How Adivasi Livelihoods in Odisha Were Ruined by 'Development'

In the Kuchaipadar village, a refinery was established in 2004 despite years of resistance. Now, the livelihood, culture and traditions of Adivasis have been damaged beyond repair.

There is a long history of Adivasi resistance against industries cropping up in the areas of their livelihood. The ruling class and the media, portray the Adivasis as being against the ‘development of the country’ or as Naxalites. People then raise the question, why are Adivasis against development?

But what happens when in some Adivasi areas – even after a long struggle and resistance – industries establish themselves forcefully? Does the development benefit the Adivasis or their areas?

To understand this, it is important to visit the areas where despite protests, private industries have been able to establish themselves. This happens with the support of state governments and the police force. In the process, people are thrown into prisons and people’s movements are destroyed.

What then does the people’s life look like in those areas? A village called Kuchaipadar in Kashipur block of Odisha provides an answer.

In 1992, Tata and Birla had to abandon plans of establishing a bauxite mine and refinery due to continued people’s resistance. Later, Utkal Alumina (a joint venture of Hindalco and a Canadian company) entered the scene. Though the people resisted this time too, the state government paved the way for the company. The government asked for a people’s vote.

Bhagwan Majhi has been involved in people’s movements from 1992. Since 1996, he has been the coordinator of “Prakrutik Sampada Suraksha Parishad” (PSSP or Council to Preserve Natural Wealth), an organisation covering 24 villages. According to him, during the people’s vote, most political parties sided with Utkal Alumina. Police force was permanently deployed.

Some residents were bought over, while the youth were tempted with money and employment. Conflicts were engineered with families, between brothers, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews. People from several villages withdrew from the struggle, swayed by the promised benefits. The movement dispersed.

Those who continued to resist were jailed. When they returned, they were occupied with fixing their broken families and houses. Only a handful of people continued to resist the mine.

Finally in 2004, Utkal Alumina was able to operationalise the refinery at Kuchaipadar.

How a way of living is ruined

For hundreds of years, Kuchaipadar did not hear of theft, robbery or sexual violence. The people lived peacefully, maintaining friendly affection among themselves. Most practiced agriculture. Women did not fear going to the jungle, hills and streams alone. They harvested paddy in their fields.

They worshipped nature and during the seasonal festivals, danced and sang to celebrate it. Even if one house faced a problem, the whole community came forward to help. When there happiness, the entire village shared it.

The houses were never locked. A sense of mutual trust prevailed. After Utkal Alumina’s refinery was made, sexual violence against women was reported in the village. Reports of theft also increased in the area. The people began hesitating to go to their fields alone and women stopped going to the streams alone to bathe.

Fear spread that even in broad daylight, women and girls could be abducted or harassed. They started going to the streams in groups and even to the fields. Men too began entering the jungle only in groups. They began locking up their houses.

Their way of living changed completely and an atmosphere of terror had developed.

How the culture is slowly breaking

The people of Kuchaipadar worship the hills, jungles and springs. There are as many deities of the Adivasis as there are hills, streams and springs. And they were all worshiped and celebrated.

After the refinery was constructed, some people lost faith in their deities.

They began worshiping a god that came from the outside, who they felt is more powerful. They felt that if they worship this new god, they too would become strong, like those other people who also believe in that god.

When some migrated to a nearby town came back, they brought with them seedlings of Tulsi, which they planted in their homes. Some women started doing the Gayatri Puja. Others followed suit. Today, a majority of the people in the village do Gayatri Puja. In their minds, the Adivasi beliefs and culture has become inferior.


A tulsi tree outside a house. Credit: Jacinta Kerketta

What kind of development do the people want?

Manohar Majhi of Shriguda village asks why the multinational companies and the government do not think about proper irrigation facilities or to preserve water. “Whose development are they discussing? Are we not the people of this country? If we are, then why do they not want development for us according to our own priorities?” he asks.

He says wherever a company goes, it makes turns the government against the people. “The government comes with the force to pave the way for the company and put protesters in jail. The company brings with itself hired musclemen and contractors. They disregard environmental regulations, destroy water resources, jungles, land and rivers. People lives change suddenly and completely,” he says.

Natho Jani of Bagrijhola village said bauxite is being transported to the refinery, due to which 105 villages are affected. “85 villages fall directly under the mining area of the hill. The mining began even before the residents of these villagers were rehabilitated. Perhaps they thought when the hill is being mined and conditions become worse, the people will run away,” he says.

Ever since the refinery was established, agriculture has become unvialble, he says. As pollution rose, the fields became less fertile. “We never thought we would suffer such misery,” Jani says.

A 23 kilometer path to transport bauxite. Credit: Jacinta Kerketta

After destroying everything, they will leave

The headman of Kuchaipadar village describes how people were divided during the struggle against the refinery. The company supposedly gave Rs 1,800 every month to those active in the movement, urging them to stop. “One after the other, villages fell into this trap and the movement was weakened. By the power of money, people were torn apart from the inside,” he says.

“Some young people found contractual employment with the company. But they know, once the mine is barren, their jobs will also be terminated. These youth cannot do agriculture or produce food and they will migrate in search of work,” he says.

The headman continues, “Earlier, everyone contributed to work that would help the village. Not anymore. One day, when everything is destroyed, the company will leave a ruined place behind. Who will bring back the beauty? Who will give us our life as it was before?”

Jacinta Kerketta is a poet, writer and freelance journalist.