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Tribal Communities: The Final Frontier

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

The woes and struggles of the tribal communities of India need attention.

Niyamgiri Struggle by Nivedita Bansal

In the state of Odisha is a lush hill range called the Niyamgiri. The tribe that calls this densely forested range home, the Dongria Kondh, has lived here for generations. With a population of about 8000, this tribe has cultivated the slopes of the Niyamgiri for centuries. The Dongria Kondh is one of the 62 tribes that inhabit Odisha. Across India, there are 645 such distinct tribes with an estimated population of 104 million people. Present-day tribal communities thrive on agriculture and hunting and gathering and traditionally hold their environment in extremely high regard, which is why they are often heralded as the guardians of the forests.

Tribal Way of Life

These tribes claim their land not only through prolonged occupancy, but also through responsibility for said land, and their relationship with their land is one based on the indigenous knowledge they have of their environment. The knowledge of the forests they inhabit is passed down from generation to generation, which enables these tribes to live in harmony and peace with their environment. The Kondhs, for example, possess expert knowledge of the forests and wildlife of the Niyamgiri range. They cultivate over a hundred different types of crops on their land with staggering efficiency, and from the forests, they gather almost two hundred different types of food. They cultivate orchards in the forests, and even gather sago juice- their own form of an energy drink! Like many other tribes, they live by their own code, one that advocates restraint regarding resources acquired from nature. And like many other tribes, they have been the sole protector of the diversity and ecological balance in the area they live in.

The wisdom these tribes have directly conserve and benefit the environment. In the case of the Kondhs, their hills hold something more than just lush greenery and flowing streams- the Niyamgiri range is capped with bauxite. For thousands of years, the Kondhs have preserved the mineral, for they know that the bauxite soaks up rainwater in the monsoons. These deposits of rainwater then feed the perennial streams running across the hills and into the plains of India during the hot summer months.

Tribal women in Odisha move across a green field carrying items on their shoulders

The Conflict

In 2003, the government of Odisha and Vedanta signed an MoU to mine the 70 million tons of bauxite reserves present in the hills. What followed was a rushed environmental clearance, and while Vedanta did not immediately get approval to mine the mineral, it was allowed to set up a refinery at the base of the hills – by annexing 60 hectares of village forest and destroying an entire village. Then, despite a scathing report by the CEC (a quasi-judicial body set up by the Supreme Court in 2002 to investigate forest and environment issues) that brought to light several of the injustices and illegal activities taking place, the Supreme Court approved the clearance of forestland for mining in 2008.

The refinery’s main waste product, a toxic slurry called “red mud” caused severe groundwater contamination and leaked into the nearby river. It also caused several health problems for the tribal people including diseases and long-term disorders. On top of several environmental hazards, there was an imminent threat to the wildlife and biodiversity of the hills. Moreover, any mining activity would destroy the water reserves- the same reserves that help provide drinking and irrigation water to millions of people. The project would also infringe on the tribals’ way of life, and destroy their livelihood.

What followed were incessant protests led by the tribal people. For the next five years, the tribes led demonstrations and rallies against the mining project. Despite convoluted politics and profit-greedy schemes, the Dongria Kondh went head-to-head with Vedanta. After several mass-scale protests and efforts, the Supreme Court in 2013 recognised the Dongria Kondhs' right over the hills and decreed that they would have a decisive say in the future of Vedanta’s mining project. Later, the government completely rejected the project too.

Truck carrying red aluminium ore (bauxite) from a mine in Odisha, India
A bauxite mine operated by NALCO (National Aluminium Company Limited)

Legal Provisions

While India has several laws and constitutional provisions which recognise tribal people’s rights to land and self-governance, they have numerous shortcomings, and their implementation is absolutely abysmal. The latest generation of tribal laws is a rights-based approach that focuses on development. However, the most recent statute enacted, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, recognises the injustice faced by tribals when it comes to the government recognising their rights and makes free, informed consent of a community mandatory when dealing with resettlement which supports the FPIC (free, prior, and informed consent) principle. However, manufactured and forced consent is widespread in India- recently, consent for the Dibang dam in Arunachal Pradesh was obtained by terrorising the local population. Additionally, the 2020 Draft EIA will also deal a blow to the FRA since it reduces public consultation time to 20 days and allows post-facto approval for projects.

Stories like that of the Niyamgiri Struggle are far too common in India - from the Chipko Movement to the Silent Valley protests, tribals have always been at the forefront of the fight to preserve our environment. As of last year, India had about 340 reported cases of environmental conflicts, and tribal communities had managed to mobilise resistance in 57% of them. In an age of rapid development and environmental degradation, tribals have emerged as a strong frontier when it comes to the preservation of the environment and its resources. When governments and corporations disregard the ecological damage of development projects, it is the tribal people that mount the strongest resistance - after all, it is their livelihood that is most under fire. The inclusion of tribal communities in policymaking and development plans benefits everyone - projects become more sustainable, environment conservation efforts are aided by tribal knowledge, and tribal people are ensured their right to self-determination.


George, A. (2014, December 18). Claiming Niyamgiri: the Dongria Kondh’s Struggle against Vedanta.

Gupta, G. (2020, December 23). The Adivasi Struggle Against Environmental Injustice. The Wire Science.

Pandey, P. C. (2020, August 26). India’s Indigenous Peoples are Key Constituents in Climate Action. Climate Scorecard.

Rana, S. (2020, March 26). Niyamgiri Movement: Questioning The Narrative Of Developmental Politics. Feminism In India.

Survival International. (n.d.). Dongria Kondh. Https://Www.Survivalinternational.Org/. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from


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