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Niamgiri villagers in Odisha "subjected to" illegal arrests, kidnapping, fake encounters

Counterview Desk
A fact finding team, consisted of six members of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a nationwide civil society network, visited Odisha from March 23 to 27 to understand the issues impacting the tribal communities – Dongria Kondhs, Kutia Kondhs and Majhi Kondhs – and Dalits, following the alleged violence meted out on them to make way for mining giant Vedanta to do its business.
Consisting of Puja, a legal academic and lawyer, Patna; Mamata Dash, social researcher, New Delhi; Shobha R, theatre activist and researcher, Bangalore; Arundathi V, cultural activist and teacher, Kodaikanal; Meera Sanghamitra, environmental researcher and activist, Hyderabad; and Sharanya, social activist, Koraput, the team interacted with people from Lakhpadar, Dangamati and Patanpadar and surrounding villages in the Niyamgiri Hills, as also also Kenduburudi, Trilochanpur, Jagannathpur, Rengopalli and Chhatarpur villages in Lanjigarh area.
The need of the fact-finding by WSS, says an interim report prepared by the team, arose in the context of the recent arrests of leaders of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) and the March 18 “violent crackdown” on villagers affected by Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery project demanding jobs and education facilities for their children, leading to the deaths of two persons.

Excerpts from the interim report:

