Groundxero | 1st November, 2023
Vedanta Limited’s proposed bauxite mining project at Sijimali in Odisha’s Rayagada district is being intensely opposed by local Adivasi and Dalit villagers who have voiced concerns over their eviction and possible adverse impact of the mining project on their livelihoods and local ecology.
On March 1 of this year, Vedanta was declared as preferred bidder and allocated Sijimali block with an estimated reserves of 311 million tonnes of bauxite. 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 the 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.
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 numerous innocent people to forcefully acquire the Bauxite Reserve in Sijimali & Kutrumali.
We bring to you an update on the status of the cases foisted on the people of Sijimali and Niyamgiri by the Odisha police as well as a short account of the public meeting held on 29th October 2023, after the vibrant and spirited protest opposing bauxite mining at the two public hearings (see here and here) held on 16th and 18th October by Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) and district administrations.
- The multi-pronged repression carried out on leading activists and villagers of the mineral-rich areas of South Odisha from early August continued even through the public hearings of October. Villages opposed to the project worked hard to organize themselves and appear in the public hearings to register their protest despite the heavy presence of police on every road leading to the venues. Women in both Banteji and Kantamal physically overpowered police that had been deployed to stop them from going to the public hearing.
- The Kashipur Magistrate (JMFC) issued a notice under section 107 of CrPC to about 40 women and men from several villages to appear before it and respond to the notice by 19th October on why they should not sign a peace bond for one year for breach of peace. It is a paradox that the judge reduced the democratic rights of people to defend their sacred lands as a matter of law and order and breach of peace.
- When Krushna Sikoka was produced in court, two more cases were foisted on him based on FIRs of 2015 and 2022 that the police produced. Later he also found out that he has been shown as taken on remand for another case of 2017. His family has now moved the High Court for bail.
- Although 32 villagers named in the Kashipur FIR secured anticipatory bail from the High Court, they had to pay a deposit of Rs 3000 each as bail bond. Such monetary conditions are cruel for marginalised communities who are barely able to make ends meet. It is nothing less than a political offence and a deliberate punishment for defending their lands and forests.
- The reign of terror peaked in the week before the public hearing when motorbikes were stolen in some villages and in response to that a posse of police raided the villages supposedly looking for the bike thieves. But in this process, they also raided the house of Laxmi Naik and left after picking up some of her valuables. She was able to dodge the police and ran away from her own home with some women police chasing her into the fields and forests.
- The state-company nexus is evident as it uses all means to divide the community even now. The criminal law is being used to the advantage of the company with complete tacit support of the administration. Law is being used as a weapon at times and as a rescue act at other times. Company agents visited villages with bribes and even went to jail offering legal aid to those incarcerated or those named in the FIR. But the key leaders saw through this charade and evaded taking any support from the company or any of its representatives.
- It is most inspiring that Adivasi and Dalit communities carry on the fight both legally and by the strength of their collective despite the repression. They appeared in the public hearings, paid for their anticipatory bails, and are carrying on the legal fight to the High Court. Even then, Ruduna Majhi, mother of Umakant Naik who is in jail, was not allowed to speak at the public hearing.
- The bail hearing of those arrested from Kashipur block was finally heard today and the judge asked the prosecution lawyer to provide an update on the case in the next hearing scheduled on 10th November. If this is not ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, then what is it?
- There’s good news too! As public opinion went in favour of those in the resistance, the charges of UAPA against the nine activists associated with Niyamgiri got dropped from the chargesheet! The arbitrariness of the law became evident both in its application and its withdrawal. The medical report of the official allegedly attacked by them showed ‘a simple injury’ only.
- In the matter of Upendra Bagh of Niyamgiri, who continues to be in jail, the police claimed that he is involved in another five cases. However, he is neither involved in them nor is there any document available in the court to suggest his involvement in those cases. Even then, his bail plea was rejected with antecedent as one of the grounds for rejection.
- Over 2000 people held a huge public meeting at Talaamapadar village in Thuamal Rampur block of Kalahandi district on 29 October, 2023. The objective of the meeting was to strengthen the bonds across the communities and reiterate their resolve to unitedly continue the protests against bauxite mining on Sijimali hills. Both women and men leaders from various panchayats of Thuamal Rampur Block of Kalahandi District and Kashipur Block of Rayagada District were present on the dais. Veteran activists of Gandhamardhan and Niyamgiri movement, left affiliated trade unions and members of other democratic forces also participated in the meeting and extended their solidarity.
- The meeting passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the lease given to Vedanta, since the two public hearings held by OSPCB and district administrations on 16th and 18th October where people have unanimously registered their protest against the mining project. It stated that in Scheduled areas like Kashipur and Thuamal Rampur, without the consent of Gram Sabha the government has illegally leased out Sijimali and Kutrumali hills to companies for mining. Further, the process of inviting claims both individual and community, and grant of patta to claimants, have not been carried out, which is a violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The government should instead immediately start the procedure of recognising their land rights under Forest Rights Act 2006 and settling their claims.
- Villagers decried the attempts made by the company agents to give Rs 1500 per month to those who did not oppose mining, questioning whether the government or its company agents ever know the value of the mountain and what it means to their survival and dignity!
- They scoffed at the idea that anyone could dare put a price tag on the trees, the forests, the harvests of paddy, millet and lentils.
- Women vehemently argued that their dignity is attached to the mountain, the land and the forests. It does not allow them to trade that for money. When their identity itself is attached to their habitat how can they ever fear police or companies. They pledged they will remain rooted to their villages and fight to the last. Mother Earth can never be hurt and there is no deeper humility than that which comes from remaining rooted to the land. Remaining rooted is the source of their strength, their dignity and their will to fight.
VEDANTA GO BACK !
HANDS OFF SIJIMALI !!