Smoke Hangs over Niyamgiri: A Travelogue

August 3, 2012

By Siddhartha Mitra

Part 1: In Lanjigarh, with Giridhari Patra

“Yeh factory chalu hai?” (The factory is operational?) I asked, quite surprised. The sprawling complex of the plant was visible through the car window, as we drove by. Two chimney stacks were spewing smoke against the blue winter sky. The Niyamgiri mountain loomed large in the background.

“Vedanta ka do unit chalu hai”, (two units of Vedanta are active) Giridhari answered.

It was early in the afternoon of a pleasant, sunny day in December. A few hours before, I had reached Bhavanipatna, the headquarters of Kalahandi district in Western Orissa. The overnight bus journey from Bhuvaneshwar, the capital of the state of Orissa, located on India’s east coast, had been overall pleasant and uneventful. At the station, I had met with Giridhari Patra, a local activist, and had taken a rented car to Lanjigarh. Well known locally for his work in the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, Giri was also associated with the Kalahandi Suchetana Manch, a group that worked to raise awareness on social issues in the Kalahandi district.

On the way to visit a Kondh village, we had just reached Lanjigarh, when the smoke-spewing chimneys came into view.

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Vedanta’s refinery and captive plant at the base of Niyamgiri

Niyamgiri, or the “mountain of law,” the home of the last remaining members of the ancient tribes of the Dongria and Kutia Kondhs, and the London-based mining giant Vedanta, had been in the news not so long back. Vedanta, working through Sterlite, its associate company in India, wanted to mine the bauxite, or aluminium ore, that was present on top of the mountain. The mining giant wanted to build an aluminium refinery and a captive coal-fired power plant, at the base of the mountain, to refine the bauxite to be mined from Niyamgiri, a fact first denied then confirmed by Vedanta when it wanted to get the required environmental clearance. In 2007 the Supreme Court had put a stop to Vedanta’s efforts to mine the mountain; in 2010 the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) had rejected the clearance given by the Orissa Mining Corporation for letting Vedanta mine the mountain. For most environmentalists and social activists who were campaigning on the issue, Vedanta’s efforts to mine Niyamgiri appeared to have hit a dead end.

Like many who had cheered the MOEF and Supreme Court decisions, it had come as a surprise to me that Vedanta’s factory was still operational. The refinery complex, in which almost a billion dollars had been invested, appeared far from being shut down.

Vedanta was not gone from Niyamgiri; it was just waiting. White smoke wafted up from the chimneys. A fine haze hung over the valley.

Lanjigarh is 70 km from Bhavanipatana. The journey from Bhavanipatana had been uneventful; the car had traveled over a well paved though somewhat bumpy road, lined at places with Sal trees, though mostly passing through rolling fields of paddy that had just been harvested. In the months preceding the winter, there had been little rain. The brown shreds of a failed crop stood out against the bleached, bone-dry fields. Despite having been in the news for starvation deaths since the 1970s, and having had tremendous money for development poured into different irrigation projects that were supposedly to solve the food production problem, there was still little irrigation available to most in the area. With the failed monsoon, the price for food grains had soared. I wondered where all the money for irrigation had disappeared. Was it, as some had alleged, that all the money for development had gone to the creation of waterways and other infrastructure necessary for mining, and not for agriculture?

“Yeh factory ka Bauxite kahase aata hai?” (Where does the bauxite ore come from?), I inquired.

“Yeh sab Korba se aata hain” (It all comes from Korba), Giri responded.

Korba is a refinery and smelter complex that Vedanta operates in Chhattisgarh. Previously, it was owned by Balco (Bharat Aluminium Company), which in 2001 was bought by Sterlite (now a Vedanta subsidiary) at one-tenth the market value. Many had felt that the fire-sale was orchestrated by the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party government, which had come to power on a Hindutva wave. The connection between Vedanta and the Hindutva-promoting political parties had been thought to be a key factor behind the fire-sale. Sterlite became a subsidiary of Vedanta Resource Plc in 2003. The ore for the Korba project came from the mines in Mainpat and Bodai Daldali hills in Kawardha in Chhattisgarh, where Vedanta’s bauxite mining operation is carried on with little regard for the labourers or the environment. From Korba to a railway station some seventy kilometres away, the ore is transported to the Lanjigarh refinery in open trucks, spewing red dust into the air around the road and caking the fields around the road with a fine toxic red layer.

For the project at Niyamgiri, Sterlite had first signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Orissa government in 1997. The project was for a refinery in Lanjigarh, at the foot of the Niyamgiri mountains, and for mining Niyam Dongar, the mountain where the Kondhs lived. Protests had dogged the project from the beginning, and after illegally clearing protected forests at the base of the mountain, and forcefully evicting people from four Kondh villages, the refinery had been set up in 2004. The villages themselves, and the stone deities that are present in all Kondh villages, were completely razed to the ground overnight.

But the mining project never got off the ground. Vedanta had tried to dissociate the refinery and the mining projects, mostly in an attempt to get needed environmental clearance. From the beginning, it was evident to all that that refinery implicitly needed the mining to take place. Vedanta had cleared much of the protected forest, and had even begun the construction of the refinery before the necessary environmental clearance was received. Its own environmental reports on the region were full of misrepresentations, and the company had also pressured national fact-finding teams to come up with inaccurate data. According to Vedanta, the forests on top of Niyamgiri were stunted and sterile. That was a lie, on all counts. Despite the web of trickery and deceit, and despite bringing enormous political pressure to bear, Vedanta was never able to get the necessary clearance for mining Niyamgiri.

We had reached the center of Lanjigarh, and had parked the car by the roadside. The refinery, with its vast walled compound, left little space for the other buildings in the city. A police station, right adjacent to the walls of the refinery, a small medical store cum dispensary a little distance away, and some grocery shops, were all that I could see. On one side of the refinery, an iron conveyor belt for ferrying the bauxite snaked its way up towards the mountain. The rusted rollers of the belt lay still; silent yet menacing, waiting for the day when they could start transporting the prized ore.

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The conveyor belt snaking its way to Niyamgiri

“Aap thora baithiye, mein kuch dawai leke aata hoon” (Please wait a bit, let me get some medicine), Giri told me, as he got out of the car, and started off towards the medical store.

A little later he returned, with the medicine, and accompanied by a thin, wiry man in his fifties. Clad like villagers, he was clothed in a simple white kurta and dhoti. From beneath the red scarf around his head, he gave me a sharp inquiring look.

“Yeh hai Kumti Majhi”, Giri introduced me. “Yahake Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti ka leader” (This is Kumti Majhi, the local leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti).

The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, or the committee for protection of Niyamgiri, was formed soon after the Kondh villages were razed to the ground for the refinery construction by Vedanta. The tribal villages are spread out across Niyamgiri and the surrounding mountains. Niyamgiri itself spans the districts of Rayagada and Kalahandi. The whole area had been divided into four sub-regions by the Samiti, and a leader had been designated to each area.

“Hum Ladoji se milne ja rahe hain” (We are going to meet Lado ji), Giri mentioned to Kumti.

Kumti Majhi nodded. He looked at me keenly, perhaps making sure I was not an agent of Vedanta or the state.

Part 2: Walking to Lakpadar, to meet Lado Sikaka

Our destination for the day was the Kondh village of Lakpadar, in the Niyamgiri hills, where we planned on meeting with Lado Sikaka. Lado had become one of the prominent faces of the resistance, and had spoken in various public events organised by activists opposing the project. He had led the resistance movement by raising awareness and holding village-level meetings, detailing what Vedanta had (and did not have) in mind for the villagers. Forces belonging to the Central Paramilitary Reserve Force (CRPF) had abducted him around two years ago. Badly beaten, his hand broken, he was released only after concerted campaigning by activists. After a slow recovery, Lado had returned to the village to take up the reins of the resistance again.

“We will not give up Niyamgiri even if we have to sacrifice ourselves”, Lado had said in an open meeting earlier. “Niyamgiri is our world. We will not tolerate that Niyamgiri be dug up”, he had declared.

Giri got back into the car, and we continued onward. Lanjigarh fell away; we were through passing the fields again, though soon we entered a forested area. A few kilometres down, the car took a diversion into the forest. To travel to Lakpadar, we needed to park the car, and after a brief stretch on a gravelly road through the forest, we were to park the car and walk to Lakpadar.

“Kya dawai liya?” (What medicine did you get?) I asked.

Giri opened the bag of medicine for me. The motley set was made up of paracetamol, diclophenac, and metronidazole, and some specific medicines for Dremju, who was a Kondh of Lakpadar recovering from TB. Paracetamol was to be given to anyone who complains of fever, diclophenac a similarly ubiquitous treatment for body ache, and metronidazole was for dysentery.

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Lanjigarh medical center

In many tribal areas, social workers often double as doctors and pharmacists, and carry medicines when visiting the remoter interior places, where few doctors, if any, visit. The people whom the social workers visit trust them implicitly, with the faith that these people have come for the villagers’ benefit. Sometimes health camps are held in which doctors provide medical service, but these are far and few between. Some such camps are organised by the corporations that want to displace the people, and many of the locals stay out of them for reasons of justified suspicion.

We had turned into the gravel road, which was fast turning to unnavigable rubble. From within the dense forest, several troops of monkeys in the forest came out and scampered by. Sal and mango trees lined the thick forest, with the sun piercing the canopy in some places to light up the forest floor. Quite abruptly, the road came to a clearance. It was the village where we would be parking our car in preparation for the trip.

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Road through the forest

“Niyamgiri Zindabaad”, a villager greeted us as we got down from the car. “Zindabaad”, we replied. Smiling in return, the villager welcomed us to his nearby packed mud home.

I had learned that namaste, the traditional North Indian greeting, was not a form of greeting in tribal areas. A completely different culture, their greetings and goodbyes are less formal than traditional North Indian mores. Of course, zindabaad was a new import, but even otherwise, they would have greetings other than namaste under usual circumstances. But with the spirit of resistance spreading fast in the tribal belt, zindabaad had become the new norm. It was the cry of the revolution, the cry of resistance.

This was a Majhi village, which had not been directly affected by the refinery construction. Yet there was great resentment against Vedanta. The village had been affected by pollution from the red moat. This moat is a vast pond filled with the red-toxic liquid of caustic soda, iron, chromium, and other minerals, and is a by-product of the bauxite refining process. Kept in a poorly sealed large open-air pool outside the refinery, some of the toxic sludge had leaked and polluted the water streams nearby. Bansadhara, the river which was the lifeline of the people in these parts, had become polluted, spreading skin rashes and stomach ailments among the people who used the water of the beautiful yet now polluted river.

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Village at foothill

Vedanta had poured poison into the river; and it had not brought any employment for the people in this village. Most of the people employed in the refinery came from the four villages which were destroyed during the construction of the refinery. These people were living in the Vedantanagar Resettlement Colony, which was down the road from this village, towards Niyamgiri. The people in this village still retained their farmland. But even in this, they were no longer secure; with Vedanta, the paramilitary had come, and daily life and travel had become more difficult, dangerous.

After a brief conversation, we started on our way to Lakpadar. An older villager from this village joined us for the trip. The sun was past noon, and shadows had started to lengthen. The gravelly road, now partly tarred, went past Vedantanagar. The colony was comprised of two perpendicular lines of concrete shells, each with pockmark-like holes for windows, some having an asbestos roof for cover. I could not imagine anyone living there. Some people were milling outside on the road; a woman was lying on a mat outside one of the houses, her body and head draped in a blue sari. A metal sign stood beside the road, proclaiming “Vedantanagar”.

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Woman lying in front of resettlement colony in Vedantanagar. Her child is nearby.

“Yeh log kya karte hain?” (What do these people do?) I asked.

“Kuch factory mein kaam karte hain. Wahape bas 60 log kaam karte hain. Abhi zamin nehin hain, to bekar baithe raite hain”, (Some work in the factory. Sixty people work there. For the rest, they are unemployed, they do not have land to work on. ) Giri replied.

Mining provides few jobs. Till recently, Vedanta was employing only 240 people in the Lanjigarh refinery, and now only 60 people were working there. The condition of the workers in the refinery, as in Vedanta’s other factories, was atrocious. Hundreds of people had died during the construction of the refinery, and more due to the unsafe working conditions in it. Vedanta, employing its usual deception in such matters, reported only one death.

Most of the residents of the villages which had been cleared did not get even the few available jobs. Many had to migrate to find a livelihood; was this going to be the same fate for the Kondhs living on the Niyam Dongar?

Past the resettlement camp, the road turned up, and plunged into the forest. Slowly, the bushes grew high on both sides of the street. At the first turn, I noticed the hillside facing us was full of felled trees.

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Felled trees by the roadside

“Yeh per ko kyon kaata gaya?” (Why were these trees cut down?), I inquired.

“Yeh sab Vedanta ka chaal tha. BDO humko aake bole kya koi power project ke liye per katna parega. Log per kaate, phir pata chala yehape road banega Vedanta ke liye, mining ke liye” (All of this is Vedanta’s ploy. The BDO had mentioned that there would be a power project. After some trees were cut, people realised that it was a ploy by Vedanta to extend the road up to the mountain).

The reach of Vedanta goes far in this area. The local administration, the police, the CRPF, have been flooded with money. And corruption has crept in. Under the guise of executing a power project, trees had been felled on this hill. The real purpose most likely was to build a road, and this would have come to be had the villagers not uncovered the truth. This kind of trickery is common among mining companies across Orissa. As resistance has increased, so has the secrecy and subversiveness of the companies. Sometimes mining-related surveys are carried out in the guise of medical camps. Roads are constructed without people being informed that it is for mining. When villagers resisted the road construction in Kashipur in Orissa, the disputed site of another bauxite mining and refinery construction project of Utkal Alumina, violence had ensued. Many villagers had died from police fire. In Niyamgiri, Kondhs had resisted the construction of a road to the top of the mountain; police beat up the protesters. Some roads did get built in the area; large-scale illegal logging by the timber mafa in Niyamgiri has been facilitated by these roads, destroying much of the protected forest.

