5th April, 2014
One of the chief leaders of the Niyamgiri struggle is Lingraj Azad who is a Dalit from Kalahandi district. Lingraj Azad is 50 years old. He has been active for about 30 years as a full time activist of Samata Sanghatana and Samajvadi Jan Parishad. During the Niyamgiri agitation he was attacked by company goons three times. He has been jailed many times. During the preparation for the gram sabhas, he injured his knee in an accident. But he ignored his injury and continued his work. He is at present the national secretary of Samajvadi Jan Parishad. He is an extraordinary leader of an extraordinary struggle. We are giving here an interview of Lingraj Azad taken by Shiuli Vanaja, research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi for the Hindi bi-monthly magazine Samayik Varta [Kishen Pattnayak, the great socialist leader was founder editor of this magazine].
Vedanta Company wanted to extract bauxite from Niyamgiri Mountains in Odisha’s Kalahandi-Rayagada districts. Due to the protest by Adivasis of the region against the mining project, Supreme Court of India passed an order to conduct gram sabha’s in 12 affected villages. All the gram sabhas unanimously voted against the company.
The eyes of the entire world were focused on this outcome. This outcome proved to be a small roadblock to the companies in India who are bulldozing the environment, natural resources and lives of local people in their greed for profit.
This success of people and their fight has underlined some important issues. First is the principal was established that the local people will decide the use of resources and the operation of any project in their area. This was a case of public referendum. Before this, the only other successful public referendum in India was the one in which the displaced farmers of the Konkan region, Maharashtra voted against Reliance’s SEZ. Secondly despite the presence of Maoists in the neighboring region of Niyamgiri, the victory was achieved through a democratic and non-violent struggle. Thirdly in many areas in Odisha there are clashes and antagonism between tribals and Dalits over the land issue, but here Adivasis have shown their confidence in Dalit activists.
Shiuli Vanaja: When and how did the Niyamgiri struggle begin?
Lingraj Azad: In 1998, Sterlite/Vedanta and later picked up its momentum in 2002 when the government and the Company held a Jansunwai (public hearing) to take local people’s opinion about the project. This turned out to be a sham. So the struggle started in 2002, but became popular among the people in 2003.
SV: In Odisha, there were earlier struggles against bauxite mining project like the Gandhmardan and Kashipur. Did these struggles affect the Niyamgiri agitation?
LA: In the decade of the 80’s there was a struggle against bauxite mining in the Gandhamardan Mountains of Bargarh-Bolangir districts of Odisha. I was one of the leaders of that movement. The Gandhmardan struggle influenced the Kashipur struggle. I was part of the Kashipur struggle too. So in our fight for Niyamgiri we were inspired and helped by the experience of both the Gandhmardan and Kashipur struggles.
Since the fight against Vedanta Bauxite mining project was taking part in my home district, I had to take part in it.
SV: Is the area around Niyamgiri predominantly tribal or there are people of other castes?
LA: In the mines area, most people are Dalits and Adivasis. Nearly 85 percentage of the population are tribals. The tribals mostly speak ‘Kui’ language and belong to ‘Kond’ tribal group. They are usually called as ‘Dongria Kond’. ‘Dongar’ means ‘mountain’ and ‘Dongria’ means those who belong to the mountains. They are also sometimes called as ‘Jharnia Kond’ and ‘Kutiya Kond’. ‘Jharna’ means ‘waterfall’ and ‘Jharnia’ means those living near to waterfall. ‘Kutia Kond’ refers to those who are living in the lower part of the mountain. They are all one tribal group who are known by different names.
SV: Did you speak ‘Kui’ language or did you learn it during the struggle of Niyamgiri?
LA: I did not know the language earlier. Even now I am not fluent in this language. The locals also did not understand Oriya, so there were some problems in communication.
SV: Then how did you solve this problem?
LA: I invited some of my friends from Kashipur who understand this language. There were also activists who understood ‘Kui’ as well as Oriya in Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, where there was a movement against Vedanta Company’s alumina refinery plant. These leaders were living in the villages at the foothill of Niyamgiri Mountain. With the help of these activists the language problem was solved. Later on there was development of leadership for Niyamgiri struggle from these people.
SV: In other areas of Odisha there is conflict between Dalits and tribals. In Niyamgiri struggle, Rajkishore and you are Dalits and at the same time leaders of this predominantly tribal movement? Did you have any problems due to your Dalit identity?
LA: I have not faced any problems here as a Dalit. Adivasis are very open minded people. So whether you are Dalit or Non-dalit they show a lot of affection. It is very easy to work with them. But of course if any one deceives them or misbehave with them they get angry. Towards Rajkishore and me they have shown us love and respect as if we were their relatives (Kin).
SV: Who are the major leaders of this struggle? Who were the people who helped your from outside?
LA: Four full time activists of Samajvadi Jan Parishad have been working since the beginning in this struggle. These are Rajkishore, Premlal Pradhan, Kumud Behra and I. Other comrades of SJP have also helped from time to time.
SV: What is the role of Samajvadi Jan Parishad and other parties and organizationsin the struggle?
LA: Activists of Samajvadi Jan Parishad (SJP) are prominent in this struggle. But the agitation is not going on under the banner of SJP. The ‘Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti’ is spearheading the struggle, so that all kinds of people can join the struggle to make it a strong force.
SV: The struggle has been going on for a long time what do the full time or part time activists of this struggle live on? How are the expenses for rallies, sit in strikes etc. are covered?
LA: People affected by this project and those taking part in the struggle give a handful of grain or money for raising funds for the movement. Time is called ‘Muththi’ collection where ‘muththi’ means ‘handful’.
SV: There is no other funding, not even fellowship from outer sources?
LA: We have not received any foreign funds or fellowships. Sometimes like minded organizations or individuals who are not NGO’s and are not from mainstream political parties give donations or financial assistance, which we accept. We want to take donations only from those individuals or organizations that are committed to our cause or have similar principles.
SV: Why are you against fellowships, NGO’s or foreign funding?
LA: We have understood the negative role played by NGO’s in people’s movements. They try to keep the struggle under their own sphere of influence. It has been seen that they stop the funding of activists in movements at critical times. This sometimes led to a sudden end of agitations and struggles dependent on foreign funding or NGO’s. There are limits to struggles based on foreign funding due to limits to the funds itself. Thus in order to go forward and win, the struggle has to be independent of foreign funding or other outside funding.
SV: So is it very difficult for activists to meet their living expenses? How do they live?
LA: We take some money from support groups and friends. This does not cover our cost of living, food etc. But it is used for transport and travel. In order to take part in the struggle we have to undergo some hardships. I want to thank all our activists who are poor and have trouble meeting their expenses. Middle income class activists are not with us. It is a major achievement that despite their problems these activists are dedicated to work for society and the country. It is a matter of sorrow for us that we are unable to raise resources for these activists. But we cannot raise money by compromising our principles and by taking money from NGO’s. My wife has small government job so I take some help from her but such help is not available to other comrades working with us.
SV: Like other people’s movements this struggle must have faced some problems. Were there times when the struggle’s tempo stowed down and it seemed an uphill task to continue it?
LA: There were many such phases. At those times many said that the struggle will be finished. We also started feeling that it might end. But we maintained the tempo so that activists are kept in motion even when the movement lost some of its momentum. Sometime the tempo would go up and then slow down. Now the movement is very strong. But I would say that there is scope for it to become stronger.
I would like to compare the struggle of Niyamgiri with that of Kashipur and Gandhmardan. The Kashipur movement at one time was stronger than that of Niyamgiri struggle. But it was based in rural areas and they received no help from the outside world or cities. Our movement is not as strong as that of Kashipur but we have received a lot of help from outside. We have got help from people in district headquarters and other regions of Odisha. So our movement could grow in a different manner than Kashipur.
We have learnt one thing from the Gandhmardan struggle. The religious beliefs of people affected by the Gandhmardan project was tied up with the Gandhmardan mountain. On the mountain itself there are two temples, Narsinghnath and Harishanker. So a lot of people joined the movement from other regions of Odisha due to attachment of their sentiments with it. Thus religion was an important factor in the success of Gandhmardan struggle. But the case of Niyamgiri is different. The Dongria Kond consider Niyamgiri as a place of worship. But other people in the district do not follow this belief. Thus the support from outsiders was based on ideology.
Our inspiration comes from Kishen Pattnayak, whom we invited during the struggle to hold discussions and seminars. This had a major effect and inspired many people to join the movement. The youth from Kalahandi city formed an organization called as Sachetan Nagrik Manch and supported us from 2004 onwards. The lawyers from Kalahandi also supported us. Local leaders of Congress and former central minister Bhakta Charan Das were forced to make an organization in our support called as ‘Green Kalahandi’. They may have done so to prevent probability of losing votes but we welcomed their support. Unfortunately after winning election they stopped their support completely and the same Bhakta Charan Das is now searching for alternative mines for Vedanta Company.
