In the late 1980s the Gandhamardan hills in Odisha’s Bargarh district were home to a powerful people’s movement. Not unlike today’s Niyamgiri movement, that too was a cry of the people of the land to save their forest, their Gandhamardan Hill from Bauxite mining. The movement was successful in bringing the Government’s plans to a halt; now almost 30 years later, Gandhamardan and its neighbouring areas face the threat of rampant mining like never before.
Community Correspondent Saroj Kumar Suna has grown up around such people’s movements. Primarily a Dalit rights activist Saroj was moved and inspired by the stories he had heard from Gandhamardan. Around October 2013 in a meeting with fellow Community Correspondents, Saroj decided that more such positive stories and community successes needed to be documented. When members of the Gandhamardan Protection committee organised a celebration, he went over to document it and met with some of the stalwarts of the movement. He says:
“ The government has signed so many new MoUs with different companies in Niyamgiri, Baphla hills and Siji hills in Kashpur district… The people here do not want these projects. The Gandhamardan resistance movement is still an inspiring force for those of us fighting today.”
Jambabati Bijira was one of the most known and powerful faces of this movement. On one morning in 1986 she led hundreds of women to the road in a final bid to protect their hill. Now pushing 60 her eyes still dance with sparks as she recalls:
“When we stopped them they told us to clear the roads; we refused to do so. We said ‘You will break the hill. We will not leave’ and we hundreds of women sat on the road… Police forces threatened us from all sides but we remained defiant.”
Why are people resisting?
“They are bringing development through speedy industrialisation. They are becoming agents and touts and taking away our rights… Wake up today, rise up today,”
sings Ajit Panigrahi of the ‘revolution’ coming.
Whether, the anti-POSCO movement or Niyamgiri or Lower Suktel anti-dam movement—people who live on this land have been unanimous in their opposition to development projects. Ajit’s song is telling of the reaction of different state governments as well as the Central Government in quelling these protests. The use of unconstitutional means like fabricated charges against dissenters, the use of police force on peaceful assemblies, a complete disregard for mechanisms like Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 have become the norm to pave the way for development projects. The people’s protests cannot be written off as baseless arguments; they are entrenched in their experience of the devastation extractive projects have caused to their land over the years.
Around 80% of Odisha’s Scheduled Tribes and communities like marginal peasants, Dalits and adivasis live in such forested areas that fall in the mining belt. Already marginalised, their livelihoods are even more threatened by mining projects. What is worse: instead of bringing in the promised jobs, infrastructure and finances, the projects do just the opposite. They have turned back the clock for economies that once thrived and sustained themselves. Examples of this include Damanjodi in Odisha’s Koraput district where NALCO’s Bauxite mining has pushed forest dwellers into a below poverty line existence and Dhinkia where the construction of a steel plant by POSCO will debilitate the betel and cashew farmers of the area.
The recent news about people’s consent being forged in neighbouring Lanjigarh for a project by Vedanta and of the same being done in Mahan, Madhya Pradesh for project by Essar is disconcerting to say the least. A trend has already been set where all means are justified for the government or a company to set up projects in such areas.
The trend can just as easily be reversed; Ghandamaran is a reminder of that. You and I can join those fighting for their lands and livelihoods and different ways of life. As Ajit sings in his song:
“Wake up today, rise up today,”
Written by: Kayonaaz Kalyanwala