'Niyamgiri hills are our god. If you mine here, we will die'

PallisabhaPallisabha at Palberi village, Kalahandi, on July 25

Tanguru Majhi is normally reticent, but he spoke for 20 minutes in an emphatic speech before government officials last week. Clad in a lungi and a shirt torn at the armpits, his axe slung across his shoulder, he told the officials and Kalahandi additional district judge Pramod Kumar Jena, "We revere Niyamgiri as our god. Just as Lord Jagannath is God to you, so is Niyamraja to us."

Majhi, a Dongaria Kondh tribal in Kunakadu, a hard-to-access village on the Niyamgiri hill slopes, was the first of 21 speakers to tell the government officials why they didn't want bauxite to be mined from the hills.

It was the fourth of 12 pallisabhas organised by the Orissa government to determine whether the proposed mining by Vedanta Alumina for a 1-million-tonne alumina refinery would infringe on the religious rights of tribals and OBCs. The 12 villages have been selected along the 250-sq-km Niyamgiri mountain range in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.

In August 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forest had denied final forest clearance to the bauxite mining project. Following a petition by the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation challenging the ministry's denial, the Supreme Court last April ordered that pallisabhas be held in the villages to find out whether mining can be allowed, and whether it would hurt the religious rights of 8,000-odd Dongaria Kondh tribals there.

At the Kunakadu pallisabha, Majhi told the officials, "You can write whatever you like, but we are not going to leave Niyamgiri. If you mine Niyamgiri, the streams there will dry up. We will then die." The Kalahandi additional district judge, sent as an observer by the Supreme Court, and the officials could only nod. The 20 other speakers echoed Majhi in saying they would rather die than leave Niyamgiri, their home for decades if not centuries.

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