A Mountain That Will Not Bow Down To Corporate Loot
‘We will die if we don’t fight’
NIYAMGIRI HILLS, ODISHA: On May 15, Dadi Kadraka, an activist with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (the Niyamgiri Protection Council or NSS) which has put up a relentless fight against the corporate destruction of the Dongria Kondhs’ revered god Niyamraja, was arrested from the Muniguda market in Rayagada.
Human rights groups and local activists have condemned Kadraka’s arrest, saying the charges he was booked under, including the Arms Act and alleged links to Maoists, are baseless, and that Kadraka was an ordinary resident of Dhamanpanga village in Munikhal gram panchayat.
Local activists submitted a memorandum protesting the arrest to Rayagada Superintendent of Police Sarvana Vivek M. on May 27.
Kadraka’s friends and family are worried given the “three days’ brutal torture” the police allegedly perpetrated on him after “abducting” him in October last. The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti says Kadraka found it difficult to walk for days after, and that the police simply left him somewhere near a station after torturing him.
Kadraka’s rearrest follows the violent death in March of Dani Batra, a 40 year old Dalit rights activist and contract worker for Vedanta Limited’s aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh, and the arrest of NSS leader Lingaraj Azad the same month.
Such arbitrary arrests and torture have driven fear into the minds of citizens affected by the corporate giant Vedanta, as they watch the state police and administration succumb to the pressures of profit and arms.
“We gathered to demand the education and jobs that the company had promised. We gathered around 6.30 in the morning at the refinery gates and concluded our peaceful strike at 9.30 after assurances by a company official,” residents of Rengopalli and Chhatrapur told members of a factfinding team from Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression that visited the area from March 23 to 27.
I accompanied that team. Residents of Chhatrapur allege that the police charged the peaceful protesters. They say Dani Batra, who received severe beatings in the lathi charge, ran into a pond nearby to try and escape, but Odisha Industrial Security Force personnel dragged him out of the pond, broke his hand and legs and crushed his genitals before throwing him back into the pond, where he died.
“I have yet to receive the declared compensation of Rs.25 lakh, education expenses for my sons and a permanent job for me, as promised in a written assurance on behalf of H.K.Bhatia, Vedanta’s Human Resources Manager who met me on March 18 after Dani’s death,” says Batra’s wife Sayindri Batra.
The death of OISF personnel member Sujit Kumar Minj has further complicated the matter, with fingers being pointed at the workers for getting violent. Lanjigarh police have reportedly arrested six people and named the residents of Chhatrapur “and others” as suspects.
An Ongoing Struggle
CRPF Camp at Trilochanpur
Since March, the residents of Trilochanpur have been resisting a Central Reserve Police Force camp set up near the local gram panchayat office, against several resolutions of their gram sabhas, by forcefully evicting four Adivasi families who had been cultivating that land for generations.
They report that the Vedanta Alumina Company acquired around 3,000 acres of land in 2004, in Rangopali, Potagada, Bundel, Bandhuguda and other villages, with promises of giving jobs and education to their children. It has yet to fulfil these commitments, they say.
Meanwhile, “elected representatives and activists of the NSS were summoned to the SP’s office and told in no uncertain terms that their opposition to setting up a CRPF camp would not be taken well by the administration.”
This despite the fact that “a series of gram sabhas held in Trilochanpur Gram Panchayat was concluded in October 2018, and the records substantiate the resolutions passed by the people rejecting the setting up of the CRPF camps,” according to Prafulla Samantara, a noted human rights activist and environmentalist based in Odisha.
Land acquisition in Kenduburudi and Jagannathpur
Residents of Kenduburudi and Jagannathpur are opposing the acquisition of 50 acres of their village land for setting up a rehabilitation colony for families displaced from Rengopalli, Kotduar and Bandhaguda, and for another permanent CRPF camp.
They say this acquisition is in addition to 1,000 acres forcibly acquired from this village in 2005-06. Residents say they have still not been adequately rehabilitated and recompensed for the earlier forcible land acquisition.
Construction of red mud pond at Rengopalli
Several women at Rengopalli talked about the impending forced evictions there, and the health hazards confronting them from a red mud pond under construction. “We face regular health issues like burning eyes and nose, skin infections, contamination of food and water, etc. due to the dust that flies into our village from the pond built by Vedanta very close to our village. We have not got any health facilities from Vedanta for the health problems we are facing,” say residents of Rengopalli.
They are compelled to rely on Vedanta because in 2009, the state government’s Lanjigarh Area Hospital was reportedly “contracted out” to Vedanta Alumina Limited. Women in Rengopalli say the company’s hospital does not have good doctors or medicines whenever they do manage to go there.