The forest grew dense by the path as we walked on. Tall mango trees and large bushes lined the path.

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Forest begins on the road to Niyamgiri

We passed by several haldi shrubs, their beautiful long leaves snaking out of the ground, where the nutritious root nestled. And there were small curry leaf shrubs lightening up the air with fragrance. Rich with bountiful food and water, the forests yield jackfruit, mango, tubers, and plenty more. Few places in South Asia have such a vibrant and diverse ecosystem.

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Haldi shrub

The road descended a little, and we came across a Majhi village in a small clearing after crossing a stream. One of the villagers recognised Giri, and hailed him.

“ Aur Giri bhai, kaise ho?” (Hello, brother Giri, how are you?)

“Badiya, aur sab thik hai?” (Very good, is all well with you?)

“Giri humara idhar who kambal dena kab hoga?” (When will the blanket distribution take place here?) the villager queried.

In cold times, blankets are sometimes distributed by the social workers. Up in the holds, nights can get bitterly cold, and the mud walls of the village houses sometimes are not enough to keep the cold out. Groups that distribute clothing are popular with the villagers, for obvious reasons. However, when such things come from mining companies like Vedanta, people are more wary of accepting them, as such donations have strings attached.

“Abhi is mahinae mein hum ek karenge” (There will be one this month), Giri replied.

This answer was greeted with a nod of approval. After talking for a little while, we parted and moved on. Giri told me more about the village as we entered the jungle.

“Yahape last September CRPF lok ek auratko gang rape kiya tha” (The CRPF gang-raped a woman in this village last year), Giri said.

“Phir?” (And then?) I asked.

“Delhi se human rights commission wale aaye the. Lekin woh ladki tab se gayeb hai. CRPF wale unko log ko paise diye the” (The Human Rights Commission people had come from Delhi. But the woman had vanished by then. It was rumoured that the CRPF had given the villagers money to make her go away).

Incidents of the rape of tribal women by the paramilitary forces are common in the tribal belt. These may or may not be part of the intimidation tactics used by the state. The paramilitary, who are present in large numbers in the tribal areas, supposedly to fight the Naxalite insurgency, are primarily from Northern India, from a different cultural background. To the paramilitary forces, the tribal women are subhuman, and are viewed as easy targets. There have been multiple incidents of gang-rapes in the tribal belt by the paramilitary forces, but practically no punishment or follow-up investigation takes place. Often the victim just disappears, sometime money changes hands, and the incident goes down the memory sinkhole.

The reason why no rape cases are pursued against the perpetrators in the CRPF is the absolute impunity given to the paramilitary in the tribal heartlands of India. Often deployed in the name of combating Naxalism, which the prime minister of India has described as the “greatest threat to internal security facing the country”, the CRPF instead serve to terrorize the tribal population, especially in areas where people are resisting displacement due to mining or other projects. There is no evidence that the movement in Niyamgiri is aligned with the Maoists. The state claims that, last year, nine suspected Naxalites were shot dead on the Rayagada side of the mountain, on the border of the area where the Kondhs habitate. Many say that these people were shot dead in the early hours, when they were asleep. Even if these were Maoist foot soldiers who had come to claim territory in the region, that does not justify the absolute impunity with which the CRPF operates in this region. And like the local administrative officials, the CRPF practically works hand-in-glove with Vedanta. In 2008, Vedanta even organised an event in which tea and food was distributed for the CRPF in front of the refinery gate. The rape in the village might just have been an attempt to scare away the people in the mountain from resisting Vedanta.

The forest grew dense again as the road climbed up the mountain, past a lively mountain stream that gurgled down past us. Mango trees rose up, towering next to the streams. Tall trees, with intertwining branches, created a mesh-work in the canopy above. The forest had been alive with the chirping of the birds; as the afternoon went on, they were quieting down. We had not come across any large animals, but with such lush vegetation, and plentiful natural fruits, one could readily imagine that they would be around.

“Vedanta beech mein do din ke liye machine chalu kiya tha, to pura pahar hilne lage. Saare janwar idhar udhar baahg gaye. Kuch kisiko ghar ki undar chala gaye. Aur kafi janwar wapis nehi aaya” (Vedanta operated some heavy machinery for two days in the meanwhile. The whole mountain started shaking, and animals ran helter skelter. Some animals even rushed into people’s homes. Many ran away, never to come back), Giri said.

A distant singing from the bushes, somewhere by the stream, interrupted the silence. Soon, we came across a young Kondh boy who was herding cattle by the stream. Another friend of Giri, it turned out to be. Like all Dongria men, he was wearing two rings on his nose. His long hair was held together by metal clips.

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Kondh herder

I had often wondered – what if the Dongria Kondhs did not wear their traditional ornaments? The nose rings, necklaces and bangles the women adorned themselves with, the hair clips used by both men and women? These shy and retiring people hate being photographed, but were photographed widely during the campaign for raising the public awareness against Vedanta. I was hesitant in photographing while visiting the area, and I could see that many people did not want to be filmed. But how else can this news be brought to the world? Would the world have listened were it not for those iconic images? Without all the reporting, the claws of Vedanta might have been digging deep in Niyamgiri by now, blasting the top of the mountain, hurling debris into the slopes below, turning the vibrant forest to rust and ruin.

The ornaments are part of who the Kondhs are. Such ornamentation is a custom that goes back far in time. If someone cuts his hair short, that person is no longer considered an Adivasi by the Kondhs.

Taking leave, we moved on towards the village. We crossed several streams on the way. Many streams, perhaps hundreds of them (there are 36 major ones) flow down the slopes of Niyamgiri. The bauxite at the top of the mountain makes the soil porous, and thus holds water. The water is released throughout the year in perennial streams. That is why there is lush wildlife and vegetation on the slopes. Across the world, in regions with tropical climates that have alternating hot summers and heavy monsoon rains, bauxite is concentrated on top of hills and mountains. The summits of many such hills, or malis as they are known in Orissa, are barren, and emit a characteristic hollow ring when one walks on them. The bauxite imparts a characteristic red colour to the soil.

Tigers, deer, rare species of Python and gecko, not to mention many different kinds of colorful birds, have been found on Niyamgiri. Unlike other bauxite-capped mountains, even the top of Niyamgiri is not barren. Vedanta, in its environmental report, presented a warped picture in which it said that the top of the mountain was barren, had stunted forests, and was devoid of wildlife. It was on the basis of this report that the Orissa State government had given the environmental clearance to Vedanta, which was later turned down by the MOEF.

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The Niyamgiri forest.Vedanta claimed that the mountain top had stunted and sterile forests. The whole mountain has such verdant greenery.

