By Sandip Banerjee: The three day annual Niyamgiri Festival in Kalahandi district has come to become an expression of self-assertion of the Dongria Kondhs that the hills are theirs. The same was held this year from 20th to 22nd of February atop the Niyamgiri Hills at Srinubhati to Amolabhati stretch, about 20 kms away from Lanjigarh. This year it was attended by tribals from over 100 villages in the Niyamgiri hills.
The annual festival is being organised in a bigger way since the anti-Vedanta agitation by the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti(NSS) gained momentum. From last year the significance has become more as the village Gram Sabhas totally turned down Vedanta’s design to mine bauxite during the public hearings held in 2013. It became the victory of the voice of the people and the Festival reflects this spirit.
For those interested to attend, the vehicles have to come 10 kms from Lanjigarh to Ijirupa (in the forest at the foothill where there is a small village consisting of just a handful of huts; one of the Vedanta hearings took place here) to park themselves. From here the steep and arduous ascent starts for the hilltop ( Srinubhati, Amolabhati) which is surprisingly a vast and flat tabletop, a characteristic of mountains with bauxite reserve and it provides the ideal ground for the Festival.
Media persons and activists along with NSS leaders and members congregated at the hilltop to be part of the festival with the Dongria and Jharnia Kondhs ( what the Kondhs inhabiting the hilltop are called). Journalists from as far as Kerela and Maharashtra covered the Festival, apart from local Correspondents of local and National dailies as well as Electronic channels. The attendance at the Festival consisted of an interesting mix of people. Present were wide number of people advocacy activists but also anthropologists and scientists. They had come as observers to study and map, in their respective ways, the simple yet unique lifestyle of the Kondhs and their struggle but went back only after dancing and singing their hearts out with these tribals.
The documentary “The Referendum’’ on the Gram Sabha hearings on Vedanta produced by NGO ‘Samadrusti’ was released (screened for the first time) at the Festival on 21st night.
Dongria leader, Lada Sikkaka , was the central figure at the Festival. He made all arrangements for fooding and the Puja/rituals .He reiterated that the Dongria Kondhs and the Jharnia Kondhs are in no way prepared to give their hill, land and water at any cost. He was also very caustic about the arrests of innocents made in the recent past citing Maoist linkages.
The 21st and 22nd mornings saw the customary Niyam Raja Puja to be followed by animal sacrifice to please the Niyam Raja god (the jungle itself is taken as the God). The rituals of the Puja are unique to these tribals . Then the NSS arranged for a symbolic joint burning of the Land Acquisition Ordinance document as a message of protest. The tribals and activists, at the end of the three-day Festival, together resolved that they would continue to oppose the “pro-corporate” Ordinance till it is withdrawn. The activists announced a State-wide agitation against the Ordinance that they said goes against the Forest Rights Act rendering the Gram Sabhas powerless.
The tribals, who have battled against mining of bauxite from Niyamgiri hills by Vedanta, also vowed to strongly oppose any move by the Centre to consider handing over of Niyamgiri to the company in the future. The NSS is also opposed to the existing alumina refinery which is being run by Sterlite Industries Ltd, a Vedanta group company, as the same is adversely affecting the ecology in the area. The Samiti is contemplating to move the court of law seeking permanent closure of the refinery, said Lada Sikkaka and Lingaraj Azad, the main NSS leader present in the Festival.
“The Dongria Kondh tribes in Niyamgiri have struggled a lot for years to seek justice from the government and Supreme Court, which finally resulted in Gram Sabha concept. It was hailed as a great victory in India and abroad. However, many corporate houses, who used to control the successive governments for decades, did not take it lightly and hatched a conspiracy to force the new government to bring a new ordinance with amendments to the previous law.The Land Acquisition Ordiance’ 2014 is very dangerous and has threatened the very existence of poor tribals across the country. The provisions will make the rich super rich and the poor will be finished forever. The Industries and Corporates will easily take over the land, forest and water resources, while the tribals will be driven out of their land. The 5th and 6th schedule of the ordinance may result in the extinction of many tribes. In 2013, the old land acquisition law helped the Dongria Kondh tribes to fight back hard and defeat the evil design of Vedanta by giving a massive mandate against the land acquisition in Gram Sabhas.
The Supreme Court accepted the decisions made by Gram Sabhas and cancelled the lease of Vedanta. However, with the new government withdrawing powers given to Gram Sabha , things will become worse for the poor tribals. People in Niyamgiri vow to fight against the illegal, anti-people and treacherous ordinance with all their force. They urge all like-minded people, environmentalists, patriotic and populist people to join hands with them to fight the evil design of the corporate houses as well as the government. Today we all call for a freedom struggle or massive revolt to bring the government down to its knees”, announced NSS leader,Lingaraj Azad to all present, at the culmination of the Festival . He also revealed that the NSS has given a proposal to the Dongria Kondhs to construct a majestic temple atop the Niyamgiri Hills. “It will be done with contribution from all of us and shall shut the scope for any other activity atop the hill ’’, he said.
On 22nd, around mid day, the Niyam Raja Puja was also held at Ijirupa on the foothills. The arrangements were made by NSS President,Kumuti Majhi. Present on the occasion was former Congess Kalahandi MP, Bhakta Charan Das and Prafulla Samantara, famous Human Rights activist of NAPM. Reminiscing back, as the Kondhs danced to the rhythm of their tribal beats, the serene Niyamgiri Hills came to life and one had to appreciate the ethos of life and struggle of these simple yet brave Kondhs, for whom mother Nature is their cradle and the Forest their God.