The Niyamgiri Movement as a Landmark of Democratic Process

By Felix PadelonJul. 24, 2014in Politics

Written specially for the Vikalp Sangam website.

The Gram Sabhas that took place in a dozen villages in Niyamgiri in July-August 2013, in compliance with a Supreme Court Judgement in April, show India’s democratic process at its best. Democracy, though undermined by top-down policies throughout the Scheduled Areas, is intrinsic to Adivasi society.

What is characteristic of an Adivasi meeting is the openness that allows everyone to have their say, without any threat of force in the background – Government or Maoist, corporate or party political.

It is true, as many say, that the democratic institutions of ‘Panchayati Raj’ guaranteed under India’s Constitution, and more fully spelt out in the PESA (Panchayat – Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, and the Forest Rights Act, should guarantee a working democracy in tribal areas, but in practice do not, for a variety of reasons – most state governments have done little to implement PESA, the FRA has been poorly implemented in many places, and tribal people themselves often question ‘Panchayati Raj’, preferring their traditional councils.1

Traditional tribal councils were called into question by the Birbhum Rape Case, in which a Santal panchayat was widely reported as ordering the rape of a woman who had an affair with an outsider in January 2014. On the basis of this case, The West Bengal Government made a move to ban tribal councils. Tens of thousands of Santals came to Kolkata to demonstrate against this move. There is considerable gender equality in most tribal councils, which could not differ more e.g. from khap panchayats in Harayana, though the Birbhum case has led them to get confused in many minds. There is considerable evidence that this case was misreported by vested interests – possibly even to undermine the impact of the Niyamgiri meetings? 2

The Niyamgiri Gram Sabhas showed Adivasi democracy at its best, and in many ways are representative of how tribal meetings work. Though I did not witness them, I recently attended a Santal meeting in a village in Jharkhand, and the sense of democratic process there was very strong – allowing everyone to speak, with emphasis on reaching a consensus through allowing a full spectrum of strongly expressed views. 

The Supreme Court Judgement calling for Niyamgiri villagers themselves to decide about Vedanta’s mining plans was remarkably enlightened.3  Though many protested the Odisha Government’s decision to carry out votes in just twelve villages, nearest to the contested bauxite deposit, with Maoists advocating a boycott,4  the final result of a unanimous vote against mining in all twelve, confirmed fair play.

This was certainly not a verdict that either Maoists or NGOs influenced. Though several NGOs, including Amnesty, Survival and Action Aid, have played a significant role disseminating the issue internationally, they do not have a presence on the ground, where their role is questioned by grassroots activists, especially Samajvadi Jan Parishad, which worked with Dongria and other locals to organise and speak out in these meetings.

Another new force at work is Foilvedanta, a new kind of organization that includes scholars, lawyers and journalists, and represents horizontal links between activists in different countries, that has reported on the twists and turns in the Niyamgiri case, and has been leading opposition to Vedanta Resources at its base in London in recent years, also exposing the company’s outrageous exploitation in Zambia.5  On Vedanta’s designs on Niyamgiri, Foilvedanta’s conclusion is clear: ‘No doubt Vedanta and the Odisha government have more tricks up their sleeve, but the evidence is now overwhelming that their battle is lost. It is time they gave up and admitted that, for once, Indian democracy has been exercised, and won, from the bottom up.’ 6

The Niyamgiri vote represents not only Dongria, but also many Dalits and members of Bhaujan Samaj, who voted alongside them. Another remarkable aspect of the vote was Dongrias’ repeated rejection of the individual patta on offer under the FRA– validating Marx’s emphasis on communal property, as opposed to individual property, which is characteristic of tribal societies, as well as the basis of communism. Forest Rights Activists have fought hard for tribal rights – but community property rights are much harder to apply for under this Act, and if it ends up privatizing the forest into individual plots, is there a danger it will it turn into a tool of capitalism, undermining forest cohesiveness as well as the fundamental sharing of land and labour that forms the essence of Adivasi society?

The whole Niyamgiri process presents a model of how Indian courts and democracy can work, even in remote tribal areas. The Dongria still practice a largely self-sufficient economy, based on ecological principles, and their assertion of rights over their forests and mountains as a whole should inspire others to assert their rights over common property / natural resources. ‘The mountain is not the Government’s to sell’, as many Dongria have asserted, or in a woman’s words, ‘We need the Mountain and the Mountain needs us’.

