Meet Goldman Prize winner Prafulla Samantara, the man who challenged mining giant Vedanta's expansion in Odisha

Prafulla Samantara has become the sixth Indian to receive this recognition

On April 6, 2016, Prafulla Samantara was assaulted by about 10 goons while he was returning from a meeting from Village Masiput in Koraput district. This was not the first time he has come under attack. According to Samantara, the goons hired by mining conglomerate Vedanta have tried to physically assault him at least four times  just to prevent him from attending meetings with villagers all opposed to mining by the UK based company. He was even called  a Maoist and an anti-national by those who saw him as an obstacle to growth but failed to see its consequences.

On April 24, 2017, the social activist was announced one of six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize  in San Francisco. The prize, also known as Green Nobel prize, is awarded to those who undergo risk to their lives, to protect the environment and empower those who have most to lose from industrial projects.

The award recognized Samantara’s “historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.”

Samantara has become sixth Indian to receive this honour. Medha Patkar, M.C. Mehta, Rasheeda Bi, Champaran Shukla and Ramesh Agrawal have also received this recognition earlier.

He was a rallying force behind the tribal agitation against Vedanta’s plan to expand its bauxite mines in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Taking inspiration from  likes of  Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, he has undertaken Satyagraha, hunger fasts, padyatras, rallies against the building of Dams and Barrages .

Trained as a lawyer and involved in activism “since the Jayprakash Narayan-movement” Samantara started his agitaion after he came across a newspaper announcement about the proposed mine in the region by Vedanta in 2003. The $2 billion project aimed to extract 70 million tons of bauxite, to make aluminum. It would have destroyed over 1,600 acres of forest, polluted a critical water source, and displaced members of the 8,000-person Dongria Kondh tribe in the process. He biked across the Niyamgiri Hills to mobilize the local tribals and sensitised them about the possible consequences if the project is green-signalled. Besides his ground work, he also filed a petition in Supreme Court on mining, thus becoming the first citizen to use the law to halt Vedanta’s expansion plans.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court gave a historic verdict empowering the Dongaria Kondhs to have the final say in mining projects on their land, and gave 12 village councils in Niyamgiri Hills the right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all the 12 tribal village councils unanimously voted against the mine. In August 2015, Vedanta announced the closure of the aluminium refinery. Last year, the apex court threw out a renewed petition from OMC seeking directions for a fresh mandate from the gram sabhas.

Through his NGO  Lok Shakti Abhiyan, he has been associated with various struggles for people’s right, one of which is Anti-POSCO Movement (POSCO Pratirodh Sangharsh Samiti) in Orissa where he, along with other activists,  stood against the land acquisition process by Korean steel giant and fought the legal battle in the Courts.