The state seems to be utterly non-committal to implementation of the Supreme Court’s verdict and other laws of the land as well as non-responsive to the genuine demands of the people be it regard to consultation with the gram sabhas, provision of permanent jobs to project affected families, land based rehabilitation, quality education and health services, abetment of pollution by industries, etc. Instead the State by using repression, intimidation, violence and surveillance, is contributing to the rising tensions in the region and insecurity in the lives of some of the most marginalised and peace loving communities.
The situation for the adivasis is exacerbated by the fact that Vedanta, which prides itself as a responsible corporate, has failed the people on every front be it education, health, employment, compliance of anti-pollution laws, etc. and the state machinery, including the regulatory authorities, have made no attempts to make company accountable. Instead the state has strengthened the hands of Vedanta by raising the Odisha Industrial Security Force (OISF) which has been at the centre of the current tensions in the region.
Setting up of permanent CRPF Camp at Trilochanpur
The state government has proceeded with setting up a permanent CRPF camp at Belguda village under Trilochanpur Panchayat despite no written consent from the Gram Sabha and by forcefully evicting four adivasi families who were cultivating on that land for generations.
The Trilochanpur Panchayat office has been forcibly taken over by the CRPF for temporary camping at the behest of the Sub-Collector, Block Development Officer and Civil Supply Officer with no consent from the villagers who are the rightful owners of the land.
The state government seems to have taken no action against the forced eviction of the four adivasi families despite their written complaint.
The elected representatives and activists of NiyamgiriSurakhya Samiti (NSS) were reportedly summoned to the Superintendent of Police’s office and told in no uncertain terms that their ‘opposition’ to setting up the CRPF camp would not be taken well by the administration and hence they must restrain from raising the issue any further.
Land acquisition in Kenduburudi and Jagannathpur
The government has a proposal for acquiring another 50 acres from Kenduburudi andJagannathur villages for setting up the rehabilitation colony for the displaced families of Rengopalli, Kotduar and Bandhaguda villages and also a permanent CRPF camp. This is in addition to the already acquired 1000 acres from this village in 2005-2006 by using police might.
The villagers are opposing this bid for fresh land acquisition in the light of the fact that they still have not been adequately rehabilitated and compensated for the earlier land acquisition and have been informed by the Tehsildar that the land belonged to the government making their claims irrelevant.
The villagers are opposing the fresh bid to acquire their lands and fear that they might face repression from the police and security forces.
Construction of red mud pond at Rengopalli
We met several women at Rengopalli who shared their reluctance to leave their ancestral lands and were kept totally in the dark about their future and the reasons for their displacement and dispossession.
They also shared that they face regular health issues like burning eyes and nose, skin infections, contamination of their food and water, etc. due to the dust that flies into the village from the red mud pond that has been built by Vedanta very close to the village.
The women shared that on the fateful day of March 18 the men of their village had gone to the gate of Vedanta to demand two basic supports from the company – a school bus for transporting their children from the village to DAV school and free education for their children at the school. They are now paying heavy fees for their children’s education at DAV school.
The women also shared that they have not got any health facilities from Vedanta for the health problems they are facing and shared that the company’s hospital does not have good doctors or medicines whenever they go there.
Death of Dani Batra and March 18 incidence of violent crackdown
According to the villagers of Chhatrapur, the strike of March 18, was organized by the villagers of Rengopalli, Bandhaguda and Kotduar from 6.30 am and by about 9.30 am the strike concluded following some oral assurance to the people by one of the officials of Vedanta. The contract labourers from nearby villages, including Chhatrapur, were waiting at the gates to enter the factory for their work. At this point a vehicle and bus full of OISF personnel reportedly descended on the villagers and company’s labourers and lathi charged them mercilessly.
In this chaos, Dani Batra, who also received severe beatings in the lathi charge, ran into a pond nearby to escape further beatings. But the OISF personnel allegedly dragged him out of the pond, and broke his hand and legs and crushed his private parts and threw him back into the pond leading to his death. His wife, Sayindri Batra, however shared that they are awaiting the post mortem report.
Sayindri shared that she has yet to receive the declared compensation of INR 25 lakhs which was promised to her in a written assurance on behalf of HK Bhatia, HR Manager of Vedanta who met her on March 18 after Dani Batra’s death. The written assurance also talks of taking care of the education expenses of her three sons and providing a permanent job to her in the company.
The reign of terror post the March 18 incident by Vedanta on its own workers has been such that for ten days the workers lived in fear of going back to work at the factory. They fear that the company would foist false charges on them for the burning and striking because the police would use CCTV care footage to track down all those who were present at the scene that day.
The company has also washed its hands off any responsibility towards the emergency critical care of its workers injured in the late charge. The villagers also said that they have no idea about who torched the offices and other property of the company on that day leading to the unfortunate death of OISF personnel Sujeet Minz. This was also corroborated by the lawyers and other sources the team interacted with.
Our interactions with the villagers of Chhatrapur revealed that there is an ongoing large-scale violation of the workers’ rights within the company. We learnt that workers from about 10-15 villages near around the company have been working in the factory for more than 18 years as contractual labourers. As a result of this there have been regular dharnas and lock downs by the workers and villagers affected by the activities of Vedanta in the area.
Intimidation, alleged false arrests and alleged false encounters
The fact-finding team was able to gather detailed evidence about the intimidation, alleged false arrests and alleged false encounters in Tadijola, Gorata, Dongamati, Kandel, Lakhpadar, Nisanguda, Ambadhuni, Nachinguda, Ningundi and Patanpadhar. In almost all these villages there have been instances of kidnapping, illegal detention in forests, being beaten up and interrogated and accused of being Maoist supporters by the police and CRPF.
In the case of Kuni Sikaka, which was also covered by the media, she was picked by the police at midnight in 2017 from her marital home in Gorata by women police and was held in custody and forced to surrender as a Maoist. When her family went to demand her release, they were forced to sign on blank papers and their pictures were taken and released to the media as surrendered Maoists. Until this day, Kuni Sikaka, her husband Jagli Pusika and father in law Dadi Pusika do not know what is written on the blank sheets of paper that they were forced to sign on as a condition for release.
In all the villages visited, there have been cases where the police/CRPF have illegally detained villagers in the forests and intimidated and interrogated them about whereabouts and other information about Maoists, which they do not have. They have also been cases of where innocent villagers have been accused of being Maoists and Maoist supporters, arbitrary cases slapped on them and arrested.
The cases slapped on them have included false and random accusations such as murder, rape, domestic violence and so on. Furthermore, many of the falsely accused and illegally detained have not been informed about the cases that are being filed against them. Almost all the villagers who have faced intimidation, arrests, detention, kidnapping or murder are/have been active members of the NSS. The villagers feel these are intimidation tactics employed by the police to silence them.
In all the villages visited, there are many people who have been implicated and accused in various cases about which they have no information, whatsoever. The only time when they come to know about such cases having been framed against them is when they are picked up by the police, detained or interrogated. Spaces such as the forest, paths between villages are increasingly becoming unsafe for the villagers of Niyamgiri. Women particularly feel unsafe by the presence of the CRPF in the forests.
The people who have been arrested and sent to prison have also testified facing custodial torture, including electric shocks and solitary confinement for more than seven days at a time. Illegal ways in which arrests have happened include kidnapping, blindfolding, torturing, detention in forests before taking them to the station, not informing about the reasons for arrest or the charges they have been accused of.
Not a single person had seen a copy of their FIR, chargesheet or any other case documents pertaining to them even after spending years in prison. Arrested people who were out of bail were not informed of the bail conditions, as a result of which they were in a constant state of fear of imminent arrest, whenever they would go to the market or the forests.
The fact-finding team discovered that the only presence of government projects in these villages have been those that have attempted to rob the Dongria Kondh of their identity and agency. For instance, the DKDA has for the past 30 years consistently influenced young minds to stay away from their cultural roots and identities and adopt new consumerist and mainstream ways of life. As a result, some of the villagers have consciously chosen to not send their children to school.
Recommendations
  • The Governor of Odisha, as custodian of the scheduled areas, should act upon the memorandum submitted to him by NSS with regard to the forced eviction of four families for building the CRPF camp at Trilochanpur
  • Implement the Forest Rights Act and PESA in Niyamgiri in letter and spirit as re-affirmed in 2013 and 2016 Supreme Court verdicts 
  • Immediately stop all plans of constructing or setting up of any further CRPF camps without the explicit and informed consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas 
  • Action to be taken against erring officials responsible for illegal detention, kidnapping, illegal arrests and false encounters of innocent villagers of Niyamgiri. An independent inquiry to be set up in consultation with Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti 
  • Adequately compensate the families and the villagers affected by State supported violence in consultation with the Niyamgiri Surakya Samiti

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