Located in the forests of western Odisha, a state straddling the eastern coast of India, bridging the district of Raiguda lies the sacred sanctuary of Niyamgiri hills. Not many moons ago, these forests were prospected, and projected as a veritable goldmine – for these verdant hills contain one of the richest and largest deposits of bauxite in India.
Vedanta – a UK company, and embroiled in numerous scandals across the globe, displayed tremendous agility and opportunism in partnering an alliance with the state owned – Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) to extract, mine, refine, and sell to domestic and global markets. In no time, it set up a huge refinery with a capacity of one million tons at the bottom of these hills… greedily anticipating and manipulating local and state government bodies to extract bauxite given the ever increasing demand for aluminium in world markets.
However the fight had just begun… there was a tremendous resistance that emerged in no time – in the form of local communities, activists, environmentalists, academicians et al – the matter was taken to the highest and central court of the world’s largest democracy.
In April 2013, the Supreme Court of India passed a remarkable and a landmark ruling where the resolutions of twelve gram sabhas (local tribal governing bodies) of the Dongaria Kondh, Kutia Kandha and other tribal communities – resolutions that rejected mining in the hills were upheld. The Supreme Court ruling strengthened and reinforced the authority of these local governance bodies (gram sabhas) comprising of local tribals, and who were responsible for the prevention of alienation of land and the heritage forests.
Incidentally, the 12 gram sabhas declared the Niyamgiri hills as the abode of Niyam-Raja (The communities’ traditional God) and as sacred lands that need to be protected at all costs. These sacred lands form a rich ecology of dense forests, two large rivers, local flora and fauna, and are often visited by wild elephants.
In more than one way – reality was already mirroring the core theme of a recent film titled Avatar – triggering multiple feelings and thoughts that I would like to talk about in this blog.
Many commentators described this particular ruling of Supreme Court as a victory in recognizing indigenous rights of tribal communities, whose very identity and survival of their way of living is dependent upon these hills, and how the court has protected the violation of their rights including the right to water, food, health, and work.
However OMC and Vedanta, with a refinery running idle were not giving up so quickly – BJP coming to power under Modi, meant that the Empire could strike back – that too on the platform of Make in India …
In 2016, OMC initiated and lodged a strong protest to this ruling, arguing that the decision of the gram sabhas must be reviewed as many of the older members have passed away and that younger tribals are now part of these institutions – an argument that is fallacious and downright dumb – for the state government appeared to be saying that ‘members’ are more important than the ‘institution of gram sabhas’ …
An uncertain, uneasy, and a fragile impasse has thus got created in these magical lands – things do get volatile, violence, once a taboo erupts, and evil lurks … as the region goes through ebbs and flows of tension, killings, corruption and manipulation … while we await the court’s response…
There is air of pessimism as most thinkers and activists believe that the Supreme Court is likely to listen to the Government of Odisha and rule in favor of the mining company – a decision that is likely to destroy the fragile ecology of Niyamgiri but more critically demolish the democratic institutions of local governance that have been existing for centuries.
My Recent Experience
In early February 2017, I had the privilege to live for a week in Muniguda – a small hamlet that lies at the foothills of the Niyamgiri Hills.
I had gone to work with a group of activists who are journeying through a year-long leadership program at the Barefoot Academy of Governance – an institution that has been launched to look at transformation and governance – its masters diploma program having been recognized and certified by a premier institution – Tata Insitute of Social Sciences.
I was anchoring a behavioral lab on Self and Systems for these activists – all of us as travellers searching for an elusive simultaneity, and intending to create a space for exploration, dialogue, and experimentation. My co-travellers were a set of people who carry a deep commitment towards social activism and in deep dialogue with communities.
Each day, I would wake up early in the morning, and look at the looming Niyamgiri hills and get to hear immensely rich narratives about the local tribal communities, their customs, their beliefs, and their traditions.