In Rajurguda of Raigarh district, CPI (ML)- New Democracy group was leading a struggle against land acquisition. These people have been working with us actively since 2008. We are working together under the banner of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.
SV: When the movement slowed down did some of the activists lose hope? How did you cope with this?
LA: We learned this from Kishen Pattnayak that we should never lose hope. If the people leading a struggle lose hope then the movement cannot go forward. Many times I have encouraged other activists to continue our struggle. As long as our ideology, our thoughts are correct we should keep moving forward even if we do not get support of others all the times.
I would like to repeat a song from the time of independence ‘Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe Tobe ekla chalo re’ (‘If no one answers your call, you must walk alone’ – Original in Bangla by Rabindranath Tagore).
SV: Many people are saying that Maoists played a major role in the Niyamgiri struggle. What has been the contribution of Maoists in this movement? How is this struggle involved with them?
LA: No one will be able to correctly state whether the Maoists have played a role or not. We are fighting against imperialist forces not only in Niyamgiri but all over the country. Maoists are also fighting against imperialism-capitalism. But their way of struggle and experiences are different from ours. We do not support the use of weapon in the struggle like Maoists. The government has more weapons than us. So in an armed struggle we will always be weaker than the government. It is same in elections where power is won by those with more money. Therefore use of arms cannot lead to victory.
During our struggle at one point our local Adivasi leader Ladda Sikaka was taken away by the police who were dressed up like Maoists. We also believed that the Maoists have taken him away. Later on we found out that police was responsible for kidnapping of Ladda Sikaka and not Maoists. Police took him to Rayagada, beat him up and threatened to kill him in an ‘encounter’. When the people in the movement protested and agitated against this, he was released. All this was reported in the news. When the Maoists got to know about this they became angry and beheaded two people who were agents for Vedanta Company. Earlier I thought this beheading was done by police and blamed on Maoists to make their presence felt in the region.
But the struggle of ‘Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti’ is not a Maoist movement. They are not involved in this. The killing of these two Vedanta agents by Maoists did some good to the movement but also harmed it in other ways.
SV: Could you please explain the last statement?
LA: Due to this incident our struggle was labeled as a Maoist struggle which caused many problems for us. On the one hand the agents and goons of the company who were harassing our activists got scared and stopped doing so. On the other hand the police arrested many of our activists by calling them Maoists, beat them and raped village girls. In the name of searching for Maoists they ran vehicles over standing crops in the fields, entered houses, destroyed household goods, stole valuable things etc. Many important documents of people went missing in this process.
A lot of inconvenience was caused to the activists. Later the police understood that the struggle is democratic. We have no support from Maoists, but the police tried to repeatedly find out whether any leader have Maoist affiliations or not. Still, the police do attack now and then and Maoists also try to register their presence from time to time.
SV: Some people feel that the success of the Gram Sabhas was due to help from Maoists. Is that true?
LA: After the Supreme Court’s decision of holding gram sabhas, Maoists said in a press conference that they would not allow the gram sabhas to be held. We felt that the Gram Sabhas should be held and it should be a unanimous vote against Vedanta. We took out a Padayatra (foot march) and a rally to make people understand the issues and in the end gram sabhas were held. After all this happened, Maoists gave a statement that the gram sabhas were held because of them.
SV: In Odisha, there were three big movements against Bauxite mining like Gandhmardan, Kashipur and Niyamgiri. Why was Gandhmardan successful? Why was Kashipur unsuccessful? How was the recent success in Niyamgiri achieved? What were the particular reasons for success or the lack of it in these different movements?
LA: I told you earlier that the Gandhmardan movement got a lot of support from people due to religious sentiments attached with it. The local people leading the agitation in this case and whose livelihood would have been directly affected by mining were supported by others from surrounding regions due to the religious sentiments linked with it. This outside support was one main reason behind its success.
The Kashipur movement despite being very strong was not supported from outside people and intellectuals. Some local people involved in Kashipur agitation went over to the company due to greed. In every movement there are people who are lured away by money. The activists of Kashipur viewed such people as their enemy. In Niyamgiri we did not do so. We kept on meeting those who were lured by the company. We talked over issues like friends. We used to explain to them that they are doing a bad thing for which their children will not forgive them. We told them that they are gambling away their long term gains for short terms gains.
