Kalaundi- In Odisha, a remarkable tale of resilience and determination is unfolding as villagers in the region confront the challenges posed by corporate interests, illegal mining, and unjust detentions. These communities, nestled near the Sijimali Hills, have chosen to stand up against corporate control, as they fear the adverse environmental impacts of mining projects that threaten their way of life. With a backdrop of escalating tensions, this narrative explores how the villagers of Odisha are defying corporate influence in their quest to protect their land, livelihoods, and rights.
In a recent move, the villagers around the Sijimali Mountains thwarted the attempts of the corporate giant Vedanta to hijack a public meeting convened by the Government of Odisha. According to a report published by the Mulnivasi Samajsewak Sangh, an organization campaigning for the forest rights of the villagers in the Sijimali mountain region, "On 16th October, the local people from the villages affected by the mining began going to the Trinath Dev High School for the public meeting, but the police, deployed in large numbers, stopped the people every 500 meters. The police also attempted to stop them at the venue of the public meeting. The brokers and renters of the company brought from outside were forced to leave the podium and were sent out." The public hearing was held from 10 am to 11.30 am, and 17 to 20 local people all spoke against the Vedanta company; not a single person spoke in favour of the Vedanta company, and more than 10,000 people attended the public hearing.
After this, another public meeting was held at the Kerpai Panchayat Office in the Rampur Block, Kalaundi District on Wednesday, 18th October, 2023. More than 18,000 villagers joined the public hearing , to strongly oppose mining. To prevent the company agents from occupying the meeting place, local people gathered around the village of the public hearing in Kalahandi district early in the morning. They left various villages at 2.30 am and reached the public meeting place at 4 am. Subsequently, at the public meeting which took place from 10 am to 11 am, about 13 to 15 people expressed their views against Vedanta, and no one took a stand in favor of Vedanta.
The meeting was attended by the Additional District Commissioner and the Regional Officers of the State Pollution Control Board. After the meeting held over a span of two days, the officials said that the written and video-recorded complaints by the residents of Bantji, Alipguna, Sagabari, Kantamal, Malipadar, and other villages affected by the mining would be forwarded to the Union Ministry of Environment and the State Government, as they will take the final decision in this regard and cannot make any kind of decision. The Additional District Commissioner did not take questions from the local media or the villagers.
The Mooknayak spoke to Madhusudan from the Mulniwasi Samajsewak Sangh (MSS). He said that there was unanimous opposition to the Vedanta bauxite mining project, as evident from the people's testimony. He further said that the Vedanta company hired goons along with the ruling parties BJD, BJP, and Congress leaders, who brought more than 2000 people from outside villages to hold a public hearing in favour of the mining project. However, they were forced to leave the public hearing as our local supporters, more than twenty thousand villagers, assembled there.
He added, "We are optimistic about the outcome of the meeting and are hopeful that the government will make the decision in the best interest of the Rayagada and Kalahandi people of the affected villages and scrap the mining project. If the government fails to make the decision in favor of the people, we are ready to fight against Vedanta and the government, whether in court or on the streets."
Madhusudan highlighted the significance of the meeting by stating, "The Sijimali Public hearing can be called historic for four main reasons. First, this movement is not organized from Delhi, Bhubaneswar, or by any individual or organization but by the leadership of Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans of the local affected areas, united under the banner of 'Sijimali Suraksha Samiti.'
Second, this movement is not financed by BJP, BJD, Congress, or any other political party, NGO, or capitalist but by the committee of local resident resources and with the help of local, financial, political, and intelligentsia of the Mulniwasi community. Third, the movement is deeply influenced by Birsa, Phule, Ambedkar, Randho Majhi, Chakkara Bishyoi, and other Bahujan mahatmas and not by Gandhi or Savarkar or other Savarna Savior complex ideals. Finally, the movement has opposed Brahminist media that supports capitalists like Vedanta, Adani, and Ambani and has been supported by people's voices media, Ambedkarite media, and social media.
Speaking to The Mooknayak, Kanchan Majhi said, "The police are coming to our village and seizing our traditional weapons, but I want to say that using our traditional weapons, we are fetching wood and leaves from the forest, we are farming, but the police are using batons and guns to sell our Sijimali at the price of fish and vegetables and displacing us."
The report released by MSS is also critical of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023. The statement says that the amendment made during the monsoon session of the Parliament infringes on the legal rights of the gram sabhas in their power to allow or stop any project. The bill has given more powers to the Central Government in forest and land management and drastically reduced the authority of the State government. The Central government has been empowered to declare any activity as a "non-forest purpose."
The report carries the statement of some villagers who aired grievances against the police administration. Kanchana Majhi, a 19-year-old female, says, "The police are prohibiting us from carrying our traditional weapons, they are seizing our traditional weapons. However, the United Nations provided indigenous people with the right to carry traditional weapons on the 9th of August, 1993, and on this day, we celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. No one has died due to the use of our traditional weapons, but the arms of the police have taken lives. She added that the police has slapped false cases on the people, and 22 people are in jail for speaking against corporate exploitation. The traditional weapons include bows and arrows, etc.
Another villager, Namita Majhi, says, "Jal Jangal Zameen are our gods because we are dependent on them for our food, and we will save them at any cost. The people speaking against the corporates have been arrested in false cases. Before this, Larsen and Toubro came, but we pushed them out of our region, and we will not be deterred by the intimidations this time either.
The power flexing by the people of the affected villages could force the government to make a course correction in its approach to the movement. The Odisha government has, in the past few months, escalated the crackdown against the dissenting voices of the Sijimali hills region. The crackdown began just a few days before the people celebrated the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. The police invoked the draconian UAPA against 9 people and filed FIRs against 200 people under the Arms Act. Out of these, 22 individuals belonging to SC/ST communities have been jailed in the past two months. The people have alleged that the police have also indulged in browbeating and intimidation of the local villagers by carrying out abrupt raids and misbehaving with the villagers. The heavy deployment of the police has also added to the indignation of the villagers. With the protests against Vedanta gaining momentum in the region, the government may relent and release the 22 activists arrested by the police.
The proposed bauxite mine is part of the Central-Eastern region of the Eastern Ghats, located between the Thuamula Rampur block of Kalahandi district and the Kashipur block of Rayagada district. People claim that at least 50 villages lying adjacent to Sijimali hills are affected by "illegal" mining in the area. The mining area covers 1549 hectares (around 3871 acres), with 127.9 hectares being private land, 1807 hectares being government land, and 699.7 hectares being forest land. The total mining of 1800 MTPA has been proposed by Vedanta, out of which bauxite is 9,00 MTPA.