Monday, 13 December 2010

Aruna's Keepers

Last Saturday, Aruna Shanbag, a former employee of KEM Hospital, Mumbai, completed 37 years as its ‘baby’. This is the story of the nurses and doctors at KEM who have taken care of one of their own ever since that fateful evening of 27 November 1973 when Aruna was raped and strangulated by a ward boy.

Jyoti Motilal Shrivastava was a young, 20-year-old, first-year nursing student at KEM Hospital in Mumbai, when she had her first introduction to the hospital’s ‘baby’. The woman on the bed had long black hair and smooth fair skin. A constant low-shrill whine emanated from her, but even then Jyoti couldn’t help thinking that she was indeed as beautiful as she had been told. Aruna Shanbag looked up at her with restless eyes. “I remember getting mad at God for having left her in that condition,” she says. Today, Jyoti is 58 years old and the matron of the hospital. Many nurses have come and gone during her tenure. Like her, every one of them is made to meet Aruna, who is introduced as the hospital’s ‘baby’.

On the evening of 27 November 1973, 25-year-old staff nurse Aruna had finished her duty hours. She had then gone to the basement of the Cardio-Vascular Thoracic Centre building of KEM Hospital to change her clothes. Several hours later, she was found unconscious inside the tiny room, bleeding from her vagina and anus. She had been raped by a ward boy, Sohanlal. A dog chain tied around her neck during the rape had asphyxiated her, cutting off blood supply to her brain. Aruna turned into a vegetable overnight, and continues in that state. She is 62 years old now, but has no knowledge of the time elapsed. Rare stretches of facial muscles reveal a possible smile, and a faint whimper is heard now and then in the narrow corridor of the ward on the hospital’s ground floor. The whimper is a sign for the nurses to check on her. The hospital authorities are protective of her; nobody other than doctors and nurses on duty are allowed into her room, which is locked from outside. The media has been kept at bay. Hospital dean Dr Sanjay Oak says, “We ought to give her the space she deserves.”

Despite her condition, Aruna is healthy. Says Shrivastava, “She has no ailment usually associated with someone in her sixties—no high blood pressure or diabetes, no loss of appetite or wrinkled skin. She doesn’t even have a single bed sore!” Aruna has a diet of chicken thrice a week. She also has an appetite for eggs. She says, “Dede, dede...” while being fed her daily quota of two eggs, Shrivastava says. It is only in recent years that her food is being ground to a thin paste—because all her teeth have been extracted. She turns her face away when she is fed any sweetmeat. She has a strange dislike for water, and spits it back at the nurse when goaded to sip some.

“The urinary tract of a patient can get infected if the catheter is used beyond a certain period. Also, it would be extremely uncomfortable for Aruna if she’s made to wear adult diapers. So she just wears the hospital’s patient uniform—shirt and pyjama. She cries when she has urinated or passed stools. We let her soil her clothes and bed linen, and then after a sponge with warm water, followed by a spray of some talcum powder, Aruna is made to wear a new set of clothes,” says Leny Cornelio, 55, who was sister-in-charge of the ward until two months ago. “Not a single nurse or even a grade IV employee of the hospital will ever complain about the amount of work s/he has to do to take care of Aruna.”

The hospital staff working the ward know exactly when Aruna is being bathed every morning. “She is extremely averse to bathing. Not a single day has passed in these many years when Aruna has not cried out loud while she is being sponged,” says Cornelio, who still visits Aruna after her day’s work.

Before she falls asleep for the night, a nurse runs her oil-dipped fingers through the tiny gray stubs that are Aruna’s hair. There has been not a single visitor from Aruna’s hometown in Karnataka for several years now. The resident doctor who was her fiancĂ© waited for four years in the vain hope that Aruna would become normal again. He finally gave up, got married and has not returned to check on her. For doctors at KEM, memories of Aruna through the years run long. Dr Ravindra Bapat still remembers the weight on his arms as he carried Aruna’s limp body out of the basement on that evening of 1973.

On the day that she retired two months ago, Cornelio went to meet Aruna. “I told her ‘I will come to meet you on your birthday next year, on 1 June.’ She heard my words and began to cry. She may have so many things to tell us! I visit her daily, but honestly, I pray that she is blessed with natural death soon.”

Monday, 30 August 2010

'Maoists are not terrorists'

Once upon a time, there was a king who oppressed his subjects. A century and another king later, nothing changed. One young peasant decided to oppose the king's tyranny, but was killed by the king's men. The onlooking angry subjects began an armed revolt. Several decades of toil and oppression finally kicked off the throne. Democracy set in, and the people lived happily ever after. Almost.

This incomplete fairytale is that of Nepal, and portraying its colourful history since the time of Prithvi Narain Shah's rule in 1770, is Anand Swaroop Verma's documentary film Flames Of The Snow. The film depicts the chain of events and circumstances that led to the people's movement under the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). What's interesting is that unlike the gory images of ideological violence in our country that pepper the news channels' prime time, this film details the ideological basis of the revolution. It also includes an interview of Maoist supremo Prachanda, describing the genesis of the armed movement in 1996. As Verma puts it, "The revolution was under threat as there was enough international funding to douse the fire. There was only a distorted image of the struggle. Being a journalist who had covered the revolution since its inception in the 90s, I knew that there was a different truth which had to be shown to the world." Until last year, Verma was writing for the Hindi daily Jansatta.

Verma's book Rongpa Se Dolpa Tak was one of the first voices of the movement — it documented the genesis of the movement in Rongpa, and how it evolved by the time it reached Dolpa. Understandably, his name was not new for Nepalese households and the crew got access to shoot in the thickest jungles infested by Maoists.

Wouldn't it have been simpler for a filmmaker rather than a journalist to make this film? Director and editor Ashish Shrivastava presents a contemporary analogy: "The media sporadically gives us statistics about the growing number of farmer suicides, but does not delve deeper into the reasons. Verma was clear in his head about the reasons why the Maoist revolution had such a strong support base among the working class in Nepal. In fact, when we went there to shoot, everyone from the waiter to the hotel's bellboy was a Maoist. The essence of the film is the ideology, and not the violence." Both Verma and Shrivastava are sure that they may not be able to make a similar film about the current Red revolution in India.

It was at Shrivastava's behest that Verma scripted the film. Not surprisingly, interviews with historians and activists dot the 125-minute movie. But as Shrivastava puts it, "Not a single scene is longer that four seconds at a stretch. I was sure about Verma's thorough groundwork. My only concern was the narrative. The film had to look interesting. After all, we were dealing with a very interesting subject. And certain events have been dramatised." A unique feature of the revolution, which has been captured in the film, is that women comprised 40 per cent of Maoist cadres.

Filmed over a period of three years, Flames Of The Snow was banned by the Indian Censor Board in June this year.

Their reason? "Any justification or romanticisation of the Maoist ideology of extremism or of violence, coercion, intimidation in achieving its objectives would not be in the public interest, particularly keeping in view the recent Maoist violence in some parts of the country." Eventually, the ban was lifted last month by a Revising Committee of the Censor Board, without any deletions, but with a disclaimer added that the substance of the film had been compiled from various media publications.

Ironically, a scene from the film showing the burning of Israeli and American flags by Palestinians was deleted during its screening in Nepal, as the Nepal government's foreign policy is to maintain good relations with all nations.