When the Vedanta refinery started working and these pro-company people got nothing, they started agitating against the company. At that time they came to us and asked us to lead their struggle. I made it clear that I am not going to say that the company should give us a little something and keep it running. I would say that the company should be shut down completely and leave the mountain. The company should compensate those whose livelihood they have destroyed and then leave. They agreed to this condition and we put the strength of Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti in their strength against Lanjigarh alumina refinery of Vedanta.
Due to this refinery 18 people of Rengopali who were suffering from diseases like TB, allergy, eosinophilia died. Near Rengopali the company pours its waste in a pond. Polluted water from the refinery is poured in the river. When a girl bathed in this river her skin came off in rashes. All the fish and other living beings in the river have died. After seeing all this people of Chatarpur village also joined our struggle.
So all these people, who were earlier in support of the company and whom we did not consider our enemy slowly became our friends and supporters. This added a new energy to the struggle. In Odisha, there are different movements going on in different places to protect water, forests and land. They all have one aim of protecting people’s livelihoods. Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti has helped and assisted in there various struggles in Odisha and got their help and support in return. This is another reason for our success.
SV: PESA Act (The Panchayat Raj Extension Act for Scheduled Areas) has made a provision for taking permissions from Gram Sabhas quite some time ago. But it is usually seen that the company and the government pressurize the local people, give them money and ensure that the Gram Sabha votes in their favor. How was this avoided in Niyamgiri’s case?
LA: The PESA Act was passed in 1996. When our struggle started in 2002-03 this act should have been implemented. The PESA Act was put on a shelf and the company and the government went ahead with the project. In 2002 there was a fraudulent ‘Jan Sunwai’ (People’s hearing) which showed that there was no opposition to the company. In 2008 the decision taken by Justice Arijit Pasayat was a very wrong one.
SV: What was the decision?
LA: According to Justice S H Kapadia, Vedanta was a black listed company. But its assisting (subsidiary) company Sterlite was a good company. So mining of bauxite from Niyamgiri should be given to Sterlite. Afterwards Jairam Ramesh cancelled the environmental clearance given to Vedanta as it had violated environmental conditions. The Odisha government appealed to the Supreme Court against this decision. The recent decision of the Supreme Court was correct. In this order gram sabhas were to be held in scheduled areas under Vedanta project according to PESA Act. In addition the decision to appoint a district Judge as an observer in this gram sabha proceeding proved to be significant.
SV: There were some special circumferences in Niyamgiri case like Rahul Gandhi’s visit, cancellation of environmental clearance by Jairam Ramesh, the Supreme Court’s order of gram sabhas due to attachment of local people’s religious sentiments etc. What was the role of these special circumstances in the success of Niyamgiri?
LA: It is difficult to say. But it cannot be said that the victory was due to the congress. Rahul Gandhi said that he was a foot soldier of the adivasis at Niyamgiri. Then why has he not stopped the alumina plant at Kashipur? That is also an adivasi area. Throughout the country adivasis are fighting for water, forests and land. Why doesn’t he go there and become a soldier for these regions? The decision that came and this success is only a result of the struggle of local people. It is not a victory of either the Congress or any political party or NGO. It is a victory of the people.
In the bauxite mining of Niyamgiri 112 villages were going to be affected. There should have been gram sabhas in all these 112 villages. What were the intentions of government and the company to hold gram sabhas only in 12 villages? In other places the decisions of gram sabhas were turned into company’s favor through various underhand tactics.
SV: Why this did not happen in Niyamgiri?
LA: Those village panchayats where the sarpanch (elected head) supported the company and where there was an influence of Biju Janata Dal (Odisha’s ruling party), were deliberately selected for these 12 gram sabhas. These were considered as bastion of the company. But adivasi community has a lot of understanding and community feeling between them. Those villages which were selected and those which were not are related by kinship ties. That’s why the company’s money could not buy the votes of there 12 villages. Another factor is the consideration of Niyamgiri Mountain as a god by Dongria Kond people. Every year they climb Niyamgiri Mountain and celebrate the Niyamgiri festival to worship the mountain. It is difficult to buy god with money. That’s why this particular strategy adopted by the government and company failed.
SV: Many people say that bauxite mining and the aluminum industry is necessary for development. If we oppose bauxite mining and aluminum dependent industry then how will the fast development of regions like Odisha take place? Was not your movement termed as anti-development?
