Interviews from the extractive frontiers in Odisha

Rajaraman Sundaresan

Indigenous history across the world has revealed how factory schools were used to steal future generations of Indigenous Peoples by ways of destroying culture and alternative knowledge systems. The KISS-Adani model of factory schools currently being implemented in Odisha is a living example of how corporate forces in connivance with the state are brainwashing lakhs of Adivasi children by unleashing cultural genocide unprecedented in present situation. The young Adivasi minds are blindly made to learn the language and culture of dominant society which is deplorable. At a time when the world is waking up to the unprecedented crisis of climate change, Indian government unabashedly continues with destruction of natural resources in tribal heartlandÉ This is an ecological crime of highest degree which needs to be stopped and condemned by all.

 – Dr. Abhay Xaxa, 13 January 2020

 

THE following interview with Drenju Krusika, a Disari from the Niyamgiri hills, was taken with consent of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (Niyamgiri protection committee). Drenju Krusika is a Disari (shaman) of the Dongria Kondh community. The interview was taken in a mix of Kui and Odiya. This is the transcript of a recorded conversation with Drenju about his communityÕs worldview and experiences with non-indigenous outsiders. Translating DrenjuÕs thoughts, feelings and communityÕs outlook is complicated by lack of equivalent terms in Odiya and English.

You are one of the Disaris of the Dongria Kondh community. I have seen you during the last decade performing ceremonies and rituals of Niyamraja on many occasions including the annual Niyamraja festival. Your community has fought a David and Goliath battle against Vedanta Aluminum Ltd and the Odisha state government which was keen to begin the mining of Niyamgiri hills. ItÕs almost a decade since your community won the historic Supreme Court judgement which upheld the decision of the gram sabhas not to allow mining in Niyamgiri. Has the pressure for mining on Niyamgiri ended? As a Disari, how do you see your communitiesÕ fight to save the Niyamgiri hills, where Niyamraja resides?

One of the common misconceptions that most outsiders make, including university professors, is to think Niyamraja resides on the hilltop, where we celebrate our annual Niyamraja Parbu (festival). There is a common saying amongst our people which should clarify this misconception, and that is ÔNiyamraja created us and asked us to look after Niyamgiri as it will look after you. The whole of Niyamgiri wherever our people live, we must take care of it. We consider Niyamgiri as NiyamrajaÕs desh (country) irrespective of whether your people and your government acknowledges this or not.Õ

Before the annual celebration begins, each village performs ceremonies and rituals paying respects to our Niyamraja. Our annual celebration at the hilltop where Niyamraja resides is part of this. The annual celebration of the Niyamraja Parbu gives us, the Dongria Kondh community members, an occasion to come together to pay respects to Niyamraja. It also gives our ancestors a chance to see all our community members together dancing happily to the beats of dhaapu and tamaak which are played while invoking them.

Niyamgiri is our soul. We fought Vedanta company and the government, which was forcing Vedanta upon us, in order to keep our souls alive. How can we survive if our soul is mined away in the name of development? Would you call it ÔdevelopmentÕ if we lose our soul? Perhaps that is the reason why most crimes and development planning happen in cities.

How will the pressure to take away our Niyamgiri end, while VedantaÕs Lanjigarh factory is still there? We have stopped it from mining our forests, lands and streams. Many of our elders, brothers and children have been to jail for resisting mining and demanding what is their right. Some have been killed by the police in encounters. They are our martyr spirits. The government is still trying to co-opt our people, our children, and put us in jail thinking we will succumb to their pressures. We shall keep fighting and are ready to die but will never allow Niyamgiri to be taken away from us.

 

What challenges does the community face now from the company and the government administration? How is the government trying to co-opt people in the community?

