The Indian tribe that took on a mining giant – and won

Unexpected victory in battle to protect sacred mountain

They said they considered the mountain their god, a living deity that provided them with everything they required to sustain their lives. They said they would fight to the death before seeing the pristine mountain destroyed. Remarkably, they won their battle.

Last night, the tribal people of the Niyamgiri Hills in eastern India were celebrating after the authorities in Delhi ruled that a British-based company would not be permitted to mine there for bauxite. Drawing a line under a "David-versus-Goliath" saga, India's environment minister acknowledged the potential human and social costs of the aluminium project that could have earned billions of pounds for Vedanta Resources Plc. "There has been a very serious violation of laws," Jairam Ramesh said. "Therefore, the project cannot go ahead."

In the state of Orissa, where the Niyamgiri Hills are located, Sitaram Kulesika, a senior member of the Dongria Kondh tribe, told activists by phone: "This is a great day for Kondhs. Mining would be the end of their existence and their god. We thank the Indian government."

Yet the impact of the ruling reverberated far beyond the quiet hills of eastern India, where the 10,000 members of the Dongria Kondh survive as subsistence hunters and farmers. While Vedanta saw 5 per cent tumble from its share price, activists celebrated what they said was a rare triumph for environmental and social justice against the interests of big business.

"This is a victory nobody would have believed possible," said Survival International's Jo Woodman. "The Dongria's campaign became a litmus test of whether a small, marginalised tribe could stand up to a massive multinational with an army of lobbyists and PR firms and the ear of government."

The mining industry in India is powerful and campaigners have long argued that it needs tighter regulation. While the government of Orissa, which supported the project, claimed activists were holding back much-needed development in the state, campaigners said they had faced widespread intimidation. "We strongly welcome this announcement as a vindication of the struggle that has been led by the indigenous people. The laws to protect their rights have been vindicated," said Bratindi Jena, who leads ActionAid India's work for indigenous people.

The controversy over the proposed mine dates back to 2004 and has involved India's highest court as well as a series of special committees. Many believed that fierce lobbying by Vedanta, owned by London-based industrialist Anil Agarwal, and the state government, would ensure permission would be granted to the company to proceed with its plans to mine bauxite for a refinery which it already operates close to the Niyamgiri hills using ore trucked in from a neighbouring state.

But last week a government-appointed panel recommended that permission be denied on the grounds that mining in the area would breach environmental laws. The panel also expressed concern that granting permission could boost the cause of Maoist rebels, active across India's heartland, who have seized on the resentment of tribal people against large industrial projects. "The committee is of the firm view that allowing mining... by depriving two primitive tribal groups of their rights... in order to benefit a private company would shake the faith of the tribals in the law of the land," the panel said.

Another factor may have been the involvement of Rahul Gandhi, who is widely tipped as a future prime minister. The son of ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, he visited Niyamgiri in March 2008 and said: "I feel mining the hill will destroy the environment, destroy the water supply source and destroy the culture as well as the livelihood of tribals." He is due to visit the site again later this week.

As the issue became a cause célèbre, campaigners attacked Vedanta from every angle. While activists attended shareholder meetings in London and flew in members of the Dongria Kondh to ensure maximum publicity, they also persuaded shareholders from the Church of England to the Norwegian government to get rid of their stakes.

The decision not to allow mining in Niyamgiri is not the only bad news for Vedanta. Mr Ramesh said their refinery, already operational using bauxite from other states, may be breaching environmental laws. It has also emerged that the Indian government may oppose Vedanta's purchase of a majority stake in Cairn India, a major oil producer.

Last night Vedanta, which says the claims by the pressure groups are "lies and hoax", rejected any accusation that it has broken the law. It also gave an assurance that it would not mine in the area "until all approvals are in place".

Pressure groups suggested that the statement hinted that the battle on the Niyamgiri mine might not be over. Meredith Alexander of ActionAid, said that while yesterday's ruling was a "massive victory", the row may not yet be over. "Vedanta could appeal this decision," she warned. "But the Kondh are asking the company to respect the Government's decision and their clearly expressed opposition to the mine."

Mr Agarwal, Vedanta's billionaire chairman and majority owner, has said the economic benefits of the project far outweigh any displacement of the Dongria Kondh, or damage to the environment. It also says that less than 3 per cent of the tribe would be forced to move because of the mine.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker