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An endangered culture under the lens

Jul 17, 2008

Photographers Jason Taylor and Sanjit Das bring out stunning images depicting lives of Dongria Kondh, an ancient indigenous community living in Niyamgiri hills in eastern India. An exhibition showcasing their work was recently opened in the Indian capital to support the tribal resistance against a bauxite mining project.

The Niyamgiri Mountain situated in Orissa’s Kalahandi district in eastern India has been home to three tribal groups – Dongria Kondh, Kutia Kondha and Jharania Kondha – for many generations. The mountain fondly referred as ‘Niyam Raja’ is a living God for these highly endangered primitive tribes.

Niyamgiri hills

For generations, the Niyamgiri’s forests have nourished the region’s tribal population by providing fruits, tubers, medicinal herbs and spices. In turn, the lifestyle and religious practices of the people have protected the forests for centuries.

A number of streams flow through a tract of dense forests and provide sustenance to the people. Key to this is the bauxite which naturally holds water.

Today, however, this unique culture faces threat due to a massive bauxite mining and alumina refinery project being implemented by UK based Vedanta Resources and its Indian arm Sterlite Industries.

Nature under threat

Currently on hold with a Supreme Court hearing on the case due on July 18, the project has earned wrath from various environmental lobbies across the world.

A photographic and multi-media exhibition by Sanjit Das and Jason Taylor chronicling lives of these indigenous communities was opened by the anti-poverty group ActionAid on July 15, 2008 at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

“The photographs aim to capture the beauty of the people and their environment rather than documenting a conflict."

The exhibition titled: The Last Stand of the Niyam Raja also features interviews from films by Mumbai based Suma Josson where Kondh women and men speak candidly about the spiritual importance of Niyamgiri, the impact of pollution from the refinery and their resolve to save their sacred site.

Niyamgiri 2

Niyamgiri is protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act as an area of extraordinary natural beauty. Environmental experts have warned that strip mining of bauxite would lead to massive deforestation and destruction of water systems.

Though not yet fully operational, the refinery chimney is already belching out a steady flow of black smoke across the hillside. 

Photographer Jason Taylor who lived in Niyamgiri for six months said, “I want people to understand what they are losing out. It is not only a destruction of India’s unique and sustainable culture but a ruthless exploitation of Niyamgiri’s rich and fertile land for short-term profit.”

In addition to the environmental concerns, two of India’s strongest Constitutional guarantees will be jeopardised if bauxite mining goes ahead: the right of a primitive tribal group to their territorial integrity and to decide on their own path of development (Indian Constitution, Schedule V) and the right to religious practices and beliefs (Article 25).

These tribal groups are supposed to be protected under the Indian Constitution as their distinctive way of live and culture makes them one of the most vulnerable India’s indigenous groups.

Sanjit Das, a photojournalist whose works depict the impact of India’s changing economic and political landscape on the lives of the poor and marginalised said that people’s livelihoods are being destroyed by sweeping modernisation.

“At the centre of all conflicts there are ordinary people trying to manage their lives in the midst of extraordinary pressures. I try to reflect their humanity and resilience,” he said.

Struggle for existence

Although the Supreme Court has forbidden Vedanta from mining the mountain, it has welcomed an application from Vedanta’s Indian subsidiary, Sterlite, if they follow certain guidelines, including providing funds for ‘tribal development’.

Niyamgiri 3

The Company and the local administration had assured schools, clinics, street lights and water facilities. All this apart from of promises of jobs and adequate compensation has not seen the light of the day.

Moreover, no development or compensation package could cure the destruction of a unique environment and culture.

The Niyamgiri campaign has become a symbol of struggle for indigenous communities across India facing eviction and destruction of their rescores for mega projects.

The localities are fighting a dogged battle with support from civil society groups to save their ecosystem from vested interests.

“Niyamgiri’s soil is being converted into wrappers for soft drinks and chocolate bars,” Taylor said.

He felt that the exhibition was a medium to evoke sensitivity towards the plight of the Kondhs.

“The photographs aim to capture the beauty of the people and their environment rather than documenting a conflict,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fate of Niyamgiri’s Kodhs remains in a limbo.

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