In May 2017, 20-year-old tribal activist Kuni Sikaka was arrested by the police for her relentless fight against corporate land grab and destruction of the environment in Odisha’s remote hills of Niyamgiri, a land inhabited by the vulnerable Dongria Kondh tribe.
An active participant of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti movement, Sikaka has been spearheading the fight against mining in the hills by UK-based mining firm Vedanta Resources since 2003, when the company entered into a partnership with the Odisha government to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. The Dongria, who have inhabited the hills for generations, felt threatened by the move and rose together in the struggle to reclaim their sacred land.
She was accused by the police of being an alleged Maoist, a guerilla group fighting battles against the government to stop expropriation of tribal lands. The police threatened Sikaka and agreed to release her only if she surrendered as a “Maoist extremist.” Furthermore, she was forced to use her thumbprint on a number of documents she could not read.
On May 3, 2017, Sikaka along with her husband, her father-in-law (who was the co-convenor of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti movement) and three others from her village Gorata were paraded as extremists before the media.
Ever since, Sikaka has been languishing in jail, according to several media reports.
In 2004, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had granted environmental clearance to Vedanta-owned Sterlite Industries for construction of the aluminium refinery, which did not involve diversion of forestland.
Soon after, several petitions were filed against Vedanta’s illegal ways of getting environmental clearances, but the Supreme Court completely disregarded the threat to the Dongria Kondh tribe.
Despite several mass-scale protests organised by tribals and activists to condemn the government apathy towards the plight of the tribes and the environment, Sterlite Industries was given approval to proceed with mining operations in April 2009.
Struggle against corporate loot
From 2008 onwards, members of the Dongria rose against the injustice meted out to them, despite receiving several threats from Vedanta. The movement was met with support from international communities like Survival International, Amnesty International and Foil Vedanta, who visited the protest sites and also held rallies outside India.
In 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced a halt to the mining project after the MoEF reviewed it. The ministry also rejected Vedanta’s plans for a six-fold increase in capacity at the Lanjigarh alumina refinery.
A year later, Vedanta’s Environment Clearance was revoked in 2011, which was welcomed by the Dongrias.
In a landmark judgment in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, the Dongrias could “settle the question of Vedanta’s mineral rights with a referendum vote among the village councils.”
“The ruling overturned a prerogative the Indian government had reserved since the colonial era, allowing it to dictate the use of forest lands without consulting the people who had historically lived on them. The twelve villages voted unanimously against the company’s proposal,” mentions an article published by The New Yorker.
Stifling the voices of dissent
In early February, Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old climate activist was arrested in the toolkit case. She was among the three accused who had been booked for sedition and other charges, in connection with a case involving a toolkit allegedly linked to the farmers’ protest on January 26.
Ravi was arrested by the Cyber Cell of Delhi Police from her home in North Bengaluru. A BBA graduate of Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru, she is part of a climate activist group called ‘Fridays for Future’, which was started by Greta Thunberg in 2018. Ravi started the India wing of the group in 2019.
The Delhi Police alleged that Ravi was the “key conspirator” in formulating and disseminating the toolkit, and also accused her of collaborating with pro-Khalistani group, Poetic Justice Foundation to “spread disaffection against Indian state”. The police also claimed that she had shared the document with Thunberg through the Telegram app.
Ravi was granted bail last week on the condition that she furnish two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)