Groundxero Report | 16th October, 2023
Rayagada, Odisha: The public hearing seeking environmental clearance for bauxite mining by Vedanta Limited at Sijimali in Odisha’s Rayagada district concluded on October 16 (Monday) amid massive protests by villagers opposed to the project voicing concerns over the possible adverse impact of mining on local ecology.
The public hearing was organised by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) at Trinath Dev High School in Sunger under Kashipur block of the district. The public hearing, attended by over 600 people, continued for over one and a half hours, and was presided by Additional Collector Rameswar Pradhan.
Five platoons of police force were deployed by the administration to conduct the hearing. The villagers of Kantamal, Bundel and Sirambai are opposing the project, saying that it would pollute the environment. The Adivasi and Dalit villagers to be affected by the mining project had appealed the State CM, Governor and OSPCB to cancel the Public Hearing as villagers opposed to mining are being tortured, harassed and kept under house arrest by the police for the last two months to facilitate the forceful capture of Sijimali and Kutramali bauxite reserves in blatant violation of PESA Act 1996, Forest Rights Act 2006, Land Acquisition Act 2013 and other related laws of India. They alleged that the local police is falsely implicating innocent Adivasi and Dalit villagers with serious charges including the Arms Act 1959, Attempt to murder under Sec 307 IPC, Rioting, etc. They have accused security forces of completely surrounding their villages and not allowing anyone to go out; no outside person including media is being permitted to enter the villages by the local police and BSF.
Vedanta was declared as preferred bidder and allocated Sijimali block with an estimated reserves of 311 million tonnes of bauxite on March 1 of this year. Vedanta has proposed mining of 9 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of bauxite in 1549.02 hectare in Sijimali. Since the mining area is spread over villages in districts classified under Schedule V in the Constitution due to the preponderance of the Adivasi population, the consent of the entire adult population of these villages through Gram Sabhas is mandatory before exploiting their natural resources.
The Sijimali mining project is likely to displace 100 families from 18 villages and also affect livelihoods of an additional 500 families. Apart from environmental clearance for the project, Vedanta will have to secure forest clearance too since the mining lease area includes 699.7 hectares of forest land. Also, there are two villages affected by the project that fall within the notified eco-sensitive zone of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Rayagada district administration claimed that the views of all villagers were taken and their grievances heard, and it declared the public hearing successful. Anti-displacement activist and advocate Biswapriya Kanungo termed the hearing as an “arbitrary procedure” claiming that people attended it in an atmosphere of extreme fear and intimidation. “Therefore, the very purpose of holding the public hearing is defeated,” he said.
Developments in the build-up to the Public Hearing
So far, 21 people have been arrested and sent to jail for opposing the mining project while more than 95 people are booked in “fake” cases for not supporting the project. False FIRs have been lodged against about 1000 innocent people to forcefully acquire the Bauxite Reserve in Sijimali & Kutrumali.
We bring to you some developments compiled by activists in the build-up to the Public Hearing on 16th October.
The Environment Impact Assessment Report was put out to the public on 14th September 2023, after sending many leading activists to prison. Of the 93 Adivasis and Dalits named along with 100 others in FIRs lodged by the police, 24 are in jail.
Opposition parties both Congress and BJP have held press conferences in Kashipur block hailing the project and in addition issuing warnings to those who oppose it, be they from the villages or from outside.
Over 80 lawyers have written to the Governor of Odisha demanding that the Public Hearing be deferred and FIRs against people be withdrawn as the area is protected under Schedule V and no Gram Sabha has taken place.
Villagers continue to live in terror with the presence of police and company goons, especially in the villages of Banteji, Kerpai, Kantamal, Bandel and Aliguna. The earlier rounds of company agents offering jobs, schools and tube-wells in the months of August and September are now followed by the presence of armed police in Boleros.
The corporate tactic of wedging a rift within the community is clear as a massive rally was sponsored on October 5 demanding the quick implementation of the project. It got massive coverage in most newspapers and TV channels in Odisha. People were mobilised after being told various reasons, like a party meeting, a block level meeting, or a Gonda Samaj meeting. They were brought by buses and Boleros; given Rs 500/- each; a lunch of rice and chicken curry; and also dropped back. While regional newspapers reported the show of strength for the project as 25, 000, even those on the spot said it was not less than 15, 000 people.
Since then, the presence of company goons and police has been on the increase within the villages. On Saturday, October 7, around 4:30 pm, Laxmi Naik of Banteji village was harassed by a huge posse of police personnel, her house was raided, 50k rupees and gold ornaments taken and she was surrounded and threatened that her son would be arrested. She physically managed to outwit the police and fled the spot. Her husband Tankadhar Naik is one of the people named in the FIR who is in hiding.
