If Delhi is civilisation, you can keep it, say tribesmen

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The Independent Online

Until two days earlier, Doddi Pusika and his wife, Maladi, had never left the sacred mountain. Not to go the nearest city, not the neighbouring state and certainly never to Delhi to urge the Supreme Court to save their way of life.

"Our life is very simple," he said. "There is the forest, there are the animals, there are streams. We work in the fields. I am very sad because we live on the mountain. These people have come and want to take the mountain. Our community will be dead ... Without the mountain we will not get anything."

For the 10,000 Dongria Kondh tribal people of southern Orissa, the forested slopes of the Niyamgiri mountain represent not just their home but their deity. Their creation myths tell how they were the first people and how they were given the forest to care for. In return, the forest provided everything: their shelter, a bounty of food and medicine and their livelihoods. It was utterly inconceivable that someone could take it away.

"He is the lords of lords. He is the head of all gods," said Maladi, who had been terrified by the plane journey that brought them from Orissa. "Without Niyamgiri we cannot live." Life on the mountain is hard. The day starts at 4.30am, when they prepare food, eat and then head for the fields. They return home at about 5pm, cook again and then go to sleep at nightfall. It is a life whose routines are set by the elements.

The tribal people will walk huge distances to go to nearby villages and sell fire wood, which they either balance on their heads or on a bicycle. They will think nothing of walking six miles through the most difficult terrain before turning around and heading home. Usually it is the women who make these journeys and it is usually the women who work in the fields.

They insist they do not want to be "relocated" by the mining group Vedanta Resources and they are not impressed by urban life. In Delhi, Doddi and Maladi were taken to the zoo by an NGO only to be filled with sadness at the way the animals were kept. On arriving in India's capital, Doddi told one aid worker: "If this is civilisation, you can keep it." He added: "We are getting everything – the fruits, the bananas. We go to the market to sell things and get some money. We don't have a luxurious life."

This simple life is under threat, and not just from Vedanta, which wishes to mine the high-grade ore at what campaigners insist is a price kept artificially low by the Indian government. Other communities are moving on to the mountain and there is a growing problem with deforestation. Yet the Dongria Kondh insist they will not give in, no matter what the Indian Supreme Court rules and no matter what promises they receive from Vedanta.

Jitu Jakasika, a thoughtful 21-year-old who learned English at a missionary school, said: "This is our religious place. It provides everything. Vedanta cannot give us food, the streams, the animals... If the Supreme Court decides to give them the mountain, first they will have to kill us and then they will have to kill the mountain."