Archive for the ‘Rural India’ Category

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C For Cynicism

May 4, 2014

(80 of 138)The polling booth at Mayapur, Palamau District of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

Constants seldom make election campaigns, and election results seldom challenge them. C for Corruption but then it is C for Caste, Counterinsurgency and Contrator-raj, that are constants in Palamau district of Jharkhand, and then there is C for cynicism: the language, religion, and soul of every voter, whether he believes in Modi or not, in Laloo or not, who knows things will seldom change in the village, no matter who will win the election, where this time an incumbent ex-Maoist is finding his challenge in an ex-cop and an ex-minister.

In Palamau district at Daltonganj, on the 8th of April, a Ram Navmi jhooloos would play a nationalist song calling for Hindu-Muslim-Christian unity, and the chorus would blare in a guttural voice, ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ repeatedly, with the next chorus including ‘Pakistan Murdabad’. The city was planted with red flags, Hanuman jhandas, and in the evening the administration shut off the power across the block to ensure no accidents could take place, such as the one on the 13th of April, 2000, when a flag procession broke off a 11,000 volt cable that would kill over 30 people at Kasab Mohalla at Daltonganj. Ram Navmi flags were even placed on the Ambedkar statue at Barwadih block, a statue built by supporters of the Rashtriya Janta Dal who didn’t find the sense of misplacement in the act. Over two decades ago, in the village of Balatola with a significant population of Brahmins and Rajputs, the caste system was described through cricket: ‘All the upper caste boys would just bat, and all the lower caste boys would only field and bowl.’

Palamau and Garhwa (Constituency Number 13) is meant for the Reserved Category. The sitting Minister of Parliament Kameshwar Baitha was once a part of the Naxalite insurgency, who won the 2009 seat on a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ticket while serving a jail term. In the previous election he lost to Ghuran Ram of the RJD by a mere 22,327 votes. It is common knowledge that he joined the CPI Maoist (Party Unity) after the Arwal massacre of Jehanabad on the 19th of April, 1986, where 21 members of the leftist Mazdoor Kisan Sangarsh Samiti were killed by the police. But even by asking 267 questions in parliament, his popularity in the region had waned dramatically in the past five years. He was eventually ditched by the JMM and is currently standing with a Trinamool Congress ticket, after failing in his attempts to win the favours of the BJP, who would eventually field ex-Director General of Police, Vishnu Dayal Ram, a 1973 batch IPS officer, who was the Superintendent of Police during the infamous Bhagalpur blinding incident of 1979-1980, where 31 undertrials had acid poured into their eye sockets by the police.

Yet touring the districts of Palamau and Garhwa it is almost unanimously agreed that the battle is between the RJD’s Manoj Bhuyan and BJP’s V.D. Ram for whom the recent Ramnami celebrations on the 8th of April, and the Modi factor is helping to push votes towards him, especially amongst the landed, dominant and forward castes.

Manoj Bhuyan, has a mixed consolidation of Yadav, Bhuyan and Muslim votes.

When Palamau and Garhwa went to the polls on the 10th of April, 2014 in the first phase of elections in Jharkhand, 1,417,375 voters were meant to practice their franchise but a mere 59.3% showed up for polling. The M factor, wasn’t as much as the Maoist boycott as the Mahua factor, that during the last few days of the fruits falling onto the rich earth, adivasi villagers whose sole source of income for months would be Mahua, would only want to vote after they collected their quota of Mahua for the day, but polling ended at 4 in the evening, leaving many out of the process.

At empty polling booths, disgruntled security personnel were annoyed at how villagers would rather pick up mahua than vote, obviously missing out how the world’s largest democracy could be a farce.

‘Ka maloom kisko vote diya (Who knows who I gave my vote to?)’ Said an old man who came alone and walked away with sheer disinterest in the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district. A young man, ‘a good samaritan’, held his hand to make him vote, and he wasn’t the only one to whom the act of voting is a mere habit, a connection to this invisible ‘sarkar’, and nothing else. Another man with his grandson under a Mahua tree in Chainpur block, would rather ask journalists who he should vote for, and who we think will save the nation. Suryabed Devi from the village of Dorami would find her name would not be on the list, and would visit the polling booth thrice in the day to try and vote for ‘sarkar ke niyaam’ (government schemes). When she was asked by an observer from Delhi if she knew the ‘Jhadoo wala party’, she responded that she knew what a ‘Jhadoo (broom)’ was.

Over 25 kilometres away, a BJP polling agent, sat around a coterie of 20-30 villagers near the empty Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau, distributing election papers with their serial numbers, to make it easier for voters to find their names on the roster. On the first question about the ‘samasya (problems)’ of the village, ten people would all start to speak as once, talking about pani (water), bijli (electricity), ration and job card while the polling agent kept quiet. They were a divided bunch with no one clearly espousing support for any party, with some voices invoking the ‘Lantern’ and others ‘Phool’ (lotus), while there was unanimous mistrust towards their incumbent minister Kameshwar Baitha.

‘Aap abhi bharosa kaise rakhege? (How can you trust them now?)I had asked the group.

‘Toh kay karenge! (What do we do?), they said in a chorus. One man exhorts, ‘Vishwas peh jaahte hai mandir ko, mil jata hai tho mil jata hai! (We go to the temple in faith, if we get what we wish for, then we get it.)’

At some point during the cacophony of discussion, and hyperbolic cycnicism, the polling agent, finally called for order to speak, ‘Hamare Narendra Modi ke laksh mein saare vote jara he.(All our votes are going towards Narendra Modi).’He said, the man approaching fifty who spoke with absolute conviction and sombreness, ‘Woh pradhan mantri baneye, aur desh ka udhar karenge. (He’ll become the prime minister and make the country progress)

‘Gaon ke samasye mein badal aayega? (Will the village’s problems get fixed?)’ I asked.

Silence.

Then a cacophony again. Mostly saying no.

‘Koi bhi jeeta aase koi bhi umeed nahi hai. (Whoever wins, we don’t have any hopes like that). Said a younger man, ‘Aapna khandaan hi banate ha (They only help their own families). Garibo kya kar raha hai, kha raha hai, kapda penh raha hai, chhao mein bheta hai, usse koi matlab nahi hai (What the poor are doing, what they’re eating, what clothes they’re wearing, whether they have shade to sit in, none of that matters). Woh jieetne ke baadh woh bus aapna sochtha hai (Once they win, they just think of themselves).’

Another man spoke at the very instance, ‘Koi jeetega, garib ka dekhneka koi nahi hai , agar 100 ghar hai, yaha 50 ghar mein kuch nahi hai, koi card nahi, koi job card nahi. Aur kuch nahi hoga unka! (Whoever wins, nobody is going to look after the poor, if there are 100 houses here, there is nothing in 50 houses, no card, no job card. Nothing will happen for them). ’

The polling agent kept quiet. He didn’t wish to speak anymore.

Speaking to villagers after villagers, there was an obvious sense of abandonment, of the village, of the self, of the community amongst a majority of people who went to the polls. Yet there were some places where the issues were not issues, and the struggles were entirely their own.

Counterinsurgency

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Memorial for the dead at Barhania village  in Latehar District of Jharkhand.