Despite this reign of terror, a delegation of people from Kutrumali and Sijimali reached Bhubaneswar and protested at the Odisha Pollution Control Board against the scheduled public hearing.
On October 9, in the weekly haat of Kerpai, around 24 women were harassed by goons. There was both verbal sexist abuse as well as snatching of dupattas. It continued for 2 hours. The villagers have written to the Odisha High Court.
The Odisha High Court, on October 12, granted anticipatory bail to 35 villagers who can join the public hearing.
Developments on the day of the Public Hearing
Despite the intense police repression, the people stood up against the Odisha Government coercively facilitating this project for Vedanta.
We bring to you the developments of the last 24 hours from the night before the Public Hearing to the end of it.
On the night of 15th October, the day preceding the public hearing, armed police and paramilitary personnel began positioning themselves at the main roads leading to villages known to oppose the mining project. Roads were monitored by company-sponsored goons and a few local village youths. They seemed to have a list of names of media persons and political agents whom they should allow into the villages and used slang and rough language to intimidate and send back anyone outside the ‘list’. Even then, some youths seemingly with the company goons, helped activists and media persons enter the area.
In the morning of 16th October, women from Banteji village on the way to the public hearing were beaten up by police. They protested. Friends and supporters of the movement tweeted to the Chief Minister to stop the violence. Despite the incarcerations and continuous police violence, here’s a video of the spirited protest at Sunger GP in Kashipur, Raygada. See the video at https://youtu.be/ehcIuML1wcU.
People walked in the public hearing premise raising slogans, holding banners and placards. Strategically, they occupied the space in front of the podium and more than 20 community members, including women, spoke loud and clear about their opposition to the proposed bauxite mining and cited reasons for their opposition.
Addressing the members of the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB), district and police administration and Vedanta officials, people raised their voices against the ongoing police repression and the criminal role played by company-sponsored goons and agents. They narrated incidents of abuse, beating, forced entry into their houses, theft of cash, and harassment of women and girls both in their houses and in public at the local markets. They asserted that the repression was being carried out by company-sponsored goons at the forefront with the tacit support of the local police and paramilitary personnel. Leaders and community members demanded answers from the government about this state-corporate-police nexus.
As ordered by the Odisha High Court, two activists – Dibakar Sahu and Jitender Majhi – were escorted by police from the Raygada jail. They deposed at the public hearing against the proposed project.
About the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report submitted by Vedanta, the chief concern expressed was that the report has deliberately hidden several facts about the ecological diversity and ecosystem of Sijimali. Villagers pointed out that Vedanta’s report does not mention the sacred abode of the supreme deity of the Kandha and Damba communities, Tiji Raja, and the annual rituals and festivals the local people perform at Sijimali hilltop in December every year. They also pointed out that the report has no mention of the 200-odd perennial streams that emerge from Sijimali or the dense forests on the hilltop that have diverse tree species like sal, tamarind, piya sal, aamla, harida, bahada and that the collection of siali leaves and honey is the major source of local peoples’ NTFP income. They said that there is no mention of several sacred caves on Sijimali which are worshipped as abodes of animals, and that the local people worship and hold rituals inside the caves to invoke the animal spirits every year. Some of the most important caves are Parapar and Baghpar.
All those who deposed clearly mentioned that the EIA report does not mention about the local peoples’ cultural heritage and generations-old relationship with nature and the traditional community forest governance principles that they all practice to conserve the forests, lands, and mountains in Sijimali. The statements were loud and clear about the unconditional ban on mining at Sijimali and that Vedanta should go back.
Keeping in line with the proactive media misinformation that has been happening since early August, some local media reporters and TV channels began to spread misinformation about the procedures and testimonies at the public hearing. They reported that the public hearing was cancelled due to law-and-order problems. Many even tried to create a narrative that several villagers demanded that Vedanta must open a local refinery if it wanted to start bauxite mining in Sijimali.
The ADM, Rayagada and ASP, Rayagada told the media that the public hearing was completed peacefully and with discipline; the ADM added that the process was successfully carried out and the report on the proceedings of the public hearing will be submitted to OSPCB soon. This has become the modus operandi. Stating that it ended peacefully despite the vibrant protest is but a claim that their ritual is over.
The Sijimali Bauxite Mining Project is spread over both Thuamul Rampur block in Kalahandi District and Kashipur block in Rayagada District. The public hearing for Thuamul Rampur block is scheduled at Kerpai High School premises on 18th October. However, the spirited protest by the villagers amid the ongoing repression seems to have already set the tone for the next hearing.