A True Fairytale
An Eastern Ghats Tribe’s Struggle for Existence
The Shape of the Tale
Of all the 640 odd districts in India, Kalahandi is arguably the most easily recognized; perhaps next only to Kargil. This has been so since 1980s, when the news of starvation deaths and distress sale of children exploded in the national media, and the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, freshly-minted and young, made a widely publicized visit. But when I decided to go to Kalahandi, I found it to be not an easy proposition. I also discovered how little I knew about the western part of a neighbouring state. I did find out Kalahandi on a map; I also learned that the district headquarters was Bhawanipatna, which had no rail link. But how to get there? How to reach Niyamgiri from there?
The Odisha Tourism Development Corporation office in Kolkata couldn’t offer any help. Almost all the well-known tourist spots in Odisha are along the coast. The only place in the western part of the state about which they had some information was Koraput.
‘These are tribal areas,’ the official at the Wellington Square office said coldly. He was a Mahapatra, a Brahmin, born and brought up in the coastal region.
‘Tribal area, mining area,’ his assistant added. ‘We have such great tourist spots all over Odisha, why on earth would you want to visit Kalahandi?’
They had a map of the region: thin blue lines twisted across swathes of brown and green. Were these roads?
‘Yes, ghat roads across hilly areas,’ the official nodded. No, he had never ventured along these roads.
The foggier the destination, the sharper grew my curiosity. A magical hill and a colourful tribe who lived there continued to haunt me. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the region. Like elsewhere in India, here too the most exhaustive writings were by British civil servants. But though Odisha was part of the Bengal province till 1912, there was no district gazetteer of Kalahandi from British times. Then I came to know that this was part of the Eastern India Agency Tract that stretched along the Eastern Ghats. Kalahandi was made a tributary state in 1865; its kings paid taxes to the British agent and received protection in exchange. Even in early 20th century, large parts of the state were covered with dense forests and inhabited by tribal people.
Another small but significant fact came to my notice: it is pronounced as KÞlähändi – which means ‘pot full of art’ - and not Kälähändi, as the rest of India calls it. Kälä means black in Hindi, so Kälähändi means blackened pot. This region was once part of the south Koshal empire, ruled by Naga dynasty kings for more than a thousand years. Art and culture flourished during that period and made Kalahandi a place befitting its name. Other sources claimed that the name Kalahandi had been derived from Karundamandal. Karunda is gems and, in ancient times, semiprecious stones were found in the river beds here. Traces of an ancient civilization were strewn all over the district: ruins of castles and caves with prehistoric paintings. The largest Stone Age axe in the world was discovered here.
Whether Kalahandi meant a storehouse of art or a cache of gems was a matter of historical debate, but the way it came to mean a soot-blackened pot, became a metaphor for hunger, told something about the continuing tale of imperialism in independent India. Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondhs were but an episode in this tale. A fabulous episode surely, one that could spawn even a Hollywood movie.
The recent Hollywood film Avatar was set in the year 2154. Man had scoured the outer space in search of minerals. They spied the green planet Pandora, where there was a vast reserve of a new magic mineral. But a tribe called Navi lived on Pandora, and they would never let their habitat to be ruined. A war began, between the indigenous people and outsiders, between survival and greed. A familiar story.
But would all our earth’s minerals be exhausted by 2154? I wondered. Would there still by any nature left? Or would it turn into a brown withered planet? Pits of abandoned mines visible from outer space, like eye-holes on a skull, dust storms blowing across continents, burying slowing the remains of a civilization…
To be freed from this nightmare, I clicked open Google Earth. No, it still was a bluish green planet, drifting across the cosmic darkness like a bird’s egg nestled in feathery clouds. I pressed the mouse and zoomed in, gently pushing away the clouds and gliding over the expanse of green continents. The satellite images had enough clarity to reveal, at a height of two thousand feet, tiny shadows of trees, winds rippling over the surface of water bodies. I typed Kalahandi> Odisha> India into the search box and, in an instant, I was swooping upon ochre plains and chequered paddy fields, winding river courses, corrugated hills. At Lanjigarh, Vedanta’s alumina refinery was rather easy to spot - neatly arranged dominoes, walled in, russet mirror of the waste mud pond, capillary-like roads. And then, abruptly, a thick dark green blob. Niyamgiri!
The satellite picture made it clear why Niyamgiri was a vital wildlife corridor: it stretched between the two sanctuaries of Karlapat in the north-west and Kotagarh in the east like a bridge. As I continued to press the mouse and zoomed in, the image crumbled into pixels. I was left with a deeper longing for the smell of earth, the whisper of leaves, the cool taste of the springs of Niyamgiri. It was like what Dokra had felt for the emerald island across the creek. He had built a raft with driftwood, rigged it with creepers and had set out. And I, in this age of superfast transport and communication, was straining to go to a place in an adjacent state.
The Return of the Demon
Well into his middle age, Kumuti Majhi was like any other Kutia Kondh man at Sindhabarali, a quiet hamlet in the foothills of Niyamgiri. He grew millet and oilseeds in a little patch of land and collected fruits, honey and medicinal herbs from the forests. If he had to venture out of his little world and go to the nearby town for some work, he saw brown parched lands all around – like the one his forefathers had left hundreds of years ago to settle here in the green shade of Niyamgiri.
Then, one day, all hell broke loose. Huge cranes and bulldozers rolled in at Lanjigarh like a marching army, and razed four villages to the ground. The giant alumina refinery came up, as if by magic. Tall chimneys spewed black smoke and darkened the skies; terrible noise and blinding lights drove away all the birds and animals from the hills and forests. Overnight, Lanjigarh was transformed into a grimy factory town teeming with strangers. Days and nights filled up with the noise and dust from an endless convoy of trucks carrying in bauxite from a halt station at Dahikhol. Huge ponds of red liquid toxic waste came up; it contaminated the waters of Bansadhara.