Around 55 kilometers from Palamau, it was in Barhania village in Murvai Panchayat in Latehar district that on the 15th of April, 2009, a day before polling for the Lok Sabha elections that an IED blast on a polling party, would claim the lives of two CRPF personel and one civilian driver Vijay Kumar Prasad. And in an act (that is always disputed by the police), that can only be described as a revenge killing, the angry CRPF survivors marched to the nearest village and arbitrarily killed five people – Supay Bodra (18), Sanjay Bodra (20), Masi Soma Bodra (14), Pitai Munda (32) and Supay Bodra (55), and claimed they killed five Naxalites. The incident on the peak of the elections, led to a frenzy of accusations, anger, and promises, and the fact that the village, has contributed 17 people to the Army or the Border Security Forces or the Jharkhand state police or the CISF, and is then branded a ‘Naxalite village’, did not escape public scrutiny.

Army Jawaan Joel Budra, whose own family members were killed on that day, would eventually leave the Bihar Regiment a few years after the killings, and still remembers the day his own colleagues who saw the news bulletins, started to insinuate that he comes from a village of ‘ugravadis (extremists)’ .

‘Abhi bhi yaad aata hai unka (I still remember them).’ He says about his family members, he himself is almost half his size today, and spends his time working in the fields when there is work.

‘Police se gussa to aata hai, hum bhi police to the, aur mera bhai Martin bhi policewalla hai, lekin usko bhi gussa hai (We do get angry at the police, I was also in the police and my brother Martin is also a policeman, and he gets angry too).’

The site of the attack today is dotted with two memorials, one for the driver killed in the attack set up by the transport association, a statue of stone whose ankles are beaten down and another by the villagers of Barhania with the names of the villagers and details of the incident that clearly indicts the CRPF. Over the past few years the CRPF patrols have constantly erased ‘CRPF’ from the plaque, and the adivasis keep writing it again.

Jawaan Mangram Munda, who is part of the CISF categorically states, that the villagers were innocent and that the massacre wouldn’t have taken place if he was there in the village the day of the attack. He was himself at Chatra at election duty, and is visibly angry with the CRPF who acted rashly but has an entirely different relationship to the state than others in his village, and is openly espousing his support for the AAP in Latehar on the issue of corruption, even though there is no visible sight of the party across the region.

On the day of the killing, every political party from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, to the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the CPI(ML)-Liberation, and Communist Party of India, to human rights organizations and the national media would visit the village, whose lack of irrigation facilities had affected migrancy and livelihood as much as the massacre. In 2009, the families of the victims would never go to the polls, and five years later, their voices stand divided, with some still refusing to vote, and some believing they would vote for the Congress’s Dhiraj Prasad Sahu, who had given each of the families Rs.20,000 as compensation, and has promised to re-open collieries, re-open the Chirimiri railway line and to complete the Mandal Dam which will drown countless trees and submerge villages, to the chagrin of other adivasi groups. Their incumbent candidate, Inder Singh Namdhari, who ran as an independent, only visited the village once, and had called for a review into the incident, when the villagers was already cleared by then.

‘I didn’t vote last time,’ Said Gauri Budhra from Barhania, ‘And this time I have to spend my time picking Mahua, and I will probably be too tired to walk 2 kilometres in the sun to vote.’

‘What if there was a complete gaurantee that the water problems in the village would be solved if you voted?’ I asked.

She laughed.

‘I would still not go. Who trusts these people!’

Soni Mundoo, about 50 years of age, sister of Pitai Munda who was killed in the attack felt the same. ‘Why vote after they killed our people?’ While her family voted for the panchayat elections, further questioning led her to say, ‘And I am alone, why should I go? There is so much work.’

Contractor-Raj

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Migrant workers returning from Bangalore an evening before polling day.

During the Mahua season, the Munda, Oraon and Chero adivasis of Palamau-Chatra-Garhwa and Latehar collect as much Mahua as they can for their home, and sell what they can in the market. The markets are run by ‘Mahajans’ with whom there is no bargaining over price. It starts at Rs.30 per kilo, and over the next few weeks as more and more trees grow mahua fruits, the price goes down to Rs.25, to Rs.20. Then, in a few months, the Mahajans will sell the Mahua back to the adivasis at Rs.40 or Rs.50 a kilogram when there is none left in the forest. A system in place for there is no organized effort by the government to build godowns, or to protect adivasi interests.

In every village moving towards the interior, incomplete roads, incomplete government buildings dot the landscape. In every conversation, there was always someone or the other from Daltonganj or Ranchi, from anywhere but here, who built half of a road, or half of a building, or nothing at all. It was in Latehar, where on the 2nd of March, 2011, where the CPI Maoists, in collusion with a contractor had murdered Niyamat Ansari, an activist fighting for proper implementation of MNREGA, who built a pond through a government scheme in the panchayat, who repeatedly invoked the RTI act and the Forest Rights act. The local Maoist commander Sudarshan would accuse him of stealing land, stealing from the poor, ‘child sacrifice’ but would eventually be forced to ‘apologize’ by his leadership.

Another incident where the role of the contractors is pushed to an afterthought took place in Garhwa, when an IED blast on the 21st of January, 2012 had claimed the lives of 13 police personnel, who were accompanying the local Block Development Officer Vasudev Prasad to a protest site at Bargad, where villagers were protesting against how their health center, meant for the village Ghotoni was being built at Bargad by the contractors in collusion with the dominant castes. At the same time, the CPI Maoists had abducted Zilla Parishad member Shushma Mehta of the CPI-ML, her bodygaurds and party member Akhtar Ansari who were also on their way to the protest site, while the police lathi-charged the protestors at Bargad, refused to acknowledge that Sushma Mehta’s team was abducted and would go on to accuse that the attack on their polling party was planned by the CPI-ML. The team would eventually be released by the Maoists and Sushma Mehta herself is now vying for the Palamu-Garhwa Lok Sabha seat.

And the contractors never built the health center meant for Ghotoni.

The BJP campaign itself found its feet in Shyam Narayan Dubey, a contractor who also runs the teachers union through the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Manoj Singh, District President of BJP also a bus contractor with murder cases to his name, Parsuram Ojha, a contractor and social worker, Kiran Singh, another bus contractor, and from Ranchi, Harihar Singh and his brother Pancham Singh, who are into construction. For the RJD there is Girnath Singh who is a ‘zamindar’, Someshwar Sahu who is a bus contractor and Congress worker who is supporting the RJD this time around, and the family of political strongman Bishma Narain Singh, a once governor, minister and MLA, and many more. Ghuran Ram, a candidate from the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, is himself a contractor. This is an endless survey meant to be, on how each contractor and zamindar in every region moves towards some political party or the other, or both, to try and make use of the Minister’s fund.

Today, with the onset of neo-liberalism and the breakdown of unions, contractors in the region have now also found dealing in human beings a profitable business.

The evening before the polls, nine migrant workers from the village of Regeniya in Barwadih block had paid Rs.3000 to a tempo driver to drop them from Ranchi to Daltonganj, as there were no bus services available as they were all taken for election duty. They had just returned from Bangalore, and one of them believed that if you don’t vote, they cut your name out of the voting list. They were ambivalent about their reasons for returning, until the next day they called up to say that they had run away from Bangalore after two of them were almost killed in a construction accident. It was a local contractor from their village Rehnai Singh who had sent them with some money to work, at the JMC projects in Bangalore, where a contractor Munna Khan put them to work along with construction supervisor Rehnai Singh’s son, who had locked them up, abused them, and refused to hear their concerns of safety after the accident.

They escaped clandestinely but were caught on the road by the contractors who threatened them with dire consequences. ‘Hum bezati ka kaam nahi karenge (We won’t do work that dishonours us)’Repeated Prakhar Singh, a Cheroo adivasi, around 21 years of age.

On the day of polling, when one of the migrants said they had voted for the BJP, a group of villagers and activists started to chastise him, asking how they were treated by the locals in Bangalore in where they had gone to work: ‘Aap ne unka hi sarkar ko vote diya, (You’ve voted for the same government)Said Kanhai Singh, an adivasi leader and CPI-ML cadre, ‘Aap Bhajpa ko vote diye hai kyuki aap Hindu hai? (Did you vote for the BJP just because you’re Hindu?)’ He would ask them. ‘Ha, toh Kangi kaun cheeze hai? (Yes, so what is a Kangi?)’ said a worker, to jitters. It seemed nobody forgot that Babulal Marandi of the ‘Kangi’ was once a part of the RSS, but as the conversation grew more and more redundant, one worker expressed that he is ‘un-padh (uneducated)’ and doesn’t know these things.

In the evening, the contractor who ‘sent’ them to Bangalore to work, came to collect his dues. The visibly frightened workers had no choice but to accept that they have to return the debt they owed Rehnai Singh, but refused to file a case for what is legally bonded labour.

Caste

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Ram Navmi Flags on the statue of Dr. Ambedkar in Latehar district of Jharkhand.

Kachanpur village in Chhattarpur block in Palamau district is a village split between Dalits and Jadhavs, has access to a pond, an MNREGA office, with the ‘N’ rubbed out, and villagers who see the sense of humour in ‘marega ka kaam (the work of those who will die). Of 1,100 voters, only 30% would practice their franchise, since most of the village youth are also migrant workers in other cities, who did not return to vote. The villagers also recall with laughter at how the BJP was giving out Rs.4000 to the voters, and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha was first giving out Rs.500 and then was forced to give Rs.4000 due to competition, but eventually their party workers reached a compromise and realized they should both just give Rs.2000. The villagers unanimously voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rampati Ranjan, but those that belonged to the Paswan caste, had their votes split for the BJP due to Ram Vilas Paswan’s move towards them.

41 year old Raghu Ravidas is a teacher in a local school who has belonged to BAMCEF (All India Backward (S.C., S.T., O.B.C.) And Minorities Communities Employees Federation) for decades now, recalling how it was Baleshwar Bharti, now from the BSP who had worked with them for decades. Today, his school building ran out of funds, since a portion was paid to the contractors, another fee had to be paid to the CPI Maoists and when the anti-Maoist Tritiya Prastuti Committee would arrive to ask for their own ‘cut’ there were no funds left, and the work for the school was forced to shut down.

Raghu Ravidas, remembers the conflicts in his village over caste, and how his people were humiliated at a Jadhav wedding by being asked to clean their own plates. A matter that was settled when they threatened wholesale boycott and when the then Maoist Communist Centre had a meeting with the Jadhavs. He even cites the humiliation of a government teacher Alok Deo Ram, a Dalit who was forced out of the school at Nodiya Bazaar after the other teachers who belonged to forward castes couldn’t deal with their own resentment. ‘Chapal ka mala pina diya tha unko, (They made him wear a garland of slippers)’ Said Raghu Ravidas, who along with BAMCEF were on the forefront of the protest, with hunger strikes, marches and protests outside government offices. This followed another incident in nearby Tilliyadi in 2003, where the members of a Teli Caste refused to send their children to a school for the cook belonged to a lower caste. While the BDO had ensured a case was filed, the woman in question left her position due to further harassment.

‘At that time, Ghuran Ram, from the RJD, and a man from our own caste,’ Said Raghu Ravidas, ‘said that the other teachers who humiliated Alok shouldn’t be arrested.’ None of those who were part of the government machinery, who won the seats that come under a reserved category, had come to the protest and the struggle that was held by the BAMCEF. Further irritation was reserved for MLA Sudha Choudhary of the JDU, who herself from the Pasi caste had a ‘mixed marriage’, whose response to protests was also lukewarm.

When I had asked Raghu if the constituency being in the reserved category had done anything to annihilate ‘jaat-vaad (casteism), his response was an astounding no, since no party in power was a part of any of the grassroots work that was being done. It became obvious that caste plays a role in where the votes can go, but in a constituency that comes under a reserved category, the annihilation of caste is not a candidate’s primary concern.

Rajkumar Pichuliya, a man who has been to BSP rallies in Lucknow, but missed out on Mayawati in Ranchi (due to the Maoist strike) would pick up a piece of cow dung and say, ‘Jab tak log ise bhagwaan maan te hai, jab tak yeh desh meh koi development nahi hoga. (Till people think this is God, there will be no development in this country)’

It was more than evident that the BSP had given them a sense of self-respect that no party had done, an identity, and a voice, and it was clearly elucidated with how a tone of 30-40 women sitting in a mini-panchayat would change, as they talk with rigour, laughter and pride when there is any conversation about Behenji.

The opposite sense was with the Ansari Muslims of Chegona in Palamu Constituency, who had unanimously voted for the RJD since 2002 after the Loto massacre in their Panchayat where 12 people were killed, some say the perpetrators were the RSS, while others say the MCC, and some say by the Maoist-faction People’s Liberation Front of India. Both Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad Yadav had visited the Panchayat (of Chegone, Loto, Arar and Khodi) on the day of the attack itself, and the memory and gratitude of a people who’ve never been organized, has turned votes to an afterthought.

They come under the Khodi Panchayat which is predominately Yadav, who were happy to tell the Ansari villagers of Chegona, ‘Hamare dono haath mein ladoo hai, RJD bhi Yadav ka party hai, aur BJP bhi Hindu ka party hai. (We have sweets [ladoos] in both hands, RJD is the party of the Yadavs, and the BJP the party for Hindus)’.Their own ‘Mukhiya’ would be a BJP party worker and a contrator, Ranjit Kumar Jaiswal. ‘Usne kya vikas kiya? (What progress did he bring us?)’ Asked a middle aged man in the mini-panchayat, ‘Usne hamara saab chawal bhej diya! Bahut vikas kiya! (He sold all our rice. So much progress!)’he said to laughing old women and young boys.

While they say there is no fear of Modi coming to power, to them and their village, there is a fear for over 40% of their young sons and brothers work as migrant workers in cities across the country.

The RJD to them, had not done anything to them, but they voted for them.

C for conclusion

There are political parties you vote for, and/or political beings you become.

Election Result

On the 16th of May, 2014, the results showed that at Palamau Lok Sabha Constituency, the BJP’s V.D. Ram won with 476,513 votes, followed by Manoj Bhuyan of RJD, with 212,571 votes, to JVM’s Ghuran Ram with 156,832 votes and Kamleshwar Baitha on a TMC ticket with 37,043 votes. BSP’s Rampati Ranjan had got 20,481 votes.

At the Chatra Lok Sabha Constituency, under which there is Latehar district, the BJP’s S.N. Singh won with 295,862 votes, followed by Dhiraj Prasad Sahu with 117,836 votes, followed by Nilam Devi of JVM with 104,176 votes.

Then there was  AJSU Party with 35,674, Samajwadi Party with 29,754, Communist Party of India with 21,261, Aam Aadmi Party with 17,980, Bahujan Samaj Party 14,929, Rashtriya Deshaj Party with 10,771,  Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)  with 8341, and All India Trinamool Congress with 7841.

Photography Post-Script

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The line at Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau District at Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

(115 of 138)Security at the polling station at Checha Panchayat at Latehar District on polling day on the 10th of April, 2014

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Polling station at Gore Panchayat, closer to the town of Daltonganj at Palamau District on the 10th of April, 2014.

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Memorial for Vijay Kumar Prasad,  the driver killed along with two CRPF personnel in an IED blast on the 15th of April, 2009.

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Inside the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

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The MNREGA office at Kachanpur village at Palamau district of Jharkhand.

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Abandoned government offices for the Mandal dam at Latehar district of Jharkhand.

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Scene from outside the polling center at Daltonganj, Palamau, at the end of polling.

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At the polling station at Dorami Panchayat at Latehar district on the 10th of April, 2014

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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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On the killing of Sai Reddy: Murder and Maoist Rationalisations

January 9, 2014

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Sai Reddy’s mother walking through the remnants of their home in April 2009.

This story appears on The Hoot on the 29th of December, 2013

The murder of the man who kept quiet, for reasons best known to him, reasons we could guess;  killed for reasons that are not justifiable in accordance to any decent human law.

The second killing of a journalist this year by the Maoists in Bastar is further revealing a pattern in arrogance, hypocrisy, and a roaring of silence over endless streams of noise. One doesn’t need to be a state apologist to find something extremely perturbing about just another murder of an unarmed man. Nor does one need to be a Gandhian, nor a revolutionary, nor an armchair intellectual acrobat drowning in the anxieties of growing fascism. A man was killed again, an oft-repeated sad truth of Bastar, and there must be a further engagement with the idea of killing informants: which the Maoists use as their own justification of murder, as the state would do with ‘national security,’ or ‘development’.

‘National security’ is ‘informant’ and ‘informant’ is ‘national security’. Rationalizations of murder is murder itself. We’re stuck in a time-warp of redundant language, and I often wonder how many times must the same thing be repeated until it is truth, as an edge of an axe, or a meaningless epitaph for a life that disappears to the sound of nothing.

It has become superfluous that every justification of murder and atrocity by the Maoists only seem to be in relation to state atrocities: ‘We’re sorry we burnt a train, but your government burns more trains,’ ‘We apologize for killing bystanders, but Mahendra Karma was a monster ’, ‘We don’t really apologize for killing a Salwa Judum foot soldier, but the Salwa Judum has burnt, looted, murdered and raped countless adivasis since 2004.’ Somehow it seems impossible for any introspection when one lives in relation to the violence of the ‘other.’

Sai Reddy, 51 year old journalist of Hindi-daily Deshbandu, was killed on his way from the Basaguda market on the 5th of December, 2013. A note by the South Regional Committee of the CPI (Maoist) claimed him to be an informer, a ‘reactionary journalist’, a murderer, a recruiter. But truth to the matter, he was no Mahendra Karma, nor was he a Brahmeshwar Singh of the Ranvir Sena who stood by his politics of bludgeoning to death countless Dalits who stood up for their rights in Bihar, whether it was in Bathani Tola or Laxmanpur-Bathe. Mahendra Karma was killed in retaliation to his politics and his identity, his opportunism, his own people, those ‘other’ adivasis, a contractor class, a class who has suffered the Maoists, which he held on, till his dying breath; as was Brahmeshwar Singh, executed on the street by two riding pillion on a motorcycle, the unofficial murderous prophet for the the landlord Bhumihars. Sai Reddy was a quiet man, who kept himself out of controversy, and often avoided meeting outsiders, and if he did he wouldn’t say what was already known. He faced the wrath of both a state that had charged and arrested him with the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act in 2008, and whose house in the town of Basaguda was burnt down in Basaguda in 2006. It was a block which was emptied and burnt down, in response to a Salwa Judum rally that led to killings and rapes in the nearby interior villages, that further led to an enraged adivasi population and Maoists to attack the block headquarters of Basaguda, which was mostly populated by non-adivasis and big farmers, leading to the death of four people.

It would be in 2009, that this block was rehabilitated after Supreme Court orders, and in June 28th of 2012, another massacre by the security forces was perpetrated in the village of Sarkeguda, a walk way from Basaguda. In 2009, I would watch Sai Reddy’s mother walk through the remnants of their broken down home, while others started to rebuild their lives, pledging that they would rather die at the hands of the state or the Maoists, then to leave again. But Reddy’s family knew that he wasn’t safe to live so far across the Talperu river, the unofficial line of control, lands that the CRPF would refer to Pakistan, where on some nights in a long past ago, abuses were hurled across the waters by passing Maoist cadres and the CRPF watchtowers: ‘Madharchod police’ vs. ‘Madharchod maovadi.’

That was 2009. Sai Reddy lived and worked with an axe over his head. What justifies a hit list, how does one get themselves off it once they are on? If Reddy felt the only way he could live in a world  on a hitlist, was to deny the Maoists an agenda, then is it not understandable if he even was an informant, or anti-Maoist? It doesn’t even matter. For Reddy had just recently begun to start talking about rebuilding his home at Basaguda, and a marked man doesn’t travel cognito through a war zone.

The press release would go on to accuse Sai Reddy of recruiting Special Police Officers, of arson, murder and of creating a spy network. If that was true, then Sai Reddy was the bravest journalist in the subcontinent, for unlike the people who actually recruited, murdered and created spy networks, who roam around with large entourages of armed men in Boleros and Sumos, Sai Reddy would walk alone, work alone, move alone. More so, did any of Reddy’s actions lead to the killing of innocent adivasis in Bijapur? Did the party ever try to engage with Reddy? If it did, why is it not mentioned in the Maoist communiqués justifying his murder?

Furthermore, is there any evidence to support that he was a threat? Every local journalist is usually an anti-Maoist reporter, because they live in the other side of the Stockholm Syndrome, in areas under control by the police, under their watchful eyes. What reports or information did Sai write or report that led to his murder, when everyone has to lie or keep quiet out of fear? Did his reports about local health and corruption bother the Maoists? His reports about the development of daily needs, were reactionary? If Sai Reddy was another journalist who wrote about the cosy and invisible relationship the Maoists held with contractors, does it justify death? Was Sai Reddy also being blackmailed out of a contract he held? Was it just another renegade local group who killed Sai Reddy for profit?

The Maoists are probably not going to stop killing people they deem informants, but they should try and be a little more intelligent or imaginative about bumping off journalists: ‘Javed Iqbal, was killed by our Dalam because he was a dolt, and we wanted to save the Chhattisgarh police the trouble.’ But the killing of Reddy is filled with nothing but lies and deadly clichés that relegate human beings to statistics, and outrage to a deafening disgust.

And after the murder of a journalist, it makes no sense to hear this from their statement trying to justify his death: “It is not a policy of the party to assassinate journalists who would write against us. We do not encourage any policy to jeopardize the independence of the media … rather we strongly support freedom of speech and the right to write.”

What’s the point of freedom of speech if you don’t respect the right to life?

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Those Damned Floods Destined to Obscurity

October 7, 2013

(158 of 197)The Aftermath of a flood: The house of Sundar Lal Varma at Chikalda village. A fisherman by trade, his house was entirely submerged on the 24th of August, 2013. He has received no compensation or help from the state as of the 2nd of October, 2013.

This article appears in The Sunday Guardian on the 6th of October, 2013

‘The mismanagement by the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to respond to the floods of the Narmada valley is indicative of their failures in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement itself. A state involved in Land Acquisition, doesn’t see citizens as much as they see Project-Affected Persons.

There were a series of floods across India in the past monsoon season, from Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal that did not make headlines like the Uttarakhand floods. But it was the recent flooding of the Narmada valley where politics and the nature of an administrative system revealed itself as completely unmotivated to respond to the man-made disaster. It was late at night when the Bhilala adivasi villagers from Morkata in the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh, realized something was wrong with the reservoir waters of the Narmada river on the 23rd of August, 2013. Water slowly started to seep through the doors of Kamal Chauhan’s house, over a kilometre away from the river, and within two hours, he and his family would be in water just over their necks, carrying whatever belongings they had, to higher ground.

On the other side of the Narmada river at Chikalda, a Valmiki hamlet on a hill overlooking 60 feet above the normal levels of the river, would disappear completely on the 24th of August. The homes of Munu Hussain, Munu Vijay, Munu Nana, Munu Kamal, and Antim Munuram were completely destroyed, and while the caste system took them across the villages to clear all the carcasses of livestock littering the landscape, the state that completely ignored them led their resilience to rebuild on their own, with the remnants of anything that wasn’t destroyed. ‘Nine of our pigs were taken away by the waters,’ Said Munu Hussain, with callused hands, clearing debris over his home, ‘We found their bodies four days later, they got stuck in the bushes and drowned.’

The waters started to rise at around 8pm at Chikalda and would reach their highest level at 10pm, and unlike previous floods, the waters did not recede for days. 115 homes would be destroyed, but for one family on the Valmiki hamlet who earn their living cleaning 12 nearby towns, Suresh, Mahesh and Rajesh Babulal, along with Rekha and her mother Gulshan bai, it wasn’t any different from the flood waters three weeks earlier on the 2nd of August, or last year, or in 2010, or in 1994, when the Tava dam water’s had destroyed their home.

At Picchodi village in Badwani district, the illegal sand mining at the banks of the river, that led villagers a month ago to stop dozens of trucks and ensure the arrest of the few involved, were further dealt with the fury of the waters to enter through the broken banks, mined into a soft flatbed, letting the flood waters turn a road into a river that ran through the village, ensuring hundreds of acres of crop would be fated to destruction.

The village of Nisarpur on the other side of the river, with thousands of homes, shops, with mosques, temples and a thriving market, had water levels rise slowly over three days, as the Ori tributary of Narmada started to rise on the 23rd, and continued to, on the 25th, entirely submerging hundreds of shops and destroying over 105 homes.

Apart from the local media, there was absolutely nothing written in the mainstream national press, besides a few short reports on floods up the river in Gujarat, barring exceptions from the independent media organizations. A whole week after the destruction at Nisarpur, only one Revenue Officer had showed up towards the hamlets most affected by the backwater floods of the Ori tributary of the Narmada. Dozens of families in Dhangarpara of Nisarpur were living in the private schools of village until they were kicked out a week later. The village of Morkata was given 50 kilograms of wheat as relief, only after they stormed the collector’s office at Badwani. By the second of September, angry villagers from across the region began their march against the administration, in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district as well as Badwani, Alirajpur and Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, while at the same time up the river, the Jal Satyagraha began by those facing displacement by the Omakeshwar dam demanding fair rehabilitation and resettlement, especially land for land, house plot for house plot, agricultural land for agricultural land, and yet the administration responded by  ordering curfews and preventive arrests. This matter at least made some ripples in the mainstream media. For those affected by the recent floods, an oft-repeated response they had received from tehsildars office to tehsildars office, was that the land is already acquired, and therefore Panchanama’s of the damage caused by the submergence couldn’t be done. This led the villagers to file legal notices against the officials to ensure that all the damages are recorded in the ‘Revenue Book Circular (RBC) Rules and the oustees are duly compensated, which as of October 2nd, is yet to be done.

The decades –old project of the Sardar Sarover Dam on the river Narmada (amongst 18 other dams in different levels of completion on the river), according to the website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, would claim to provide for hydroelectricity generating over 1200 MW and 250 MW power to three states, would irrigate 18.45 lakhs of hectares of land, covering 3,112 villages in Gujarat, 2,46,000 hectares of desert land in Rajasthan and 37,500 hectares on the tribal hills of Maharashtra.  Yet it is a prime example of an attempt at a utilitarian philosophy gone wrong, where the benefit of the majority over the few, is an almost iconoclastic destruction of democratic values, when the few (in and around 3 lakh people as per 2011 census) are not even paid attention to, as those in the submergence areas of the dam, are condemned to an absent administration, a horrific level of corruption in the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policy, as well as the further risk of the dam’s height increasing from 122.92 metres to 138.68 metres, which will further submerge over 245 villages. Looking at the calmer waters of Narmada from the home of fisherman Sundarlal Verma of Chikalda village, one can see that if the dam height were to be raised to 138.68 metres, the destruction of the village would be complete, as the floods that devoured his home happened as the water level was height of 129.44 metres.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra ModI has been vocal about raising the dam’s height over the past few months, and was promised ‘co-operation’ by the Prime Minister’s office. His website NarendraModi.in, has a wonderful post of the dam overflowing at 129.44 metres on the 2nd of August, described as a ‘breathtaking sight’, when at the same time the Valmiki hamlet of Chikalda would be submerged for the first time this monsoon season, when the overflowing dam’s backwaters were as breathtaking as the destruction of their homes.

The Narmada river was a violent force in the month of August and again in late September, destroying thousands of homes, stranding whole villages, in the district of Bharuch and Ankleshwar in Gujarat, that led to the army and the airforce to conduct rescue operations. The death toll in August by some reports was above 106 people. Yet in the submergence areas, the state had provided little to no relief, to thousands of destroyed crop, and countless homes that were washed away when the backwaters flooded over the hills of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, until the villagers from over 106 villages from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra marched to the offices of the respective Tehsils and demanded answers. They even challenged the state’s complete lack of disaster management, even as the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited’s, Flood Memorandum of 2013, a 558 document with every officials mobile number, from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh, of the Engineers, to the managers of the Narmada Project, to emergency services, was released ‘for official use’ months before the floods, compiled by the Superintendent Engineer of the Narmada Project Design Circle, based out of Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

The response of the state of Madhya Pradesh, has convinced angry villagers after angry villagers, that the state is just trying to forcibly displace them, a perception, whether justified or not, has still created an angry population living on rumours that the raising of the dam, to the vagaries of the canal system, is to provide water for the upcoming 90 billion dollar project, the Mumbai Delhi Industrial Corridor. And they may have a other reasons to by suspicious of their state. Since 2008, the project authorities of three states submitted to the Narmada Control Authority that the project-affected persons from each of the three states, is ‘0’, and the NCA has accepted those figures.

The risks of yearly floods, compounded with the mistrust with the state’s rehabilitation policy can be explained with the story of just one farmer: Ramsingh Ghedia, a Bhilala farmer, who had lived in the village of Pichodi until the year 2000, when rising water levels from the Sardar Sarover dam compelled him to accept one installment of compensation. He was told by the state that the dam would be helping thousands of farmers in Gujarat and Rajasthan, as they would be supplied irrigated water. He moved over 40 kilometres away into Madeel Panchayat, where his family purchased four acres of land, which are now lost because the Narmada Valley Development Authority has excavated the massive main canal of the Indira Sagar Project, and have dumped massive amounts of debris onto it.

In Morakta, a public hearing with the Bhilala adivasis indicated clear enough how outsiders had managed to rent homes in the village, and take compensation, how land registrars were filled with people who didn’t exist. All of this was brought to light to the Jabalpur High Court, that constituted the Justice Jha Commission of Inquiry on the 21st of August, 2008. The Commission conducted field visits to Nisarpur and Chikalda in 2009, and it found villagers more than willing to talk about how they were approached by agents, asked to bribe, and how those that were eligible landholders, would be deemed ineligible, as they couldn’t afford to pay.

The Inquiry is now in its fifth year, and the raising of the water levels and the recent floods, would stand in violation of the Supreme Court’s order that until the rehabilitation is complete, no homes or properties can be submerged. Land and livelihood based rehabilitation was guaranteed by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, Rehabilitation policy and the judgements of the Supreme Court of 15th October, 2000, and 15th March, 2005, yet the demands of the villagers across the region for cultivable agricultural land remain unheard. The Justice Jha Commission would further find that at five rehabilitation sites at Badwani and Dhar, the civic amenities were more than lack, considering they couldn’t get their own water bottles filled, as there were no working handpumps, water tanks were incomplete and taps were constructed over missing pipelines. They found families living in the schools and dispensaries of Pichodi. Across Badwani, the rehabilitation sites for Pichodi, or Morkata, or at Dhar, at Nisarpur or Chikalda, only those who belong to a contractor class, or with a higher purchasing power, were able to shift to the new plots of land.

Meanwhile, just as the villagers from the Narmada Valley marched to government offices demanding compensation for the dam-induced floods and fair rehabilitation in the first week of September, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, had lobbied for his amendments on the recent Land Bill, which were approved by the Prime Minister, which specifically focuses on the un-feasability of ‘land for land’ rehabilitation, and for the deletion of the clause that when land would be acquired for irrigation projects, the affected families would be given monetary compensation and land for land.

And isn’t going to impress Subhram Patel, a 70 year old Bhilala farmer from Morkata, with 25 acres of land for his family, who is yet to be compensated for his agricultural land, and whose village was flooded when the dam waters were raised, ‘I had showed them all my documents, why didn’t they give me my land?’

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A Short History Of Death And Madness in Bastar

July 8, 2012

A young boy outside Basaguda police station in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh.

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

The list of villages are endless. Operation Green Hunt was only the second phase, Operation Hakka and Vijay are only new names to an old war. But the names of villages touched by war can sometimes repeat themselves. Gompad, Singaram, Gacchanpalli, Lingagiri, Nendra, Rajpenta, Tatemargu,Tadmetla, Vechapalli, Gaganpalli, Kottacheru, Maraigudem, Pallecharma, Munder, Pollampalli, Kotrapal, Burgil, Bhejji, Goomiyapal, Hiroli, Jangla, Dhampenta, Hariyal Cherli, Karremarka, Mankelli, Sameli, Regadgatta, Pusnar: these are just a few villages where adivasis have been killed in the last 8 years in undivided Bastar district, with testimonies collected by journalists and anthropologists and political activists whose own list was submitted as petitions to the Supreme Court.

Since 2004-2005, the Salwa Judum rallies conducted themselves completely out of sight and out of mind like they did in Basaguda block.

From the testimonies of the villagers themselves, ‘On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the CRPF visited Basaguda and stuck posters that said that a Salwa Judum meeting is going to be held at Avapalli on the 1st of January, 2006, and if the villagers do not turn up, they shall be called Naxalites. We attended the meeting on the 1st of January 2006. We were told that, if those who are members of the Sangam (village-level Naxalite groups) do not surrender right away, all of us will be killed. Nine of the villagers who were not members of the Sangam were forcefully made to admit that they were members of the Sangam. After this, we stayed till the meeting ended and came back to our village. After some days, on the 21st of February 2006, the Salwa Judum workforce came to Basaguda and asked us to deliver a speech against the Naxalites, and those who would not, would be deemed as a Naxalite.

Two days later, villagers from (names withheld) were made to carry out a rally at Lingagiri, Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, Borguda, where many houses were burnt, people were beaten and many women were raped. Out of rage, a few days after the rally, the Naxalites came to Basaguda on the fifth of March, 2006 at 9pm. They attacked the villagers and killed four people. The villagers then went to the police station to file a report, and after the post-mortem of the deceased, they returned back across the river. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and CRPF came and beat us, grabbed us from our necks and took us to the camps on the other side of the river, where we were kept for two months, and the mistreatment continued.’

Three years after that, with the help of a Supreme Court order that gave the villagers the right to go back home, did the villagers from Basaguda block return back, to live in a tentative peace that was shattered by the killing of 18 people in Sarkeguda on the 28th of July, this year. In 2010, Basaguda block was hit by a ‘cholera’/dysentry epidemic that claimed more than sixty lives. Those who never went back to their homes in Chhattisgarh still continue to face violence in Andhra. Just recently, on the 2nd of July, another IDP settlement was destroyed by the Forest Department in Khammam.

The state has never shied away from geography of murder: everyone who lives beyond a certain village, further into the forests is a potential Naxalite and can be killed. The mandarins of the mainstream media can call it collateral damage when they’re confronted by overwhelming evidence of an unjustified killing. And at the same time, they’ve never taken themselves into the civil war whose brutality raged for six years in complete silence, until Herr Chidambaram would finally make his exhortations of development, and the Tadmetla massacre of 76 jawaans had journalists in newsrooms wondering where is Dantewada.

‘Did any journalist come to the village the last time it was burnt down? I had asked the villagers of Badepalli of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh.

‘No.’ They said.

‘Did any human rights activists come?’

‘No.’

‘Did any lawyer, or anyone from Manish Kunjam’s party, (Communist Party of India) come?’

‘No.’

‘How many homes were burnt down that time?’

‘All.’ Said the Sarpanch, ‘But this time, only two survived.’

The above conversation took place in the village of Badepalli, in Kuakonda block of Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh in May, 2009, a few days after the village was burnt down by security forces for the second time in five years. The first time was in the summer of 2006 when it didn’t even make a statistic, while violence was perpetrated by both the state and the Maoists on a daily basis. The second time in the summer of 2009.

This too, in an area where the government exempted around 108 villages from the 2010 survey due to inaccessibility of terrain and ‘prevention by the Maoists.’

Its existence, forget its burning, did not exist as a statistic, nor did it exist as an complaint against the police in any charge-sheet, or in any of the petitions that were filed in the Supreme Court.

So how many villages were really burnt down in undivided Bastar district by the Salwa Judum or the security forces when there was a chance that some were never even counted, and many were burnt down more than once? How many people were really killed in those eight years?

What is rarely mentioned in mainstream debates is the extent of violence perpetrated against the local population, starting from the mass forceful displacement by the Salwa Judum where village after village was burnt down, and people were forcefully driven into ‘resettlement camps’. There are thousands of testimonies of the same, that are repeatedly and categorically denied by the state of Chhattisgarh, who once, in a moment of pride a few years ago, mentioned that 644 villages were ‘liberated’ from the Maoists and its inhabitants were now living in the camps supporting the Salwa Judum movement. That is 644 villages, whose villagers were driven away from their homes and taken into camps. Then there were the Matwada Camp killings where three men had their eye sockets smashes by SPOs.

And burnings preceded killings, and killings preceded burnings.

Fifteeen killed in Gaganpalli. Ten killed in Nendra. A man talks about his brother from Kottacheru who was killed by the CRPF. ‘He was shot in the stomach, his shit was all over the place.’

Of course, Salwa Judum backfired, Maoist recruitment rose. Then came Operation Greenhunt.

Nine killed in Gompad. Five killed in Gacchanpalli. Three killed in Pallecharma. Six killed in Goomiyapal. Two killed a few months later in Goomiyapal. One fiteen year old boy killed again a few months later.

Seven killed in Tatemargu. Two killed in Pallodi on the same day. Ask the villagers about what happened five years ago, and again they would talk about the dead and murdered.  Sarkeguda, the epicentre of Chhattisgarh’s newest atrocity of the year, was burnt down in 2005. Their memories don’t fade. Last year when Tademetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram was burnt down, it was not the first time they were attacked. Sodi Nanda s/o Adma  of Tadmetla was killed by the security forces in 2007.  Barse Lakma s/o Bhima of Morpalli was going for ration at Chintalnar market when he was picked up by the security forces two years ago.

From Phulanpad village where Barse Bhima and Manu Yadav were killed last year, around three years ago, Aimla Sukka (20) s/o Chola and Aimla Joga (20) s/o Choma were killed when their village was raided by security forces.

The memory of violence in Chhattisgarh stays in the present tense. But how will the rest of the world beyond Dantewada remember something it never knew? Earlier there was silence, now the Murdochian media calls the dead collateral damage. When will the casualties of war be robbed of their gravestones, those nouns: Maoists, Maoist supporters, SPOs, Salwa Judum leaders, adivasis, CRPF jawaans, when will we start talking about killing itself as the war crime, and not who was killed? This is a war of attrition, a dance of death, a class war to some, yet the greatest inhumanity is to believe this is a war someone will win.

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Journalist Rito Paul from DNA has also visited the site of the latest killing with Kopa Kunjam, who worked to rehabilitate the villages in Basaguda block but would eventually be arrested for murder of a man who the Maoists had killed and who Kopa had tried to save. Rito’s report and the people’s reaction to meeting Kopa is here

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‘Even if they don’t let us settle here..’

May 4, 2012

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 4th of May, 2012.

Conflict and displacement in Bastar leads to deprivation and forest loss in neighbouring Khammam.

Around 43 families from the villages of Millampalli, Simalpenta, Raygudem, Darba and Singaram in Dantewada District, lost their makeshift homes for the second time in three months in the Mothe Reserve Forest of Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh on the 26th of March, 2012, when the Forest Department, mandated to protect the forests, would evict them using force.

A large number of families are Internally Displaced Persons who’ve escaped the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict of Dantewada and have lived in Khammam as informal labour.

Most originated from Millampalli, that was burnt down by the Salwa Judum in 2006 and Maoists have killed at least three people – Sodi Dola, Komaram Muthaiya and Madkam Jogaiya in the past ten years. Another resident of Millampalli, Dusaru Sodi, used to be a member of the Maoist Sangam but would eventually become a Special Police Officer who witnesses from Tadmentla and Morpalli alleged was present during the burnings of the villages or Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram in March of 2011 by security forces. His name again re-appeared in testimonies by victims of rape, submitted to the National Commission of Women and the Supreme Court by Anthropologist Nandini Sundar.

Madvi Samaiya and Madvi Muthaiya from the village of Raygudem were also killed by the Maoists.

In Simalpenta, the Sarpanch’s brother Kurra Anda was killed by the Maoists in 2006.

In Singaram, an alleged encounter that took place on the 9th of January of 2009, where 19 adivasis were killed by security forces as alleged Maoists.

In Khammam, most of the IDPs/migrants have worked as informal labour during the mircchi cutting season, earning around Rs.100 per day and live off their savings in the summer season when there is no work, and little access to water to a majority of the settlements. The Muria from Chhattisgarh, or the Gotti Koya as they are known in Andhra along with Koyas from Chhattisgarh, have been in a struggle to appropriate the Reserve Forest land of Khammam for podu cultivation, often leading the Forest Department to evict them, aware that the entire forest cover is turning into a ‘honeycomb,’ as described by the DFO Shafiullah, who pointed out to satellite imagery of a pockmarked forest in Khammam, in 2010 itself.

The influx of migrants and Displaced persons has even led to conflicts with local adivasi Koya tribes over land and resources, sometimes leading to deadly clashes, such as an incident in Mamallivaye in Aswapuram Mandal where the local Koya burned down the homes of the Gotti Koya, or in Kamantome settlement in 2009 where one man would be killed as a Maoist by the police after an erroneous tip-off from the neighbouring village of migrants who had settled before the civil war.

Recently the Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Forest and Environment, published a controversial report that almost exonerates mining and land acquisition yet claimed that over 367 square kilometres of forest has been lost since 2009, pushing Khammam district to one of the worst affected districts where 182 square kilometres of forest cover have been lost.

In a recorded conversation between an activist and Home Minister P.Chidambaram during the first months of Operation Green Hunt in late 2009, when repeated combing operations in Dantewada/Bijapur led to further influx’s of IDPs into Andhra Pradesh, the activist Himanshu Kumar had urged P.Chidambaram to look into the plight of the IDPs and the migrants yet his claims were refuted by the Home Minister as an exaggeration.

Yet there have been many recent reports of IDPs from the previously independently estimated 203 settlements who have returned back to their villages owing to a decline in the frequency of combing operations and violent actions in their villages in Chhattisgarh and further difficulty to settle in Andhra Pradesh. After the villages of Nendra, Lingagiri and Basaguda block were rehabilitated with the help of NGOs and activists using Supreme Court orders, many others have simply moved back to their villages on their own accord, including those of Kistaram, Uskowaya, Kanaiguda, Mullempanda, Gompad and Gaganpalli, to mention a few. Both Gompad, and Gaganpalli have faced a large number of killings – nine people were killed in Gompad on the 1st of October, 2009 by security forces, and in the village of Gaganpalli, from where one of the leaders of the Salwa Judum originates, ten people were killed in 2006 during the burning of the village by the Salwa Judum.

While the Forest Survey of India Report 2011 has put the blame on leftwing extremists for massive deforestation in Khammam, the villages of Millampalli repeatedly exhorted and listed all the violent actions by the Maoists in their villages in Chhattisgarh. In fact, one of the most educated villagers of the settlement, Komaram Rajesh, is the brother of a Special Police Officer and has repeatedly claimed that the Salwa Judum didn’t oppress his people, often denying that his village was burnt down by the Salwa Judum, when the rest of his neighbours said it was indeed the Salwa Judum.

Beyond conflict with the Forest Department, other tribes, the Salwa Judum and the Maoists, another conflict takes place within settlements themselves where a growing tendency to cut down a large number of the forests for podu cultivation, has brought individuals in conflict with their own villagers who feel there should be more moderate felling of trees. Certain settlments cultivate rice without cutting larger trees while others have destroyed acres of forests.

‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’ A man from Kamantome once exhorted during a summer season when there was little access to food, or water for the settlement.

Ironically, in Millampalli, one of the men killed by the Maoists, Kumaram Muthaiya, was killed in 2002 because he refused to share his 70 acres of land with other villagers.

A Shrinking Space

Land alienation for the all the adivasi tribes of Khammam isn’t a new phenomena, and was adequately studied by late civil servant J. M. Girglani, who had commented in his report that, ‘The most atrocious violation of the LTR (Land Transfer Regulation) and regulation 1 of 70 is that all the lands in Bhadrachalam Municipal town and the peripheral urbanized and urbanizable area is occupied by non-tribals with commercial buildings, hotels, residential buildings, colleges including an engineering college. The market value of this land on an average is Rs.4,000/- per square yard. This was confirmed to me not only by local enquiry but also by responsible District officers. This would work out to about 5,000 crores worth of land, which should have been the property of the tribals. It is now the property of the non-tribals and is commercially used by them.’

Just two kilometres away from land that was meant to belong to the adivasis, is the latest Koya settlement that was destroyed by the Forest Department.

‘They (the Forest Department) destroyed our homes in January, and in February, and they came in March and even took away all the wood we used to make our homes. Now, we will rebuild our homes and if they come again and destroy them, we will rebuild them again.’ Said Komaram Rajesh of the village of Millampalli.

Villagers alleged that Forest Guards held them down and beat them on the soles of their feet, asking them why they had settled in the forest, and who had pointed them out to this patch of the forest. One man embarassing recollected in humour as his neighbours laughed, that one of the Gaurds threathened him saying, ‘ghaand mein mirrchi ghussa doonga.’

Officials would arrive a day later to convince all the Koyas, to leave the Reserve Forest but the residents protested. When the tractor arrived to carry away all the timber that was being used to make their homes, the adivasis willingly piled the timber onto the seat of the tractor, threathening to burn it down but refrained.

‘Even if they don’t let us settle here, we will manage somehow.’ Continued Komaram Rajesh.

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A Constitution’s Dead Army

April 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, a retired armyman’s body was being dragged by a police jeep as his adivasi brethren, armed with bows and arrows, helplessly tried to stop the convoy but were fired upon and chased away.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 9th of April, 2012.

Gangaram Kalundia was bayonneted in the police van, and then dragged across the village, for speaking for the rights of his people, and there was never any prosecutions against the police for his murder.

Gangaram was an adivasi of the Ho tribe, who joined the army when he was 19 years old, fought in the war of 1965 and the war of 71 as part of the Bihar Regiment, and had risen to the rank of Junior officer.

He voluntarily retired and returned home to find that his village Illigara in Chaibasa of West Singhbhum of Jharkhand (then Bihar), along with some 110 other villages would be submerged due to the Kuju dam project, that was funded by the World Bank.

He would organize his people to fight for their fundamental rights against displacement and the project exactly thirty years ago, to only be brutally murdered by the police early in the morning on the 4th of April, 1982.

‘This is where we placed stones to stop the convoy that had Gangaram,’ Said Tobro, then 14 years old, now pointing to a small woodland by the roadside, ‘and this is where we were, with bows and arrows, but the police fired upon us and chased us away.’

While Gangaram Kalundia was killed in 1982, a long agitation had still sustained itself, that had often driven people like Tobro underground, aware that the police were rounding people up. Surendra Biduili, 52, was a part of the agitation against the dam, and the eventual victory in 1991 when, ‘the World Bank withdrew the money.’

‘Their reports said that the dam would only submerge lands that had paddy,’ he continued, ‘but it was a lie, we were cultivating vegetables as well.’

It was much later when Gangaram had become a symbol for oppurtunistic politics, and his shaheed divas, would be attended by every other political party, or as Surendra would say, ‘First everyone used to be afraid to mention Gangaram’s name, now all the parties of contractors and dalaals come for his shaheed divas.’

In The Thousands

Gangaram Kalundia was not the only adivasi leader killed for representing the rights of people. Just a few kilometres away from Chaibasa, across the Sal tree forest, is the village of Bandgaon, where Lalsingh Munda was killed in broad daylight in the market on the 1st of November 1983. His concerns were that sacred grounds were being used by non-tribals and contractors as a waste dump.

‘You travel by bus to Chaibasa, well, back then, people used to get off the bus to piss into the sacred grounds.’ Said Phillip Kujur, a member of JMACC (Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee).

Phillip Kujur was also associated with Lalit Mehta who was brutally murdered in Palamau in May 2008, Niyamat Ansari who was killed by the Maoists in Latehar District on the 2nd of March, 2011, and on the 29th of December, 2011, Pradip Prasad was killed by PLFI extremists in the village of Mukka, Latehar.

Sister Valsa who fought for the adivasis in Pachuwara in Pakur District of Jharkhand was murdered on the 15th of November, 2011.

The roads in adivasi villages are punctuated with memorials for fallen leaders and activists.

The office for NGO Birsa in Chaibasa has a memorial stone with other names: Vahaspati Mahto killed in 1977 in Purulia, Shaktinath Mahto killed in 1977 at Dhanbad , Ajit Mahto killed in 1982 at Tiraldih, Beedar Nag killed in 1983 at Gua, Ashwini Kumar Savaya killed in 1984 in Chaibasa, Anthony Murmu killed in 1985 at Banjhi, Nirmal Mahto killed in 1986 at Jamshedpur, Devendra Mahji killed in 1994 in Goilkera. The memorial ends with the sentence, ‘anaam shaheed….hazaaron mein.’ (Unknown Martyrs, in the thousands)

‘When I was young,’ Said Phillip, ‘I was travelling with two veteran activists, who kept pointing to village after village saying, ‘here’s where another cadre of ours was killed’, and there I was, another man they trained to fight for people’s rights. Finally, I turned to them and asked, ‘you taught all these people how to fight, but did you teach them how to stay alive?’

In recent times, K Singanna, one of the first organizers of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District of Odisha was shot thrice in his back in a police firing incident on the 20th of November, 2009. Since then, another leader Nachika Linga has been living underground in fear of arrest, or death, as posters calling for him to be caught ‘dead or alive’ were posted all over Narayanpatna after the firing. Both individuals were responsible for organizing the Kondh adivasis to claim their rights as per the Fifth Schedule, to free themselves as bonded labourers on their own land.

In Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Muria and Koya adivasis committed to taking the cause of their people via rallies, writ petitions, and organizing them to fight peacefully for their rights, have almost all been arrested as alleged Maoists. Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA, has faced repeated death threats and his own cadre, responsible for working in the villages, have been in and out of jail.

On International Labour Day, the 1st of May, 2008, in Kalinganagar Industrial Park of Jajpur, Odisha, one of the leaders of the Anti-displacement group, Dabar Kalundia was attacked outside the gates of the Rohit Ferrotech Steel Plant and escaped, but Omin Banara (51) was killed.

In Memory of Gangaram

‘They all talk about Gangaram, but they don’t care about his wife.’

Birangkui Kalundia, widow of Gangaram, lost her only daughter when she was giving birth to her grandchild. She was widowed by the state, and her daughter would be another statistic to those 80,000 women who die every year due to childbirth.

Her brother-in-law, would also cut ties with her, often dividing the produce of Gangaram’s 15 acres for himself, leaving her out with nothing, and after his death, she moved out of the village his husband fought for, to move in with her new caretakters, her nephew and his wife, where she lives with a quiet pride to this day.

She still holds onto the medals won by her husband, the citation for his President’s Medal,  speaking in soft tones unforgivingly about the men who killed her husband, coming to terms with injustice in this life, to a hope for justice in the next.