The Dongria taboo on cutting forest on the summits (as opposed to the sides, where they carry on shifting cultivation in rotation) presents an indisputable case of biodiversity protected by indigenous custom and an economy based on ecological principles, in line with the original meaning of taboo from another indigenous culture – the Maori in New Zealand, for whom the concept means fundamentally ‘sacred’, and lies at the heart of a comeback of Maori property rights.

By contrast, Public Hearings held by Government authorities in tribal villages on dozens of contentious issues, including Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery, steel factories in Chhattisgarh, coal mines in Mahan (MP) and Polavaram dam, represent a travesty of openness and democratic norms in the repression surrounding them, and frequent, systematic misrepresentation by the authorities of what people say as ‘consent’, even when nearly everyone has spoken against a project.

Maoists have supported tribal movements for a fair price for forest produce, for closure of illegal liquor stores and many other important issues. But Maoist support was a ‘kiss of death’ for the Santal platform against police atrocities in West Midnapur in 2008 and the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha in Narayanpatna, south Odisha (2009). Maoists have not created democracy by assassinating class enemies – this policy in Bastar helped create the monster that became Salwa Judum. ‘Security forces’ certainly don’t create democracy by trying to annihilate Maoists. What is needed is attention to the voices of Adivasis and support for their own democratic institutions.

Whether the model of Niyamgiri gram sabhas can be replicated elsewhere is open to question. Dongrias are a tribal society that still retains its traditional politics, an ecology-oriented economy and solidarity based on a strong sense of community. How far can communities in other areas match this kind of solidarity and sheer determination? On the Niyamgiri issue a diverse and influential cross-section of civil society supported the Dongrias – conservationists joining with social activists, since it is clear that this is a society which has maintained protecting its forests as a core value. Grassroots activists, political parties, NGOs and people from many walks of life played a role in this support, even when this was not at all mutually co-ordinated. Whatever these contradictions, the movement’s success is an inspiration, and ways of replicating the basic model of local communities deciding use of their resources democratically need to be found.

But are the Dongria and Niyamgiri out of danger? Or are corporate takeovers likely to increase under a new government whose election received large-scale corporate funding, from Vedanta among other companies, and whose budget plan does not exactly emphasize democratic local control over resources? 7  Notice for another Public Hearing on 30th July for expansion of Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery apparently continues the plan for mining bauxite from Niyamgiri, suggestimng that despite the gram sabha consensus, Vedanta may be unlikely to yield to democratic outcomes. It has also implied that, if Niyamgiri is not available, another of the neighbouring bauxite mountains might do. Under particular threat is Khandual Mali near Karlapat in Kalahandi, which is also surrounded by Kond villagers who have expressed determination to resist the mining of their mountain. Moreover, the track between Karlapat and the Lanjigarh/Niyamgiri area contains one of the largest unspoilt forests in south Odisha, abode of elephants, leopards and other threatened species, and an industrial-grade mining road here would inevitably have highly damaging impacts. 

Whatever the future holds, the movements of Adivasis and other smallscale farmers to hold onto their lands against the takeovers present many models of democratic resistance that civil society needs to recognise and learn from if India’s resource base in its living ecosystems is to survive intact for future generations.

  1. Tribals prefer traditional way of governance over Panchayati Raj’, Vikalp Sangam, 21 February 2014
  2. India’s Tribal Councils under fire after gang rape’, Voice of America, 4 April 2014
  3. Supreme Court verdict celebrated on Niyamgiri’, Foilvedanta, 19 April 2013
  4. Tribal people defy Maoists’ diktat, attend gram sabhas’, The Hindu, 17 August 2013
  5. KCM hides profits in Zambia by transfer mispricing’, Foilvedanta, 4 July 2014
  6. Niyamgiri Unanimously Rejects Vedanta’, Foilvedanta, 20 August 2013
  7. Ashish Kothari: ‘The budget’s ecological bankrupcy’, The Hindu, 21 July 2014

Note: Photos 2 and 3 are not from Niyamgiri. They show an Adivasi village below Khandual Mali (near Karlapat), the mountain under future threat.

Story Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply