B Boral, a shopkeeper, shifted from Koraput to this dusty habitat in 2003 to see the ‘big factory’ come up in front of his eyes. “This place was vacant when I arrived. Today, 50 shops are running because of the factory,” he said.
The aluminium factory — Sesa Sterlite Ltd, formerly Vedanta — gave IIT Kharagpur product Sushant Hial a job. His family from the adjoining Chandanpur village also opened the only hotel in Lanjigarh that depends entirely on the visitors to the factory.
The hotel, in turn, provides employment to local youth. On one hand, the factory has brought in mega investment in the infamously-backward Kalahandi district of Odisha, changing many lives around the establishment. On the other, it saw Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi emerging as a champion of Dalit rights.
After Gandhi met a tribal delegation in Delhi, the UPA government scrapped bauxite mining rights in Niyamgiri hills. Gandhi then attended a tribal rally near the company site and announced, “I am your sipahi (soldier).” The Supreme Court later ordered a referendum in 12 villages and all voted against any mining in the hills the Dongriya Kondh tribe considers as sacred.
With tribals forming 22.1% of the Odisha’s population (2001 census), the Congress is pitching the Lanjigarh movement with the Forest Rights Act — it provides empowerment and protection to tribals — to woo the vast vote bank. “I talk about Lanjigrah as a perfect example of how the Congress protected tribal land,” says Pradeep Majhi, the party’s firebrand tribal MP from the neighbouring Nabarangpur.
In Balbhadrapur nearby, college dropout Judhisthir Harijan, business management student Jaya, electrical diploma-holder Birinchi and arts graduate Binod are among several youngsters who allege they have been ignored for jobs in the factory. “We are Rahul’s sipahi for the election,” said Kumuti Majhi, the president of Niyamgiri Suraksha Parishad, adding that the mining ban has also protected their prime sources of water and environment.
According to Vedanta, out of the total 2,644 direct employees in the factory (from Vedanta and its partner companies) as on March, 1,268 were from Kalahandi alone. Earlier, more than 10,000 people were involved in mining operations; all lost jobs after the ban.
The company also runs a local hospital that provides free treatment to locals and provides mid-day meals to 18,000 students among its various social initiatives.
Many of the beneficiaries look at Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik as their potential new ‘sipahi’.