The prospects for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine are looking even more remote as the results of the Palli Sabhas being held on the command of the Supreme Court’s April judgement on the mine, flood in. Five gram sabhas have been held so far in the villages of Serkapadhi, Kesarpadhi, Tadijhola, Kunakadu and Palberi. In all the five villages, villagers have expressed a thundering NO to the proposed mining activity by Vedanta. In one gram sabha after another, the people have unanimously passed resolutions asserting their rights to the whole Niyamgiri range as their sacred mountain. They have made it clear, that they lay claim to the whole mountain range.
In the first gram sabha in Serkapadhi village on 18h July, 2014, Sarat Chandra Mishra the district judge of Rayagada -- in violation of his role as an independent observer in the Supreme Court verdict -- kept directing the people on what they could and could not do. He threatened to call off the meeting when the people pressed Judge Mishra to reject the joint verification report conducted by local revenue and forest officials. This report, the villagers accused which tries to limit the territory of worship and habitat of the Dongria tribe to specific demarcated areas, and that they were duped into signing it. In fact, Judge Mishra's true colours, and his clear partiality was revealed completely when he raised his voice at a tribal who demanded to see a photocopy of the resolution they were being asked to sign saying: “You are acting too smart despite being illiterate. If you had some education you would have sold the country”. This comment led to a lot of uproar during the gram sabha as well as later on when the news spread. Since then, the two appointed judges have have not embroiled themselves in any more controversy, and maintained a neutral public stance during the proceedings.
After Serkapadhi, the gram sabha resolutions by the villagers have rejected the 'joint verification report' by the state government. All the gram sabhas have been held with the deployment of heavy police and security forces. In each gram sabha, people from the nearby villages have come in large numbers to stand in solidarity with the village where the gram sabha is being conducted.
The holding of gram sabhas is scheduled to be completed by the 19th of August 2013. In the remaining 7 villages, the same thundering NO to mining and a strong claim to the whole Niyamgiri mountain range will continue to be asserted by the people. As Lado Sikaka, the leader of the Dongria Kond tribe, told the media during the Kesarpadhi gram sabha, “We don’t want land titles in portions of the forests. Why should we, when everything belongs to us?”
However, this decision by the Odisha government to hold gram sabhas in only 12 selected villages willfully misrepresents the Supreme Court. Records show that there are actually only 186 voters registered in the twelve villages combined according to the old voter lists (five in Kalahandi district and seven in Rayagada), while more than 8000 people belonging to Dongria Kond tribe live in the mountain, plus many more from the Kutia Kond tribe are living around Niyamgiri. Ijrupa in Kalahandi dist – one of the villages listed, only has one voter according to the old voter lists which are likely to be used. There is news pouring in of the local administration trying to construct new homes in the village of Ijurupa. For a detailed analysis of the Supreme Court Order, and the efforts of the Odisha government to violate it, click here.
On June 12, a 18 member delegation representing the Dongria Kond tribe had submitted a memorandum to the Governor of Odisha, Shri S.C Jamir, in this regard. Union Tribal Affairs Minister, Shri Kishore Chandra Deo has also very categorically said that the selection of just 12 villages violates the Supreme Court order. The Dongria Konds and other affected tribal groups have hence, decided to hold Palli Sabhas (Gram Sabha) in all villages to be affected by the proposed bauxite mining. In an interview to a media personal, Lingaraj Azad from Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) said:
“We have decided that all villages will call for Palli Sabha under the Orissa Gram Panchayat Act. The Palli Sabhas will receive individual and community claims to forest resources and will also decide whether mining will affect religious and cultural rights of Dongria Kondh and other tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers".
The central government, on the face of it, has been trying to support the people's cause, through statements given by the MoEF and letters written to the Odisha Governor by Tribal Affairs Ministry. It is however, this same central government's CRPF is perpetuating numerous atrocities and human rights violations on the people, at the pretext of conducting combing operations for Maoists. On 3rd June 2013, CRPF forces opened fire on a group of men and children bathing in a waterfall at Batudi village on Niyamgiri. Bullets missed the children by only a few inches as they ran away into the forest. The firing continued for five minutes according. Complaints have been submitted by activists in this regard to the Odisha Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, but no response has been received yet. Such CRPF presence and activity are creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst the people. The fact that they have still spoken out so boldly in the gram sabhas reflects how resolute the people are about protecting their mountain. For more details on CRPF atrocities in the area, see this report. It is this same central government, which also seems to be willing to privatise BALCO and Hindustan Zinc Ltd to Vedanta, despite its horrendous human, labour and environmental rights record.
Meanwhile, Vedanta is desperate. With share prices already low, factories and mines shut at Lanjigarh, Tuticorin and Goa, and Niyamgiri looking less and less likely, Vedanta are following their usual method of high debt, high risk buyouts to keep the share prices afloat. They are currently pushing the Central Government to sell them the remaining shares in BALCO and Hindustan Zinc Ltd, and delaying tactics on the Niyamgiri case will give them more time to potentially save their skin in case Niyamgiri doesn’t come through. Another tactic Vedanta is trying is that of shifting its large debt pile into subsidiaries to free up interest costs of all its pending loans. Vedanta is planning for a major divestment/ restructure from Vedanta Resources (which is the London listed company) to a proposed merged entity called Sesa-Sterlite (which would be an Indian subsidiary). This move is waiting approval by the Indian Government and if that happens it will be major loss for the Indian subsidiaries and most of the debt will be transferred to the merger entity. For further details click here. The same tactic is being applied by Vedanta in its oil and gas exploration work in Sri Lanka. At the end of Vedanta’s 2013 financial year, the company had $8 billion in cash, a current ratio of 1.3, total assets of $46 billion, debt of $16.6 billion, and liabilities stood at $41.5 billion. Net debt stood at $8.6 billion and shareholder equity was $4.4 billion, which equates to about £16 per share, 42% above the company’s current share price. Vedanta are also in the spotlight in the West, as international solidarity group Foil Vedanta has been demanding the Financial Conduct Authority in UK to de-list Vedanta from the London Stock Exchange. They have also been pressuring European investors to withdraw on account of ethical and corporate governance violations.