LA: All the established political parties have called us anti-development. We don’t think that aluminum or mining as such well help our development. This will only lead to our destruction. Today’s fast industrialization is like killing the hen which lays golden eggs. In this only one golden egg is extracted and the hen is killed. But if the hen is kept alive then the eggs will benefit the coming generations for a long time. Today’s development is based on loot. It destroys agriculture and farmers. The mining of Niyamgiri will not lead to people’s development but only company’s development. The development of India is like the light of a torch. There will be darkness in general. Only where the minerals are being exported and where the light of the torch is focused, will there be any kind of development. Vedanta company is saying that it will give Indian government Rs 400 crores as royalty. Selling the produce of the trees in Niyamgiri will give us more money than that. How can the herbs, the natural drugs and the sources of water be replaced? Wherever factories come up agricultural land is destroyed and water, land and air are polluted.
SV: According to you what kind of development should take place?
LA: I think that mining should not take place at large scale. There is one bauxite mine run by NALCO in Odisha. Its production of bauxite is sufficient to meet India’s needs. In addition it is also exporting it. Thus there is no need for more bauxite mining.
The Saxena Committee has brought out an excellent report. According to this report if the Vedanta Company mines at an annual production rate of 10 lakh tonnes, then the reserves of bauxite will be finished in 23 years. If it mines 60 lakh tones per year the Niyamgiri will be finished in 3-4 years. At this rate Orissa’s entire bauxite will be finished within 20-25 years. If we are going to sell the entire forests, take out all the minerals, then how are we going to run the country after 25 years? How is the country going to pay back its enormous debt? Is there any alternative?
If we cannot save water and forest then people cannot survive. Only that development which will be for the country and for the ordinary people will be our development.
SV: Kalahandi is notorious for its poverty and starvation. Do you want tribals to continue in that state? The company will provide new jobs; electricity will be produced; people will get employment.
LA: To how many people will the company give jobs? And how many will get electricity? Mining does not only destroy those whose land is acquired. Mining affects people within a 100 km radius. Their livelihood is destroyed in some way or other. The difficulties faced by the people of Kalahandi are due to government’s policies. We had a dream regarding Kalahandi when the KBK (Kalahandi Bolangir Koraput) project started. We thought that more money will come to Kalahandi and there will be development. Where is all the money going? What is happening? What kind of development is this?
Only getting money and being able to eat is not development. Health, education and other community welfare services should be available to people. Just planning development from air conditioned rooms of Delhi Darbar will not lead to development. The people should be consulted on what kind of development they want and only that kind of development should be brought in.
SV: What was the main objection to the bauxite mining project of Vedanta by the Dongria Konds and other people in Niyamgiri?
LA: The people of Niyamgiri live a healthy life amidst natural surroundings. These people living in forest cannot live in cities. Some Dongria Konds had gone once in a program in Bhubaneshwar. They felt so uncomfortable there that they climbed up a tree to sit in. This shows that they have an unbreakable bond with the forests. If there is a status-quo there will still be development of them.
But they are being exploited. Whatever forest produce and agricultural produce they have, they are being forest to sell it at very low prices. This is the origin of the loot at their expense. Ginger, lemon, black pepper etc is purchased from them at throwaway prices. If the government ensures that they get adequate prices for these products then they want nothing else. They are very happy in the forests.
SV: The Niyamgiri struggle has reached a certain place. The 12 gram sabhas have given a decision against Vedanta Company. Do you think that the movement has been totally successful? Or do you think that the struggle is incomplete? Can the success at Niyamgiri be repeated elsewhere?
LA: Definitely Niyamgiri struggle is an inspiration for the country and should be repeated elsewhere. We do not consider the decision to be a total success. Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti will consider it a success when the Lanjigarh refinery plant of Vedanta is closed down. After that too the movement will continue. Otherwise the bauxite mines in Niyamgiri will be given to another company. That is why being alert and closing down the refinery is the goal of the struggle. This is the further fight.
SV: What is the message sent by Niyamgiri? The attack of companies on the country and company rule is increasing. How will this be stopped?
LA: This can be stopped if the entire struggles (people’s movements) accept the principle of unity in diversity. All the people who are working at the grass roots level and who love the country should unite. They should accept that though there may be differences between them, their mindset should not be different. There is space for different opinions and strategies but no space for enmity. That is the message that the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti wishes to give to all.