Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The people and forests of the Niyam Raja

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Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

This is a further extract 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. The pictures accompanying this post are also taken from the same report.

“Kutia Kondh and Dongria Kondh – The two communities believe that that the hills are sacred and that their survival is dependent on the integrity of this ecosystem. The proposed mining lease site is among the highest points in the hills and is considered especially important as a sacred site. The proposed mining lease (PML) area is used by both Dongria and Kutia Kondh for their livelihoods as well as religious practices. Their customary use of the area, including for grazing and the collection of forest produce, is well documented.

[Other posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle: Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them, A victory for the Dongria Kondh, India’s unseen Niyamgiris, Images of Niyamgiri, The last stand of the Dongria Kondh]

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Mining operations will have significant adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these communities. Mining will destroy significant tracts of forest. According to the assessment of the Wildlife Institute of India in its 2006 study, as many as 121,337 trees will have to be cut if the mining lease is granted. Of these, 40% will be in the PML area and the remaining 60% would have to be removed to make the access road and other planned activities. Since the Kutia and Dongria Kondh are heavily dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, this forest cover loss will cause a significant decline in their economic well-being. It must be noted that the Vedanta proposal assumes that no displacement will be caused by the mining project whereas there is overwhelming evidence that mining will not only result in widespread resource displacement but may well permanently undermine the survival of the Dongria Kondh.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

While both Kutia and Dongria Kondh communities will be adversely affected by mining in the area, the likely negative impacts on the Dongria Kondh are a particular cause of concern. The Niyamgiri hills are the sole and unique habitat of this tiny community. Any major disruption of their relationship with their environment is not only a serious violation of their rights under the Indian Constitution and forest laws, but also a grievous threat to their cultural integrity and their ability to survive as a distinct social group. The Committee found convincing evidence that mining will destroy Dongria Kondh livelihoods and culture.

Data collated from the DKDA (Dongria Kondh Development Agency, a government body) and the Forest Department shows that, of the total Dongria population of the 7,952, at least 1,453 Dongria Kondh live in villages in and around the Forest Blocks of the proposed mining lease area. Their cultivated lands lie in close proximity to the PML area. Mining-related activities such as tree-felling, blasting, removal of soil, road building, and the movement of heavy machinery will deny them access to lands that they have used for generations.

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Further, these activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for their agriculture. Given the almost total dependence of these villages on the eco-systems of the Niyamgiri hills, mining operations will severely threaten the livelihoods and basic survival of the Dongria Kondh. In addition, the influx of migrant workers and the demands that their presence will make on the landscape will entail major disruptions in the economic and social well-being of these small and self-contained groups.

If permitted, mining will directly affect a substantial section — almost 20% — of the Dongria community. An impact on such a significant fraction of the population of the community will have repercussions for the overall viability of the group and its biological and social reproduction. All the 104 Dongria Kondh villages are linked by marriage, since the member of a clan must seek a spouse from another clan. The circulation of women and bride-price between villages is essential for maintaining the social and economic integrity of the community as a whole. It is clearly indicated that if the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongria Kondh population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community. All the Dongria Kondh that the Committee spoke to stressed that mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life: “Niyam Raja has given us everything. If they take the dongar away, we will die.”

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Anthropologists who have conducted research among the Dongria Kondh are of the view that they are unique community whose distinctive identity is evident in their language, kinship relations, expertise in agro-forestry, and customary practices. For example, Dongria Kondh speak two languages, called Kuyi and Kuvi, with a proto-Dravidian structure and vocabulary which is unrelated to Oriya, the state’s official language. Their religious practices anchor them in the landscape of the Niyamgiri hills and any severance or disruption of that relationship will be a grievous blow to the community’s self-identity as well as material well-being. As a Primitive Tribal Group the welfare of the Dongria Kondh is mandated for special protection by the government. It is clear that the government is responsible for protecting their rights and that mining in this region would seriously undermine the fulfilment of this responsibility.”

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Prasanna Kumar Nayak of the Utkal University, Orissa, has written on tribal development in Orissa for the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). This is a postdoctoral research centre based in Leiden and Amsterdam. His account provides a contrast to the effort made, around 30 years ago, towards providing the tribals of Orissa health and education infrastructure without disturbing their identity. Nayak’s article is titled ‘The rise and fall of tribal development in Orissa’.

“Already in the early 1970s, at a time when tribal development received new impulse from the Indian government’s Fourth Five Year Plan, many development activities in the field of horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, health and education, as well as the construction of roads, buildings and dug-wells were undertaken in rapid succession in the tribal areas of Orissa. Political will for making tribal development a priority continued with the Fifth Plan, from 1974 onwards, with activities reaching a peak in the early nineties, the end of the Seventh Plan.

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

At that time, I was making frequent trips to different tribal areas in the north, south and west of Orissa. What impressed me most during my extensive field visits was the host of activities pursued by the field officers and staff of development agencies and the schoolteachers in residential tribal schools, and their concern for and commitment to the tribal people. Added to that, the frequent supervision and monitoring of the activities and assessment of progress by government officials was really quite noteworthy. Despite lapses and many shortcomings in the execution of the development schemes it remained satisfying to observe that there was discipline in the government machinery of development administration.

Among the tribal development success stories in Orissa from that period are the orange, lemon, ginger and banana plantations, as well as the high yielding rice cultivation in Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas, home to a large population of Lanjia Saora. The orange, ginger, banana and pineapple plantations in the Niyamgiri areas where mostly members of the Dongria Kondh tribe live were also very successful development schemes. The same can be said of the cultivation of vegetables in the hills which gave people the opportunity to earn cash in addition to pursuing their traditional subsistence agriculture on the hill slopes.

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cash crops and vegetables were also encouraged among the tribal villager’s adept at plough cultivation on the plateaus, plains and terraced fields. They were also trained to raise bovine animals. Orissa’s tribal schools were well managed, and provided a congenial environment for their pupils. Teachers worked hard at teaching and shaping these children with a spirit of dedication.

The children responded with good performances and examination results were satisfactory. Although there were severe public health issues in most of the tribal areas, primary health centres (PHCs) were established and free medical services were available for tribal people. At the same time, road networks were developed at a rapid pace, facilitating the communication and transportation of development input to many villages.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dug- and tube wells were installed in most of the villages and many families availed themselves of the benefits of irrigating their land. It can certainly be argued that the quantum of infrastructure work and economic development activities undertaken during the seventies and spilling over into the early eighties resulted in significant progress and lasting development in the tribal areas of Orissa.

Initially, the pursuance of economic development programmes and the modus operandi of the development agencies were in no way disruptive to the socio-cultural and community life of the tribal people. Instead, development personnel were enthusiastic about their development goals and engaged with local people when problems arose. Politically, these tribal areas were relatively quiet. The development policy plan, the project personnel, people and politics seemed to be in harmony with each other! The result of the development activities undertaken in tribal areas was a slow and steady progress with tangible results and lasting effects.”

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