Archive for the ‘Pollution’ Category

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Post-Modern Undercurrents

April 26, 2014

(63 of 74)

‘Whether there is a Modi wave or not, is not to be known from the large gatherings, sometimes the undercurrents are stronger than the open waves.’ Says Medha Patkar, social activist and candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai North East.

This article appears in Outlook magazine on the 28th April, 2014 issue.

Santosh Thorat, an organizer for the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement from Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar in Mankhurd had many questions about joining Aam Aadmi Party, long before the Assembly Elections in Delhi, long before his movement and Medha Patkar would decide to stand for elections in Mumbai North East; his own constituency that had seen massive demolitions in 2004-2005 of 80,000 homes. It was pretty obvious that day, a year earlier in an Irani restaurant in Bandra, that he wouldn’t want his own politics, of strong community-driven movements, of Ambedkarite politics, a strong anti-caste centrality, of women’s participation, from the legacy of Bhagat Singh to Annabhau Sathe, to be diluted by joining any political party, as a footsoldier, but as a leader of people.

Today he holds meetings in groups after groups of women, all who have been part of dharna after dharna, march after march, demanding a right to a home, now moving their strategy towards electoral politics: everyone here must get ten votes for Medha Patkar and for Aam Aadmi Party. Exactly a month earlier, when Medha held a public meeting to decide whether to go for electoral politics or not: a patient Santosh waited for his turn to speak on stage, and when he got his chance, he gave a short speech to loud applause, simple and to the point: ‘Tai kudh nahi khadi hai, hum unko khada karaya.’ (Medha is not standing for herself, we are making her stand for elections)

‘Humare kaam karne ke liye hum Tai ko khada kiye’ (We are making her stand for elections to do our work)

In the 2009 general elections, her constituency was really a neck-in neck battle between Sanjay Dina Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party and Kirit Somaiya of the Bharatiya Janta Party, both who are running again, whose vote tallies had a difference of just 2,933 votes. NCP counted 2,13,505 votes to BJP’s 2,10,572 votes, with Maharashtra Navkiran Sena’s Shishir Shinde coming third with 1,95,148 votes. And while none of them have started their election campaign, apart from trying to ridicule Medha Patkar or talk about Modi Waves, at every other street corner laden with AAP’s signature white hats, a speech is often heard, ‘In the last elections 9 lakh people did not vote, this time please do.’

Medha Patkar’s AAP campaign strategy is to the point, she simply responds, ‘we’re reaching out to people. And we have to resort to whatever electronic media my collegues use, and to hold small meetings, work with groups that are active in the grassroots.’

“The campaign is of course hampered by the twin handicaps of funding and electoral rules: ‘We apparently can’t even put our stickers outside the autos, even if they are owned by autowallas,’ she would say. Just two days earlier the BJP had a frontpage advertisement, in the Times of India, which as per their rates of Rs.6960 per square centimetre, and that a frontpage has 1716 square centimetre, comes to Rs.11,942,360, without the 15% discount. Meanwhile Medha’s AAP donation website merely collected 13,000 in the 4 days it went online (On the sixth day a corporate lawyer from Kolkata donated Rs.1,00,00 for as he has seen Medha work for years, and feels corruption is a cause to all ills). ‘We say development planning has to be face to face, so how can electoral campaigning not be face to face?’ she says, sitting in a small AAP office in Vikhroli, set up by a small restaurant owner, over the chatter of volunteers and the tan-tan of drums ready to be played when they continue to go on the road. (the five young boys who had come from Vikhroli’s Bheem Chhaya Nagar to play drums for Medha’s walks through the bastis, also faced election rules, as the police did not give them permission to play publically.)

‘We have to depend on the social media.’ She says, ‘But there has to has to be very serious changes in rules and regulations from the election commission. Hoardings are allowed, on purchase basis, where parties pay lakhs of rupees but banners are not allowed. We are not allowed to put our stickers. Raj Thackeray has put up big hoardings, lakhs, and crores are spent, but those are not violations. There’s a rule that your hoardings should not face the municipal land, but the road is municipal land, why is that not a violation? Do we all just point our banners to ourselves?’

Almost every other day, her campaign starts after a night spent as late as time affords, as she wakes up at 5 in the morning, plans her meetings with her volunteers, and continues with short rallies and meetings, on the road, at parks, at markets, at crossroads and nakas, up the small by-lanes of slums, to small rooms and homes housed by countless supporters of the movement and now the party, with a motley bunch of volunteers, those rooted in the grassroots and those who have come down from their buildings, from across the city, and some from across the country. On the road with her, it is clear that in many of the lower depths of the city, her simplicity is something that strikes with her prospective voters, and her legendary energy, which some feel is her strenght but also others fear for her age, and the tolls of countless hunger strikes and arrests by the police.

In one of her public meetings on the 14th of March, at the one birthplaces of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, at Rafiq Nagar 2, it was almost an accepted reality, as far as bystander conversations can grace wholesale voting patterns, that they would all vote for her, they just don’t need to sit in a public rally where a thousand people, mostly unorganized workers sat patiently, donning the AAP hats that were being distributed by young volunteers. Rafiq Nagar, itself, is on the dumping grounds of Mumbai, where children die every other month from malnutrition-related disease, where policemen routinely harass young Muslim boys, and which has faced demolitions almost every other year. Rafiq Nagar, the citadel of the ragpickers, Rafiq Nagar, when it was still Rafiq Nagar 1, where some boys still have not returned home from the 1992 riots.

It was here that proceedings started with Lok Shahir Milind Kambli from Mulund, who starts the rally with a song, a rendition of Sambaji Bhagat’s Surat ko pehchano bhai’– a song that attacks caste as much as corruption, that invokes Dr.Ambedkar’s dreams, ridicules every political figure, from Advani, to the Gandhis, and invokes the blindness of those who ran after the ‘mandir’.

The organizers would then give speeches, with Santosh Thorat now talking about his memories of growing up near Rafiq Nagar, with Jameela Begum from Mandala talking about the memories of the movement, and Ram from Mandala talking about the recent custodial death of 22 year old Mohammed Sheikh who was picked up by the Shivaji Nagar police. It was exactly like all the countless public meetings of the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, except for the entry of the slogan: ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, sometimes invoked by Atique, himself a Muslim from UP, and sometimes to the chagrin of other Muslims in the movement, while Medha herself feels these slogans need to be reclaimed from the Hindutva, and returned to the tradition of the Independence struggle.

The one thing that AAP has done for Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement, whether as a boon or a bane, is that it has brought many volunteers from the upper middle classes, the middle classes, and upper-castes, or Savarnas, into what was once a purely populated by the working class, the urban poor, and those who have grown up in a tradition of Ambedkar politics. Her rallies at more suburban middle class areas are often done with the help of AAP volunteers and a ragtag group of locals who she has worked with in the movement. The slogans that she invokes, is typically from a rights tradition: ‘Hume Satta nahi Satya chahiye! (We are for truth not for power) and ‘Matya deya, hakka leva’ (Give your vote, take your rights.)

Her speeches at all corners are laced with not just ‘brashtachyaar’ (corruption) but also ‘atyachaar’ (atrocity) and covers the work done by the movement to expose the Adarsh scam, the Maharashtra Sugar scam, to the SRA scams, the corruption in the builder lobby, to the work that was done for unorganized workers, street hawkers, slum-dwellers, to invocations of women’s participation in the community and to vote, to the behaviour of the previous Minister of Parliament who has apparently never asked a single question in parliament, to the lies of every ruling party in the state that promised the regularization of slums, to basic infrastructure: sanitation, electricity, roads, and water, which many people of her constituency are deprived of. She often exerts that there is 30,000 acres land free in the city, and inequitible distribution of resources is a mainstay in her speechs on the street corner. ‘Land has to be released. Land is now blocked. From Bhayandar, Vasai to Mumbai, a handful of companies and a few hundred people have more than 10 acres, six companies have more than 500 to 2000-3000acres.’

The ten-year long movement for the Right To Housing, the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, is central to understanding the shifting genealogies of a city, where housing moved from being ‘shelter’ to ‘an investment’, and the markets only defence regarding its existential crisis of slums, is to demolish them in the name of urban planning. Meanwhile, a Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme for the BMC, stated that …. ‘the relevant dimension is that the area, they (slums) together occupy – just 6 per cent of all land in Mumbai explaining the horrific levels of congestion.’ And against mainstream perception that the movement is demanding free housing, at every public rally, they themselves demand that they’re willing to pay for affordable housing, often to cheers from an entire crowd. ‘If Hiranandani gets land meant for us for Rs.40 per acre, we’re willing to pay even more!’ Said organizer Jameel Akhtar from Ambujwadi in January of 2012.

‘Our housing plan’ Says Medha, ‘Includes dormitaries, to self-reliant housing. And for that it is very necessary that you classify people according to their needs. And the whole plan has to be brought out by public-people participation. Under the public agencies and the people themselves – and the people include the construction labourers and the service sector.’

‘And some of the issues we’re raising are pollution and environmental, and the polluted air does not understand if its flowing through slums or the middle class areas. Drainage, infrastructure, the traffic, and there is no regulation about the number of cars coming on the roads, or whether there will be a skywalk or something else, there is just no consultation with the people. All of this clearly, brings out the non-participatory and undemocratic planning on one hand, and the corruption on the other. And it brings in the fraudulent and flawed planning, and the affordable housing’s definition and the plan for 1 crore housing, is very acheivable.’

It had become visibly obvious that her decision to stand for elections was not just taken due to AAP’s Assembly Election results, or that she is propelled to fight for her movement and Right To Housing, but she also adds, almost as an afterthought, that there had to be a counter to Modi. ‘Fear of him amongst people in Mumbai is not so strong, but fraud in his own presentation, is impactful. And who questions Ambani? Who questions Adani? Who questions inequality?’ That there was dissent in the National Alliance of People’s Movement against her decision to stand, ‘a handful of people’ as she adds, mostly from Assam, Karnataka and some NAPM units from West Bengal, the idea was that many felt that electoral politics had to be seen as complimentary to non-electoral politics. She often implies the role played by social movements in shaping policy and law, and her vision of development is motivated by the Directive Principles of State Policy, guidelines in the constitution, which being ‘not justiable’, has ensured that its tenets for more equitable development that pays attention to ecology, environment, and social justice, has not been followed by most state and central governments. Her desire to give more power to the Panchayats as per Article 243 of the constitution has often been attacked as playing into caste power dynamics but she continues to insist that, ‘Unless there is democracy in the bottom level, there is nothing, and this is why becoming a MP doesn’t mean so much. ‘

