Even in a career in public life that has already spanned five decades, the date of April 18, 2013, holds special significance for Prafulla Samantara. On that day, three judges of the Supreme Court said that the Union government's permission for a mining project in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha, a mandatory requirement under Indian federal law, could only be given after taking the consent of the gram sabhas, or the village councils, of the region. Ten years before that, Vedanta Alumina Ltd. (VAL), a subsidiary of the UK-based Vedanta Resources, had applied to the Union government's Ministry of Environment and Forests for approvals for an alumina refinery project in Lanjigarh Tehsil in Kalahandi District and a a bauxite mining project in the nearby Niyamgiri Hills.
These hills are home to the Dongria Kondh people, approximately 8000 people living across 100 hamlets, classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group by the Government of India. They speak the Kui language and worship the Niyamraja, who they consider the supreme god of the Niyamgiri jungle and the source of all their resources. The legal charge against the mine was led by a group of urban activists who understood the proposed mine's capacity for environmental and cultural destruction. One of them was Prafulla Samanthara. R Shreedhar, a former geologist who had long worked with mining affected communities, was another.
Their set of petitions before the Supreme Court monitored Central Empowered Committee received was among several that claimed that Vedanta's projects would destroy the traditional way of life of the Dongria Kondh people, who are spiritually and culturally attached to the Niyamgiri Hills.
As this group was plotting their multi-pronged legal challenge, there was growing political mobilisation in the region about the potential consequences of mining activity. The political actions taken by the tribal groups also attracted the support of international civil society groups and some conscientious shareolders of Vedanta Resources in England.
In this episode of the Nagrik Podcast, we learn about the Indian state's relationship with the country's forests and forest-dwelling people from Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at Atree, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. Along with him, Shomona Khanna, the Delhi-based advocate helps us understand the Supreme Court's 2013 judgment as part of the story of democratising the governance of forests and forest resources in India.
The senior journalist Nitin Sethi and the anthropologist Madhuri Karak explained the political mobilisation of the communities living on and near Niyamgiri against the mine, and help us understand how the communities interacted with and were in turn shaped by the legal processes happening far away in New Delhi, and the advocacy campaigns happening in London.
And of course, we listen to the memories of Prafulla Samantara and R Shreedhar as their legal challenge to the mine wound its way through various steps in the legal process.
Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd v. Ministry Of Environment & Forests (2013), Supreme Court of India, Indian Kanoon
Anjali George, "Claiming Niyamgiri: the Dongria Kondh’s Struggle against Vedanta" (2014), Ritimo
"Prafulla Samantara",Goldman Prize
"The diverging paths of two young women foretell the fate of a tribe in India" (2018), The New Yorker
"The story of one of the biggest land conflicts: No mine now, but is it all fine in Niyamgiri?" (2018), The Economic Times
Kathryn Hopkins, "Church of England sells Vedanta stake over human rights concerns" (2010), The Guardian
Simon Goodley, "Protesters challenge Vedanta on human rights" (2012), The Guardian
Lectures from Nagrik's course on Community Rights and Forest Governance
Dongria Kondh Lado Sikoka denounces fresh plans for the mine at the 2016 Niyamgiri Parab
Sonali Prasad, "Photos: The Dongrias of Niyamgiri revive climate-resilient heirloom seeds" (2018), Mongabay
M Rajashekhar, "The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha now face a more formidable enemy than Vedanta" (2015), Scroll