On the morning of 13 August, Krishna Naik and her husband Niranjan Naik were still asleep at their home in Banteji village in Odisha's Rayagada district when they heard a loud thump on the door. "My husband and I were sleeping when at least 20-25 police personnel broke the door, forcibly entered our house, and dragged him out. They didn't even wait for him to put some clothes on. I cried and ran out with clothes and gave them to him as they took him away," Krishna, 26, told The Quint.
20 days since that morning, Krishna is yet to hear from her husband. "When they (police) were taking him away, I asked them what was it about but they didn't give any reason," she said.
Niranjan, her husband, is one of the 22 people from Odisha's Dalit and Adivasi communities who were arrested by the police from Rayagada and neighbouring districts of Koraput and Kalahandi — also known as the Bauxite belt of the state.
In an FIR registered at the Kashipur police station on 12 August, Niranjan and 150 other known and unknown people were booked under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections pertaining to rioting, kidnapping, carrying deadly weapons, attempt to murder, use of abusive and defamatory words, and criminal intimidation among others. The FIR also mentioned sections under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1932 and Arms Act 1959.
Activists and lawyers on the ground alleged that the FIR is part of a larger statewide crackdown on the adivasi community. Earlier, on 6 August, nine adivasis associated with an anti-mining protest were booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Eminent social and environmental activist Prafulla Samantara, also allegedly went missing from his hotel room in Rayagada district on 29 August. He had gone there to address a press conference against bauxite mining in the region. A day later, he was found at his home in Berhampur town in Ganjam district — over 200 km from Rayagada.
"The incident was a clear case of state terrorism. The state government is working for the interests of the corporate. There has been a breach of my liberty and I had faced mental and physical torture," Samantara, the winner of Goldman Environmental Prize for 2017, alleged at a press conference.
As per the Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan, an Odisha-based civil rights organisation, at least 25 Dalit-adivasi activists were picked up by the police in the month of August alone.
"We strongly condemn the ongoing state repression in various proposed mining areas in south Odisha as part of which at least 25 people have been arrested from three districts in the state. The act of protecting one's own land, forest, and nature is not criminal," read a press statement released by the organisation on 27 August.
A Decades-Long Anti-Mining Struggle
The tribals constitute 22.85 percent of Odisha's total population, making it the state with the third largest tribal concentration across India.
Odisha saw its first successful movement against mining — the Gandhamardan bachao movement — in 1987. A five-year long campaign by the local people, it forced Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) to wind up its operation to mine 213 million tonnes of bauxite from the Gandhamardan mountains in western Odisha.
This led to resistance against projects such as Tata Steel Plant at Gopalpur, Tata Shrimp Monopoly on Chilika Lake, and bauxite mining by Aditya Birla Group-owned Hindalco in Koraput among others.
In 2004, the Manjhi and the Kondh tribes opposed a bauxite mining project by Vedanta Alumina Ltd in the Niyamgiri Hills in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts. The struggle of Dongria Kondh, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) which has a population of over 8000 people, continues till date under the shadow of violence, forced abductions, and long legal battles.
What Happened on 12 August?
At around 7.30 am on 12 August, officials working for Mythri Infrastructure and Mining India Pvt Ltd, left for a field visit to the Sijimali Hill top centre in Kashipur in Rayagada district — over 400 km from the state capital of Bhubaneshwar.
As per the FIR filed at Kashipur police station, these officials, before leaving for the site, visited the police station and presented a written report alleging that they were awarded the operation of Sijimali Bauxite Mine by Vedanta.
On 23 November 2022, the Director of Mines and Geology in Odisha floated a tender inviting bids for grant of mining lease for Bauxite and Limestone. As the per the tender document accessed by The Quint, bids were invited for:
Ballada Bauxite block in Koraput
Sijimali Bauxite block in Kalahandi and Rayagada
Kutrumali Bauxite block in Kalahandi and Rayagada
Garramura Limestone block in Nuapada
Uskalvagu Limestone block in Malkangiri
In a press release on 21 February 2023, Vedanta said that it was declared as the preferred bidder for Sijimali bauxite block — with estimated reserves of 311 million tonnes of bauxite.
Vedanta then allegedly sub-leased the mine to Mythri Infrastructure and Mining India Pvt Ltd. According to the FIR, "Anticipating trouble from anti-mine protesters, Mythri officials requested Kashipur police to let some policemen accompany them to the site."
"At around 10.00 am officials from Mythri accompanied by police personnel, reached the hill top. While they were inspecting the site, around 200 peoples from the neighbouring villages of Banteji, Kantamal, Aliguna, Bandel, Talaamba Padar, Khurigaon, and Siadimal, armed with deadly weapons like axes, lathis, swords surrounded them and did not allow Mythri officials police party to proceed for work," read the FIR registered on the basis of a complaint by Pitibash Nayak, an employee of Mythri Infrastructure and Mining India Pvt Ltd.
