Aug 192013
 

kondhas men on return from tribal meetingnews update: ”India’s Dongria Kondh tribe has overwhelmingly rejected plans by notorious British mining giant Vedanta Resources for an open-pit bauxite mine in their sacred Niyamgiri Hills, in an unprecedented triumph for tribal rights.” Survival International (19 Aug 2013)

On 18 April 2013, the Indian Supreme Court rejected an appeal to allow Vedanta Resources’ to mine the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite. Instead, it said that local tribal councils themselves should decide within three months whether or not the project should go ahead.

Two months later, it seems that bureaucracy and legal loopholes are threatening to skew the process. 

niyamgiri

Niyamgiri is home to the Kondhas, three of India’s most isolated tribal groups, who live in approximately 200 villages located across the hill range. The largest of these tribes, the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh, has dwelt there for centuries. Along with the other two, the Kutia Kondh and Jharania Kondh, its people enjoy an intimate relationship with the Niyamgiri Mountain.

Amnesty International  described the Supreme Court’s decision as “a landmark victory in recognising indigenous rights in India”. Activists from Foil Vedanta and other grassroots campaigners celebrated in London, but they also suggested that the next stage of the process should be independently overseen as it could be “wide open to abuse by Vedanta officials and state police.” Survival International also expressed a note of caution, stating that “there are serious concerns over the pressures that might be heaped on the community during this crucial time.”

fears being realised

Two months later, it is becoming clear that their fears were not unfounded. Bureaucracy and subtle interpretations of the law appear to be stalling the decision process in Niyamgiri. The Times of India reported on 4 June 2013 that “Despite the Supreme Court’s order, the village councils, or gram sabhas of the Dongria Kondh tribals may not be able to decide upon their traditional and religious rights against the mining interests of Vedanta.”

In a post published on 3 June 3103, Foil Vedanta said that the Supreme Court judges “knew what they had done. Rather than giving a yes or no verdict they had taken the path of least resistance and delivered such a loosely worded judgement that it was wide open to interpretation and abuse – pitting the Odisha government and Vedanta, and the affected people and their supporters against each other once again.”

There’s now a risk that the final outcome for the Kondhas people will lie in the hands of the state government, not the local tribal councils. These twists, turns and legal loopholes are typical of the tortuous journey that they’ve had to endure for far too long in order to protect their homeland and tribal rights.

For more information and background to the situation in Niyamgiri, please visit my original blog, posted on 19 April 2013.  It also explains my personal connection to the story.

Mark Helyar is an author, musician and Co-Director of Theatre for Take Art, Somerset. The revised 2nd edition of Rising from the Dust ~ India’s Hidden Voices is now available in bookstores and online.

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