Vedanta had claimed that mining at the summit of the mountain would not dry up the streams that ran down the mountain. Using vivid imagination, it had said that blasting would create “microcracks” in the hard underlying rock (Khondalite) which is located just below the summit, and that such cracks would aid in water absorption and retention. A pipe dream at best, there is no verifiable truth in this. Similar mining operations have dried up the hills near Nalco’s operations on Panchpat Mali, near Damanjodi. If the stream dries up, it would be the end of the Kondhs’ villages on Niyamgiri, who depend entirely on the streams for drinking, bathing, and other needs. The drying of the streams would also be the destruction of the lush forest on the mountain’s slope, and of all the animals who live in it.

After crossing a clearing, we reached another clearing where the village stood. Like Kondh villages, there were two rows of huts facing each other. In front of the village stood a small edifice of stone and wood, which Giri later explained was the god or spirit of the village. A few cattle were tied to posts just outside the village. These were used only for farming. Kondhs, like most indigenous people in India, do not drink cow milk. Once a year a buffalo is slaughtered on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, but otherwise these animals are not killed for meat.

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Bullock outside the village. Kondhs do not drink milk or slaughter animals (except for a yearly ritual on top of the Mountain).

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The Kondh village of Lakpadar

“Niyamgiri Zindabaad, Niyamagiri Zindabaad”, said a couple of young children, as they ran up to us.

“Niyamgiri Zindabaad!” we replied.

The children were indeed very happy to see us. They took us to a nearby house, and we sat on its porch. I shared whatever food I had with them. I was surprised to see that they had not seen either dates or grapes, which I had brought from a grocery store in Lanjigarh before starting on the trip. Evidently neither grow wild in the mountains.

Well, you might be asking, was this appropriate to do? Is not this the way that external influence changes the indigenous culture? I agree that it was not correct. It was inadvertent, but unavoidable. Giri had brought several plastic packets containing biscuits along, and he gave them to one of the villagers. It seems he brings such packets when he visits, and it is expected of him. To these people, who live entirely off the foods that come from the mountain, biscuits, grapes and dates are not part of their native diets, and could potentially affect them adversely.

Surprisingly, most the homes had asbestos sheds, while a few had tin sheds. I had imagined that the village houses would have straw roofs like those seen in Indian villages. As Giri explained later, the KKDC (Kutia Kandha Development Corporation) had distributed such roofs in all tribal areas, and the tribals had embraced them. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to mesothelemia and lung cancer; however, unless there is a tear in the roofing material, the asbestos will not enter the system. But how were these people to know? Apparently many loved this kind of roofing, which made it unnecessary to conduct a roof change every two years. The roof change was a communal festive event, just after the harvest season. Now those festivities are no longer held.

It was a lazy summer afternoon. Some people were sitting in the middle of the village, most had gone to the fields. Giridhari inquired about Drenju, for whom we had brought the TB medication. It turned out that he had gone to Rayagada town to get material for the upcoming puja in Niyamgiri, but had not returned yet.

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Kondh village

Later on, we learned that Drenju had in fact been picked up by the CRPF forces. He had been kept tied up to a tree, and was detained for a day without food.

This is how the Indian state treats the indigenous people!

Lado was also not there. He had gone to a nearby village, for campaigning and awareness-raising purposes.

There is a human angle to resistances we often forget. Farmers have to spend time in the fields to tend to their crop, keep away wild boars and other animals. In conflict zones, the farmer, pressed to protect his land, often has to spend time away. Thrust into a leadership role of the resistance, he has no choice but to take part in the campaigns. This means time away from the fields, and a corresponding loss of livelihood. With existence at stake, what are the options?

Walking around the village, I came across a woman holding a little child. The child’s head was covered in white sores. The skin just beneath the ear was broken, and red weals showed through.

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Kondh child with skin infection. The skin behind the ear is ruptured.

“Isko kya hua?” (What happened to the baby?) I asked. The sight was sickening.

“Yeh sab Vedanta aankea baad hua. Log mein ghao bohut ho raha hai, TB ho raha hai, aar sharir me dard hota hai” (All this is happening after Vedanta came. TB, skin diseases have greatly increased), Giri replied.

A bauxite refinery produces toxic effluents other than the sludge that goes into the red moat. These factories emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, though not as much as that emitted by smelters. Fragile ecological systems and people living in them could have reactions to the increased CO2 emissions. Could the skin conditions and higher incidences of TB be linked to that?

For residents who live near the toxic red moat of Vedanta, TB rates have spiked greatly. The red dust is everywhere, in the water, in the air. The rate of TB and skin infections has gone up in the villages on the mountain, which are closer to the refinery.

As Lado was not there, we decided to come back the next evening. On the way back, we passed Vedantanagar, just as the sun was setting. Giri stopped to distribute some of the medicine that he had with him, some of which he had already given to the villagers we had just visited. The woman in the blue sari, who I had seen lying on a mat outside her house, was still lying there. A baby was crawling on all fours over her.

“Yeh aurat ko kya hua?” (What has happened with this woman?) I asked Giri.

“Usko koi dino se bimar hai” (She has had fever for several days), he replied.

He went near her and spoke with her, and offered her some paracetamol. She raised her hand, took the paracetamol. Perhaps she was too weak to raise her head to acknowledge the medicine or say thanks.

The people in the resettlement camps are technically eligible for medical treatment in the Vedanta hospital. In reality, the hospital is several kilometres away; it is not clear if any person from the colonies would be welcome there.

Vedanta spends millions on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Through the London-based PR firms of Finley and CO3, it spreads lies about how the people it has displaced are happy with their new lives. “Our Vedanta” is one such campaign. In the glowing images of the resettlement colony, one can see smiling, happy villagers and children.

They do not show the poverty, destitution, hopelessness, misery that Vedanta has inflicted on the displaced community. One wonders where these photos come from.

When we started for Lakpadar the next day, it had already become late in the afternoon. Twenty minutes into the path through the forest, it was practically dark. Wild boars come out at night. I was thankful that we did not come across any that night. The forest fell silent. All we could hear was the gurgle of the stream that ran almost parallel to the path, sometimes receding, sometimes coming close, like a voice in the forest. Crossing streams at night is not easy; the faint light from Giri’s cell phone guided us on such occasions.

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Sun sets as we begin our journey to the village

Just before reaching the village, we heard some voices. Some people were coming towards us with white flashlights. These flashlights have become ubiquitous in India.

I wonder what they used before there were these lights. Lighted torches, perhaps?

Change comes in subtle ways. The asbestos sheds, the flashlights. Even the utensils and water pitchers used in the tribal villages are now often made of plastic. Traditionally, utensils and storage devices were made out of forest produce like gourd, bamboo, or leaves. Sometimes earthen or stone containers would be used. Now plastic is everywhere. The water bottles used are made of plastic; buckets used to hold water and other fluids are made of plastic. Metal utensils are often used. Without doubt many of these have the benefits of convenience. Yet it is these things that end traditional forms of sustenance, and replace it with a dependence on commodities of the external world. TVs, radios, replace traditional forms of entertainment, leading to greater isolation in the village community.