‘At the parliament we debate laws and policies and that is also important and as movements we have influenced so many acts. RTI has come from social movements. And the unorganized sectors workers who are part of NAPM, where we’ve had umpteen number of meetings with the workers, the ministers, with officials where we’ve drafted, re-worked, and we brought out that act, but certain sections are still weak, like regulation, and recording of labour. And as movements we continue to fight, even with the Hawkers act, we extensively have worked on it since the Kolkatta hawkers were evicted and the Hawkers Federation came into being. And we’ve taken all the movements of hawkers and the urban poor to every single ministry, from all states to that forum, with Jaipal Reddy, Shailaja, Shivraj Patil, and all officals. And we got the policy in 2003, the bill in 2009, we got it passed in 2013. And the president still has not signed the bill.’

We met for an interview during breaks from campaigning at Vikhroli, where a visibly tired Medha Patkar seemed more out of place with english-media journalists, than the streets, and she seems absolutely comfortable on the road, campaigning in slums where her organization has just started to take roots. Volunteers would come and go, take long instructions, while she would sit behind a table in a small 10X4 room, laden with AAP newspaper cuttings, posters and banners.

‘There is a general middle class and media perception, which is anti-slum, but the only people fighting agaisnt the builder lobby are the working class and the poor. How would your housing policy move beyond those narratives?

‘Those fighting the builder lobby are not only the working class and the poor, that is my point. We are fighting MHADA re-development, all middle class people – government officials, government servants, bank employees, are all with us. We are fighting other redevelopment projects, and everywhere people are cheated. The Catholic properties in the heart of the city are grabbed by builders.’

‘How would you defeat this perception?’

‘We are holding meetings in societies, and raising these questions. And the more confirmation I am getting is that they say ‘we need your kind of fighting spirit’. And they know they can’t fight these battles, wherever they face injustice. Even the Campa Cola people came to us. So everyone seeks support and it’s not only the slums. And it’s only through the media we can defeat the perception. And we’re not so strong in social media. Aabhi do din pehle mujhe maloom pada ‘Whats APP’ kuch cheez hai. And someone told me that you can put in a 25 second message, and I can’t even give a speech less than 25 minutes.’

‘Your constituency, especially around Ward M, which is also known as the dumping ground of people, owning to all the displaced people and the dumping ground, has a high prevalence of juvenile deliquency and violence against women. Are you going to address this issue with your constituency and the general public?

‘We have to come to a position. Women’s rights, though we are actually empowering women through the movements, and their participation itself is their way out of drudgery, and insecurity. And people become secure themselves so they don’t have to beg for outside external security forces. And suffice to say, Justice Verma’s committees recommendations should be implemented which has not happened. And there is no political will, but social will has to be there, and nowadays it is there, and people know they can’t beg before politicians, they know there is something about a demand for better governance, and much will be achieved when people will say we will govern ourselves. And that change, whether at an individual women’s level, or a community level, is self-reliance. Swaraj can’t mean self-sufficience but go up to self-reliance, and this is the position we as people’s movements have said. We can’t be naïve on an economic or political level, and there are caste and gender divisions. And at the same time, we feel that asserting people’s right to resources, even land in an urban area. Water in an urban area people don’t have access to. Why? Because water falling onto the roofs or anganwadi, is not recognized as a resource. And it is all just lost due to people being diverted by bad politics.

And what about policing? The police in fact, in a general perception, does not represent the people of Ward M. Just on the 21st of January, there was a custodial death of a 22 year old Muslim and about four months ago there was a custodial death of a dalit man, after an altercation outside a restaurant. There is a breakdown of trust between the people and the police.

‘The police as an institution is a big problem. That’s because from top to bottom it is corrupt. And corruption ensures they will not fulfill their role and leads to them commit crimes themselves. And these custodial deaths, you have seen, only after mass action they acted on going on a second post-mortem. But how many people can fight like this? With this kind of perseverance and this strength? And the police can’t be totally ruled out, and there has to be a security force within the community, and we don’t mean there be a parallel army, but the security will come with community level inputs, and strenghtening the community relationships. Everything else is value change.

Mumbai has a long legacy of Ambedkarite politics and working class struggles, which is represented in the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. Arvind Kejriwal may have taken a stand on contract labour but then there’s reservation and there are some radicals in the movement who’re uncomfortable with some of the language of AAP. There are internal contradictions between AAP whose slogans are very different from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. And do you see these contradictions and how are you dealing with it?

See, these are some allegations and questioning is based on lack of knowledge. The other day, I told Arvind Kejriwal to take a clear stand in support of reservation at Kannawaram Nagar in Vikhroli. And there are lots of strange situations with Marathas asking for reservation and Brahmins asking for it and even with Muslims, not every movement is in support of it. And Dalit muslims must get reservation as per Article 341. The other thing is, about contract labour what the party did in Delhi, it must go beyond what they have done. The manifesto is still not ready on it. But with the organized worker’s sector, there were 31 committees formed on contract labour and I have seen their documents, and there are promises in it. As for as people’s movements, we’ve strongly taken positions. Everywhere in the country in all the movements of our supporters, there are mismatches, there are differences. I personally don’t feel scared of that, our conscience and commitment matters, there are disagreements in all families. But no doubt a common mimimum agenda must be developed.

