The Adivasi Struggle

The Adivasi:

The Adivasi are the indigenous people of India. They constitute a significant fraction of India’s poor and underprivileged population and lead lifestyles predominantly land and forest-based.They live largely in peace outside the normal casteist/patriarchal/class relations of mainstream Indian society. And they have a vibrant community life with their beautiful dance and music – each Adivasi tribe has their own culture and their own gods and deities.

They have an intimate connection and devotion to nature. This aspect can be explained if we go into a specific example –

The Dongria Kondh are a collective of Adivasi communities . They live in settlements scattered over and at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills in the southwest part of the eastern Indian state of Orissa. Kutia (Majhi) Kondh Adivasi communities are among those living in twelve villages in the foothills of Niyamgiri located in the intersection of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts. The Niyamgiri hills are sacred to the Dongria Kondh Adivasi communities.

They practice shifting cultivation on its slopes, and rely on the hills as a source of water, wood, and traditional plants which they use as medicine. They worship Niyam Raja Penu,(a local god – not known to the people of mainstream India) a male deity represented in the form of a sword, believed by them to be living on top of the Niyamgiri Hills. The very identity of these communities is dependent on the hills and their way of life in the hills.

The State of Odisha

The State of Odisha is a land blessed with many natural resources – forests, rivers and minerals like bauxite and iron ore. Much of this mineral wealth is found within the traditional forest lands and territories of Adivasi communities.

The development of the state of Odisha has historically been heavily dependent on mineral extraction, and more recently, on establishment of new mineral based industries in areas where Adivasi communities have their homes and land.

The Conflict of Interests

As we can see, the developmental interests of the State are in direct conflict with the interests of the Adivasi. The very identity of these communities is dependent on the hills and forests and their way of life. We can see that if these people are moved somewhere else – they not only lose their connection to their land, but also to their deities and also the ties to their culture. In effect, displacing the Adivasi from his homeland would mean a complete whitewash of a culture and a way of life.

The Adivasis do not also hold any documents or pattas on the lands they live in and cultivate. They live as a group, cultivate as a group, and distribute the produce within the group. Owing to this, the Adivasis are also not paid any compensation when rehabilitated.

Post Independence, beginning with the Nehru government, successive governments have failed terribly at rehabilitation. As journalist P. Sainath notes in his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, in the period 1951-90, over 26 million people got displaced by ‘development’ projects such as dams, canals, mining, industries, thermal plants, sanctuaries, and defense installations. The draft of the government’s ‘National Policy for Rehabilitation’ admits that almost 75% of those displaced since 1951 were still awaiting rehabilitation. This clearly explains the state of government apathy towards the displaced Adivasis and its commitment toward proper rehabilitation and compensation.

“Apart from being marginalized, displaced groups suffer a loss of food security, almost always record increased levels of illness and disease and are hit by a loss of access to common property such as water and grazing grounds. Further, networks and assets that are a great strength of the affected peoples get dismantled. As Sainath explains, in many tribes, an Adivasi building a house can have his whole clan turn out to help him construct it. This free community labor is a big financial saving for him, which is lost when the clan is split up and dispersed after displacement.”

This governmental apathy has given voice to the accusations that the government, rather than being a government of the people, is actually functioning as the custodian of the interests of the corporates.

In a large number of struggles against the land acquisitions – the government has booked cases, put the Adivasis in jail and has also been the cause of death of many Adivasis in police fire. And more recently, the Adivasis are caught in the crossfire between the armed forces of the government and the maoists. Labelled maoist-sympathisers, ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-development’ by the government, and ‘informers’ by the maoists, they are perennially killed by both these warring factions.

I have endeavored so far to give a general picture of the Adivasi struggle in Odisha. There is a lot of literature, and documentaries and short films on this subject. I would like to present a few of these documentaries and their film-makers.

“At the Crossroads”  

“At the Crossroads” is a documentary by Deba Ranjan Sarangi. This film depicts the troubles and individual stories of Adivasis in the Kashipur and Niyamgiri regions in Odisha.

Director Speak:

“The Nehruvian era made ordinary people – mostly Adivasis and Dalits – lose their lands, forests and streams in the name of ‘national development’. That development never reached them. Not only they remained as deprived of basic health care and education as ever, but also of even safe drinking water though surrounded by reservoirs and dams. While this state injustice continued unabated, the post-liberalization era made these very people `anti-national’, ‘anti-development’ and `Maoists/Naxalites’, when they resisted corporate land grab for mining and industrialization. This branding became and continues to be an easy license to kill them with impunity. Southern Odisha is witness to this war between the hapless people and the neoliberal development paradigm. It led to CPI (Maoist) consolidating its presence in this area in the recent past. The film AT THE CROSSROADS tries to explore the predicament, the dilemma and the confusion of the local people, especially, of Adivasis and Dalits in this war zone.”

“The Conflict”

“The Conflict” is also directed by Deba Ranjan Sarangi and is the director’s journey with three tribal leaders to Kandhamal and Kashipur following the violence that broke out in Kandhamal in August 2009.

Director Speak:

“Adivasi communities in India are feeling more and more alienated everyday from their life and from their own culture in their own land. They are caught up between today’s corporate globalisation and communalism. This film is on how one tribal community of eastern India (South Orissa), mainly Kandha, is up against this dual onslaught.”

“Niyamgiri, You Are Still Alive”


This is a documentary by Suma Josson. It won the Vasudha, Environmental Award at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, 2010. This film is about the Adivasi tribes in the Niyamgiri hills and how they are dependent upon the Niyamgiri for their livelihood. It also depicts the pollution of land, air and water by the bauxite mining in the region by Vedanta group, and the fight against it by the Adivasis.

A 60 second animated short

This 60 second animated short is part of the Moti Roti 60×60 project in 2008. 60×60 presents 60 one-minute films, 20 each from artists in Britain, India and Pakistan. These shorts present a personal perspective on what ‘home and boundaries’ mean to these artists.

“The film depicts the current day scenario of Eastern India where mining companies and Adivasi people are locked in a struggle over rights & resources with the state taking the side of the market forces. The film uses Idital style illustration (Idital is Saora Adivasi art). The opening song is Deya Daya, a Koya Adivasi song about celebration of life. In the second half the sound of the Gungun, a typical Adivasi instrument is used. The film is a tribute to the men, women and children killed by the police in Kashipur (2001) & Kalinga Nagar (2006).”

It is such a wonderful short and I personally love its presentation. You could show it to children, virtually anywhere.

Most Recent News

In today’s newspaper, I came across this article, which tells me that “the Adivasis have voted against mining, following a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court of India on April 18, 2013, to find out from the Dongria Kondhs and other forest-dwellers whether mining in Niyamgiri was an infringement on the religious, cultural, community rights of the tribe.”

Following this, uncertainty clouds over the future of Vedanta’s Rs. 40,000 crore investment plan in Odisha. (

Sources and References:

1. “Give Them A Voice” (

2. “Globalisation and Kashipur” (

3.”Why does Kashipur burn?” (

4. Some videos on Odisha adivasi life – (

5. “Onslaught on Adivasis’ Land and Livelihood in Navin’s Orissa” (

6. “Vedanta’s Bauxite Mine and Alumina Refining Operations, Orissa, India” (

7. Deba Ranjan Sarangi’s Blog –

8. Moti Roti 60×60 –


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