Today, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, while the rest of the world is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we express our deep concern and despair at the violation of rights of the indigenous people of Sijimali hills in Odisha. On Friday, 8th December 2023, nearly 10 buses of armed police forces were deployed across villages in Sijimali hills to assist the district administration of Rayagada and Kalahandi to jointly unleash a reign of terror. The purpose was to coerce the indigenous people to attend hurriedly held “Gram Sabhas”, to validate the diversion of forest lands for the Sijimali Bauxite Mining Project of Vedanta Company. These tactics follow months of stiff opposition to the bauxite mining project by people, leading the state to again resort to coercive and manipulative tactics to get its own way. In its desperate attempt to manufacture the consent of the villagers, the district administration has hurriedly carried out Gram Sabhas, and without prior notice, thereby rendering them illegal on this count as well.
The Sijimali bauxite reserve spreads over both Thuamal Rampur block in Kalahandi District and Kashipur block in Raygada District. In February 2023, Vedanta Limited was declared by the Odisha government as the preferred bidder to mine Sijimali bauxite reserve, which covers an area of 1549.022 hectares of Sijimali hills, estimated to have 311 million tons of bauxite. However, neither prior consultation was done with the local villagers nor consent was taken from them before leasing out the hills, even though the mining area is spread over more than 18 tribal dominated villages classified under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution due to dense presence of indigenous population in the villages. Under the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), private mining in Schedule V areas cannot be allowed without prior discussion and consent by the Gram Sabhas. Yet, such statutory requirement was clearly ignored. Therefore, the process of leasing out Sijimali Bauxite reserve is illegal and a clear violation of PESA and FRA.
As villagers started organizing themselves to resist the entry of the company for mining, the Odisha government resorted to severe repression. In early August 2023, twenty four leading activists were arrested (now released on bail after three months) on false charges. Nearly 93 people from Adivasi and Dalit communities were named along with 100 others in FIRs lodged by the company officials alleging them of rioting, murder and several other charges under different sections of the IPC.
After putting the leaders in jail, a weak and highly incomplete Environment Impact Assessment Report was put out to the public on 14th September 2023. The numbers of water sources and perennial streams in the affected area was gravely undercounted. The cultural significance of the hill as the sacred abode of their deity Tijimali was ignored. The land as the main source of life and livelihood was overlooked.
The state and the agents of the company also collaborated in creating a wedge within the community by conducting a rally on 5th October 2023 in favor of the quick implementation of the project.
Intense police repression and harassment by the company goons across the villages in the Sijimali hills continued till mid-October.
Public hearings to gain the environmental clearance had now been scheduled by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board. Despite the atmosphere of intimidation and repression, at the public hearings for environmental clearance held on 16th and 18th October 2023, at Sunger and Kerpai panchayats, the villagers clearly opposed the mining proposal.
In its desperate attempt to divert forest land, on 14th November 2023, the Odisha state cabinet approved to amend the Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (by ST) Regulation Act 1956, which would allow tribals in Schedule V areas to sell or mortgage their land to non-tribals with the written permission of the sub-collector. However, in the face of severe criticisms from different sections, the government had to withdraw the proposed amendment.
When all the tactics failed, the state resorted to again unleash a reign of terror before the mandatory Gram Sabha meetings. On 8th December 2023, hundreds of armed police personnel were deployed in the Sijimali area to threaten people and pressurize them to sign consent forms stating that they had agreed to divest their sacred lands for mining. Vedanta’s contractor, Mythri Infratech, officials were also present along with the police. The state-company nexus coerced people into signing consent forms, making a complete mockery of the constitutional values guaranteed to indigenous people under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution. To expedite the process, the district administration along with a huge posse of police and company staff went out to the villages to hold Gram Sabhas in complete violation of Free, Prior and Informed consent, guaranteed under PESA and FRA.
People across the villages questioned the govt officials and police for not following due process in conducting the Gram Sabhas. They have also resisted signing the consent forms. In villages of Sagabari and Aliguna, the police, district administration and the company officials had to turn back in the face of strong resistance from villagers. However, the police and company officials have managed to conduct Gram Sabhas forcefully in a few villages like Chulbadi village (Kalahandi district) by threatening the villagers, and by giving Rs 1000 /- as a bribe. Women from Bandel and Kantamal village reported that when most villagers had gone to Aliguna to express their solidarity, the district administration along with police and company officials reached their village with adivasis from other localities and took their photographs as proof of Gram Sabhas held.
A few regional media outlets have carried the false news that successful Gram Sabhas were held across 10 villages in Sijimali hills, without the resistance or questioning the illegal measures taken. These media outlets did not even bother to question the heavy presence of police and company officials at the Gram Sabhas.
Meanwhile, a huge battalion of police, including women police personnel and JCB vehicles, proceeded to the adjoining Majhingmali hilltop. Over the past three months, women have been on vigil to stop Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) officials from doing soil testing and carry out a prospecting survey for bauxite.
The independence of a core democratic institution, the Gram Sabha, and the freedom of the people to voice their opinions without fear has been gravely violated in the entire process. Given the above, and the violation of all due process, we the undersigned:
- Express our outrage and concern over the violation of the rights of indigenous people of Sijimali hills.
- Demand the proper implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006 to ensure the indigenous people their right to land, nutrition, health and income.
- Call upon the Odisha Government to cancel the mining lease granted to Vedanta Limited.
- Abhiram Behera, AIKS –Odisha
- Ashok Pradhan, Convenor, Paschima Odisha Krushaka Sangathan Samanvya Samiti
- Balabhadra Mallick, Chasi Mulya Surakshya Samiti, Kandhamal
- Bhalachandra Sadangi, National Secretary, All India Kishan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS)
- Bichitra Patra, Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI), Odisha
- Biswapriya Kanungo, Advocate and Activist, Bhubaneswar
- Damodar Behera, CPI State Executive Member & Social Worker, Kalahandi
- Deba Ranjan, Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS)
- Deme Oram, Anchalik Surakshya Committee, Bondamunda, Sundargarh District
- Godfrey Colaco, Samvad Foundation
- Hena Barik, President, Basti Surakshya Mancha, Bhubaneswar
- India Social Action Forum, Odisha
- Kedar Sabara, Convenor, All India Tribal Forum
- Khirod Routray, Secretary, UDYOG
- Lingaraj Azad, Advisor, Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS)
- Meera Sanghamitra, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)
- Mahindra Parida, General Secretary, AICCTU
- Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti, Koraput, Odisha
- Narendra Mohanty, Convenor, Campaign against Fabricated Cases (CAFC), Odisha
- Niranjan Mohanty, Advocate and Social Activist, Bhubaneswar
- P Parvati, General Secretary, Odisha MNREGA Sramika Union
- People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Odisha
- Pradyumna Behera, PhD Scholar, IIT-Mumbai
- Prafulla Samantray, Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Odisha
- Prasant Paikray, Spoke Person, Anti-Jindal & Anti-POSCO Movement
- Radhakant Sethi, Working President, AICCTU
- Radharani, Secretary, AIRWO
- Raj Kishore Raj Chairman cum Director, National Human Rights Security Council Nawada, Bihar
- Ranjana Padhi, Writer and Activist, Bhubaneswar
- Roma, All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP)
- Sankar, All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha (AIKKS), Odisha
- Sanjay Sunani, President, Kalahandi Zila Auto Union, Bhawanipatna
- Saroj Mohanty, Convenor, Deshi Bihana Surakhya Mancha
- Sasi Rekha Behera, Secretary, Gharoi Mahila Sramika Union
- Sharanya, Koraput
- Srikant Mohanty, Chasi Mulia Sangh, (AIKMKS) Odsiha
- Suresh Panigrahy, Secretary, AIKS-Odisha
- Tirupati Gamango, President, Adivasi Sangharsha Morcha
- Tuna Mallick, Adibasi Bharat Mahasabha (ABM)
- Yerumai Rajan, Student of Adivasi Movements, Bhubaneswar