The big question: Will Flames Of The Snow impact the revolution in India? "The Nepalese had to fight the monarchy. Indian Maoists are fighting the illegal grabbing of natural resources by MNCs. But it is tough to talk about the influence of the Nepal experiment in India," says Verma, choosing his words carefully. He knows that the film will be watched in India widely —if not among the masses, then surely among the IB, which keeps a tab on every person who may utter the 'red' word. Till then, Verma is confident that he will be able to reply to any query from any audience which has been taught to believe that Maoists are terrorists.

Flames Of The Snow will be screened on Aug 30 at Prithvi 
House at 6 pm and on Sept 1 at TISS (old campus) at 6.15 pm

Sunday, 22 August 2010

God drives this Dantewada bus

(This article first appeared in The Crest Edition - The Times of India, on August 21, 2010) 

Ganesh Singh runs the only bus that traverses the dreaded Maoist route between Chintalnar and Dornapal in Dantewada. Bizarrely enough, this is the third time he has tried to make a living in a terror zone — in Assam during the Ulfa strife, in Punjab just after Op Blue Star, and now in Chhattisgarh

Around 7 am each day, the fragrance of incense sticks fills a white bus stationed in Chintalnar village in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. In the driver’s seat, Ganesh Singh, 60, softly chants a prayer and garlands a photograph of Hindu deities placed on a ledge below the windscreen.

"Each day, I just take God’s name and drive the bus out of Chintalnar. I never know if it will return in the evening," says Singh, the owner of the bus. For several years, he has been plying the only possible vehicle between Chintalnar and Dornapal town — a distance of 45 km. Even vehicles from the six CRPF camps which dot that stretch don’t dare hit the broken road. In Chintalnar, a savage death can come to anyone any moment.

The bus run by Singh and his three sons is the only mode of transport available to those going to Dornapal town. The distance isn’t much; it would perhaps take just an hour to traverse this even on a potholed Indian road. But this stretch takes four hours.

The road on which Singh makes a living is about five feet wide and has been dug up at several points, leaving huge boulders scattered around. Maoists often park fallen tree trunks on the stretch to obstruct passing vehicles. If a CRPF vehicle halts to remove the log, it gives the Maoists enough time to launch a full-scale attack. Worse, the road is layered with several hidden landmines that the Maoists can trigger at will. They have strategically positioned themselves in the deep jungles on either side of the road.

The bus leaves Chintalnar at 7 am and picks up passengers — mostly adivasis — along the way and reaches Dornapal by 11 am. It begins its journey back around 3 pm.

Interestingly, by some quirk of fate, this is the third time Singh has managed to land up in a troubled zone to earn a living. Originally from a village in Uttar Pradesh, he went to Assam as a young boy in search of a job in the tea gardens. What followed is a truly remarkable series of coincidences.

"A few years after I was in Assam, the Ulfa (United Liberation Front of Assam) launched its agitation against outsiders. There was no point going back home because repeated cycles of bad weather had made farming untenable for me. So I headed for Punjab. But then came Operation Blue Star. So I came to Chhattisgarh. I would buy vegetables from the adivasis living here and sell them in Dornapal. Now it seems to me that I’ll be thrown out of here too. But this time I guess the destination would be up there," Singh laughs, pointing to the sky as he sips mahua, the local alcoholic beverage.

The adivasis are not his only passengers. "Often, Maoists board our bus, dressed in fatigues. They introduce themselves in Hindi but don’t harm anyone. And we too don’t stop anyone from boarding the bus — why should we?" says Pavan, Singh's son.

The family has had to ferry other ‘passengers’ as well. On April 6, 2010, when 76 CRPF jawans were killed during a three-hour Maoist ambush, Singh was summoned to carry the bodies from the site, five km away from Chintalnar and the CRPF camp. The bodies were then taken away by choppers for identification and the last rites. There was no way any CRPF vehicle would venture out that day, especially after a bulletproof van on its way to the ambush site was blasted to bits by a landmine.

"We’d heard the gunshots around 6 am and I instantly knew that something was wrong," recalls Sajan, Singh’s second son. "A few hours later, we were asked by the CRPF to transport the bodies in our bus. While I was picking up one body I noticed a landmine next to my feet. I was very scared. The sight of all the bodies in our bus still haunts me."

A witness to the violence unleashed by both the Maoists as well as the CRPF, Singh is now tired of waiting for the day’s bad news. "Ever since Salwa Judum (the people’s militia) was launched five years ago by the state government, we have had no electricity here. The children haven't been to school since then either. The only school running here was occupied by the CRPF and it was then bombed by the Maoists. Moreover, only the elders in this village have voter ID cards; there is none for the youth. The elections are rigged. Where is democracy? We only have anger, and perhaps only the Maoists understand our anger," says Singh.

But his rage soon fades into the moonlight. In the morning, it metamorphoses into courage once again — the courage he needs to drive a white bus down a dangerous road.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Lest The Kalinga Of Today Be Forgotten...

“I too need to buy a camera,” said that man of 40, when he saw me taking photographs around the village in Chandia. I told him that he would have to learn how to use it, and that i could teach him a thing or two. He insisted upon seeing the photographs I had taken. Satisfied with my meagre photography skills, he shocked me with his question, “How many pixels?” I replied, and asked him where did he learn about pixels. “On TV, when they show that they will give discounts if I order. A neighbour has Tata Sky at home. That is when I saw it,” he replied. Quite an irony that one of Tata's products has given this man a new view of the world, while he struggles daily against the same company's atrocious ways to grab their land in Kalinganagar.

“What will you do with the camera?” I ask.

“I need to take photographs of our villagers. With every protest in every corner of Kalinganagar, we are losing are kin. I need to take their photographs before they are all gone. But tell me, can we take a video from this camera? Suppose the goons attack us – will we be able to shoot everything and show it later to the others?” 

I saw in him the desperation to keep intact the memories of his brethren. An hour later, he was satisfied with all that I taught him about the use of camera. I grabbed this chance to ask him in return about how the bow and arrow was made. He seemed to be more than pleased to teach me.

Both the bow and the arrow are made of cane, and the tribals go hunting into the jungle to pick up the best of the plants. The tip of the arrows are made of iron, and some families have specialised in the art of making these. They used to be available for Rs 5 a piece. But, just like the way a war is profitable for any government, the blacksmiths are also charging up to Rs 30 for every piece of arrow tip that is made. The other end of the arrow has feathers tied. This, I was told, gives the arrow a spin when it is let loose from the bow. The arrow continues to spin when it hits a target, thus making a perfect hole. Without the feathers, the arrow would just slide in the air and would cut through the target like a smooth knife. Ironically, the soft and light feather is what makes the arrow so effective. 

Jungle warfare

Both the iron tip and the feathers are fastened onto the cane stick with the strands of tussar silk, directly from the silkworm. The worm's egg is slit in a particular way so that the strands emerged are flat and long. There is no doubt in the quality and strengths of silk, and no one knows it better than these warriors. They have stocked up their homes with dozens of arrows, yet they are waiting for their anger to brim to a level when they can use their ancient tools against the rubber bullets, the steel bullets and the INSAS rifles.

One family which wishes to have used their tools of ancient warfare is the Kalundia family from Gadhpur village, about 3 kms away from Chandia. I walk to their village across the Common Corridor, and find the men on their fields. They want to make the best of the days before it rains, and before their land is levelled. Nobody knows the essence of making the best of now better than this family.

