The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental heroes from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South and Central America and from island nations all over the world. The prize recognizes individuals for their sustained efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often doing so at great personal risk. Since 2004, Prafulla Samantara successfully fought plans by London-based Vedanta Resources to construct a $2 billion bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, a plan that was hatched without consulting the Dongria Kondh, the tribals who live there. The area is a wildlife sanctuary to many endangered animals and is one of the most pristine and biodiverse parts of the state. The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-person indigenous tribe live amidst these verdant hills that they consider sacred. The land is also rich in minerals, including bauxite, a key component of aluminum.
In 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with London-based Vedanta Resources to construct a mine in the Niyamgiri hills. The agreement was announced in English-language national newspapers and published on the environmental ministry’s website, but the remotely located Dongria Kondh, who do not speak English or use the Internet, had neither been informed nor had they given consent for the project. Seasoned activist and human rights defender, Prafulla Samantara, 65, launched a grassroots campaign to inform the tribal people and to help them protect their rich culture and forests.
A product of the youth movement under Jayprakash Narayan’s leadership Samantara had been imprisoned for a year during the Indian Emergency in 1975.
Since then, he has worked tirelessly as a political and community activist.
“I travelled extensively throughout the region first informing them of the major changes that had been proposed. Wherever I went, the locals had no knowledge of the seismic shifts that had been planned for their area in the name of development. That made me even more determined to fight on their behalf,” he says. He filed a petition before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court in 2004 challenging multiple environmental, human and tribal rights violations that the mine represented. He was the first citizen to use legal avenues to contest a state-led mining project, and this initiated a 12-year legal battle between India’s national courts, the Dongria Kondh, the Odisha state government and Vedanta.
In a conversation, Samantara talks with great fondness of this section of the Western Ghats which gives rise to 36 perennial streams, with many rivers serving millions of people in the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. “The presence of bauxite ore under the ground is one of the reasons for the abundant water supply in this area,” he says.
With a missionary zeal to safeguard these hills, and with the legal battle underway, he faced intimidation by state police and Vedanta personnel. There were multiple cases that were foisted on him and he says ruefully, “Since the 90s, the corporate agenda has ruled the government’s legislative agenda and ordinary citizens face an uphill battle. When it comes to tribal villagers, they were uniquely disadvantaged to fight against such powerful interests.”
Samantara along with the villagers used non-violent sit-ins in Bhubaneshwar.
They created a 17-kilometer long human chain to protest the mine to prevent Vedanta from entering their land. The resulting publicity drew the attention of international organizations. In 2010, the Norwegian government and the Church of England—both investors in Vedanta —divested their stakes in the company amid concerns about environmental rights. violations.
In April 2013, India’s Supreme Court empowered Dongria Kondh village councils, known as palli sabhas, to make the final decision on mining activities in the Niyamgiri Hills. All 12 village councils voted unanimously against the bauxite mine. The OMC tried to overturn it on bureaucratic grounds, but in May 2016 India’s Supreme Court denied OMC’s petition, definitively ending bauxite mining in the area. Significantly, Samantara’s case has established a precedent authorizing local village councils throughout the country to decide on mining activities in their regions, giving them control over their land, lives and destinies. n
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents.