It was the first week of May. The summer sun beat down on Lanjigarh, a town in the Kalahandi district of western Odisha, which appeared to have been reduced to an industrial wasteland. Beyond the stockpiles of toxic red mud and desert flats of fly ash, born from the refining of bauxite—the primary ore of aluminium— lay our destination: the thickly-forested Niyamgiri hills.
My companions, two Odia journalists, Maudi Barik and Venkateswar Padhi, picked a route that they were familiar with. Our walk through the forest was long, scattered with milestones I would have missed, had it not been for Barik and Padhi. “This is where the Maoists are said to have killed a police informer who wasn’t,” Padhi told me, pointing to a sunlit patch of forest by the side of the road. He added, “This is where they killed his brother who was.”
As we went deeper into the hills, leaving the dirt road behind, we ran into a group of boys bringing down mangoes from a giant tree, with an expert fling of a twig. Barik and Padhi recognised some of the older ones from a community college that the journalists had pooled in funds to start; they told me it is the one of the only colleges in the region. Among the fallen leaves and mango pits were hand-written posters in red and blue ink, issued by the Bansadhara-Ghumsar-Nagavali (BGM) division of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The posters called for the exit of Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha; Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and Vedanta Aluminum, a subsidiary of the UK-headquartered mining firm, from Niyamgiri. Vedanta’s billboards in Lanjigarh, in contrast, advertised the development that the company claimed to have brought to the region and boasted of achieving a standard of zero discharge of pollutants in its refinery’s operations. The signposts were a testament to the disputes that have long engulfed the region we were in, and the divergent claims that have been laid upon its forests and bedrock.
For the Maoists, Niyamgiri’s thick forests—on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—offer strategic cover for cadres on the run from fire up north. Its tactical importance for them has increased since the arrests of Maoist leaders such as Sabyasachi Panda and D Keshav Rao—who goes by the moniker Azad—in the past few years. For the Odisha Mining Corporation, the mining arm of the state government, the value of the hills lies in the region’s Lanjigarh-Niyamgiri deposit, which contains 88 million tonnes of bauxite. The OMC holds a claim over the deposit with a letter of intent towards a mining lease from the state government. For the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh communities, who live in the Niyamgiri hills, the hills are tied to their religion, their identity and their survival. They believe that Niyamraja—their god of universal law—rules the mountain.