Panjabi Kalundia (45) lives with his brother Debendra (40), along with their respective families. Both borhters share the same grief, which can be dated back to May 9, 2005. It is tough to ask a man of the death of his child; it is easier to ask a woman about strength and hope. Maharashtra Seamless was another steel company which had earmarked 1,500 acres of land for a steel plant. Among those resisting the land grab was this family. They were accustomed to the police coming every morning, surrounding the villages to terrorise the people, and leaving by noon time. That had become a routine for sometime and the villagers managed to do their daily work at home and on the fields accordingly.

But May 9, 2005, was different, for it was the day of the bhoomi pujan of Maharashtra Seamless. The cops surrounded the village of Gadhpur once again, while in another part of the Kalinganagar, some villagers were opposing the bhoomi pujan as their land too was to be lost. 

“Around 9 am, I was at home with my elder son who was just able to walk then. He is seven years old today. My younger daughter Jima was just a baby and was asleep on the cot. My wife had gone to the village handpump to get water. Suddenly we heard that the cops had come, and that they were with guns this time. We ran towards the Mahagiri hills behind our village. I ran with my son,” said Panjabi. About 100 families reside in Gadhpur and that day, all of them were scattered in the hills.

“I thought that the cops would go back soon and so I too ran for my life into the hills. I remembered that Jima was at home, along with Rahul, my brother-in-law Debendra's son. Rahul was younger than my son but elder to Jima. But I knew that we would be back soon. But that 'soon' turned out to be two whole days,” Panjabi's wife Sumi (30) told me in broken Hindi and Oriya.

But the cops hadn't left the village, was what they had heard. Without food or water, the men and women of the village survived through the ordeal, without knowing where their family members were. Two days later, someone informed that the cops had finally left. Sumi was the first to have reached home. She saw Jima lying on the cot, and Rahul on the floor. Both were dead. 

“It was the summer and the hunger must have been unbearable. We never thought that we would be away for so long. I reached after my wife to see her wailing. The two children died of hunger and thirst. Without bullets or any firing, Maharashtra Seamless killed our children,” said Panjabi, as we sat on the cairn near his fields. Panjabi has two more children today after the death of Jima, while his son Debendra – whom I could not meet – also has two children. Needless to say, Sumi was continuously caressing her toddler in her arms as we spoke.

Sumi clutches her toddler – not a single moment can the child be away from her sight

In all, fives lives were lost during the protest on May 9, 2005. the company faced much flak and left the area. The 1,500 acres land to be acquired by them has now gone into the hands of Tata. “We lost our children to Maharashtra Seamless. Now we have lost 13 acres of our land to Tata's project, leaving us with just two acres. We have not got a single penny. What more do these companies want to steal from us?” asked an angry Panjabi.

Before I left them, I asked if they had a photograph of the two children. “We don't even know how old they were! We have only given you the rough estimates of our own age. We are poor people. How would we have photographed them?” I realise I had asked an inane question.

The same stories, everywhere. Stories of loss of life, loss of land, loss of dignity – among those resisting the repression, as well as those living in the transit camps, who had given their land out and had accepted a rehab package. 

The main transit camp was on a highway, and similar to the huge green signboard that welcomes every visitor to Kalinganagar, a huge board read out, 'Welcome to Gobarghati Transit Camps'. I was told to go there only on the last day of my stay in Kalinganagar, lest I was hauled and prevented from further moving around. I rode on the bike with journalist RR, and 500 metres into the camp lay a bright orange two-storey building onto the left. A signboard read out that it was a computer institute. Welcome to the land of lies. Another 500 metres into the area, and across the barren land around were those buildings.

The structures reminded me of the chawls in Mumbai – rooms stuck together, and the facade decorated with several clotheslines. But we didn't stop by – RR said that the young boys sitting at the entrance were not mere youths whiling off their time, but were posted there as security men. They were keeping a tab on every person entering and exiting the area. I could well estimate that the rooms alloted to the people were very tiny, with a small verandah to walk around. The structure was more like a village school – the classrooms were the tiny houses, the beams supporting the asbestos sheet as the roof marked the separation between the houses, the doors painted bright blue. In the small courtyard outside was a slide for children in the little open space, as well as monkey bars – akin to giving a Grade IV malnourished child a McDonald's burger instead of the basic food for survival. 

We crossed the transit camp and as I looked back, I could not help but think of the confinement that these people were subject to. No land to farm, a tiny house and a meagre sum of compensation to live on – this was far from what a self-sufficient tribal would ever have a nightmare of. Yet, this was a reality for several families who were lured with the prospects of good jobs.

We rode into the camp meant for those displaced by Nilachal Ispat Nigam Ltd (NINL). We meet Dubi Munda (60), who was once a resident of Nuagaon village. NINL was the first company to have set up a steel plant in the villages of Nuagaon and Madhavpur, and it displaced 613 families. Munda's fate was determined by both NINL and MESCO – his house came under the land acquired by NINL, while his farm land of 18 goonth (25 goonths make an acre) was acquired by MESCO. He received a total of Rs 37,000 for his farm land, but wasn't expecting any amount for the loss of his house. The January 2, 2006, firing was an unexpected boon. He explained:

“In 1997, although we did not want to give up our house, it was razed down. Nilachal gave us Rs 11,000 and told us that a piece of land was waiting for us here in Gobarghati, while we would also get a job. We were brought here, which is just 2.5 goonth in area. We erected the house on our own, with hay for the roof and mud for the walls. But there was no land to farm, for a survival. I somehow pulled through by taking up contract labour jobs here and there,” said Dubi.

When the January 2006 firing took place, the family received Rs 1.5 lakh for the construction of their house. “We would ask them several times about the promised job, but they kept on dilly-dallying it. When the firing in January 2006 took place, we were told that we were entitled to receive Rs 2 lakh, but Rs 50,000 was deducted because for using this land. I was smart enough to have this place named after my second daughter Chando, so that she can get the job for a longer period,” Dubi said. 

We calculated the price of the land – going by the price of Rs 50,000 for 2.5 goonth, the family should have received Rs 3,60,000 for their 18 goonth of land, instead of Rs 37,000 that they got. We told this to Dubi and he just laughed it off. There was little he could do anything about it now. 

Of his three married daughters, Chando lives with husband and toddler, along with her parents. I ask her about the job, and the description is another practical joke. “Again, it was the firing that got me the job in 2007, for they feared that we too might protest. I got the job of a gardener for which I underwent training for two years. I was initially paid Rs 1,500, but now I get Rs 14,000. But it is no great sum – we do not have lands to farm and hence we have to buy everything from the market today. Earlier, all we had to buy was just cooking oil and salt. We have lost a lot,” Chando said. What kind of garden needs to be tended by a gardener with training for two years?!

A mud house, a concrete house, but none to be called 'home'

The family has now erected a concrete house within that small area, but it is far from completion. The Ra 1.5 lakh has long been exhausted. They family does get water and electricity at random. I asked Chando about any facilities that she gets, thanks to her job. “A family of six members are entitled to medical benefits in Bhubaneshwar, but if we do not claim the medical allowance of a total of Rs 4,000 within six months, we will lose it. And that means no medical benefit thereafter. So it is akin to no benefit at all,” she said with a smile, understanding the trap that she had fallen into.