The FIR also alleged that Mythri employees and police officials were "held hostage by a violent mob as they swung axes at them with the intention to kill the officials."
While locals alleged that arbitrary arrests and detentions are being made in connection with the case, a police official familiar with the investigation refuted these claims. "The arrests in the matter are not arbitrary. People who are being investigated and jailed will of course say such things in their defence," the police personnel told The Quint on condition of anonymity.
Allegations of 'Custodial Torture' and 'Extra-Judicial Arrests'
The locals and anti-mining activists in area refuted the claims made in the FIR.
"They're blowing it out of proportion. From what I have learnt, there was an argument and altercation between the protesters and Mythri officials. There was, however, no attempt to physically hurt the officials as claimed in the FIR. The protesters made these officials sign a declaration that they will not come to the mining site without consulting the locals, which they signed, and following that they were let go off," claimed 28-year-old Laxman Naik, a resident of Kashipur and anti-mining activist familiar with the matter.
Laxman, however, questioned the police crackdown. "If they have evidence to prove their allegations, why are they kidnapping and abducting people at the forefront of anti-mining movements at midnight?" he said.
Villagers in Kashipur supported Laxman's allegations.
Indu Naik, wife of Umakant Naik told The Quint, "My husband works as a mechanic at a garage. We were sleeping when the police broke our locks, entered the house, and took him away. They came at around 12.30 am and took him away at 1 am."
While Umakant is not one of the prime accused named in the FIR, the complaints named him among the protesters present at the site.
Upendra Bag, 53, a member of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, who is currently in jail after being named in an FIR filed at the Kalyan Singhpur police station under several sections of IPC and UAPA — on charges of attacking the police station — has made serious allegation of custodial torture.
In a four minute and 13 second long audio clip, accessed by The Quint, Upendra, currently lodged in the Rayagada Civil Jail, alleged, "My hands and legs are hurting, and it is difficult to move. My vision has become blurry because of the continuous beating for 3-4 days. All of these people are trying to find a solution, but I don't know what to do. I am in pain, it's difficult to move, I am just lying here."
Since his arrest on 6 August, Upendra's son Rashiko Bag, 27, was allowed to meet his father twice. "My father is in great pain. They (police) have stopped beating him now because they've realised that if pushed beyond this, he will die. He is not being allowed a pen and paper to lodge a formal complaint," alleged Rashiko.
(The Quint has reached out to concerned police officials for a response. This story will be updated when we hear from them.)
How the Amended Forest (Conservation) Act Paved Way For Mining Operations in The Region
On 26 July, the Lok Sabha passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, which exempted certain forest lands from the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
The Amendments in the Act, are in direct violation of the rights of forest-dwelling tribes, granted to them under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. According to the Forest Rights Act, local communities grant permission for diversion of forest land through their gram sabhas.
As per the new amendments, if the land falls outside the scope of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, it effectively eliminates the requirement of obtaining consent from the Gram Sabha for diversion of that land.
In 2013, the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri won a historic legal battle in the Supreme Court of India. In the Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd vs Ministry Of Environment & Forest case, the Supreme Court ordered a referendum to be held amongst the affected Gram Sabhas to obtain consent — on the Vedanta's Bauxite mining project — from the community which unanimously voted against it.
"These new rules were brought in to favour the big corporates at the expense of Dalits and adivasi forest-dwellers," said Madhusudan, an activist associated with the Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh (MSS), an organisation working for the rights of Dalit and adivasi groups in Odisha.
"How can Vedanta or Mythri start the mining process or inspect the site without taking approval from the gram sabhas? These new rules allow them to bypass this procedure but adivasis across board will fight against this. We suspect that it is because of the upcoming state assembly and Lok Sabha elections that the ruling BJP-BJD alliance is trying to cosy up to the corporates," Madhusudan added.
Laxman Naik, who has been associated with the movement since its early days, told The Quint that the intention of the adivasi community isn't to stop the development work. "We are not against any kind of development. All we want is a fair share in it. They're taking away our lands at dirt cheap prices. They promise us jobs, school, and several other things in return. But nothing comes to us," he said.
"All we want is for them to start mining operations only after a referendum and consultation with all stakeholders," Laxman added.
As per Madhusudan, the protesters have three key demands before the administration:
That the police declare the whereabouts of people arrested from 5-31 August, and a judicial inquiry be initiated into these arrests.
Activists associated with agitations in anti-mining protests in Niyamgiri and Kashipur be released from jail and scrapping of cases registered under UAPA and Arms Act.
Grams sabhas be consulted before leasing land to corporates for purposes of mining.
(The Quint has reached out to Odisha's Deputy Inspector General (DIG) and Superintendent of Police (SP), Rayagada. This story will be updated as and when they respond.)