The Kondhs, who live in the forests on the hills, believe the mountain range is sacred and that their god, Niyam Raja, lives there and provides them with sustenance and a way of life.
The battle between Vedanta and the 8,000 strong local Dongria Kondh community over the Niyamgiri hills has so far lasted a decade, and on the 18th April this year India’s Supreme Court asked the government of Odisha to hold a referendum based on the opinion of tribal villages potentially affected by the proposals.
The court’s order cited the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which aims to protect the religious and cultural beliefs of tribes and forest dwellers. The state of Odisha has an estimated 65% of India’s total bauxite deposits, and along with the Odisha Mining Corporation Ltd (OMCL), Vedanta is keen to develop a mine in the Niyamgiri hills to supply material to Vedanta’s nearby alumina refinery at Lanjigarh. This would make it one of the most economical operations in the global aluminium industry.
OMCL and Vedanta chose the 12 village councils, or gram sabhas, involved in the referendum process. They were chosen from around 100 villages that would be potentially impacted if Vedanta’s plans were to go ahead. The Odisha government will now submit the village councils’ resolutions (12 opposing votes to 0 in favour) to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the outcome is expected to be announced by mid-October.
The plight of the Dongria Kondh people has attracted huge attention both domestically and internationally. The social activist and acclaimed writer Arundhati Roy has spoken out against Vedanta’s proposals, and it is thought that James Cameron based the central plot of his movie Avatar, where the indigenous Na’vi’s land is threatened by a powerful mining corporation, on the Kondhs battle for Niyamgiri.