Fables for democracy

The defence of Niyamgiri mountain becomes a way of life and an act of trusteeship. The mountain for the tribals is God, cosmos and creator of a way of life and living.

Democracy is sometimes compared to an onion. As we peel the layers, sometimes in tears, we get a different sense of its meanings and textures. Scale and size become crucial to democracy. A village is not a smaller version of a state. It represents a different kind of politics.
India is rife with democratic debates from Bodoland to Telangana. There is also the bigger rumour of a national election. Despite all these reports, I often sense something is missing in our tales of democracy.
The importance of this came out with stunning clarity from the occasional reports on palli sabha (village council) hearings in Orissa. The Vedanta mine and the Dongria tribals are drawn in a battle. On one side is the owner of a bauxite mine with two bits of irony about him. He calls his firm Vedanta. The Orientalist irony is devastating. Vedanta, as a collection of Upanishads, is a meditation on absolute reality, a reflection on the cosmos. Here Vedanta becomes the name of a mine that eats up the reality of tribal people. The chairman is called Anil Agarwal. For environmentalists, this name is associated with one of India’s most respected environmentalists, the late Anil Agarwal who started the legendary Centre for Science and Environment. One wishes the businessman would reach a similar level of enlightenment.
Less publicised are the Dongria tribals. They call themselves Jhangarias, which literally means “protectors of stream”, a name which evokes a sacred act of trusteeship. For over a decade, this community of 8,000 people aided by a few activists has been fighting a battle against the mining of their mountain, Niyamgiri. The Supreme Court intervened recently with a brilliant move demanding that the villages in the area be consulted about the mine. What is sacred for one is bauxite for the other. What is a way of life for the Dongrias is aluminium to be extracted, refined and sent all over the world. Profit goes to the company while suffering becomes the only share of the tribe.
Orissa high court nominated the district and sessions judges of Kalahandi and Rayagada to act as observers in the much-awaited gram sabha to decide fate of the proposed bauxite mining for Vedanta atop Niyamgiri Hills.
Typically and bureaucratically, the number of villages listed for hearing was whittled down from a hundred to 12. Eight of the villages have voted and each, in turn, has voted against the mine. The hearings are literally a microcosm of democracy. On one side we have poor tribals, often in tattered clothes proverbial axe in hand, and on other judges and bureaucrats. A little event was revealing. Some of the tribals asked for a copy of the resolution they were supposed to sign. The imperious judge from Rayagada district was enraged. As an English daily reported, he accused them of trying to act smart, saying if this was the case while they were illiterate… they would have sold the country if they had been literate. The clash between the oral and textual worlds is obvious. Deeper still is the contempt for the tribal as part of the tenets of development. There is an implicit development discourse present even in the newspapers which predicts gloomily that the Dongrias might disappear from malaria rather than development. The bias is clear and, sadly, it becomes the fate of the tribe.
The story of the palli sabha hearing is a moving one. The defence of Niyamgiri mountain becomes a way of life and an act of trusteeship. It goes beyond the contract, evoking the roots of the sacred. The mountain for the tribals is God, cosmos and creator of a way of life and living. It is not a mine, a piece of real estate to be sold away. To think like this would be a sacrilege. The defence of the mountain thus becomes a moral and religious act. The Supreme Court recognised this and held that Vedanta had to recognise the right to religion of the people, making mining truly an act of sacrilege.
I do not want to create an ethnography of this protest. Journalists and activists have done a heroic job. But I want to amplify the story and distil a few lessons from it. Call it a few fables for democracy.
Firstly, development for all its middle-class appeal as a slogan, an aspiration creates problems for democracy. Development as dam, as a mine often displaces marginal people who rarely benefit from the process. There is an arrogance to development which we must temper. Development needs a hearing aid. It needs rituals of humility to understand what marginal voices are saying in dialects and idioms we are distanced from.
Secondly, our chronicles of development are failures of storytelling. Many parts of the story disappear. The shareholder survives and the stakeholders are often forgotten. We need to look at the real costs of development, developing narratives beyond the idiocy of poverty-lines narrative. Development cannot suffice with economics as a lens. It needs suffering as kaleidoscope of voices to eventually evaluate it.
Thirdly, we need to go beyond the juggernaut of large democracies to understand little democracies — panchayat meetings, jan sunvayis, forest hearings. The voices heard here need representation. Here small is as critical as the big. These are not scaled down democracies; these are democracies in their crystalline essence.
Fourth, the language of rights is not enough. One needs the language of sacred and the commons. One needs a sense that a lot of the sacred as grove, stream, forest belong to the commons. A commons is crucial as a space, as a bundle of rights. Finally, development needs a language of social suffering. Mere indicators of income, energy use are not enough. Development has to understand the language of suffering and belonging. Economics and dialects of growth might be inadequate for this.
Just listening to the tribals speak is an epiphany, a revelation of wisdoms we have forgotten. This is ethics at its best. We should be grateful to the Dongria for preserving not just the streams but the streams of memory that make up our civilisation.

The writer is a social science nomad

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