leader, MPSS asked, “Who is the company trying to fool? When I was young, NALCO was set up in Damanjodi (just a few miles away from Maliparbat) we lost our lands, and now there is no water to drink and our agricultural lands have perished. I was married to a person from Mali hills. Now Hindalco company wants to take away our lands and forests!”

While the fight to protect the vibrant agro-economy of Mali Parbat and similar lands and hills continues, Pujari, notes her feelings on resistance --- "Jetiki kamaibu, setki hagbu" (roughly translates to, “You only shit the worth you earn”). 



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