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Posted on Feb 18, 04:33AM | IANS
By Aroonim Bhuyan, Lanjigarh (Odisha), Feb 17 : Misconception of sorts over a sacred hill and threats perceived to the identities of the tribespeople around this village in Odisha's Kalahandi district seem to have stalled a major bauxite mining project here.
Visit this area and you see hundreds of hills -- and the tribespeople in them are known to worship the tallest among them as the protector of their forests and livelihood.
Where the misconception comes in is over whether the same sacred hill was once allotted to Vedanta to mine bauxite for a 1 million tonne per annum aluminium plant that was set up in 2007, and soon became a lifeline for people around this area.
Out of 150 million tonnes of bauxite allotted to Vedanta by the state-run Odisha Mining Corp, 78 million tonnes is on one of the hills of the Niyamgiri hill range -- which was why the company had set up the plant at the foothills of this hill range.
The confusion is over the identity and sanctity of the hill.
"The Niyamgiri range has hundreds of hills. The highest is 1,500 metres above mean sea level. It is called Nimagiri. Being the highest, the people see it as the seat of their king. That's their belief," says Vedanta-Lanjigarh chief operating officer Mukesh Kumar.
"But the bauxite we are talking about is deposited in another hill at a height of 1,300 metres -- 15 km away. It is called Niyamdangar. That is what was given to us. Nimagiri does not have any bauxite to mine," Kumar told IANS, adding Geological Survey of India maps clearly show this.
Why the confusion? This is due to contrary reports of some NGOs which are doing the rounds here and being quoted extensively by environment activists.
"They (Niyamgiri hills) are home to more than 8,000 Dongria Kondh people, whose lifestyle and religion have helped nurture the area's dense forest and unusually rich wildlife," says the London-based Survival International.
"At the centre of the struggle was the Dongria's sacred mountain, the 'mountain of law'. The Dongrias worship the top of the mountain as the seat of their god and protect the forests there," the group says.
"Vedanta Resources wants to mine the bauxite from the top of the same mountain."
The word is that the Dongria Kondh people believe that the top of the hill that the London-based NGO refers to as the 'mountain of law' is the seat of Niyam Raja and the tribespeople worship him.
However, people like Ajay Mishra, a retired professor of geography and a leading civil society member of Bhawanipatna, the headquarter-town of Kalahandi district, are sceptical.
"For me, this issue is concocted. I have never heard anything about worshipping Niyam Raja by the people here in all my life. All these came up after the Lanjigarh plant was set up," said Mishra, who was born in Bhawanipatana and spent his entire life here.
"Come to look at it. What don't we worship? We worship the trees. We worship water. We worship the earth. But does it mean that we have do it at the cost of development work," he added.
"The Dongria Kondh people don't have good houses. They don't get clean drinking water. They don't have electricity. They don't have access to good education. We should help them improve their living standards," Mishra told IANS.
"Do we really have to keep them as a museum piece always?" he wonders.
"Global non-government organisations have their own interests. They are not concerned with the welfare of the local people. They are only concerned with some war between company X and company Y -- about grabbing the market," Mishra adds.
There are others, like social activist Prafulla Samantara, who feel an industry around Lanjigarh will threaten the identity of the Dongria Kondh people. "They are nature-loving people. They worship the hills. This (Lanjigarh) project is against their interests."
But countering such opinion is Gopinath Behara, a retired professor of chemistry from Sambalpur University and a noted opinion-maker of Bhawanipatna. "We aren't asking the Dongria Kondh people to come down from the hills and join the so-called mainstream in the plains." he says.
"They can live in the hills. But at the same time, they have a right to improve their living standards. Their children must have access to good education. They should improve their economic condition," Behera adds.
"When they can do all this and more while maintaining their own culture and identity, why not?" he argues, alluding as to why the Dongria Kondh people should continue to be called one of the most primitive tribal peoples of India.
In removing such confusion and answering the debate lies the fate of the 1 million tonne per annum aluminium refinery, which employed some 7,500 people in and around Lanjigarh, and has now been forced to shut shop since December for want of bauxite.
(Aroonim Bhuyan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)