By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata, May 3 : Prafulla Samantara, the recipient from Asia of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize and the face of a determined people’s resistance against bauxite mining in an Odisha forest, has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “rethink” his corporate-friendly policies.
The activist led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria-Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills, spanning the districts of Kalahandi and Rayagada, from a massive, open-pit aluminium ore mine.
“My appeal to the present government of India under the leadership of Narendra Modi… is that it should rethink his corporate-friendly policy (and change) to people- and environmental-friendly developmental policies in the interest of equity and justice for the common people of our country,” Samantara told IANS from San Francisco after receiving the honour.
The Goldman Environmental Prize honours grassroots environmental heroes from the world’s six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island Nations, North America, and South & Central America.
He appealed to Modi to “keep his promise” of development without destruction (of ecological resources).
“… but the process of present development in India leads to destruction of huge resources like rivers, forests, agriculture, lands through mindless mining and hazardous industrialisation for the profit of corporates,” the 65-year-old lamented.
Dubbing himself a product of the JP (Loknayak Jaiprakash Narayan) movement against corruption in the 1970s, Samantara claimed that under global capitalism, the Indian state has been transformed into a corporate state “against the democratic and constitutional rights of our people” as enshrined in the constitution.
Hailing from a farmer’s family, Samantara began campaigning against globalisation and privatisation in the 1990s. His activism spurred him to organise a people’s movement against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills: a land of deep forests, gorges and cascading streams.
The Dongria Kondh, who derive their name from dongar, meaning hill, are fruit farmers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest’s medicinal plants. They hold deep reverence for various aspects of the hills.
In 2003, Samantara saw an announcement in a newspaper about a public hearing to discuss bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills.
He noted that the public hearing would not be accessible to the isolated Dongria Kondh, who do not understand English or have access to computers. Samantara felt a responsibility to help them protect the Niyamgiri Hills.
Samantara alerted the Dongria Kondh that their land had been given away.
In October 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with UK-based Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite, an aluminum ore, in the Niyamgiri Hills.
The massive, open-pit mine would destroy 1,660 acres of untouched forestland to extract more than 70 million tonnes of bauxite, polluting critical water sources in the process. The mine would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.
Through peaceful rallies and marches, he organised the Dongria Kondh to maintain a strong presence in the hills to keep the mine project from moving forward.
Meanwhile, Samantara filed a petition with the Supreme Court’s panel governing mining activities, becoming the first citizen to use the legal system in an attempt to halt the Vedanta mine.
Recalling the struggle, Samantara said: “The hired goons of the company tried to create obstacles. They also attacked other social activists who organised the tribal community. Innocent tribals were put in jail by police and I was also opposed by the advocates of industrialisation.
“Once I was kidnapped along with many prominent people’s leaders by the goons of company and twice there were attempts to attack me physically.”
Almost a decade after Samantara’s initial filing, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision on April 18, 2013. The ruling empowered local communities to have the final say in mining projects on their land and gave village councils from the Niyamgiri Hills the right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against the mine.
But the war rages on to protect Niyamgiri — the soul of the tribals.
“Now Niyamgiri is saved from mining but the alumina plant of Vedanta is there at Lanjigarh, at the foothill of Niyamgiri. As a most polluting industry it threatens the ecology of Niyamgiri. So now the struggle continues to dismantle this plant,” Samantara said.
He warned against bauxite mining. “If bauxite is mined and exhausted there will be depletion of water resources, streams and rivers and ultimately this will destroy the rich biodiversity in the forest. The permanent existence of bauxite is necessary not only to keep Niyamgiri alive but also to ensure the sustainability of Dongria habitat,” he said, adding states like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and others are facing ecological crisis in the name of “corporate investment”.
As for the award, he termed it as an “international recognition of people’s movements against corporate capture of natural resources, to protect the people’s right of which I am a part and parcel”.
“I do feel this award has inspired me to work more and more to build people’s power to fight against corporatisation of resources and also corporatisation of politics in India,” he added.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)