Part 3: Lado, Niyamgiri, and Rahul Gandhi

Soon we reached Lado’s house. A faint light, possibly from the kitchen, streamed out through the open door. Kondh houses usually have two rooms, one a kitchen and the other for sleeping. Somewhere inside, a radio was playing “Dil Dhoonta hai”, a classic Hindi song from the 70s. Lado greeted us at the door, happy to meet Giri. We sat down on his porch, and rested our bags.

Some of the villagers and children also came and joined us. Giri distributed some of the medicine. The children were excited and happy, and wanted to see photos on my video camera.

In the darkness, someone came near me and started talking about his health. In the faint light, I could make out this person to be a man in his forties, clad in a blue kurta and white lungi. He tried to speak broken Oriya; for the rest, Giri translated.

“Bukhar” (Fever) he said, looking at me.

“Mein doctor nehin hoon” (I am not a doctor), I replied.

Either he did not understand me, or was not convinced. “Bukhar”, he said again, looking at me appealingly. I could see that he was not well; he had a tired look and glazed-over eyes.

I appealed to him again. “Mein doctor nehin hoon, mujhe pata nahin” (I am not a doctor, I do not know).

This did not convince him. He kept on saying “Bukhar”, and then more about his condition in Kui, the dialect of the Kondhs. From what I understood from Giri, this man gets fever in the evenings. Giri had already given him some paracetamol. Of course, this seemed like something that would hardly be cured by paracetamol. The man was convinced that I was a doctor and I could help him. No matter how much I denied this, he just would not believe me.

In the end, I told him, through Giri, to have the paracetamol, which would help him. That convinced him, and he left.

There is a great need of medical attention in these areas. Diseases like malaria, dysentery, fever, hardly get any attention. The indigenous people do have herbal cures for some health conditions, but for severe illnesses advanced medical care becomes necessary. With the advent of Vedanta, diseases have spiked. But there is no help at all for these people. A few months after I left, Giri and others of the Kalahandi Duchetana Manch organised a medical camp, mostly of Ayurvedic doctors. This was to treat the patients who had become ill after Vedanta opened the refinery.

Apart from physical illnesses, which have risen exponentially since the arrival of Vedanta, there are, as everywhere else, cases of mental illness. Lado mentioned one such person, who would talk incoherently at times, especially after drinking sarpa, a fermented palm tree extract that is common in the winter months. Given that an ordinary doctor never comes here, a psychiatrist’s visit is an impossible dream. A dream which neither the state nor the corporations have any interest in making real; all they want is to move the Kondhs away from their native habitats into dingy resettlement camps, and then leave them to die.

Hot dinner was served to us by Lado’s wife and daughter. The meal was spare, but filling. At the end of our long day, the rice and the vegetable stew seemed scrumptious. The stew was lightly seasoned food with haldi, curry leaves, and other seasoning available in Niyamgiri.

“Yeh log chawal nehin khaate hain, lekin abhi barish nehin hua to chawal kharidne para” (These people do not eat rice, but this time the rains have failed, so they are having rice), Giri said. This season, the traditional millet-like grain that these people normally ate had mostly failed.

Rains have become erratic over the past decade. In the already dry regions of Western Orissa and in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, a failed monsoon has catastrophic consequences. It means certain crop failure, as the region has little irrigation worth mentioning. This pushes the indigenous people who live in the region to the edge. In recent years, the migration of farmers from the western districts of Orissa and from Chhattisgarh has greatly increased. Many of these people end up as bonded labourers in Mumbai or Bangalore, where high-rises and multiplexes are coming up at a fast rate.

After dinner, we talked for a while, and lay down to go to sleep in Lado’s hut. Giri and I slept in the outer room, and Lado slept in the same room as us. It had been a clear starry night, but the room was pitch dark, as the windows were closed. The cold seeped through the mud floor, through the sheet I had laid down to sleep on.

“Hum pahar kabhi nehin chorenge. Vedanta aur govt humara bohut mushkil kar diya hai” I heard Lado speak out. (We will never leave the mountain, though Vedanta and the government have made things very difficult for us). His voice rang out loud and clear in the dark room; I had heard the same determined voice earlier, when listening to Lado talking at a protest meeting whose video was posted on the net.

The tribal people are unanimous. They will not let Vedanta rip up their mountain. They are ready to die to the last person, but they will not allow the mining.

He continued. “Niyamraja hum logo ko sab diya hai. Hum unkno mante hain” (Niyamgiri has given us everything. We worship Niyamgiri).

In his talk, Lado had said that Niyamagiri is not a pile of money, it is not something that belongs to the government or Vedanta, that they can sell or buy it. The mountain means much more to them. It embodies their spirit, the spirit of life. Who has the right to dig it up? A tree that is cut cannot be replaced; what does it matter how much compensation is given for each tree? Do not the Kondhs, who have been living on the mountain for uncountable generations, have a right to the mountain? Are they also citizens of the Indian state, and have an equal right to a share of the resources? Are they merely sacrificial lambs for the so-called greater common good?

Tribal folklore and belief is tied to the mountain. They worship the stones, the trees, the animals who live on Niyamgiri. They revere the spirit Niyamraja, who they say has told them not to cut trees or kill animals on the mountain. For people outside, the issue is one of displacement, in which adequate compensation can be used to justify the movement of people. But Niyamgiri is like the very blood of these people, whose spirit pulses through the many streams that flow down the mountain, reverberating the forest in an ancient rhythm.

“Aur yihaka politician log? Yeh log kya bolte hain?” (And the politicians here? What do they have to say?) I asked.

“Sab apna dekh raha hai. Local loader Bhakt Das kuch bola tha, Green Kalahandi shuru kiya tha, phir election mein jitke abhi chu pho giya” (Bhakt Das, a local politician, who initiated the green Kalahandi movement, has kept quiet on the issue after getting elected as the local MLA), Giri replied.

When Niyamgiri first came into the world’s spotlight, the brave battle of a “primitive” people versus a mining giant caught the attention of the world. Not surprisingly, several politicians became involved, in order to share the spotlight. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi family, much touted as the face of young India, and at one time projected to be the new prime minister, visited Niyamgiri soon after the Supreme Court’s decision stopping Vedanta. Soon after the dust settled after his helicopter landed in a field near Niyamgiri the young politician held a meeting. The meeting was at the base of the mountain, “for security reasons”, and he did not visit any of the villages on the hill.