We take leave and then Dubi says slowly, “We were initially excited about this new idea of development, thanks to the steel plants. We were told to dream about jobs, education for our children, medical facilities and electricity. But for 10 years until the January 2006 firing, I had to think daily about the next meal. Even now, if Chando doesn't go to work for about two days, we are all worried that she will lose the job. We have lost our land; we have lost our peace of mind.”

Peace in pieces. This is the story of every household in Kalinganagar. I leave the place from the highway, and on my way in Ambagadia – just like the tribals – I bow my head before the 15 edifices erected for the 15 people who lost their lives on January 2, 2006. While 12 of them died immediately, three others succumbed to their injuries later. Among the 15 martyrs were three brave women.
  1. Mukuta Dei Bankira of Chandia village
  2. Aati Jamunda of Chandia village
  3. Ramchandra Jamunda of Champakoyla village
  4. Diyugi Tiriya of Champakoyla village
  5. Sudam Barla of Bellahori village
  6. Bhagwan Soy of Gobarghati village
  7. Landu Jarika of Bamiagoth village
  8. Gobind Lagori of Bamiagoth village
  9. Janga Jarika of Bamiagoth village
  10. Ramlal Mundoya of Baligot village
  11. Ramo Gagarai of Gadhpur village
  12. Bona Badara of Gadhpur village
  13. Shyamo Gagarai of Chandia village (succumbed to his injuries after a month)
  14. Kisan Buriuli of Chandia village (succumbed to his injuries after six months)
  15. Bir Singh Gop of Chandia village (succumbed to gangrene on both thighs after a year; he had lost both legs in the landmine blast)

The fountainhead of strength, courage and hope

I learnt from Rabi Jarika that people who die a natural death are buried in the premises of the house, and it is believed that the souls of the deceased will guide the rest of the family. So almost every courtyard in Kalinganagar had a tombstone. However, those who lose their lives in an unnatural way – like the 15 killed in the firing – are cremated, as it is believed that burying them will lead to rest of the generations also dying an unnatural death. The tombstones of the 15 at Ambagadia, nevertheless, have guided this revolution in Kalinganagar. It guides those who fight each day while being under the 'house arrest' in their own villages; it guides those who have been arrested on various false charges – ranging from arson to murder. Some of those arrested in the recent past, from villages around Chandia, include:
  1. Chakradhar Haibru Junior from Ambagadia village
  2. Nanika Jamunda from Ambagadia village
  3. Suresh Haibru from Bellahori village
  4. Jogendra Jamunda from Chandia village
  5. Devendra Jarika from Chandia village
  6. Birsa Tamsoi from Chandia village
  7. Kunja Gagarai from Gadhpur village
  8. Budhansingh Jamunda from Gadhpur village
  9. Pakoi Gagarai from Gadhpur village
  10. Paresh Gagarai from Gadhpur village
  11. Babula Soren from Baidubori village
  12. Babuli Deogam from Baidubori village
  13. Madan Kalundia from Baligot village
  14. Konai Purty from Masakhiya village
  15. Majura Purty from Masakhiya village
  16. Turan Purty from Masakhiya village
  17. Biren Hembram from Masakhiya village
  18. Pratap Chola from Masakhiya village

Would they just be a list of names to be forgotten? Would they just be names of dacoits as would be propagated by the corporates? Would they just be names of revolutionaries? Would they be just be one of us, fighting like any of us would have?

Seeking divine intervention

No Doctor, No Medicines: Only God Can Save In Kalinganagar

The Hoo tribals in Kalinganagar are akin to David facing Goliath – as they resist the goons, the state machinery, the corporate giants, a local media hell-bent on branding them as Maoists, and a national shy of reporting their struggle. Yet, these men and women fight. However, there is one sceptre they are just unable to put up a resistance against – ill health, and the consequential death. A bored villager surveyed 15 villages and found out that in the last six years alone, 188 people had died due to various illnesses. This number excludes death due to aging and those killed in the ongoing repression; the 188 deaths are of people below the age of 45. 

In the last six months alone, 14 people from just about three villages have died since there was no medical aid to reach them, neither were they allowed to leave the area. And the illnesses are not lifestyle diseases – malaria, jaundice, tuberculosis, fever have been the culprits. Or at other times, several other illnesses piled together. I headed to Baligot village to track two such deaths.

Ghanshyam Kalundia (35) died on April 16 this year. He was ill since three years – the illness began with joint and back pains. Sometime in 2009, he was taken to Cuttack for treatment by his younger brother Madan, where he was treated for 20 days. But fate had other plans for his wife Mecho, 30, who narrated her tale to me. 

“We were a joint family – our family, as well as the families of my husband's two brothers. The wives of both his brothers abandoned the family, leaving behind three more children. My brother-in-law Madan was arrested on September 14, 2009, on charges of attempt to murder for the firing that had taken place on January 2, 2006. He was to be released on bail in March this year, but soon enough, charges of arson were slapped against him, for the same incident. By then, my husband's condition had deteriorated. I managed to contact some of my relatives in a distant village and then stealthily took my husband on the bike to Cuttack. That's when the doctor said that he wouldn't survive too long, as he was suffering from T.B., kidney failure and jaundice. We spent almost Rs 50,000 in the last three years to get him treated, but had made only two visits to Cuttack. I am the only person in the house now, taking care of five children. I cannot even go to the fields leaving them – that we have lost a considerable amount of our land to the steel plants is a another story,” Mecho sighed.

Mecho Kalundia sits at home with her two children, who no more go to school

Two days prior to his death, Ghanshyam had stopped eating and talking, and was only vomitting. Mecho saw that it wouldn't take too long for her to become a widow. Today, she whiles her time in her neighbour's houses.

Further down the road is where 40-year-old Bireng Kalundia now lives with her five children – two boys aged 22 and 20, and three girls aged 18, 15 and 12. Her husband Sikander (46) was ill for a month before he died on April 9 this year. Before the repression was further tightened following the March 30, 2010 – when the tribals opposed the construction of the Common Corridor project – two relatives managed to take Sikander on a bike to a certain point on the highway, from where they hired a car to Cuttack. “Those two relatives were employees at the Jindal Steel Plant and hence they could not stay back with my husband even when the doctor insisted that he should be admitted. My sons could not even go to Cuttack as the roads were blocked; the Common Corridor is very close to this village and my sons could have been easily nabbed if they had attempted to get out of here. There was no way that I could go and be with him. They hence brought back my husband,” explained Bireng to me, through her brother-in-law Dabar, who translated her slow, halted words to me.

Bireng added that if there was someone who could have stayed back in Cuttack with her husband, he could have been saved. Their house is huge, thanks to a larger family. Her daughters shy away upon seeing me. I ask Bireng about her sons. “One of my sons had a job at the steel plant of Rohit Ferro-Tech. But since we all were a part of the protest on March 30, he was fired from the job. Today, there is no earning member in the house. We have also lost an acre of our land to the Common Corridor. There has been no sign of any compensation for it. I only have some yield from the farm. Thanks to levelling, I don't understand what will happen to us,” sighed Bireng. 

I take leave of her and utter a few words in Hoo language, to convey that she ought to be strong. She smiled back, and let out a litany of words, no more in the demure way that she talking. “This is our struggle and we will continue our fight, come what may.”

