An historic David and Goliath story has just played itself out in the remote Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa, in eastern India. Ranged in unequal battle were the Dongaria and Kutia Kondh, two powerless, secluded hill tribes, against the all-powerful British-based transnational mining company Vedanta Alumina Ltd. At stake was 660 hectares of prime forest. The Kondhs wanted to protect and preserve these sacred hills, as they have done for centuries – their entire identity and livelihood depend on it. Vedanta wanted to gobble it all up to mine for the bauxite buried beneath. In spite of massive support from environmentalists and other tribal and human rights groups across the country, this looked like yet another lost battle.
But the recently enacted Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), turned out to be the proverbial Davidian slingshot. The FRA admits that adivasi or tribal peoples are ‘integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem’ and seeks to correct a historical injustice by finally recognizing their rights over India’s forests. Under this Act, the forest dwellers have the authority to conserve, protect and manage forests, biodiversity, wildlife and water catchment areas as part of their cultural and natural heritage. Therefore, prior and informed consent of forest dwellers such as the Kondh is a prerequisite before any damage or destruction of their habitat and community forests is authorized. The Kondh refused consent. And history was made.
The battle was not an easy one. With India vying for rapid economic growth and ‘exploiting natural resources’ to the fullest, the cards were stacked heavily against the Kondh and the flora and fauna of the Niyamgiri Hills.
Though the Kondh filed claims under the Act, the Orissa State government refused to acknowledge the very existence of the Kondh in the area, insisting that the Niyamgiri Hills were uninhabited. However, countrywide protests about the shoddy implementation of the FRA pressurized the central government to constitute an independent expert committee, headed by Dr NC Saxena, to investigate and monitor its implementation. Their first stop was the Niyamgiri Hills.
The Committee was unequivocal in condemning the Orissa government for its blatant violation of not just the FRA, but other laws such as the Environment Protection Act. It also damned Vedanta for its ‘total contempt of the law’ by illegally occupying 26 hectares of village forest lands and setting up a refinery. The committee declared that this was ‘legally invalid and that the environmental clearance given to it had to be set aside’. They went as far as advising the Ministry of Environment and Forests ‘not to believe the Orissa government’s contentions without independent verification’.
Given the high profile of the issue, the Ministry of Environment and Forests was quick to withdraw permission. Mining in Niyamgiri was prohibited. The victory is more than significant. It must be celebrated, because it sets a precedent in the much larger global ‘development vs indigenous peoples’ war.
Your move, Goliath!