Lakhe Pusika, a Dongria Kondh girl, lives in Khambesi village, in Orissa's Rayagada district. The village is where the eleventh of 12 gram sabhas ordered by the Supreme Court in August rejected proposed mining by Vedanta
in the state's forest-covered Niyamgiri hills.
Every Wednesday, Lakhe walks 20 km, crossing four streams and a river without a bridge, to reach Dahikhal village, where she sells forest produce in the weekly haat. And every day, she goes to the dongar (forest) to collect medicinal plants, fruit, leaves, and timber. She grows oranges, bananas, ginger, jackfruit, pineapple and turmeric near the village. To earn some extra money, she sells some of this produce at the nearest railway station - in Muniguda block, 28 km away. Lakhe says she enjoys train travel.
In June, she and 15 other villagers from the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) visited the state capital, Bhubaneswar, and met Orissa Governor S.C. Jamir, seeking his support in saving Niyamgiri hills
. The NSS was started in 2004 to protest against forced land acquisition for Vedanta Aluminium's plant in Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, and went on to oppose its project in Niyamgiri.
On June 12, around 35 Dongaria Kondhs had met Jamir to demand that gram sabhas be conducted in all 112 villages that would be affected, and to seek his intervention for free and fair gram sabha proceedings.
What did Lakhe think of the city - would she want a road connecting her village to it?
She says: "It was very humid in Bhubaneswar. I couldn't drink the water there, as it's not like our water. We were asked to stay, but we did not like to stay back. There were big houses, but we won't need such big houses, nor can we afford them. We are happy in our dongar as we get mandia jau, water and medicines." Mandia jau is the rice-based staple that the villagers eat.
The Dongria Kondhs have a deity for everything. Among the most important are Dharani Penu, the earth god, and Niyam Penu, the god of Niyamgiri hills.
Tradition is a cornerstone of life in the Niyamgiri hills. For example, Arjun Wadaka, a local in his mid-twenties, says: "No Wadaka gets married within the same generation. A boy chooses a girl at the annual Maria festival and brings her home. The boy chases the girl and marries her." Dowry works the other way around, compared to many other communities: the groom's family gives money and liquor (salpa, made from the sap of a tree) to the girl's family.
Nuakhai, an Odia festival for new crops, is among the major celebrations of the Dongria Kondhs.
Dongria Kondhs live mostly in Rayagada district. In Kalahandi district, one encounters mostly Kutia and Jharania Kondhs, and far fewer Dongria Kondhs. The treasures of Niyamgiri range - 112 villages spread over 125 km - include not only mineral wealth but also forest produce and medicinal plants.
When asked whether he would want to relocate if Vedanta mines in hills, Arjun Wadaka says: "We don't have anything in the plains. We would not have this air or water. We are peaceful even if we don't get anything to eat for a day or two. We could have thought about letting Vedanta mine here had our mother - the Niyamgiri hills - not been the question."
Local social activist Bijaya Kumar Babu says the tribals' decision can never be influenced. "The Dongria Kondhs can't beg for work. Their self-reliance is their ornament."