There is a whiff of strength behind the calm and sad exterior of Bireng Kalundia

As I left her house, I saw several young children lined out on the tiny patch of road, playing. Some were chasing a bicycle tyre, some were lifting worms with sticks from a pond formed thanks to the rains, some others up on the trees. I asked Dabar about the presence of a school in the village. His answer was not a short one.

“About 10 years ago, I had begun to teach some children in my own courtyard. Later, some youths from the village erected a mud house and taught the children. Two years had passed and we appealed to the authorities to send in a teacher. One was sent in, and later another. By 2007, we collected Rs 2.5 lakh from the 100 families in this village and erected a concrete structure for a school of 120 children. But the children never returned to school after the summer vacation in 2007. Neither did the teachers turn up. When our Sarpanch enquired, he was told that since all the families in this village had left the village after having accepted the rehab package by Tata for its steel plant on their land, there isn't anybody residing in the village anymore. So the teacher stopped coming. On April 29 this year, the school building we had erected was razed down by the police and the goons. We were a village of 100 families; now the figure is 80. The 20 families who have taken the rehab package from Tata are killing their own kin in various ways – they have razed down the school, they do not let the sick and ailing get treated, they are leveling our fields, and when we protest they do not shy away from using the gun which they have been forced and paid to carry,” explained Dabar. 

The children leave behind their games with stones and sticks, and are delighted to see the camera

Here are the names of the 14 deceased in the last six months. This list is not comprehensive; it is only from few of the nine villages within Chandia panchayat. These nine villages are the ones affected directly by Tata. There are 18 villages in the panchayat, with a population of over 5,000 and 2,400 voters. Gobarghati is another panchayat. I got this data from Rabi Jarika, who noted these as and when he would get information about the deaths. This list is only indicative of the number of dead from all the villages across Kalinganagar.

  1. Leena Soy (60) from Bamiagotha village – died of fever
  2. Sudarshan Samad (32) from Chandia village – died of malaria
  3. Buduni Jamunda (20) from Chandia village – died of malaria
  4. Besi Jamunda (30) from Chandia village – died during delivery; the child died after birth
  5. Sidiu Jarika (28) from Bellahori village – died of malaria and typhoid
  6. Shmabari Jarika (40) from Kankrajhar village – died of malaria
  7. A three-year-old girl from Baligot village – died of malaria
  8. Bhandai Bankira (8) from Baligot village – died of malaria
  9. Sikander Kalundia (46) from Baligot village – died of T.B., malaria, jaundice, etc.
  10. Ghanshyam Kalundia (34) from Baligot village – died of T.B., malaria, jaundice, etc.
  11. Nakoi Deogam (38) from Baligot village – died of jaundice
  12. Ladu Kalundia (60) from Baligot village – cause of death is unknown
  13. Jemma Honnaga (37) from Chandia village – several ailments together
  14. Balema Goipai (57) from Gobarghati village – cause of death is unknown

But there surely had to be a medical centre. It was impossible that the government would not try to render a facade of governance. I am told that just 500 metres after the main gate of Kalinganagar was the Dhangadi Medical Centre. It had a huge concrete gate, painted white with some red carvings. I entered the huge complex; to the right was a space for the staff quarters. To the left was a medium-sized building. I entered and saw a torn bed, with an old woman lying on it. This was the supposed waiting area of the hospital. A younger man sat next to her; he said that she was suffering from diarrhoea. I walk near her bed – there was no bedsheet on the mattress, the lady slept with her legs crouched up to her chest, and tried to cover her whole body with her thin saree. A saline drip stood next to her bed. The syringe was left open: a fly sat on it while a Band-aid was stuck on it. 

Stench, grime, bugs: this medical had it all

Paan stains had coloured the corridors. I noticed an old man; somebody told me that he had fractured his leg but had nowhere to go. He lived in the premises of the hospital. I walked further through the gloomy, stinky corridor to see the ward. The coir was falling off through the torn mattresses; saline drips stood next to these empty beds. One journalist – whose stories about the struggle of the people of Kalinganagar were no more accepted by his newspaper, and had hence opened a photocopy store near the medical centre – told me that the medical centre was empty as no patient would visit there. “There are no doctors here. Just one medical in-charge, who sits in the OPD till 12 noon and doesn't wait a minute more even if there are patients lined outside. He runs to his private clinic which he operates from his quarters. He just holds a post-graduate degree in Medicine, but he handles all sorts of cases because there is no other doctor here. He will check a patient coming in, and will promptly refer him to Cuttack.”

I saw the game myself. I was visiting the medical centre after lunch and while strolling through, one man was brought in. I couldn't believe my eyes – all I saw was a skeleton covered with a thin layer of skin. The man was accompanied by his parents who were too old to hold their 35-year-old son. I learnt that they had come from nearby Jakhpura village, along with a cousin who was dressed rather well. I had seen images of malnutritioned children from Africa, but never anything like this. I stood by, looking at him. His eyes, cheekbones and jaws were popping out. His nails were black. Every joint in his body stood out from the thin vest that hung on his body. I could count his ribs. He yelled out that he stomach was paining. His mother laid out a rug and held her son gently to lay him down on it. His feet were swollen, and so was his stomach. The cousin told me that he had stopped eating since five days, but was ill since 6 months.

Will he survive?

The doctor rushed in and cold metal of the stethoscope hurt the patient. He was screaming; the doctor hit the stomach several times to gauge what was wrong. The next moment shook me – the doctor pulled the patient from his thin arms like he would yank a log of wood towards him. This young man of 35 yelled. After he was done with checking his respiration on his back with the stethoscope, the doctor let loose the man. His shoulder hit the hard mattress.

The doctor ruffled the medical papers that the cousin handed to him. He summoned the cousin and said that the patient should be taken to Cuttack. I later bumped into the doctor. He said, “Severe anaemia. Hypoglycemia. Renal failure. Jaundice. T.B.” I asked the cousin what was to be done next. “Five days ago, we gave up. We knew that death was near anytime now. But his parents insisted on bringing him here since he suddenly was having diarhoea.”

“So you will take him to Cuttack now?” I asked.

“I don't know if that would help. The doctor could administer some fluids to hydrate him, but he didn't. His parents still believe that their only son will be fine,” he said. I remember how the man's mother smiled back at me innocently when I was standing next to her son. 

I walked out with a heavy heart and headed to the administration office on the top floor. It was spartan clean. On the wall was a huge board mentioning the various 'health days'. There were about 30 dates; but none on malnutrition. I walked back down to the medical centre. I though I had seen enough, but more was to come.

A beautiful lie

I met Mena Mohanty who was an 'Asha Madam'. The Orissa state government had roped in midwives from villages to be Asha Madams who would be responsible for all the pregnant women in the village. She was responsible for bringing in the women in labour to medical centres. On doing so, she would receive Rs 250. “So you must be travelling to other villages too, to see if there are more pregnant women..” I ask Mena didi. She smiled widely to reveal her paan-stained teeth. “I am responsible only for the women in my village. In a year, there are just about 10 pregnancies. So I can earn only that much,” she replied. Mena didi said that she had been working as a midwife in her village since 30 years and was an expert in her work.