One of the leaders and course participants, Debjeet, is also someone I know quite well. Debjeet and his organization known as Living Farms, has been working in these parts for more than two decades in enabling the tribal communities to work on the themes of nutrition, localized cropping, indigenous seeds etc. and towards community building. Debjeet offered many a narratives and anecdotes that I could easily identify with – rituals that celebrated equalization and the power of ‘Us’ – much before the ‘Me’ got awakened; rites of sharing .
These narratives apart from anchoring a behavioral lab in the middle of forested land triggered many an internal response …
The Tribalistic Me …
A part of me that I would term as my tribalistic identity, came alive! This part of my being found it easy to believe in and to live in complete harmony with nature, and with a sense of consciousness that comes akin to the tribalistic identity inside each of us. Nostalgia walloped me as the surroundings in the form of old rounded hills, local trees, flowering bushes, tall ant-hills, and the golden brown earth brought back my childhood memories of having grown around these parts … This part of me felt at home amidst simple living sans consumerism sans striving and sans purpose … such feelings are quite rare for me.
Getting in touch with this part of me was a gift. But there were consequences – it also evoked guilt and remorse in me for living in a capitalistic and consumeristic world has its fair share of concerns and anxieties …
The Modern Religion: The Ideology of Colonization that joins us all …
Like for most others, my recent stay in Niyamgiri only reinforced the notion that the modern man across the globe has evolved over the years – an evolution that has distanced her or him from nature and in this course is more aligned towards a new religion – the ideology of colonization …
Beneath all fractures, ruptures and divides – of rampant racism, of feuds between radicalization and liberalism, of hierarchical class systems with clashing beliefs and ideologies, of national jingoism and partisan politics espoused by macho leaders – lies the deeper connect – a rich vein of consumerism and colonization that links us all.
We choose to ravage the very planet our life depends upon. The other day I heard a scientist say that the next evolution of the human being is the ‘Cyborg’ – an existence that is not worried about polluted lakes and oceans or about consumption galore. Engineers and system thinkers are already speaking of creating and developing computing abilities and capabilities quite akin to the human brain. The very definition of Human consciousness is changing in front of our eyes.
The only other viable alternative is for the human race to colonize another planet in the emergent future – and so says Stephen Hawking. Is there a third alternative?
On my way back, Suresh – the Dean of Barefoot Academy, asked me to read the latest Encyclical by the current Pope Francis – and this was an immensely humbling experience for me.
Pope Francis says …
In this Encyclical (available at the Vatican site) His Holiness writes integrating faith and scientific mindsets – and questions one of the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian thinking – critiquing the Genesis Account which grants man “dominion” over the Earth (cf, Gen 1:28) – He says that this “has actually encouraged unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature.”
He boldly writes that:
“… This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.
The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.
Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).”
In my understanding, Pope Francis very poignantly refers to two key forces that still give me hope – the innate masculinity of “Tilling” which allows us to stay alive, and the femininity of “Keeping” as the balance that would help us revive the 3rd alternative … He in the encyclical pages questions the excessive masculinity with which we are ravaging the earth and the absence of any Keeping and protecting and caring. The encyclical is a must read for anyone who wishes to build a holistic perspective …
I have come back questionning myself and my desire as well as an intent to look at both ‘Tilling’ and ‘Keeping’ processes that impact me … There are deep questions of how I choose to live – and there are no easy answers …
But I still carry hope – and this gets enlivened and reinforced when I work with people who are the outliers in the consumptive world – this trip to Muniguda was a gentle and yet firm reminder of what I and you owe to this planet that keeps us alive…
The immortal words of Morgan Freeman as Somerset in Se7en, quoting Hemingway, come back as reverie – “The world’s a fine place and worth fighting for – I agree with the second part.”
- Barefoot Academy of Governance is launching the next one year program on change and governance – more information can be accessed at http://www.barefootgovernance.org or at TISS website.
- Living Farms is an organization that has been sponsored and funded by APPI and is doing excellent work for the last 20 years – more information is available at http://www.living-farms.org