Niyamgiri, India — As he recalled a recent trip to the nation's capital, Drika Kadraka came to a sudden halt on a footpath that winds sharply to his village. He then raised his arms in a gesture of thanks to the vast night sky.
"Without our moon, our stars, we Dongria started to feel lost, missing our home," the indigenous leader said, alluding to the dense smog that often blankets New Delhi. "We are lucky here. I know we must never leave these beautiful hills."
In November, Drika and a group of Dongria Kond tribal villagers traveled from the forests of the Niyamgiri hills ("Mountains of the Law") in eastern Orissa state to lobby state officials before a crucial ruling by India's Supreme Court on a British company's mining project. The 10,000 tribal members view the plan to mine bauxite, aluminum ore, in their territory as a threat to their way of life. They arrived barefoot in native dress — women clad in white cloth with gold rings in their noses, men toting decorated axes — in a last-ditch effort to keep miners off their ancestral lands.
For the past three years, Vedanta Resources of London has fought the Dongria Kond and their supporters in an effort to mine the upper shelf of the forested Niyamgiri hills, which contains an estimated 73 million tons of bauxite.
In anticipation of a giant windfall, the company constructed a $900 million refinery in 2004 at the foot of the hills without federal approval. They are banking on broad support from state and federal officials, many of whom say Vedanta will help develop a remote area rich in natural resources and wildlife but poor in roads, schools and health clinics.
Bhagaban Gauda, a state official in the nearby town of Muniguda, says ignorance has kept Dongria Kond leaders from seeing the potential benefits. "Vedanta is a very big company and because of this people can get a lot of jobs, services. And this makes the mining project a good thing," he said.
Opponents, however, based a legal case around Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to life and personal liberty. They say a loose interpretation of the law favoring big business over human rights and environmental laws would set a dangerous precedent for other indigenous communities pitted against encroaching development.
"The Dongria people are not alone in the fight to save their home as this aggressive land grab continues," said Bijay Baboo, co-director of the Friends Association for Rural Reconstruction, an Orissa organization that works with tribal communities. "The court's decision will affect thousands of tribal and lower-caste people across the country."
Dongria Kond, or "hill dwellers," have farmed the slopes of the Niyamgiri hills for centuries. They worship the mountain as if it were a living god. Although their language, Kui, has no written script, they have a rich oral history that tribal elders tell through song and stories.
The Dongria Kond-Vedanta legal battle comes at a time when an economic boom — at 9 percent annually, India has the world's second fastest growing economy after China — has sparked fierce resistance by farmers and indigenous groups against corporations bent on seizing their lands. In the past decade, more than 1.4 million Indians have been removed from 10 million acres of land in four states to pave the way for industry and infrastructure projects, according to a recent report by ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency.
In November, the army put down riots in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) incited by the murders of at least 30 people, most of whom were farmers refusing to cede their lands for a proposed chemical plant by an Indonesian corporation. Violence also has simmered in the West Bengal village of Nandigram since January, when police shot dead several villagers protesting against Chinese-style industrial parks.
Conservationists predict a bauxite mine will pollute the eco-sensitive Niyamgiri hills, causing mass displacement and the end of a traditional livelihood based on farming millet and beans, hunting and gathering fruits.
To the surprise of many observers, the usually business-friendly Supreme Court rejected the Vedanta proposal in late November, a ruling some analysts say was heavily influenced by the Norwegian government's decision to sell off its $14 million share in Vedanta on ethical grounds two days before.
Nevertheless, the decision may be just a Pyrrhic victory for the Dongria Kond, according to ActionAid. In a statement after the ruling, the judges said they were not against the mining project in principle, and recommended Vedanta's Indian subsidiary, Sterlite Industries, submit a second proposal known as a special purpose vehicle. Some activists read the statement as an eventual court approval once Vedanta follows the judge's suggestions: 5 percent of annual profits must go to development projects for tribal people in the area, an unspecified amount for conservation management and details on how many locals would be given permanent employment.
"We are very apprehensive of this special purpose vehicle," said Babu Mathew, country director of ActionAid India. "There have been too many such arrangements in the past."
Meanwhile, Vedanta officials say its mining would occur above Dongria Kond villages, with special measures taken to ensure water sources below are protected from contamination.
But most critics disagree. They say more than 25,000 tribe members who live around the refinery have already been affected by water and air pollution, according to a November report by the Orissa Pollution Control Board, which ordered Vedanta to clean up a waste pond and stop runoff into nearby streams. In addition to the loss of crops and livestock, some residents say they are suffering from intestinal and skin problems.
"The rice we eat is making us sick, killing our animals," said farmer Nakul Nayek of Bansadhara village, a gloomy enclave of concrete homes in view of the factory's smokestacks. "Even (the police) have warned us not to drink the water."
The Vedanta refinery was built in 2004 with only the tacit backing of state officials, who hoped its construction would pressure the federal government to approve the project. But because a three-year legal battle has delayed the mining operation, the 1.4 million ton-a-year facility uses imported bauxite from Australia and elsewhere.
Ritwick Dutta, a New Delhi lawyer who specializes in environmental law, says this is a time-tested strategy in India - receiving post-facto clearance with the understanding the state will eventually grant permission after an insignificant fine. In 2005, a Supreme Court-appointed committee concluded the refinery was built in "blatant violation" of planning and environmental regulations. The court then fined the company just $650 for clear-cutting 143 acres.
Currently, trains haul imported bauxite from the coast to a depot near the village of Lanjigarh before it is loaded onto diesel trucks that rumble day and night along a company-built road. The tarmac cuts through a chain of lowland villages, kicking up so much dust that women are paid about $1.60 a day to dampen it with buckets of water.
Rajesh Ranjan, Vedanta's local head of corporate and social responsibility, said the claims of pollution are exaggerated and the company has exceeded its social responsibilities. He says Vedanta has built child care and health care centers and water supply system, and planted 40,000 trees for villagers displaced by the refinery. Locals agreed, but said the centers have been closed for months.
The new proposal suggested by the Supreme Court is expected to be submitted sometime this month. If the court approves it, some Dongria Kond villagers say they will not only travel again to New Delhi to protest but warn work crews who enter their sacred hills.
"If anyone comes to take our Niyamgiri we will fight them with axes and shoot them with arrows," said farmer Bari Pidikaka. "So these people will understand how the Dongria Kond are strong and love these hills."