Most of our leaders and many community members have cases slapped on them. Every time we protest for our rights, they slap cases against us citing some reason or the other. More than thirty people in our community – youth, women and men, have three or four cases each slapped on them. The government uses these cases to put us behind bars whenever we try to raise our collective voice against mining or Vedanta company. These we understand are tactics to threaten and intimidate us. Dodhi Kadraka, one of our youth leaders, is in jail since the two years now. They say he is Maoist. Does fighting for oneÕs own community rights and to protect Niyamgiri make one a Maoist? In that case most of the Adivasi people fighting for the environment, protecting their community rights in the world must be Maoists. What is the government going to do about that?

The government and company people have been trying every trick to mislead, torture and oppress us to force us to get convinced and give our consent for mining. Now they are strategically trying to separate our youth and children from us to prevent them fighting for our rights. They want our children to be sent to schools run by government and company agents. They have closed schools in the villages and are forcing us to send our children to faraway boarding schools. How can our children get educated by staying away from their community, from our festivals and from our whole way of life?

Earlier they wanted to extract bauxite from our mountains. They have understood, we wonÕt allow it to happen. So, they are extracting our children to boarding schools to teach them the companyÕs education and their ways.

 

Have you tried to speak to the children who attend these schools from your community? What are their experiences? How are these schools affecting the communityÕs way of life and fight against mining?

Ten children from my own and the neighbouring villages attended these schools some years ago. They werenÕt happy there. They came back within a year to two. They had complaints about food, teachers not treating them properly and so on. Even our community elders and parents who visit the school arenÕt treated properly. These schools donÕt allow children to come home for festivals or for deaths in the community. These children only learn Odiya at school and are slowly adapting to speaking Odiya even in their villages.

Our Kui language, which is central to our way of life – our ceremonies, rituals and while conversing to ancestoral spirits and Niyamraja – is losing its importance with children who attend these schools. For years we have been demanding from the Government that our children should be taught in Kui so that we, the community people, will also understand what is being taught to our children.

Any and every communication with the government must be spoken or written in Odiya. Why? Therefore, our Dongria people say ÔDonÕt believe anything that the Odiya government says. This is not our Kui peopleÕs government.Õ

These government run schools and company agent schools like KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences) in Bhubaneswar only celebrate Hindu festivals. They teach our children to observe festivals like Ganesh Puja, Saraswati Puja, Holi and so on. Are we Dongria people Hindus or are Adivasi people Hindus? No. The teachers in the school, warn our children not to eat kodiunga (cow meat) or kodruÕunga (buffalo meat). And they even ask children not to eat it when on vacation back in their villages. Why? We sacrifice Kodi or Kodru (cow or buffalo) during our festivals. Our gods eat them, so we offer them as sacrifice, how can we not?

They force our children to pray to these Hindu godsÕ morning and evening in the hostels. Why should our children pray to Hindu gods, to Jagganath or any other god, when we believe Niyamraja is our supreme ancestor?   

The government wants to show people in the cities and across the world that it is helping and taking care of Adivasi or Dongria people. That isnÕt true. It just wants to showcase us like it does in the Adivasi Mela (fair) every year in Bhubaneswar. At the mela, it puts up our pictures, exhibits our costumes and sells our forest produce to city people. But this is the same government which does not allow our children to wear any traditional attire or keep their hair long in their schools. It is the same government which sells our forest produce, whether turmeric or ginger, at high rates to the city people and wants to destroy our Dongar (mountain) lands by mining them.

In recent years, they used my picture at the Adivasi mela, and so many of our community membersÕ pictures, exhibiting them at the mela without our permission, the same way it wants to mine or set up factories on Adivasi lands without our permission, through force. We shall never trust these government agents.

 

What do you think the world needs to learn from the Dongria Kondh community? Do you think governments will ever listen seriously to the issues concerning Adivasi people or for that matter more specifically to the Dongria Kondh people? 

Learn!? [Drenju bursts into laughter] First people should listen to what we are saying. We consider ourselves your elders. We were here and still are here in the forests protecting and fighting to protect it. Everybody wants to teach us. Nobody is willing to hear us. We have survived since many many generations here along with Niyamgiri because we listen to our ancestors. Niyamraja wanted us to fight for his people, the Dongria Kondhs, and we wanted to fight for Niyamraja, our supreme ancestor. We cannot live without each other.