She was more than happy to show me the labour room. There were two steel tables for the women in labour to lie on. On one of its edge was a huge dirty bin, which I assumed was to let the blood flow out of the bleeding woman. Across the tables was a concrete slab and a basin. I walked up to it. On a kidney tray were several forceps and scissors. And a string, with a curved needle. I asked her what was it. “This is the needle and the string used to stitch up the vagina of the woman after the delivery.”

I was shocked that it lay in the open. “Aren't these instruments sterilised?” I asked.

Mena Mohanty shows me the labour room; the kidney tray is full of instruments which are far from clean, let alone sterilised

“Of course they are. Look at that machine for sterilising. When a woman comes in, and as she is prepared for labour, it is during that time that these instruments are sterilised. There is no point in sterilising them well in advance as there is no place to keep them clean.”

Just at that moment, a petite woman in labour walked in with two other women. I stepped out. She was somehow made to jump up onto the high table. She cried in pain. I stood in a corner with Mena didi. “That lady in the blue saree is the Asha Madam for that pregnant woman. This lady in red and white saree is the sweeper. She does most of the deliveries.” I looked at her in disbelief.

A nurse in a white saree walked in. She looked at me and I somehow managed to convince her to let me see the process of the birth of a child. Mena didi chipped in to say something in Oriya, after which the nurse relaxed a bit and they all laughed. Few minutes later, another tribal woman walked in with a packet full of small vials of liquids, gloves, sanitary napkins sold loose, syringes and IV administration sets. The entire pack costed Rs 500.

While the nurse injected some antibiotics into the saline, the sweeper inserted a pipe into the pregnant woman's vagina – she wore no gloves. Much liquid passed out. The nurse went away. Mena didi walked upto the patient – her name was Phula Mahakud was from Siyaria village, 1.5 km away – and showed her how to hold up her legs. Phula cried out. The other Asha Madam – who was much younger than Mena didi – just followed Mena didi's instructions. The sweeper called out to the woman accompanying the patient for some cloth. She passed on to her a moist rag stained with blood – I realised this was the cloth that must have been used during the menstrual cycle. The rag was slid under Phula behind, while she began to bleed slowly. Mena didi kept on urging her to pull her legs towards her chest. Phula cried on while she held the other Asha Madam's hand tight. Five minutes later, the head was visible. The nurse walked in languidly. She wore her gloves and an apron. Slowly she pulled out the child – it wasn't crying. The sweeper passed on a porcelain tray and the nurse kept the minute-old child on it with a thud. The child's eyes were shut but it was breathing. Phula's stomach had slumped down while she was breathing heavily. 

A new life

Meanwhile, the sweeper began to cut the umbilical cord in the middle. Blood splashed out in all directions, and my feet was covered with that red which had nourished the child for 9 months. Mena didi called me next to her, near the basin where she was washing her hands. There was no soap nearby. Before I could protest, she took one of the sanitary napkins and wiped the blood from my feet. I saw the child on that tray, who was being pumped by the nurse. All was not well. The nurse yelled at me to get out of the room as the doctor would be coming in. I thanked Mena didi and ran out. It was a weird feeling – amid the poverty, amid the loss of hope in the most unhygienic conditions, amid the lack of basic facilities, God's creation in the highest form was born. 

The doctor did not go into the labour room till a long time, but I later learnt that both the mother and child were doing fine and were sent home. I went Rabi's home that evening before sunset with a heavy heart. But the day was not to end so soon. I heard that a baby goat had died during the day. I went to see it inside the dark stable. Its face was very tiny but the stomach was huge. A small girl working at Rabi's house began to pull it. I stepped out immediately.

“Was it ill? How did it die?” I asked, trying to sound not too prying at such a time of grief.

But Rabi's sister-in-law only laughed. “Would you believe it – the goat ate hay all evening yesterday. By late night, it began to groan weirdly. We saw that its stomach was enlarged but how could we take it to the doctor? The night passed and late in the morning, it passed away.”

Sometime later, I saw that the goat was butchered and the meat ready for distribution, while a girl fanned off the insects that could crawl in with a branch of leaves. In a tub nearby lay the transparent bloated intestine. In the land of the poor and the hungry, a goat died of overeating. For a moment I felt we were in a 'developed' nation.

Glimpse of a developed country

Friday, 25 June 2010

Kalinganagar Mutiny = Milk On The Pan

Pour some milk into the pan and switch on the flame. At first, there is stillness and vapour that can be missed. Next, the noise tells you that the milk is rumbling, followed by the cream rising up. By then it is too late – even if you lower the heat, the cream is beyond your control. It falls off the pan and leaves you with a sight and smell that are not pleasing. The rest of the milk simmers down by the time you extinguish the flame, but much milk has been lost. But if you choose to stay blind to the discontent of the boiling molecules of the milk and choose to let the heat roll on, not only will the cream spill, but the rest of the milk – relatively calmer – will spill too, until there isn’t any left in the pan. The pan is left black and with an odour hard to miss – it cannot be used anymore.

Seeing the milk boil on the mud hearth inside that tiny hut – no electricity, no toilet – the corollary of the boiling milk and the mutiny that shook Kalinganagar in 2006 is evident.

No wonder then most of the active members of the Bisthapi Birodhi Jan Manch (BBJM) haven’t visited the nearest town since over a year. This means they haven’t been able to go out shopping for bare necessities (a tribal family needs to purchase only oil, kerosene and salt from the market, for their survival); they haven’t been able to address any domestic emergency like ill health; they haven’t been able to watch any blockbuster movie to drown themselves into another distant world; they haven’t been able to ‘hang out’ with friends who live far away. This is the kind of ‘house arrest’ they are subject to, and daily, one has to calculate the routes around their villages from which one would not be ‘noticed’.

As I shared the angst of the ‘house arrest’ on my third day in Kalinganagar on June 23, I realized that every family had a story to tell about that winter day in 2006 – a story of boiling milk that overflowed and woke up the Orissa government. Stories of death, injury, loss, anger, grit. And hope. Through bits and pieces, I had learnt what had happened – 12 people were killed including three women, three others later succumbed to their injuries, scores of people were injured, several men continue to be arrested on false charges of murder. But I realized that there was an interesting history behind the mutiny.

By 2005, Rabi Jarika was a ‘wanted criminal’, for championing BBJM. In October 2005, he had gone to Bhubaneshwar – about 200 kms south – to attend a conference on grassroots resistance. By the end of the first day at the conference, he had received news that cops from Jajpur had arrived in Bhubaneshwar to arrest him. Just when he had decided to return home, he was picked by the cops.

The people's person: Rabi Jarika rushes to his farm every morning at 8 am

The tribals had heard that Tata would begin its work of leveling the fields from January 2, 2006. They were ready to face the bulldozers, but not the bullets. It was a Monday. Around 9 am, about 1,000 policemen and hundreds of those who had begun to support Tata, arrived near Champakoyla village, which is closer to the main road. Cops began to fire indiscriminately, leaving 12 dead on the spot and several injured. Rabi was released on January 26, 2006, owing to the tribals pressuring the authorities to release him. The authorities had to comply – they had faced flak for the incident and could in no way afford to scar itself anymore.

“You were still in jail when the firing took place. It must have killed you because you were in a relatively safer place while your people were butchered…” I asked Rabi, choosing my words carefully. Instead he laughed and said, “I was proud of my people.”

“Please explain.”

“You see, when I was arrested in October 2005, the people were very angry. They channelised their anger into active resistance – they managed to stop all the leveling work that was going on across villages, they began to patrol the villages, and they were defiant of the wicked ways of the goons. But Tata too had decided that enough was enough. So that’s when they used force to begin the leveling work. Imagine, if in my absence the people had managed to do so much, they can achieve a lot more with the seething anger of having their own people being killed.”

“Didn’t the villagers carry any bows and arrows at that time?”

“They did, but didn’t use it. Sometimes I feel they should have used them; but on second thoughts, it would mean that our people were attacking our own brothers – who had now become goons. Yes, they have defected for the lure and love of money, but we still have our conscience intact.”

The pride in the strength in his people can be seen dripping in Rabi’s smile. Later in the day, I roam around the village. It is easy to ask a young boy for a lift on his bike or cycle to avoid the 3 km walk to a neighbouring village. Unlike in the cities, it is easy to open the heart out to the adivasis. I go to meet Ranjit Bankira, a lanky 20-year-old youth from Chandia village, who lost his mother during the uprising. “When we heard that the police had come, we all rushed out. If we managed to stop the police at Champakoyla, we could prevent them from entering our village. My mother ran ahead, and in the same row, there were seven other people. We all had noticed a rope on the ground at the lake near Champakoyla, but never thought it to be suspicious. When they crossed it, there was a blast. It was a landmine. My mother died instantly, but they took her body away. They returned it few days later, after it was decomposed. But her palms were missing. The cops said that it was for identification. They returned a pair of palms several months later, but evidently, they were not hers,” Ranjit said, with the help of his maternal uncle Babli Jamunda, who could speak better Hindi.

Ranjit Bankira got the job of a peon, 'thanks' to his mother being killed by a landmine

The family received compensation from the state and central governments, while Ranjit got the job of a peon at a school. But there are valid reasons why he is still unhappy. “The school is 17 kms away, and I was lucky to already have a bike. But I have to reach there at 10 am; I get home at 5 pm. I have no time to tend to our fields. If any day they find that I am not good at my job, they will fire me. By then, the farm will be in a bad shape. Does the government calculate all this before offering some job to placate an angry man?” I then realize that it is 11 am, and he said that he had taken the day off as he wanted to tend to his farm. “It is also the day of the haat (weekly market), but it will be tough to go. The goons will disappear from the road only by late afternoon. By then, the market will draw to an end.” I get his point. Most of his friends are jobless and yet immobile, but they look forward to the day of the haat when they can all hang out together. But they cannot. Friends, family, countrymen – everyone here worth one’s trust has become a foe.

I ask Babli about his residence, he tells me it is right across the street (which is just about two feet wide and a red puddle), “next to the tomb of Laxman Jamunda”. Babli tells me that Laxman was his paternal uncle who was a 55-year-old bachelor and stayed with him. I had heard about Laxman’s death too – it was about a fortnight in the month of May this year when there were a strong of news of deaths from Kalinganagar, thanks to some like journalists RR and PDM, and a filmmaker who made small videos of the atrocities through the use of hidden cameras and put them up on Youtube for the world to see. “So tell me what happened on May 12 this year,” I prod Babli.

Laxman Jamunda: Rest-In-Piece

“Our villagers, who no more lived here as they had given their land to Tata and had accepted the rehab package, had come dressed as cops. They claimed that they wanted to take away all the things which they had left behind in their house. Now tell me, which house would still have anything useful, if you return to it after four years? Anyway, so we let them take the things and soon we saw that bulldozers razed down those houses. Sometime later, they began to raze down the houses of those who still lived here – after all, they were protesting the land grab. Some women were in the houses which were being attacked and they began to scream. We ran to see what was happening. The goons – or, those who earlier lived in our village – began to attack with the arrows they carried. We had no time to react but to run and escape. We didn’t know that the cops were also waiting in another corner. They too struck; one bullet hit my uncle Laxman. They took away his body instantly. It has been two months today, and yet we haven’t received his body.”

I pay my respects to the stone tomb, which is draped with a red cloth. Red, for the seething anger. Red, for the blood that been spilt. Red, for the reasons why a people decides to make the bow and arrow a part of their anatomy, wherever they go. I decide to meet Dabar Kalundia – the man wanted by the police for ‘crimes’, but who is being constantly wooed by people in the administration. It is raining and all around me, I see only green. I wonder why, for the love of another green, should drops of red need to discolour this natural green. I hear the rumble of a bike – but there are two women pillion riders already. It is a 3 km walk to Baliagot village.

Dabar is not at home; I meet 20-year-old Surendra Bandara ande explain that I am a journalist and Dabar’s friend. His look of suspicion fades and offers to show me something ‘interesting’. We walk for a while when he tells me why he is sitting at home jobless. “If I apply for a job, they will reject me during the medical test.”

“Why? You look fine to me!”

“I have a bullet wound below my groin.” He explains that on the day of the mutiny, he was shot. He called up his father – who was in the postal service in Cuttack – and within 30 minutes, he sped his bike to Cuttack (a 90-minute drive from Kalinganagar), through another long convoluted route, to avoid the cops. “I managed to somehow reach Cuttack before the cops blocked all exit routes. I was in the hospital for the next six months. My 12th class exams were held in March that same year, but I couldn’t appear for them. Now, there is no point in completing my studies as I will anyway not get any job. I might as well live in the village and work for the movement,” he explained.

His ordeal was not to end after he was released from the hospital. He was arrested in October 2009 on charges of murder, dating back to the bloody Monday on January 2, 2006. He was released this year in March. By now, we have reached the spot that he wanted to show me. It is the 4-lane Common Corridor project, which, the government claims will reduce the distance to Duburi Chack for the people living in the nearby villages. “There can be no shorter route other than through our village. And anyway, they say they want to make it a pukka road so that we can ply our ‘vehicles’ – which is nothing beyond a bike. But the majority walks. And who would want to walk on a road which doesn’t have a single tree under which one could take shelter on a hot day?” True to his words, the land is suddenly barren till a large extent.

“We were sent a letter by IDCO (Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation) which stated that we would have to surrender 5 acres of our land for the project. IDCO is responsible for buying or grabbing the land from people, and giving it off to the highest bidder. We returned the letter, and told them that we were not ready to give our land. March 30 this year was the day to inaugurate the Common Corridor, which we call as ‘daman’ (repression) corridor. We protested but they beat up several of us. Ever since, they have tightened their grip around Kalinganagar, and today’s scenario of a ‘house arrest’ is a result of that incident,” Surendra states it all nonchalantly.

The Common Corridor runs through Surendra's farmland. 'That's where I get my food from. That's the land that has kept generations of our family alive. That's the land for which the government is ready to even kill us.'

We walk back to his house for some water. His house, like the most houses in rural India, are the most ‘eco-friendly’ – everything is taken from the Earth; every element used is ‘biodegradable’. He points out to a heap of hay behind. “That was part of our house. We went and stayed there on days when there would be too many visitors. On April 9 this year, the family who lived behind our house had come along with the cops and a bulldozer, to raze his old house. We were ill-prepared to face the huge contingent of police, and so, instead of facing them, we ran towards the hill. When we returned later in the evening – when we were sure that the cops had left – we saw that along with our neighbour’s house, this part of our house was also brought down.”