In the meeting, he shared the dais with Lado, who his security men said was a Maoist, as they had been advised by the local police. He did not even talk with Lado, who was to all effects the face of the resistance movement. In his speech, Rahul claimed that it was people like him and Jairam Ramesh who were the true friends of the people. It was they that had stopped Vedanta. Nothing could be farther from the truth; Vedanta had been stopped by years of campaigning by grassroots activists like Lingaraj Azad, and by the spirited resistance of the Kondhs led by people like Lado and Kumti Majhi. After a brief speech, which was heavily covered by the eager media, the Gandhi family scion’s helicopter kicked up dust and left, leaving the Kondhs cowering below. The Western-style commode, which had been hastily installed in a nearby field to tend to the noble speaker’s private needs, remained a silent testament to the visit.

And then there are other local leaders who would like to get political mileage out of the movement. Harimadhu Katraga, an ex-Naxalite, has started a parallel resistance movement, the Loksangram Manch. At times, this conflicts with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti’s work. He would like a more political angle to the resistance. As Giri put it, the question that the Kondhs now have to face is “Mudda bara, ya sangharsh bara?” (What is more important – the right or the resistance?). The movement is thus in danger of being politicised and split. Of course, this would allow for the greater involvement of external players in what so far essentially has been a local grassroots movement. And such involvement would also provide an excuse for the state to step in, which might make the way easier for Vedanta. Alert as ever, the mining giant waits below the hill, poised for the strike.

None of the politicians has addressed the other problems the tribal people face after the coming of Vedanta. The terrorizing by the CRPF, the pressuring of the tribals by implicating them in false cases, the pollution being spread into the air and water by Vedanta’s refinery. As Lado mentioned earlier, Vedanta had come like a mythical asura, intent on destroying the Kondhs. Will Niyamraja save them from their moment of peril?

Anil Agarwal, the head of Vedanta, lives in a 10 million-pound mansion in Mayfair in London, the former home of the deposed shah of Iran. Along with his brother Navin, he controls the majority of shares in Vedanta. Apparently a very religious person, and an active socialite, he is held in high regard in the social circles in London, especially among the South Asian community. Videos of him hosting various swamis and religious gurus can be found on the Web. The very word Vedanta represents the ancient Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which talks of the oneness of the souls of all human beings. Then how is it that the very religious and friendly Anil Agarwal has no qualms in pushing the Kondhs and Majhis to their extinction? Is not the spirit of these people a part of the universal spirit? Or are these people not human beings, do not they belong to the same world as Mr. Agarwal?

In 1997 the Supreme Court passed the landmark Samatha judgment, which said that tribal lands could not be leased to non-tribals or private mining companies. When asked about the Samatha judgment, Anil Agarwal said, “I do not know about the judgment. All I know is that all mining is in tribal areas.”

He might as well have said, we do not care about where we get our raw materials from. What does it matter? Who cares for the law of the land, and the people who live there. Can they stand up to the might of a large corporation?

As the night had deepened, so had the cold. Between our conversations, I had tried to listen to sounds outside. None came out of that still night.

At some point, I drifted off to sleep.

Part 4: Morning in Lakpadar

The morning was fresh and clear. A slight mist hung over the mountain. Lado had already woken up and had stepped out. Giri was still asleep.

I came out of the house to see that the village had come to life. Children, covered in shawls, were running around; some women were tending after the children; others had busied themselves with the business of the day, like getting water, arranging for the morning meal.

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Morning village Lakpadar

Many of the villagers were brushing their teeth. Like many in rural India, the Kondhs use some kind of stick to chew on to brush their teeth. A leisurely and long process, it appeared to make for clean strong teeth.

The first rays were starting to show over the edge of the mountain. The mist hung like a thin veil over mountain’s side, trying to hide the rising sun. A little distance from the village, several men were huddled around a small fire they had started below a palm tree.

Lado and Giri were sitting in that group. They called out to me. “Sarpa?” Lado offered, smiling. I joined the group, and sat down to warm my hands at the fire.

Sarpa is a date-palm extract, which is ritually drunk in the morning during the winter season. A syrupy translucent sap, it gushes out in plentiful amounts from the palm trees in winter. The sap ferments quickly in the sun, and sometimes this process is enhanced by roots that are added to the buckets used to hold the sap.

Someone got down a bucket of creamy white liquid that he had tied to the top of the tree. Spouting plentifully, the sap collects in these buckets. The liquid was then handed around in a gourd. Lado offered me one, and I drank it.

Then a second helping.

A warm, pleasant sensation, starting at the stomach, rose until it spread through the chest and went through the head. The mountain appeared to tilt on its side, and tilt again, dangling in the mist.

The mist cleared, and the mountain stood still. The sun shown over the edge of the mountain, and all was clear. I felt refreshed and warm after the drink.

Breakfast consisted of freshly plucked Kondh root. The root is what the Kondhs derive their name from. The soft cover of the root can be peeled easily, to expose the fleshy, pulpy, delicious inside.

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Kondo root

The root was followed by a plate full of millet-like grain, and vegetable curry. The grain is locally grown on the mountain. It was light and filling, and possibly much healthier than rice. Even the large portion that was offered to me did not give the extra sense of fullness that comes from eating rice. Like the previous night’s dinner, the curry was lightly seasoned with haldi, and other herbs found on the mountain; the food tasted delicious.

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Millet and vegetable stew for breakfast

Before we left, we collected all the plastic and lit a fire. There were a lot of plastic packets lying around the village. These must have come from food packaging brought from outside. There were also many discarded sachets of tobacco, which had tetrapak lining. The tetrapak is made of the same aluminium that these people were fighting against. But how were they to know? And some plastic bottles. I found that many villagers use plastic bottles instead of the traditional gourd holders for liquids. I had two plastic bottles of water that I had brought for the trip. At Giri’s request, which I was not able to refuse, I left them, so that someone could use them. This would inevitably add to the plastic garbage; but refusing would be considered selfish and improper, so I did not.

It was the weekly market day. Many from the village were going down to the market, which was near the village where we had parked our car. Both men and women were carrying sacks of shiny black seeds, an oil-producing variety that is grown in this region. Men carried a stick over their shoulder, over which they balanced two sacks of these seeds, one in front and one in the back. Women carried a sack on their heads. The seeds are the primary produce that they sell; these are sometimes bartered for other goods like food or clothes, but most often they are sold for money, which is used to get commodities. The Kondhs rarely buy any food, and if they do, it is mostly salt and oil. The mountain provides everything else.

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Lado carrying sack of oilseeds

The men and women would eventually go to different places. Most men, like Lado, had false cases against them, which would have them risk arrest if they stepped outside the forest. Lado was charged with the dreaded IP code 302, that of murder. This charge carries a non-bailable arrest warrant. He had no idea who he was supposed to have murdered. Others had similar charges, ranging from assault to theft to murder. Lingaraj Azad, a Bhavanipatna-based activist who led the spirited fight against Vedanta’s project, does not only have an IP 302 against him, he is on the NSC – the national most-wanted list. For people with false cases, the option is to either live in the forests, where the police do not enter, or stay in hiding if they are city-based activists. Normal life is out of the question; even emergency trips are done with great difficulty and secrecy. Though mostly self-sustaining, the Kondhs do go to the marketplace to sell or barter produce and buy some food items like salt, oil, and rice. Or even to get clothes and other materials for their yearly festivals. Stifling their movement is tantamount to slowly strangling the life out of them.

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Kondh women to market

We walked in single file down the road. The now-familiar stream gurgled on one side. I wondered how the Kondhs could walk barefoot on the gravelly soil; only a few had any sandals. In a while, we almost reached the village, when we came across a clear area, where a village “haat,” or market, was in progress. Bangles, colourful clothes, and scarves were in display. There were several food stalls, some selling fried bondas, or fried flour dough balls; others were selling forest produce like jaggery, tobacco. Several of the Kondh women brought bangles. The atmosphere was one of gaiety and festivity. Vedanta and Niyamgiri were a far, far nightmare. A middleman, who would take the seeds to the man market, met us there. The men of the Kondh village sold their seeds to him, at a lower price than they would have got in the main market. The women proceeded to walk all the way to the market in Lanjigarh, as they did not have cases against their names, and hopefully would not be harassed or arrested by the police. They would return much later in the day, after a long journey, walking barefoot a distance of almost 20 kilometres.

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Selling to middleman

It was later in the afternoon when Giri and I wished Lado and the other villagers goodbye, and started back. As I was leaving, I saw that large trucks were coming in, carrying heavy pillions. Tall heavy steel beams to be impaled into the earth, to support the huge vats of caustic soda used to wash aluminium. I later learned that Vedanta was poised to increase the production at the Lanjigarh refinery from 1 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) to 6 mtpa. With the pollution of the land and water already causing so many diseases, how would the expansion affect Niyamgiri?

Part 5: In the end, why Niyamgiri? Why aluminium?

Till one hundred years ago, aluminium was hardly known in the world. Though abundant, making up around 8% of the world’s total surface area, aluminium is naturally present only in complex with oxygen, as aluminium oxide. To break the bond between aluminium and oxygen requires tremendous electrical power. And if these two elements are later fused back together, they come together with a tremendous bang. Most conventional explosives use mixtures of aluminium filings or compounds, along with ammonium nitrate, or magnesium filing. Sir Roger Mills, who invented the Mills grenade, of which hundreds of thousands of which were used in World War I, was knighted for his discovery. Aluminium filings were an integral part of the grenade.

It was wars and the growing military industrial complex that drove the rise of aluminium, which became an integral part of weaponry. From daisy cutters, conventional bombs, to napalm (which has triethyl aluminium), aluminium was everywhere. And not only in armaments; many planes built during the World II and the following Korean and Vietnam wars were also built using aluminium. Raining death and destruction, the light, eco-friendly metal made its presence known wherever there was conflict. Vietnam, which had seen little of aluminium till the Vietnam War, was literally bombed into the aluminium age, as downed US fighter planes and napalm rained down on the country.

But where did it come from?

As previously noted, bauxite, from which aluminium is extracted, is found mostly at the tops of mountains in hot tropical areas, which see alternating hot summers followed by heavy monsoon rain (some exceptions are there, as in Weipa, Australia). As it happens, most of these mountains are in developing countries, like Guinea, Ghana, Vietnam, Haiti, Guyana, to name a few. The mountains are devoid of vegetation, and give off a telltale hollow ring when walked on. But bauxite also holds water. This water is slowly released as perennial streams that come down the sides of the mountains. Thus the sides of bauxite-topped mountains are lush with wildlife and vegetation. Many indigenous people also live in these heavily forested areas.

And what were the costs of production? Traditionally, aluminium was not needed by the so-called developing countries from which it was mined. So how did mining continue in these places?

Therein lies a tale of exploitation. An exploitation facilitated by authoritative governments, multinational corporations, and international organisations such as the World Bank.

Till recently, there was little use of aluminium in society, except for use by the military. A soft metal, it was deemed unsuitable as a building material. Therefore, it would have been difficult to convince the public about the necessity of investing in extracting this metal, and even more to convince the affected people that they need to get displaced for the Greater Common Good, as the extraction of the metal was linked to the well-being of the nation in question.

Here is where a great lie was sold in the past century. Bauxite mining and alumina processing brought few jobs; but they caused massive displacement, pollution, and misery in the lives of the people who were affected.

The mining itself requires removal of the topsoil and the “overburden”, or a layer of soil 30-100 feet deep, below the topsoil. This needs to be managed carefully. In Vedanta’s operations in the Kolli hills in Tamil Nadu, the mix is just pushed down from the side of the mountain. The Kolli hills were well known for the medicinal herbs that grew there, and were the home of the Siddhars, the legendary herbal medicinal doctors. The hills have now been laid to waste by the mining.

Of all mineral ore, bauxite is the most energy intensive to process. During processing through the smelter, during which aluminium is torn apart from oxygen in aluminium oxide, or alumina, one ton of alumina requires 1378 tons of water, and 13500 Kwh of electricity. This is after 250 kwh has been spent on refining bauxite to create the alumina. Thus the total energy required is almost 10 times the energy needed for the processing inputs of other metals like copper.

Where would the energy to drive the extraction ad processing come from? An easy option would be hydrothermal projects, alongside captive coal plants. Many of the large dams that were constructed in the past century were created solely for processing bauxite. And many more were very likely created for that purpose, but the information was not made public. Often these dams were created as part of development projects funded by the World Bank. The Bank’s funding of the dams had preconditions that the electricity be provided at vastly discounted prices to the aluminium factories set up nearby the dams. So while the dams themselves, like the Akosambo dam in Ghana, which was built solely for processing alumina, displaced tens of thousands of people, the electricity generated was supplied at far below the production costs. Countries like Ghana benefited neither from the metal, which they could not use, nor from the electricity the dams generated, thus pushing them into further poverty. In India, an example of a dam that was build for supplying electricity to an aluminium smelter was the Rihand dam in Renukoot, which supplied electricity at 1/20th the cost of production.
Ram Monohar Lohia brought this issue up in the parliament in the 1960s, an event that caused quite an uproar at the time.

The so-called developmental model, propagated by the UK’s Department for International Development and the World Bank was repeated in Western Orissa from the late ‘80s onwards. India is the largest recipient of British aid money, through organisations like the DFID; harkening back to colonial times, the DFID funds projects that further disenfranchise the poor in India, as was done during the British rule of India. Using the drought and Kalahandi starvation deaths as an excuse, several dams and projects were proposed in Western Orissa. These dams, when constructed, caused great displacement, and people who have been displaced still live in squalid resettlement camps, many like the camp I saw in Vedantanagar. In some cases irrigation canals were built to use water from the dams. Yet the irrigation canals created have provided little benefit for the ordinary people; rich people had brought land next to the canals beforehand, and planted water-intensive cash crops there. Water that collects behind dams is fetid and stagnant, and does not mix with oxygen like free-flowing streams; it supports little life.