The same is true for people living anywhere. How can we allow nature to be destroyed, which gives us everything to help us survive and live upon? In Niyamgiri, we conduct a ceremony to thank our Lahi Pennu, Madraninga (one of the goddesses of the earth) for all that she has given us before and after the agricultural cycle. We even pray to Beema (goddess of rain) before and after the rainy season begins, thanks to whom we can grow what we grow on our lands.

Tell me now, who is the god or goddess of development? Governments, companies or politicians, who? They are all agents who want to destroy our earth, our lands, our forests and mountains. In NiyamrajaÕs words, we are his children. We must protect our mountains and earth for all humans, animals, birds, insects and medicinal plants to survive. That is our supreme duty and that is the main message of our supreme ancestor Niyamraja. 

As far as the governments are concerned, we shall keep fighting, to keep our lands safe, to keep mining companies away. Governments are not ours. They are for people who want development, of miners and factory owners, people who want to destroy our lands and agriculture. So, we will have to fight and only by fighting our enemies, who want to destroy our lands and mountains, can we protect ourselves and our earth. 

 

You said that government and Vedanta are still eyeing to mine Niyamgiri by adopting various means like co-opting people or taking your children to boarding schools. What is your community thinking to do to keep the fight going on?

The government through its various initiatives or schemes wants to divide us. They are misguiding our young Dongria children at DKDA schools (Dongria Kondh Development Agency government-run boarding schools). Company-agent schools like KISS have taken money from Vedanta and many other mining companies in order to educate our Dongria or other Adivasi children, taking them from different places.

Many children from our community do not want to attend these schools but are left with no other choice. Our community elders and leaders know too well what will happen if these schools are allowed to engulf our children. They will lose their original roots of being a Dongria Kondh. These schools are feeding them with the idea of employment in factories and companies. This is dangerous for our Niyamgiri and our years-long struggle against mining.

So as a community we are thinking and planning to restart our community learning institutions like EÕdah haska hada and EÕdah Veng hada. These are community learning spaces where our elders taught us our histories, insights of our language, medicinal values of plants, about community life and so on. These were important community spaces where both girls and boys from a young age participated in learning the values of family within a community. Most of these spaces are not functioning in villages, because most children are at schools, and donÕt see the value of learning in these spaces.

Most of us who are fighting for Niyamgiri and even have become martyr spirits fighting for Niyamgiri attended these community learning spaces during our adolescent days. We did not understand the importance of fighting for our rights to land, forests and mountains at school! We have not been to a school, as you have. But we understand our roots better and will never betray them for anything.

*

Interview with a class nine student from a village near Mali Parbat, 11 January 2022.

 

Azad (name changed) is a Kondh teenager from one of the villages active in the Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti in Koraput district. He was arrested on numerous charges including attempt to murder by Odisha police after protesting at the Public Hearing about mining Mali Parbat on 22 September 2021 conducted by Odisha State Pollution Control Board for Hindalco Ltd, which proposes to mine its 15 million tonnes of bauxite. Mali Parbat is a mountain in the Deomali range of the Eastern Ghats. Aditya BirlaÕs Hindalco has been trying to start this mine since 2005, prevented by persistent resistance from Adivasi and Dalit communities inhabiting the region. The Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti has been resisting the forceful takeover of their lands through fake Gram Sabhas, life threats and police intimidation, including numerous arrests. The interviewer has spent over eight months documenting this movement.

  

How did you get yourself involved in the movement against mining Mali Parbat? Where have you been attending school?

I belong to Kondh community of Mali Parbat region. My father and grandparents have told me lots of stories of how many companies like Nalco and Hindalco have attempted to take away our mountains and agricultural lands since many years now. I was small then. But later, I went to a local school nearby and now I am studying in Bhubaneswar at Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. All the while I was in KISS, I wasnÕt aware of what problems my family, my community and people of Mali Parbat were facing. My father was arrested on false charges by Odisha police some years ago and was in jail for three to four months. He is now out on bail.