In inspection reports published between 2006 and 2009, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board highlighted multiple instances of Vedanta’s failure to set in place pollution control measures and meet the conditions stipulated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the OSPCB itself as prerequisites for the environmental clearance granted to the bauxite refinery.
The Business of Government
Vedanta has faced no punitive action for these violations. Residents say that nearly everyone who was threatened, arrested, detained, kidnapped or murdered was an active member of the Niyamgiri movement.
“The police are going from village to village and scaring people. They are framing false cases on all those people who are fighting against the company for the sake of their people and the country,” says Lado Sikaka, an NSS leader in Lakhpadar.
“They picked me up and broke one of my fingers. The first time they picked me up, they took me to Rayagada and kept me there for four days and beat me up a lot. Last time, they picked me up around Bhador (September-October 2018) when I had gone to Lanjigarh to sell oranges. They took me to Muniguda police station at noon and kept me till 5 in the evening. They never told me why I was detained.”
A young woman, Kuni Sikaka, says the police forced her to surrender as a “Maoist” after kidnapping her from her home one midnight in 2017. She didn’t want to sign any papers and is angry with the intimidation she and her family have had to face.
“I don’t know what was written in the papers they wanted me to sign. Dodhi Pusaka, my father-in-law and a leader of the NSS, was made to sign some blank papers. The police knew I was NSS leader Lado Sikaka’s niece. They said they thought Lado and Dodhi would surrender if they took me and that is why they caught me.
“Why was I picked up so late at night?” asks Sikaka.
Women in particular feel unsafe with the CRPF presence in the forests here. Kumodini Vadaka, a woman leader from Patanpadhar, says “We are scared to go to the market or to our forests alone now. The CRPF people constantly come and ask us if we have seen Maoists and whether we are protecting them. They even thrust their rifle butts into the stomachs of my elderly parents.”
Women in Lakhpadar, Patanpadhar, Ambadoni, Dongamati, and Gorata have similar experiences to share. According to an elderly woman from Dongamati, “It was very nice, earlier. We were free. We could go to the forests and collect whatever we wanted. We were leading a very happy life. Now, when we go, there are a lot of police forces inside the forest. They question us about whether we have seen Maoists.”
Another woman in Dongamati slowly speaks up. “The women used to go to take a bath alone, earlier. Now we’re only able to go in groups. We are scared. We also feel scared to visit our people in other nearby villages when there’s a celebration, because the CRPF men come and threaten us.”
Not a single resident I spoke to had seen a copy of the FIR filed against them, or a chargesheet, or any other case documents pertaining to them, even after spending years in prison.
Siram Naik, a resident of Dongamati, says “In December 2018, when I had gone to welcome the Samvidhan Samman Yatra (Respect the Constitution March) organised by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, I was called to the police station and told by the subdivisional police officer that there is a warrant against me.
“We don’t know why they want to arrest us. We think it’s because we are fighting for our land and forest rights and for justice.”
On condition of anonymity, lawyers in the town of Bhawanipatna who are familiar with the cases say that most people charged aren’t aware of the cases filed against them. The lawyers say they are paid by Vedanta to represent such clients and ensure they aren’t acquitted.
Lingaraj Azad, who was arrested in March and later released on bail, says the movement here against land grab and pollution doesn’t have the resources to employ lawyers who can keep track of the many cases being filed against their people.
“I didn’t know the status of the cases filed against me before I was recently arrested again, in connection with a case filed in 2017. I am being pressured to stop protecting our rights,” says Azad.
The big media barely report any of these testimonies of gross human and civil rights violations. A few journalists say they want to maintain their freedom but face immense pressure, and shared on condition of anonymity that even the police have given them strict orders not to report violations from Niyamgiri.
“There are people who have been bought over by the company, to stop asking for their rights. We have lost lives like Drika Kadraka from Ambadhuni village, who was detained and later committed suicide because of police torture. However, all of us will never stop fighting for our Niyamgiri. We will die if we don’t fight,” says Lado Sikaka.
With parent company Vedanta Resources looking set to be pushed out of the Koncola Copper Mines in Zambia, and with its Sterlite Copper Plant in Tuticorin shut down by the Supreme Court after a long popular struggle, hope seems eternally alive in young protest leaders like Siram Naik.
“We are fighting against the Vedanta company which wants to sell our mountains and forests. We will not leave our God, our villages, forests, and mountains. The Vedanta company wants these rocks and what lies underneath to make itself a profit. However, they don’t realise that life giving nature is more important.”
March 2019. Women in Niyamgiri get together and sing about how one of their young men, Mando Kadraka, a student of Class 10, was killed in an alleged fake encounter by security forces when he went to the forest to fetch toddy for the Annual Niyamgiri Parab in February 2016. The song also mentions other leaders of the movement who have been fighting for their constitutional land and forest rights and to protect their mountains, their god Niyam Raja.