The bauxite that was unloaded from railway wagons at Dahikhol and came to the refinery in trucks, actually came all the way from Jharkhand. It was planned to be a temporary arrangement, to start work at the refinery in a hurry. The real purpose of setting up a refinery at Lanjigarh was to mine bauxite on top of Niyamgiri and haul it down directly through conveyor belts. For this, a conveyor belt corridor was erected along the forest-covered hill side. Also, a wide all-weather road began to be built all the way to the top. The hills bristled with machinery and men in yellow helmets.
No birdsong, no barking of deer. It seemed even the rustle of leaves and the ripple of springs had stopped. Niyamgiri echoed with the ear-splitting groan of ancient trees being felled by electric saws.
To Kumuti Majhi, it seemed as if the mythical demon had returned. The hill that had been giving them food, medicine and shelter for ages, seemed to be crying out for help. He could hear the call. He talked with his fellow villagers and they resolved to resist. They picketed in front of the refinery gate, blocked the roads leading up the hill, stoned the bulldozers. Brutal police crackdown followed; people were coerced and beaten up. Kumuti Majhi, along with several others, were sent to jail. Vedanta unleashed a massive publicity campaign to influence urban middle class opinion; it also co-opted a section of the local people.
But the resistance movement continued. Social activists, environmentalists and aid agencies like Action Aid and Survival International came out in support. The country’s corporate media was muzzled with advertisements, but the tale of a magical hill range and the threatened existence of a so-called primitive tribe reached out to the world. It caught the imagination of a variety of people. A shadow of suspicion thickened around Vedanta’s activities at Niyamgiri. Big institutions, including Church of England and Norway Pension Fund, withdrew their investments in the company. Celebrities like Michael Palin and Bianca Jagger supported the Dongira Kondhs’ fight for survival. Pressure mounted on the government of India, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests sent a team of experts to Niyamgiri.
The team’s report was unequivocal: mining bauxite atop Niyamgiri would endanger the very existence of a tribe, it said, who numbered around eight thousand and inhabited that hill range only. This would also violate two laws – namely, the Forest Rights Act, and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act – that the government of India had passed in recent years. Based on this report, the central ministry issued a ban on mining atop Niyamgiri.
This, too, had the shape of a fairy tale: of a powerful mining company and a small tribal group whose very existence was dependent on the ecology of a hill range; of a people’s resistance movement unfolding in a remote pocket of India and its resonance in the western world; of the federal structure of our country and its legislation that stopped, although temporarily, the destruction of a unique biodiversity hotspot. In the midst of an overwhelming despair and cynicism, here was a tale worth telling, a tale that was like a patch of green in the middle of a parched landscape.
The conventional ending of a tale – …and then they began to live in peace and happiness forever and ever – was a distant mirage at Niyamgiri. The company lay in wait at the foot of the hill, continuing to expand the refinery’s capacity, the unfinished conveyor belt stretched along the green hillside like a hibernating reptile. Restless greed sharpened its fangs around the corridors of power in Bhubaneswar and in New Delhi. Its last line was yet to be written, but the tale surely had a magical shape.
This magic lured me on top of Niyamgiri one mellow winter afternoon.
Corridors of Life
Once upon a time, dense forests covered our subcontinent. Numerous living species thrived, from the tiniest insects and birds to giant herbivores and carnivores. These giant animals used to roam over large areas in search of food and habitat. Then the forests began to vanish. Vast swathes of land came under cultivation. Towns and cities came up, so did mills and factories. The forests shrank like scattered islands, countless species became extinct. And then, not very long ago, the very people who had felled trees and claimed forest lands came together to conserve what precious little was still left. They threw out the people who had been living in forests for centuries and put up signboards – SANCTUARY, NATIONAL PARK, RESERVE FOREST. Barbed wire and forest guards fenced out the humans who had dwelt in them. They also fenced in the forest animals, cut out their freedom of movement.
But big animals like tigers and elephants would always need very large areas to move about, to find food and to mate. Surely no signboard or barbed wire would keep them in. They found out narrow jungle patches to move from one forest area to another. These came to be known as wildlife corridor.
Corridors do exist, in the animal world and in human society, especially since the society began to get more and more fragmented. Curious people find these corridors and reach out. They work in their own specific fields, like solitary islanders, but get to know what is happening elsewhere in these fields. Technologies of communication have opened up these corridors. Thus, while working on a primary education project in West Bengal, I came to know about Sikshadeep. It was a Bhubaneswar-based organization working with innovative models to spread of primary education in remote tribal areas of Odisha. I also came to know about Angshuman Raut, the driving force behind Sikshadeep and an well-known translator. We hadn’t met, but knew each other through a mutual friend. I wrote to him, stating my desire to visit Niyamgiri, and asked if he could help me in any way. Angshuman’s response was prompt and warm: Come over to Bhubaneswar, he wrote back, we’ll arrange your tour to Niyamgiri; we might also send someone who knows the area to accompany you.
One early November morning I boarded the Falaknama Express at Howrah station. The new complex at the southern end of the station, deserted and swaddled in thin mist, was slowly waking up from the cold early morning torpor. Across the railway tracks, a woman and her young daughter were rolling dung patties and sticking them briskly on a wall. They were dressed in rags, their bared limbs pale and shriveled in cold. Weak sun fell on a tuft of paddy shoots upon the dung heap. An inconsequential scene. But, on my return from Niyamgiri, I would never be able to see such a scene in that light.
pics Niyamgiri conveyor belt photo: author, firstname.lastname@example.org (Kalahandi stone axe sketch courtesy: wikipedia)
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