Since the lockdown, I have been at home in the village... During this time, meetings of Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti used to happen in many villages across Mali Parbat, to which my father would take me. I have just been a mere spectator to these meetings listening to what the elders said and how were they trying to make people understand the importance of land, agriculture and our sacred cave Pakuli Debi Gumpha [near the top of Mali Parbat]. Among our youths in the villages, we used to discuss about these issues and many of them including myself wanted to support our families in the fight but were confused as well to some extent, as after education, we were all aiming to find some kind of employment. Some youths across Mali parbat villages sided with the company as they promised jobs.

But my understanding changed when we were gearing up to the first public hearing that happened on 22 September 2021. Just two weeks before the public hearing, Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti organised a padyatra for creating awareness amongst the local communities. regarding FRA, land rights and adverse effects of mining on food systems. Many people fighting against mining like us attended the public hearing from various part of Odisha. Friends from Niyamgiri, Khandualmali and Deomali also attended the padyatra and were with us throughout its five days. I made so many friends during that time, many of my age, both boys and girls, who had been to jail and still were fighting their communitiesÕ rights and defending their lands and mountains against mining companies. Many of them dropped out of school and continued to be at the forefront of the resistance. I was really inspired by their experiences and resilience. I started questioning why I had kept myself away from whatÕs happening to my community, our lands and mountains. From then on, I have tried to attend all the meetings called by Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti.

 

Why and how did the police pick you up? What happened at the public hearing on 22 September 2021 at Kankadamba village?

Before the public hearing on 22 September, the company agents visited most of the villages which were opposing mining to hand out money, in order to convince the villagers not to oppose mining at the public hearing. Even during the padyatra the company staff through their village contacts sent word out not to entertain people who were carrying out the anti-mining padyatra. The company had convinced a few school and college-going youths like me in the villages that they would give them jobs at the mining site if the mining operations began. Based on this promise, a group of people were roaming around villages, trying to persuade people and sometimes threatening them if they dared to oppose the mine.

On the day of public hearing, many people from various villages reached the main junction 2.5 kms from the public hearing venue. They werenÕt being allowed to go to the meeting by the paramilitary and police personnel stationed there. The notice of the OSPCB said the public hearing would begin at 11am, but people werenÕt being allowed to approach. After heated arguments with the police, they had to push through the security barricade to reach the venue around 10.25, where they found that the public hearing was already in progress with people from only two villages who have supported mining from the beginning. Heated arguments between company officials and villagers led to people getting angry and chairs and tables were broken. The public hearing got cancelled that day.

From 23 September, Koraput police started picking up leaders of Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti. The police arrested most of our leaders in the middle of the night from their villages. Most of us in the villages were traumatized with the police behaviour that day and night. They even announced through loudspeakers the names of people they were searching for. Many of our leadersÕ house doors, phones and bikes were broken in anger by the police. They threatened the leadersÕ families not to attend the public hearing again.

The police picked me up at night from the Kundli government hospital where me, my elder brother and my mother had come to admit my sister-in-law for her delivery. I was at the Kundli market when I got the news of our familyÕs new baby girl being born. I rushed to the hospital and much to my surprise found two jeeps full of police waiting outside the delivery ward. As I entered the ward to see the newborn baby girl, the police entered the delivery ward and started inquiring about my father. We replied he was at the village. A senior police officer threatened to hit me if I donÕt tell him where my father was. Then some three to four police personnel caught hold of my shirt and forcibly took me out of the hospital and loaded me into one of the jeeps. I really had no idea why I was being picked up. They took away my phone and the little money I had in my pockets.

They drove me past Kundli market towards Nalco township in Damanjodi and stopped the vehicle in a secluded area with few lights. A policeman from the SPÕs office threatened to hit me if I didnÕt tell him where my father was. He even abused my mother and sister-in-law who was at the hospital. He kept asking me ÔHow much money do you want to agree for the mine?Õ I didnÕt reply to any of his questions. He threatened to rape my mother and sister-in-law and said, ÔI can ruin their livesÕ. I was angry. At that point, a company official whom we saw at the public hearing caught hold of my pants and forcibly pushed me into the jeep, and they brought me to the Semiliguda police station.