Not only does bauxite processing need a lot of water and energy, it also generates a great amount of pollution. During the refining process, which separates alumina from other minerals present in bauxite, CO2 is released, and toxic sludge is generated which contains caustic soda, a sludge of unstable and radioactive minerals, and poisonous elements like chromium. The sludge is stored in a “red moat”, which is often unprotected and unsealed, spreading pollution to neighbouring communities. The smeltering process, or the process that splits oxygen from aluminium, also releases huge amounts of CO2, and also a significant amount of CFCs, not to mention its power requirements. The electrodes that get consumed in the process are made of toxic metals, and are often discarded at the side of the plants, as in Vedanta’s plants in Korba.

And then there is the CSRs of the mining giants, which try to portray their operations as clean, with minimal environmental impact. Vedanta’s lawyers claimed that their greenfield projects in Niyamgiri would restore the trees that would be uprooted. That is entirely untrue. The “greenfield” project destroys the land where mining takes place, and also affects where the cash crops are planted. But this is the lie that the eco-friendly developmental people lap up without question.

The PR firms of Finley, CO3 and Ogilvy and Matheur spew out fetid lies to cover up the egregious environmental and labour record of Vedanta, from the poisonous defective smelter in Tuticorin, whose discharge pollutes the Gulf of Mannar sanctuary, to the leaking tailpipes of a copper refinery in Zambia, the violations in the Zod gold mines in Armenia, to the untruths about the proposed “greenfield” projects in Niyamgiri. Even Vedanta admits that “greenfields” are not necessarily green (their own lawyers were not clear what the term meant when defending Vedanta in court). A greenfield project takes a green field, digs it up, and turns it into a brown waste. The removed topsoil is mixed with the overburden and is thrown into pits where cash crops like jatropha and eucalyptus are planted.

But is there so much need for aluminium that the Kondhs must be displaced? Hasn’t enough bauxite been taken out of the earth to meet current needs? Or can it be dug up from other places?

After the military industry had its fill, the mining giants felt it necessary to introduce the metal to the ordinary public, to increase consumption. Apple calls the metal, which it has heavily marketed in its sleek iPhones and iPads and Macs, as “clean, light and efficient”. The wonder metal is being aggressively marketed as an element to be used in buildings. Society is being told that without more bauxite mining, progress cannot occur. Per capita aluminium consumption is being touted as an index of development, much like the dubious GDP index. India’s per capita aluminium consumption is around 1/20th that of the US (so is the per capita CO2 output), an aberration which people like the ex president Abdul Kalaam, who is a large proponent of nuclear power, have vowed to change.

Perhaps the answer lies in hoarding, and the speculation in trading that forms the basis of pricing commodities in today’s world. Not content with making huge profits through dubious practices like transfer pricing, companies now make money off trading futures in metal stocks. Large financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan are heavily investing in the aluminium projects of India and various parts of the world. JP Morgan backed the IPO of Vedanta in London in 2003, the first of an Indian company. The very next year, JP Morgan published a report to back an IPO of 873 million in the New York Stock exchange. Though Morgan Stanley warned that Vedanta’s investments had risks, such warnings were glossed over by the top banks, and muscled over by Vedanta, in close collaboration with the infamous mining giant BHP Billiton.

The money trail starts from Wall Street, winds its way through several tax havens along a murky financial route, goes through London, and ends in Niyamgiri. Much of the money of Vedanta is funneled through a Mauritius-based company called Twinstar, which in turn is operated by a company based in the Bahamas, whose owner, Vinod Mehta, lives in London. Both Mauritius and Bahamas are tax havens. Apart from avoiding taxes, a common practice of aluminium giants, the cartel also profits by the use of transfer pricing, in which the ore bought at throwaway prices is processed in another country, where it is shown on paper as having been purchased at the international market rate, which is usually much higher.

Part 6: Travels through bauxite territory

After leaving the Niyamgiri area, I traveled to various bauxite mining areas or proposed areas in the region. Bauxite mining has changed the face of Western Orissa, uniformly bringing misery to the people in regions where it has taken place. In Similiguda, I met villagers who had lost land to a Nalco bauxite mining project. Typical of these operations, Nalco had brought in external workers to work on the project, when the locals who had lost their land protested. The road remains incomplete, a searing orange-red gash cutting up the hillside.

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Half completed road in Nalco’s project near Similguda

I was not able to go to Kashipur, a beautiful hilly region in Western Orissa that has been devastated by the strife generated by the proposed aluminium project. The World Bank and bauxite have come head to head in Kashipur, the site of Utkal Alumina’s large aluminium project. After years of oppression, beatings, killings (16 innocent villagers were shot dead in Maikanch), torture, false cases, the resistance has eroded and the project is proceeding. It is heavily backed by the World Bank. The valiant efforts of the opposition, led by Bhagwan Majhi, have not been able to stop this project.

But I did go to the site of the massive Nalco project at Damanjodi. As one approaches, a tall statue of Hanuman, the mythical monkey God and the symbol of the Hindu right-wing extremist group the Bajrang Dal, towers next to the tall chimneys.

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The landscape has been completely changed by the project. The constant drone of the several-kilometre-long conveyor belt that ferries the prized bauxite from the top of Panchpat Mali to the waiting jaws of the factory is clearly audible as one approaches the factory. The streams coming down from the top of the hill have all but dried up. The people displaced from the project live in settlements around the factory, some in squalid conditions. Poverty levels have increased since the project started.

Farther south, larger projects are being talked about, in the Gudem hills near Visakhapatnam, near the southern district of Malkangiri in Orissa. But there is opposition. Word has got out from Panchpat Mali, from Kashipur, and Mainpat. The people in the suggested project areas are now wary and watchful. There is talk of resistance. The mining companies, and the state, have in turn become more devious and less transparent in their plans for mining. Often roads are being built, without any announcement what they are for. Several activist groups, using online documents outlining the project regions, have started awareness campaigns among villagers who have not been informed of their imminent displacement. Many of the people who might be displaced in the proposed bauxite mining projects in Visakhapatnam have already been displaced due to other development projects, like hydroelectric projects. They have nowhere to go, and are determined to stand their ground to the end. The fight is about to get a lot more bitter.

So the bauxite tale unfolds. From the speculators in Wall Street, the money trail of Vedanta through Mauritius and the Bahamas, the brave resistance of the indigenous people who are directly in the line of fire, the efforts of the grassroots groups to stop the displacement and raise public awareness, to the relentless juggernaut of progress, of more bombs, of aluminium-rich buildings, of further glorification of the “clean, light and efficient” wonder metal. The claws of the mining giants are about to dig into the red bauxite-rich soil of the Orissa and AP hills. Standing below the towering giants is a brave network of people who have little but their will to live, and the faith that if they stand together, they can stand against the biggest threat, and if they perish, they will perish in the fight, and not have their lives shredded and discarded in the mill of development.

Where does this trail end? Who will speak out against the egregious theft of native people’s lands, against the environmental waste, against the complete disregard of the human beings impacted in some of the poorest parts of the country?

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