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The Niyamgiri Movement and the Failure to Implement Alternative Visions of Development

29 Apr 2022
By Souvik Lal Chakraborty
Source: Souvik Chakraborty.

Despite its rich natural resources, Odisha has remained one of India’s most poverty-stricken states. The government of Odisha’s vision of development substantially differs from that of the local communities.

The anti-mining movement in the Niyamgiri mountains in Odisha, India against multinational mining company Vedanta Resources is led by the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Organisation to Save Niyamgiri). It has lasted two decades and has often garnered national and international attention.

A recent report by NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s policy think tank, shows that 29.4 percent of the population in Odisha is multidimensionally poor. The report puts the developmental policies under further scrutiny by revealing how the resource-rich districts in the state of Odisha are struggling with poverty. The report is alarming, considering that 40 percent of the state’s population is from scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. There are 62 tribal communities in Odisha, of which 13 are “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” (PVTG).

The Niyamgiri mountains in Odisha are home to the vulnerable Dongria Kondhs, Kutia Kondhs (identified as PVTG), and people from other scheduled castes in the region. The Dongria Kondhs hold the Niyamgiri mountains as Niyam Raja —”the King who upholds the law” and their spiritual sovereign. They consider the entire Niyamgiri hill ranges to be the kingdom of Niyam Raja, a domain that spreads over 250 square kilometres through the Raygada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha. The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) is the frontline organisation led by the members of the affected communities who have been organising themselves for two decades against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri mountains. In 2013, the NSS attained a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court of India, which provided Gram Sabhas (village councils) the power and authority to decide on the future of mining in Niyamgiri. Even though the villages in Niyamgiri have unanimously voted against the decision of mining the mountains, the social movement goes on and has continued to evolve over the years.

As I conducted fieldwork for my doctoral research, I tried to understand the problems and challenges faced by the people of the affected communities and how the ideas of development and wellbeing are being conceptualised by the activists and the intellectuals involved with the movement.

Maoism and the spectre of violence

In the name of development, the people of Niyamgiri have faced the onslaught of the state for nearly two decades. Even though they received a Supreme Court verdict in their favour in 2013, the oppression continues in various forms. The government of Odisha has continued to harass the activists, often by falsely charging them with crimes. This intimidation only grew worse, until the Home Ministry finally labelled the NSS as a Maoist organisation in a 2017 report.

During my interactions with the members of NSS, I realised that there are some prefigurative ideas about alternative models of development among the movement activists, but such ideas are yet to materialise. NSS activists are trying to establish a school where children can be educated in their own language. They also demand better healthcare services in Niyamgiri.

All the stakeholders involved need to understand the Dongria Kondhs’ idea of development. The alternative vision of development needs to be implemented in consultation with all the stakeholders, which also includes the Maoists. Until and unless the state recognises the Maoists as a political force and initiates a dialogue with them it is difficult for the movement activists to implement their alternative visions of development.

On my way to Niyamgiri, activists showed me how the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have occupied a panchayat (village council) office at the base of the mountain to conduct combing operations in the mountains. Converting a village council office into a CRPF camp has been condemned by the activists involved with the movement. So, the state’s initiation of an open dialogue with the Maoists and all the stakeholders will help the affected communities in articulating their vision of alternatives to development. But gradually it has become evident that the Odisha government is persistent in its unilateral model of development without consulting with the affected communities. In October 2020, people of the Dongria Kondh community vehemently objected to the government acquiring land for an eco-tourism project near the Niyamgiri mountains.

Education and Development

The issue of education is intrinsically linked with the issue of development in Niyamgiri. As I spoke with the activists of the Niyamgiri Movement, most of them unanimously aired their opinion for an accessible education system in Niyamgiri, and they demanded education in their language, Kui. The Dongria Kondh community’s view on education is directly linked to their conception of wellbeing for their future generations, which the state has systematically ignored over the years. Due to the lack of educational infrastructure in Niyamgiri, the children of Niyamgiri are often forced to go to private boarding schools, which according to the activists, have severe consequences for the future.

In the year 2019-20 alone, 475 primary schools and thirteen upper primary schools were closed in Odisha. Since all the schools in Niyamgiri are closed, the Dongria children have to go to private boarding schools or to the residential schools or ashram schools run by the government and private entities. These private boarding schools are often funded by the mining conglomerates. Even though the mining companies sponsor the education of the tribal children with an aim to provide equal opportunity of education, but their intentions have been questioned by several activists and academics.

The desperate attempt of the state to mine the Niyamgiri mountains was also manifested in its fresh appeal in the Supreme Court of India in May 2016 to reconvene the Gram Sabha (village council) meeting which had previously rejected the proposal of mining in 2013. Even though that appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court of India, the presence of Vedanta’s aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh and the continuous intimidation by state forces have instilled a fear of losing their mountain in the minds of the people in Niyamgiri.

The forceful imposition of dominant narratives of development by the state has a long-standing impact on the future of democracy in India. The heavy-handed nature of the state in dealing with the social movements is destroying the space of prefigurative politics in the arena of social movements – a politics that can deepen the democracy. Prefigurative politics gets impetus from a safe space, which is currently lacking in the state of Odisha and in India more broadly.

From my interactions with the movement activists and the intellectuals, I realised that the people of the Dongria Kondh community have a clear idea of their immediate demands and their vision of development, but the state tactfully stopped them from articulating their demands. The intimidation by the security forces have kept the movement activists and the intellectuals engaged in prolonged legal battles, and that is the reason why they have not been much successful in implementing their alternative visions of development.

Souvik Lal Chakraborty is a Lecturer in the Department of Human Geography at Monash University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.