At the police station, late in the night, they enquired about my name and details. I told them I have not committed any crime, except for protesting along with Mali Parbat Surakhya Samiti opposing the mining of our lands. I even told them that I was studying in Kalinga Institute of
Social Sciences, Bhubaneswar. The Inspector in Charge told me, ÔYou are studying in such a big school, why are you getting involved in the protest against mining. After education, where would you work, if you donÕt allow mining or development happen in your area?Õ

Later the same the police officer offered me food to eat, but I refused. How can I accept food from the people who are against our community, who had threatened to kill my father and rape the women in my family? They made me sleep at Semiliguda station for the night and took me to Berhampur Juvenile jail on the following day.

 

How did you spend your time at the Juvenile jail? Did you make new friends there? Did you miss on your classes at school during this time?

Initially I was worried, scared and really had no idea what was happening around me. I spent nearly two and half months in jail. I was able to make new friends there. Most of the inmates were Adivasi and Dalit children. I found some friends who were also locked up for fighting against land grabbing. They were from Nabrangpur and Kalahandi districts of Odisha. We played volleyball every day.

Slowly, I started reflecting on the events that unfolded and started questioning myself. Why I was here? For supporting my people of Mali Parbat in their fight from getting displaced from their agricultural lands being taken away for mining. It gave me a lot of time to understand the situation of our Adivasi people. Our ancestors protected these lands, enriched their soil and have handed over them to us so that we could survive and pass them on to future generations for their survival.

How can we give this land away thinking these mining companies will give us jobs? Even if they give us jobs, what will happen after my generation? My mother, father, elder brother and sister-in-law all work on the farm while we are away at school. What will they all do, if as per company rules only one family member gets a job? Also, we really donÕt know what sort of job, how long for and so on? I also learnt a few things about the law – our rights to land, bail procedures and so on.

During my time at the jail, I also realized that I felt a lot freer and happier than being at the KISS school in Bhubaneswar. The food at jail was much better than at school. At the KISS school it was so strict that one almost feels locked up. Here at the Juvenile jail, although I was more relaxed, I wanted to get back home. The only thing I miss about being at school are a few friends whom I havenÕt met since the lockdown.

 

Please tell us about your experience at the KISS school in Bhubaneswar. Are you planning to continue your studies? How do you feel now, back at the village?

I have been studying there since class three. So, it has been nearly six years now. Earlier, I was happy that I was going to study in a big city. I missed home quite a lot in the early years. But I got used to the situation after a long time as I had many friends there who felt the same. Most of the students there get scolded whenever we ask permission to go home. It is very difficult to contact people at home. We are not allowed to keep phones. WeÕre always dependent either on hostel supervisors or class teachers to speak to our parents. Also, the network back home wasnÕt good. Once, I tried to sneak a mobile phone in just to speak to my parents regularly, I was caught, and the mobile phone was seized.

Many visitors come to the school – ministers, people from foreign countries and company people. Whenever they come, a huge meeting is called in the playground to listen to the visitors. Those days our classes are suspended. Our founder, Achyuta Samanta Sir, recently contested elections and is a minister from the Kandhamal constituency. He belongs to the same party of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, which brought Hindalco to mine our land.

At KISS school, the teachers always tell us not to be like our parents and study well, so that we can get good jobs and settle well in life. In the two years of lockdown, while I was at home, classes happened through WhatsApp and video. But most of the time, there is no network, so I was unable to attend most of the classes. Sometimes if it was important, I had to go some three to four kilometres to access a network.

I donÕt know if I want to get back to the school, but I want to study. I am interested in understanding law to help our community people in situations like these. After returning to the village, I have already started discussing with the people of my age, asking them to join in intensifying the fight against mining. I have realised completely now that if we donÕt safeguard and protect our lands that our ancestors left for us, our future generations canÕt survive happily.

 

* Interview, 9 January 2022