India: Should tribal rights trump development?

WATCH: Andrew North reports from the densely-forested Niyamgiri hills in Orissa

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The rusting skeleton of a conveyor belt marches over the monsoon landscape, angles of orange against mounds of green.

It's a monument now to one of India's most bitter development struggles: as the structure begins to climb towards the high deposits of aluminium ore it was meant to carry it, comes to an abrupt halt.

A last iron finger points helplessly upward to the Niyamgiri hilltops, symbolising - depending on your point of view - a project rightly cut off or a country cutting itself off.

When the Dongria Kondh tribe who live in these hills voted last year to stop Indian-British mining giant Vedanta from digging out the ore, campaigners hailed it as a historic victory for tribal rights.

This was the "real" Avatar tribe, Survival International claimed, comparing their struggle to the Hollywood blockbuster.

Rusting conveyor belt This half-built conveyor belt leads nowhere

Yet for Vedanta and the rest of Indian industry it set a devastating precedent they fear will further hobble the country's stuttering development.

Even as the vote was underway, two other industrial giants cancelled multi-billion dollar investments blaming similar complications in securing access to land and mineral reserves.

Nearly a year on, the situation remains unresolved - mired in recriminations, mistrust and accusations of double standards.

"It is a mess," admits an Orissa state official.

Not even the Dongria Kondh are happy. They fear the mining company and its government backers are still trying to find a way to excavate the hills they worship as a god.

They point to new roads the authorities are cutting into the jungle, which they insist they don't want.

Boy with gourd Despite their traditions, there are signs of change in tribal hill villages

A couple of months ago, Sarcopari - one of the villages involved in last year's vote - was accessible only on foot. When the BBC visits, we arrive after just an hour's bumpy ride in a four-wheel drive.

"The government is trying to control us," said one tribesman, who didn't want to give his name.

"They accuse us of sheltering Maoists [rebels]. Sometimes the police come and beat us up."

But despite the pressure, they are adamant they won't give up their way of life.

"The Niyamgiri forest gives us everything, from plants to medicines," says a woman carrying dinner for her children arranged on plates of big jungle leaves.

Woman in tree The Dongria Kondh worship the trees and the hills as gods

Among the dishes that evening were crushed caterpillar and tree-bark - a special treat she said.

Despite the idyllic surroundings, it's a tough life.

Few Dongria Kondh - which means hill dwellers - live much beyond 40, far below the Indian average. One man we talk to says all but one of his five children died young.

Vedanta is not giving in either, in spite of or perhaps because of the $1bn-a-year loss it says it is taking on the project.

The sprawling refinery it built on the edge of the hills lies mostly idle, its chimneys only smoking into life when imported bauxite ore arrives from elsewhere in India.

Industrial plant

Despite losing the vote - mandated by India's Supreme Court - Vedanta insists its 10-year-old deal with the state government still stands for 150 million tonnes of bauxite ore.

"We have faith in the government" says its chief operating officer Mukesh Kumar, with its plan now being to get access to other reserves in this mineral-rich state.

With a controversial record elsewhere, UK-registered Vedanta has few friends. The company admits it made mistakes, but it also feels hard done by. Mining is happening in many other parts of Orissa where tribal people live it says - why is Niyamgiri any different?

The irony, says Mr Kumar, is that Vedanta only set up here because of government pressure to boost development - after a nationwide outcry 20 years ago about famine and destitution in the surrounding Kalahandi area.

"We would have preferred to go somewhere with better infrastructure."

Stories of desperate women selling their children - documented in P Sainath's book Everybody Loves a Good Drought - prompted a surge of attention, led by the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In a further irony, his son Rahul - now the likely Congress prime ministerial candidate for the next elections - would follow in his footsteps years later to champion the Dongria Kondh cause - in effect turning against the development his father had helped precipitate.

Children playing

Just down the road from the refinery, one small settlement of tribal people, though, is praying it will survive.

They were displaced by the refinery's construction and in return they received homes, jobs and schools for their children. "If the plant closes we will have nothing," says Raju, who has a supervisor post earning far more than he did as a farmer.

Even in Niyamgiri hill villages, there are signs of change. Many are sending their children to schools outside, keeping them in hostels. Some are installing solar panels and other modern aids in their villages.

Supporters of mining say far more could benefit. Many blame foreign NGOs like Survival for stirring the controversy - hypocritically denying India the development the West already enjoys.

"It has sent a message that it's not safe to invest in India" said the Orissa state official.

Dongria Kondh woman

At the root of the problem though is trust.

"What has the government ever done for tribal people?" asks Kumti Majhi, the president of the Niyamgiri Protection Committee, which helped lead the campaign against Vedanta.

India's record on its tribal people - or adivasis - is not good. The authorities often give the impression they would prefer tribes didn't exist - even trying to restrict media access to places where they live.

"These hills are our identity" says Madoba, another Sarcopari resident, gesturing at the rich green peaks around him.

"If the mines come, the Niyamgiri forest will go and we'll be like dogs."

Giving tribes more faith that their interests will be respected may be the key to untying this development tangle.

Andrew North Article written by Andrew North Andrew North South Asia correspondent

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