***

It was after this point as Medha would leave to prepare for the next rally, after her response to a question in English, was spoken in Hindi, deliberately by Medha to her listening volunteers, that led to an internal conversation between the AAP and Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao-AAP, about the suitability of certain slogans, about the importance of Ambedkar’s Birth anniversary on the 14th of April, about those who feel the Lokpal is against the constitution, and is therefore against them, and these people must be spoken to. ‘RSS chaddi pehnti hai toh hum chaddi pehna chodd de?’ asked one man. Over the ruckus of interview-exploding into a conversation ten minutes ago, an elderly AAP volunteer had said that Vande Mataram is the same as Jai Bhim, and no one paid much attention to him.

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The Vengeful Ghosts Of A Gold Mine

February 8, 2014

A legacy of gold mining in North Karnataka has wreaked havoc in the lives of locals whose groundwater sources have been polluted by arsenic.

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The mine tailings of the Hutti gold mine are referred to as ‘The Cyanide Mountain’ by the locals of Hutti town in North Karnataka, due to the high amount of sodium cyanide in the tailings. 

This article appears as a photo essay in the Hindu Business Line on the 8th of February, 2014.

When Sudhram is asked when he and his late wife Rukhmanibai started to realize she was beginning to fall sick, he simply lifted his leg to show a small lesion on his foot. If it would become infected, it would then develop gangrene, and the doctors would amputate his leg. His wife lived and worked on crutches for years until she finally died in 2012 of cancer.

There were dozens of cases like hers in the Lambada  adivasi village of Kiradali Tanda in Yadgir District of Karnataka, where during July and September 2009 an independent study led to a report that cited the groundwater in the village indicated an arsenic level of 303 micrograms per litre, when an acceptable level of arsenic  according to the WHO, is merely 10 micrograms per litre. The report ‘D. Chakraborti, et al., Environmental arsenic contamination and its health effects in a historic gold mining area of the Mangalur greenstone belt of Northeastern Karnataka,’ would further mention that,

‘A total of 181 individuals were screened for symptoms of chronic Arsenic toxicity and complete demographic information was collected for 171. High rates of arsenicosis were identified with 58.6% of screened individuals presenting with at least one related symptoms.’

‘For individuals with no known arsenic exposure, concentrations of arsenic in hair generally range from 20 to 200  _g kg−1 and in nails from 20 to 500  _g kg−1. Of 170 samples, 100% of both hair and nails were found to exceed the upper limit of unexposed individuals.’

‘When asked about deceased family members and skin lesions similar to arsenicosis, 12 individuals were named that had died with comparable symptoms in the last 10 years. Furthermore, four individuals who had skin lesions and died of cancer in the last 5 years were also reported.’

Today, there is only one amputee left, 38 year old Kishan Chauhan, whose photograph in the report he had never seen, indicated he had suspected Bowen’s disease. He lost his leg to gangrene after a lesion caused by arsenic poisoning got infected. Every year he migrates from his village of Kiradalli Tanda. In 2013, he had migrated to Dodamargh, Savantwadi in Belgaum, over 500 kilometres away from his village, where he earned Rs.200 per week, breaking stones to construct a road to a Taluk Court, for his two young daughters and his wife.

Nine people have died since 2009 after the report was published and the government installed water de-salinating machines, which in Kiradalli Tanda, are barely operative. Devaki Rathod w/o Champolal, aged 48 died in 2010, Khiropa Rathod s/o Ramchand Rathore, aged 60, died in 2010, Gurunath Rathore s/o Krishna, aged 50, died in 2011, Gurana Chauhan s/o Vantappa, aged 32, died in 2011, Lokesh Chauhan s/o Rajappa, aged 45, died 2011, Limbaji Rathod s/o Chayappa, aged 40, died in 2011, Sitabai w/o Chandrulal, aged 65, died in 2012, Jamhibai w/o Devaji Rathore, aged 55, died in 2012, Honappa Jadav s/o Sahrappa, aged 62, died in 2012, Rukhmanibai w/o Sudhram, aged 38, died in 2012.

Just four kilometres from Kiradalli Tanda, was the gold mine of Mangalur, which was mined by the colonial British Empire during the years, 1887 – 1913, and then briefly re-opened by the government of Karnataka in 1980 and shut down in 1994 due to excessive water entry into the mines. It is historically known that, Gold mines are abandoned without proper measures to protect the environment, and arsenic pollution has been reported in active and abandoned Gold mines in Australia, Ghana, Canada, France, Slovakia and Brazil. Yet a few kilometres from the abandoned mine of Mangalur, is the active gold mine of Hutti, run by the Hutti Gold Mine Company Ltd, in partnership with the Government of Karnataka whose contemporary environmental record isn’t so different from the past.

A show cause notice dated 31st of January, 2006, was issued to the Managing Director of the Hutti Gold Mines, Ltd, by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, who took cognizance of a complaint by Sri. Yamanappa of Hutti Village, who claimed that ‘waste water/decanted water overflown from tailing dam was accumulating’ on his land.

It was mentioned that, ‘You are directed to stop the flow of tailing dam waste water on to the complainant’s land henceforth and action taken in this regard shall be submitted to this office along with proof of photographic evidences.’

On the 15th of November, 2009, after a series of sit-ins by affected farmers in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Raichur District, a meeting was held under the chairmanship of the Deputy Commissioner of Raichur Adoni Syed Saleem, representatives of farmers of Hutti Village and the Karnataka Pranth Ryot Sangh, where the sit-in was called off, after the Commissioner spoke to the then-Executive Director Venkatesh Rao of Hutti Gold Mines Ltd, over the phone. The Executive Director had assured the district administration, ‘that it is true that cyanide has caused damages in around 23 survey numbers of Hutti Village’, and that there will be an increase in the compensation paid to farmers after the company has acquired their land for the use to dump mine tailings, and that ‘compensation will be paid without further delay.’

Yet the farmers of Hutti remain in a problematic predicament as the town of Hutti has no other source of employment or livelihood besides farming, or as a job in the mine. Farmers who lost their land to pollution, where a soil sample report by an Agricultural University in Raichur even mentioned that the land is un-cultivatable for the next 25 years, have been demanding jobs in the company as a compensation, and yet live in a state of dependency and fear.

A farmer whose name I shall withhold on request, was more than happy to reveal all the documents of the year-long agitation, complaints against the company, and he took me to his land where it is clearly visible that mine tailings have been falling onto his crop. But since he lost around 20 acres of land to the mine’s pollution, he feels his only hope to earn a livelihood in Hutti is the same company who destroyed his farm.

Matters are further complicated with the rising number of silicosis amongst the underground miners of Hutti. ‘There are at least 15 mine workers I know who died of silicosis, and many more who still live with it,’ the farmer reveals and yet an interview with a worker he would introduce me to, led to the same predicament, as the worker himself is demanding a job for his daughters in the mine, and refuses to go on record.

The 2009 survey by the Government of Karnataka and Unicef had also identified five villages in Gulburga and 10 villages in Raichur with an arsenic content of over 50 miligrams per litre, well above the WHO standard of 10 milligrams per litre. A further 14 villages in Gulburga and another 39 in Raichur had drinking water concentration higher than 10 miligrams per litre.

In July 2013, the Comptroller Auditor General Report, would again mention that there are around 16 habitations in Raichur and Yadgir district: Deodurg, Sunnada Kallu, Lingasuguru, Kattagal, Hatti, Yalghatta, Irkal, Kurukunda, Nanjaladini and Hunnur in Raichur district, and Mandyal, Arker, Rampur, Gudihal and Bijaspur, where a combined 24,000 people live with a drinking water supply that is affected with varied concentrations of arsenic.

The Hutti Gold Mine Company Limited has not responded to repeated queries to their office over a 6 month period as of the 8th of February, 2014.

A more comprehensive photo essay is here.

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The Life Of A Witness

June 17, 2012

Photo credit: Tehelka photo

In memoriam: Tehelka photographer Tarun Sehrawat (1989 – 2012)

This piece appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June 2012. Another piece appears in Tehelka on the 30th of June.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January of 2010, when we both found ourselves with the duties of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a supreme court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was there in Jagdalpur hospital, while we were outside the ward trying to get access to her, and Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, smiling at each other, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He was an absolute delight to work with, or in this case, observe work. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were absolutely glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the village of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time, at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger against ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a few handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, some of the bravest and some of the most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma would take his revolver and shoot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter would be gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi would wish to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers –Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. They add to a list that I don’t know sometimes whether they will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on. It’s the ghost of the conscience of the country that’s dead as each time the warmongers ask for helicopters to drop hell from above onto one of the darkest corners of the country.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him – how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun, ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends would tell me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, as did one explode a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand and walking with another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, whose eyes lost of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight of watching these two towering men, pathetically walking down, broken down. A year later in Chintalnaar, a few days after 76 jawaans were killed in an ambush, the jawaans of Chintalnaar would exert, ‘You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other’.Mosquitoes have killed one of the Maoist’s most iconic leaders- Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, at the Roro mines of Chaibasa, an old adivasi miner left to die of asbestos exposure by the Birlas would talk to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, and it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team very quickly became a medical team, and we had to take on the responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides and a few other journalists and myself faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to around 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

The more water you carry, the more you’d tire, and the more you’d drink. And you can’t ration what is never enough.

I used to even take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, and ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, and find myself in the middle of a busy bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would be shattering, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s little rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar made of iron ore, covered in flags and illusions of greatness, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.

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Murder At Pachuwara

January 23, 2012

The murder of activist-nun Sister Valsa John has a lot to say about India’s mining policy

Karu Tudu of Kolajuda village stands over his destroyed paddy field, covered in coal dust. Over 500 trucks carrying 2300 kilograms of coal each, travel pass his fields each day and are forced to dump some of the coal on the roadside by local villagers, who sell it on the black market.

This article appears in two parts in the Sunday Guardian on the 15th of January here and the 22nd of January 2012, here.

Everyday over 500 trucks travel the 35km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur in Jharkhand, carrying over 2300 kilograms of coal each. And everyday, hundreds of local adivasis and landless farmers stop the trucks, and unload a little coal onto the road for themselves to sell in the black market.

In the process, the paddy fields on the periphery of the roads are entirely covered in coal dust.

The police sometimes accompany the trucks carrying the coal and attempt to stop the locals from taking coal, and have often chased them away, beaten them, or arrested them. Yet the practice continues.

‘We make around 150 rupees a day, if a whole family sits to collect coal to sell it.’ Said one of the ‘scavengers’ on the roadside.

‘Why do you do it?’

Two brothers Badan and Darbo Soren who live in the village of Kulkipada have no choice. The coal dust has destroyed their produce, and it renders their crop unsellable.

‘We eat the black rice ourselves. No one will buy it.’ Said Badan, ‘Earlier we used to make some Rs.15,000 or Rs.20,000 per year.’

‘And there is no more mahua seeds, no more mango in the trees.’ Continued his brother.

The rains have failed in the last three years in a district where the rivers run with streaks of black coal. Families make a living out of the coal that travels their road every day, turning the entire stretch of the 35 kilometers into a black field, where children as young as six can be seen working to help their families.

The coal mining company Panem Coal Mines Limited, had also tried to acquire lands to build a railway line from Pachuwara to Pakur, but they faced stiff resistance from farmers like Badan Soren and his brother, who’d lose their farm land to the track.

Instead the dumper trucks travel everyday across a dusty road where both people have lost their lives to hit-and-run accidents, and in anger, the locals burn down the trucks, and an informal industry is born.

How The Free Market Murdered A Nun

Of the thousands of villagers who stop the dumper-trucks and collect coal on the 35 km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur, many are children under the age of ten.

The story of Pachuwara can be told by telling the story of the murder of Sister Valsa, a nun and an activist who fought for the rights of Santhal Adivasis, who would be a part of a compromise that would spell her own demise, when she was brutally axed to death in her adopted home in the village of Pachwara in Pakur district on the 15th of November, 2011.

Within hours of her killing, the mainstream media was quick to report that she was murdered by the Maoists. The Maoists denied it, even as an initial note, claimed to be written by them, condemned the nun and the activist to be working for the coal mining company Panem, and not in the interests of the people.

A few days later the police would arrest seven individuals who were associated to Sister Valsa. Almost all of them were local villagers/contractors who’d get work from Panem. One of the accused, Pycil Hembrom was the son of the president of the Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan that fought against the company and had a long history of working with Sister Valsa. And after the end of the agitation against the company and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the 30th of November 2006, he worked with them as an independent contractor.

Sister Valsa was living as a guest in the house of Pycil Hembrom and had only moved out eight days before her murder. A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

‘The MOU made a lot of promises, but the work only happened on their accord.’ Sonaram Hembrom said, who was present when over forty people had surrounded his house in the dead of night to look for Sister Valsa who was hiding in her room, and would eventually find her and axe her twice near her head and her neck.

‘They saw all that money and they got greedy.’ Said Sonaram’s neighbours, about Pycil and the other accused from Aalubera village adjacent to Pachwara.

‘Sometimes, the money we were supposed to get for one tree used to be Rs.50,000, but Sister would find out that we only got Rs.5,000. When we confronted them about this, they said it was a computer error.’ Continued Sonaram Hembrom. All the documents and registers that detailed all the financial dealings of the Project-Affected-Persons and the PANEM Coal Mining Company that Sister Valsa had kept, were appropriated by the police as evidence and are currently unavailable.

The History of An MOU

D. Marandi, once a farmer, now a miner at Panem Coal Mines Ltd at the rehabilitated site of Naya Kathaldih.

On the 19th of April, 1985, very close to Pachuwara, at Banjhi, and close to the collective memory of the elders of Pachuwara, the police had shot and bayoneted over 15 people including an ex MP Anthony Murmu as they were demanding their rights. Every year they gather in the thousands on the day of the incident to pay homage to their martyrs.

Years later, their rights were again usurped by the Panem Coal Mines Limited, who were given land by the administration, who used an infamous colonial era law, the Land Acquisition Act to acquire all the lands of Pachuwara and the nearby villages for coal mining. This has remained a story repeated across central India’s mining belt that gives birth to numerous protest movements and a direct confrontation with the state’s mining policy that has acquired lands by flouting laws, and violating tribal rights.

Almost all the mineral deposits in Central India are on Fifth Schedule land, which is protected by the constitution and has given local tribes authority over local resources. Yet the arbitrariness of the Land Acquisition Act allows the government to simply hand over lands to private companies, and the locals have always resisted, leading to brutal confrontations with the police and the administration.

But of the 104 MOUs in Jharkhand, Pachuwara is one of two where work has started, as there was a settlement between the villagers and the company, a settlement that many still feel has to be completely understood.

‘Our land cannot be sold, you people with a brave history can and must drive out this company!’ said Binej Hembrom, the parganaith (village headman) to the people of Pachuwara in a meeting long before the agreement, but would eventually be one of the signatories to the MOU along with the company director Bishwanath Dutta.

Today Binej Hembrom is a senile old man, half-deaf, seemingly unaware that his son is in jail for murdering a woman who they once fought the company with, and some say, had won.

‘People in Ranchi, in the social movement’s think we sold out.’ Said Father Tom Karvallo, who along with Sister Valsa John was close to the movement at the time of the signing of the MOU.

‘But there was a lot of repression.’

‘Our people were being divided by the company. There were police cases on Valsa and others like Joseph who’d eventually be killed in an accident. And when we lost in the High Court, we had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the illegality of the land acquisition as this was a Fifth Schedule area. But the Courts are a gamble, it can really depend on the judge, or the climate of the time. And we were afraid, that if we lost, we’d set a dangerous precedent as there were so many other adivasi movements fighting for their land. And they would’ve all suffered if the Supreme Court had ordered in favour of the company.’

‘So we signed the MOU. And it was a good relief package, that we only got after such a strong struggle.’

The agreement was reached in Delhi on the 30th of November, 2006, after ‘persuasion’ by a section of outsider activists, and one, including Shajimon Joseph, then Resident Editor of The Hindustan Times, who’d eventually be a signatory of the MOU as a witness, who confirms there was police repression in the form of cases on Sister Valsa and other adivasi leaders, but also mentions there was no dissatisfaction during the signing of the MOU.

The Memorandum of Understanding itself was unprecedented. Apart from offering schools, healthcare, employment, rehabilitation sites, there would be a yearly stipend for each acre the company appropriates, and that the work for the construction of rehabilitated sites would be given as per the MOU, to local contractors and Project-Affected-Persons.

The money that came from Panem company for such work, would go to Sister Valsa, who directed the young contractors like Pysil to work in the area.

Five years after the Memorandum of Understanding, the promised hospital is still under construction.

The village of Kathaldih was uprooted, and the company has resettled them in a newer colony called Naya Kathaldih, where farming as all but stopped and most of the young men work as miners in the coal mine, waiting for the company to finish mining their lands, and then return it to them, so they can commence farming again.

Living In Fear

A truck that was allegedly burnt down by the Maoists. Yet there have been many other times, when local villagers burnt down trucks in anger after numerous hit-and run incidents.

Rajan Marandi and Pradhan Murmu were two other contractors arrested for the murder of Sister Valsa who lived in the adjacent village of Aalubera that is soon to lose their land to the company.

Rajan has five cars for himself, while Pradhan has around seven cars and all their cars remain parked in the village in front of their houses. The village is a village in fear, as the police has been searching for others who may have been present when Sister Valsa was attacked. Two boys who refused to give their names say the police has been searching for them, and they are innocent.

They quickly disappear when they’re asked about the relief package.

There are no village elders, and there is no one who is willing to talk about the impending displacement and rehabilitation.

One young woman whose family lost her land years ago to the petrol pump that fills over 500 trucks claims their family doesn’t get the monthly stipend, but refuses to go on record, in fear of antagonizing the powers-to-be.

‘They’re all filling their own pockets,’ she said.

‘Isn’t there anyone who takes up these issues?’

‘There’s no one.’

‘Who speaks up against the company?’

‘No one.’

‘Over here,’ said another young boy Chappu Deheri in Pachwara who was asked the same question, ‘Only Sister Valsa and her samiti used to.’

Aalubera is also the home of Advin Murmu, a 20 year old boy who was arrested for the alleged rape of a young girl who lived in the house of Sonaram Hembrom along with Sister Valsa.

According to her father, Advin Murmu and three other boys had kidnapped the girl on the evening of the 7th of November, and while the three boys had disappeared, Advin kept the girl all night in an empty home at Aalubera.

The girl was only let out in the morning and she had gone to her aunt’s house. The family along with Sister Valsa would take the case to the police on the 9th of November, six days before her murder.

The Superintendent of Police, Mayur Patel claims that there was no rape, and that the girl and the boy knew each other, and the girl’s family is merely protesting the fact that the boy is a Christian and the girl’s family is Sarna.

The family however claims, that Pycil Hembrom and the contractors wanted them to drop the rape case, threatening that they’d lose all their lands and their home if they persist to fight them. The family especially indicted the local sub-inspector of police, Daroga, as someone who wanted to give the family Rs.50,000 to forget the so-called imaginary case.

The Inspector has since been suspended for dereliction of duty after the murder of Sister Valsa.

Advin Murmu has since been arrested and according to the Superintendent of Police, for both incidents. Advin Murmu’s brother, also a contractor, claims his brother is innocent while his bail application was rejected by the Courts.

Photography Post-Script

‘The blackened, unsellable rice of Badan Soren of the village of Kulkipada.

Badan Soren and his house, next to the 35km road where 500 trucks travel everyday carrying 2300 kilograms of coal.

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The Last Of The Asbestos Miners Of Roro

January 8, 2012

Ex-miner Dansingh Bodra with the corroded helmet of his deceased neighbour Vijaysingh Sondi at the village of Roro, Jharkhand.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 8th of January, 2012.

When miner Dansingh Bodra was asked about the people from his village who he worked with, in the asbestos mines of Roro, who have all died before their time, he slowly starts counting, first to himself, and then loudly: ‘gyaara…. Pooliya Sondi……….. baara………Rohto Gop……..taira….Bagan Sondi…….. chowda….. Vijay Singh Sondi…….. pandra……Gono Sondi….. sola….. Harish Sondi….. sattra, Sukmon Sondi…… atthra….. Rahto Samadh.’

Dansingh himself suffers from cancer, a huge protrusion grows out of his stomach.

It took him five minutes to remember the dead. A few seconds to denounce the company that laid them off one fine day when the mines shut down in 1983.

‘They gave us nothing, no healthcare, no pension, just these illnesses.’

‘I worked in the mines for 12 years, and from that day itself I used to cough, and slowly it started to get worse.’

A man with a lump growing out of his stomach remains a testament to the reality of internal colonization, of a company that currently earns aggregate revenues of over 800 crores, of industrial development and the idea that mining offers jobs.

Dansingh Bodra awaits death in a village where his three grandchildren sleep behind him suffering from fever.

The mines have long but closed down, but the dust and pollution that emanates from them, still spread across the fields.

Even today, as per law, especially as per section 22 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, all asbestos mines have to be closed but the Hyderabad Industry Limited of the CK Birla Group, did not close their mines at Roro village at Chaibasa, West Singhbhum, Jharkhand and the asbestos fibres that are blown into the wind, that seep into the fields and rivers, still exist 30 years after the mines shut down.

‘So many people died before they turned forty,’ Said Birsingh Sondi, who points to his neighbours house, ‘There lived Mangalsingh Sondi, who was 25 when he died and he never even worked in the mine, his father Sukmon worked there, and he died a few years ago too.’

Asbestos, whose use, manufacture and extraction is banned across the European Union, is still used widely across India and is part of a 4000 crore industry dominated by around 18 companies who justify the use of asbestos as a substitute for affordable roofing, who claim that chrysotile asbestos can be safely manufactured and used without risks.

The companies claim that the kind of asbestos used in India isn’t carcinogenic, even as all forms of asbestos are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the International Agency For Research On Cancer, who mention in a report that was published in 2010: ‘Epidemiological evidence has increasingly shown an association of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.’ It would go on the mention that an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

Yet the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, one of the main lobby groups for the continued production and use of asbestos, has repeatedly claimed, ‘Some five hundred other products and industrial processes are recognized as carcinogens, but this does not mean that we must prohibit their use.’

While the Lobby has often reiterated that chrysotile asbestos is safe, and that proper safety standards and use of asbestos, justifies the industry, the chairman of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, Abhaya Shanker, is also the Managing Director of Hyderabad Industries Limited, who says they closed the Roro mine, and that the mountains of asbestos tailings from the mine are not carcinogenic.

‘Roro is a finished chapter, a closed mine 30 years back, what’s the point of Roro? I don’t understand.’ He exclaims in a telephonic interview.

‘That is all an old story and that was all, an old type of asbestos and that is all done.’

‘The mine is safely handed over, and closed, and handed over to the government of India, and there is no danger to the public. It’s all bullshit.’

‘According to the Supreme Court directives in the CERC case, you have to monitor the health of your workers? Do you also monitor the health of your workers from Roro?’ I asked.

‘You can look at our world class health monitoring system, for our workers, …., for several years we keep calling them, for check-ups, for studying them…’

‘Even the Roro workers?’

‘The Roro workers are all finished, we would have done them (the survey) for a couple of years……and it’s been 30 years now, nobody would be alive now.’

A History Of Trying To Close The Mountain

Roro Hills at Chaibasa were first mined for chromite in the early 1960’s by the Tatas, and those mines were sold to the CK Birla Group, as the Tatas moved onto mining chromite at Sukinda, in Odisha, which itself, according to international environmental group Blacksmith Institute, is one of the 10 most polluted places in the world, where approximately 70% of the surface water is contaminated by hexavalent chromium, with 24.7% of the population living around the mines to be suffering from pollution-induced diseases.

When I had visited the village of Suanla in Sukinda in 2010, an old man scoffed at the media’s ability to highlight the issue and improve the lives of the people of his village. He claimed that over 30 people have died in the past few months. Some called the deaths in Suanla an exaggeration, but in the house of Markand Hembram, four members of the household had died within a year.

Quoting the report by the Blacksmith Institute, the government itself had gone on to say: ‘It is unique, it is gigantic and it is beyond the means and purview of the [Orissa Pollution Control] Board to solve the problem.’

Back at Roro, there were vocal attempts to close the mountain and clean up. Way back in 2003, a public hearing was held where villagers from 14 villages around the mines has spoken up about working in the mines and the health issues in their villages. The hearing was organized by Jharkhand Organization For Human Rights, and was paneled by a group of prominent doctors and advocates.

The report of the hearing was taken to the District Collector and Chief Medical officer who were given representations for conducting medical camps, to monitor health of workers and non-workers, and to detail a scientific closure of mines and to hold Hyderabad Industries Limited accountable to pay for health and environmental damages.

Yet till date, there have never been any attempt by any official body – from the Pollution Control Board, the Directorate General of Mines Safety, the Mining Department, the company or the local administration to remediate and clean up the mine tailings or do a proper mine closure.

‘Everyone wants the mines cleaned up.’ Said Birsingh Sondi, whose own fields run aground with asbestos dust.

At Roro, only three miners who worked with the Birla Group are left alive. But not everyone worked directly under the company as independent contractors had also taken on the responsibility of disposing asbestos dust, who paid workers Rs.1.50 per day, for working from eight in the evening to eight in the morning to do the work without any protective clothing.

‘there was no izzat in mining, we should never have allowed them here.’ Continued Dansingh Bodra, who had even worked underground, mining asbestos without any protective clothing, and there were accidents: Turam Sondi, Jida Sondi and Dausar Sondi were killed in the mines in a few years before the lockout and the closing of the mines.

‘No one should ever have worked the way we did.’

Photography Post-Script