Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them
This extract is taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.
SECTION 2: Likely Physical and Economic Displacement due to the Project, Including the Resource Displacement of Forest Users 2.A. The Kondh: Social Identity and Livelihoods
The forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.
In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’.
They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. As Narendra Majhi, a Kutia Kondh from Similibhata village, said, “We worship Niyam Raja and Dharini Penu. That is why we don’t fall ill”. Sikoka Lodo, a Dongaria Kondh from Lakpadar village said, “As long as the mountain is alive, we will not die”. Dongaria Kondh art and craft reflect the importance of the mountains to their community— their triangular shapes recur in the designs painted on the walls of the village shrine as well as in the colourful shawls that they wear. All the Dongria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).
The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia (ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri (urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.
They listed some of the items that they collect from the forest: different kinds of edible tubers (bhatkand, pitakand, mundikand); mahua flowers, siali (Bauhinia) leaves and jhunu (aromatic resin from the sal tree) for sale; and bamboo and wood (for implements and fuel) for their own use. Different parts of the PML [proposed mining lease] are identified by specific local names depending on the nature of the vegetation. The grassland edge area of the PML is locally known as Aonlabhata for the large number of amla (Emblica officinalis) trees found on the plateau which the Kondh harvest for medicinal use and for sale.
With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resource satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only four households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage.
Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating (lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.
Special mention must be made to the livestock that the Dongaria Kondh rear, especially the buffaloes that have particular cultural importance for them. Livestock is not reared for milk but for draught and meat. Buffaloes are highly valued for ritual purposes — religious and wedding-related festivities involve the sacrifice of buffaloes. Their biggest festival, Meria, is celebrated every three years in the month of Magh (January-February). During this festival, buffaloes are offered to Niyam Raja and their blood is allowed to seep into the earth. Buffalo meat is eaten fresh and dried for later use. Payments of bride-price also usually include one or two buffaloes.
The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy. When the Committee visited the grassy plateau that forms the PML area, we found a herd of fifty buffaloes grazing. Since they were unaccompanied by any person, the village they belonged to could not be ascertained. Traces of old campfires at the edge of the plateau indicated that the area is used extensively and regularly by cattle and their herders. Given that the PML has excellent grass growth, this large number of buffaloes on the site was not surprising. In discussions with villagers in the neighbouring villages of Rengopali, Bandhaguda and Kendupardi, the Committee was repeatedly informed that their cattle graze on the PML for substantial lengths of time, ranging from four months to eight months each year, as part of their customary rights.
The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom we spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor. Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.
The Dongaria Kondh we met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”