Later that night, it rained heavily and begins to thunder. Between the moments of the room being lit by lightning, and the drops of water occasionally dripping from the low roof, I fell asleep. A bad dream woke me up at 3 am – I dreamt that someone was chasing me on the fields with the words that the house will be razed. I saw that I was running through the fields, but I had reached my residence. I look around but cry aloud out of sheer frustration – what will I take along with me? Bank papers? Educational certificates? The laptop? The telephone diary? The meager jewellery bundled into a handkerchief, tucked behind the clothes in the wardrobe? The old tattered love letters? The book which prevented me from drowning myself into depression? The blackened photograph of smiling Gods who seem to promise the fruits of being hopeful? I shuddered till I fell asleep again; I woke up in the morning and it was still raining.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tribal? No Job? Become SPO

“There has to be a way out!” I had argued with Rabi the previous night. It was getting stifling that there was no way to get to Jajpur Road – just 15 kms away – during the day. Early on Tuesday (June 22) I managed to find the light to guide me out of the tunnel. Rabi’s nephew Sangit offered to take me through another route to the main road on a bike, from where I could take a bus to Jajpur Road. It was 8 am, and true to the corporate style work structure, the cops, goons and other men from Tata were bang on time to level the fields. But instead of walking 3 kms through the fields and past them to reach near Nilachal Ispat Nigam Ltd (NINL), Sangit takes me through more villages through a back route, to emerge on the main road, and then proceed to Duburi Chack, which is the town centre. It is a long route – 5.5 kms. “What if someone from our Chandia village had to go to the town, and did not have a bike?” I asked Sangit. “He would walk.” The road didn’t feel smooth anymore; the red dust in the air was blinding me.

When we emerged on the main road, Sangit discreetly pointed out towards a young boy by the roadside, who seemed to be trying to fix his bicycle. “He stands here till noon everyday. He is an informer for the cops. We shouldn’t take this route again tomorrow.” At first, I feel Sangit was being a chicken. But then again, he would know best – I would return to my safe haven in Mumbai and entertain friends with beer, descriptions of the greener pastures and the dramatic violence of Kalinganagar. But Sangit would have to live here, fight here, survive here or be a martyr here. Nobody is a chicken in Kalinganagar – not the tribals fighting for themselves; not the steel companies and the government which plays God to the tribals.

I notice two young boys, in their 20s, in khaki. Approaching Duburi Chack, I ask him if they were real cops, or people who had left the villages but were made to wear the khaki, or goons from another town camouflaged as men of law. “They are SPOs (special police officers).” I think I almost yelled aloud “WHAT?!” for Sangit almost applied the brakes. “How can SPOs be here? You don’t have militants like in Jammu & Kashmir; you don’t have separatists like in the North East of India; you don’t have Maoists like in Chhattisgarh. What are SPOs doing here?”
No job? Wear the khaki and eliminate your kin.

“The Orissa government says that there are no jobs for the youth. So they are offering them jobs of SPOs. They get paid Rs 4,000. This lucrative scheme was launched early this year and only youths from the Scheduled Tribes (STs) can apply for it. The minimum qualification needed is eighth class pass,” Sangit explained, adding that most youths from other villages outside Kalinganagar who had no idea or inclination about the politics of power and industrialization scampered to bag these jobs. “Evidently, the government is conveying, “You don’t have a job? They become a SPO, kill your own people or get killed.’ This is the government’s way of eliminating the mot backward tribals and grab all the land for industrialization.”

I get onto the bus, and it waits for a good 20 minutes before it can be packed. I manage to get a seat when a conductor pushes a man to ensure that the woman who seems to be from the city has a comfortable ride. The bus begins to move. Two halts later, old men with vegetable bags alight, while an old woman wearing a saree and no blouse, with a heavy cloth bag in her hand, boards the bus. Nobody can see her age. I decide to stand up and give her the seat. The conductor shouts in Oriya from behind, urging someone else to get up instead of me. A young man finally gets up and offers the old lady a seat. The bus moves ahead.

I was thankful to have a window seat, when the conductor shouted out that it was the ‘Nilachal’ bus stop. I look out and can see a string of grey vehicles – gone are the days of the Ambassador; our babus now travel in SUVs. I notice few men in white shirt and trousers, wearing the yellow safety helmet. There were no concrete or metal structures ‘above’ their head. Further ahead into the fields, I saw the reason why my wings were being clipped by the people in the village – huge trucks, bulldozers and tractors have dotted the landscape. I can black mounds and some a mass of white dots. I manage to take some photographs and then I see – those are men wearing the safely helmets, because they can anticipate people’s resistance and ‘offence’ any moment.

Let's watch a game called 'grab and kill'.

The rule of this game is to lie, lie and lie.

People in the bus are wondering what photographs am I taking. But I remember Rabi’s words, akin to that ad for Fritto Lays chips, when the girl would tempt the stranger into eating those wafers, and then step back – “Mom said I shouldn’t talk to strangers!” Here, the strangers I could perhaps befriend could be an informer. Further ahead on the road, we pass by a rail route. I remember what the local journalist RR had told me about this rail track: “This route was laid out after the string of MoUs was signed with the steel companies, post 1992. This route runs from another district called Keunjhar to our east, to Jhakpura, which is the railway station within Kalinganagar. There are iron and chromium mines in Keunjhar and the raw materials for the steel plants are brought to Kalinganagar by this route. It is only now that just one passenger train passes by this route.”

Once in Jajpur Road, life seems normal – children wearing crisp uniforms go to school, men ride on scooters to work, women shop for vegetables, jobless youth in bright shirts letch at young girls, saloons are busy doing business and grooming men. Not for once did I feel that I was so close to Kalinganagar, which can easily be India’s Bermuda Triangle. I finish my work and meet another local journalist PDM. He claims that RR and he are the only two journalists who have dared to enter the Bermuda Triangle when the cops had enforced a strict clampdown on the road. PDM said that there were several occasions when he and RR would ride up there, but their bags would be filled with basic medicines for those ailing in Kalinganagar, who couldn’t come to the medical centres.

We ride back to Kalinganagar. The sky is blue and not a single cloud to give the hope of rains. Around us, I see the steel plants in the distant. Not a single tree is visible. White fumes emanating from tall pillars make temporary clouds on the sky, leaving the nose pungent. “Villagers walking here will suffer sunstroke!” I exclaim. “Not sunstroke; they will suffer from moonstroke!” I am silent for a while and PDM understands that he owes me an explanation. “The sunstroke is evident, thanks to the heat and the naked field with no trees. But people here are being killed at night too by sudden police attacks. People will die here from breathing the poisonous fumes emanating from the factories. All of this will happen silently and not under the daylight when everyone can see everything. It will be a forced night – everyone in Orissa knows about Kalinganagar, yet they choose to pretend to be asleep. It is such a sleep that you cannot wake up a man from.”

Processing of iron ore before it cam be made into steel means the use of chromium hexavalent, to make the steel resistant to corrosion. Every person worth his love for Julia Roberts would have heard of this chemical, when the actor played the role of Erin Brockovich – an environmentalist who fought for the people of Hinkley in California, since their water bodies were contaminated with the chemical, which is highly carcinogenic. In Kalinganagar, the use of this chemical is crucial to the production of steel. And impotent men. “In the next 10 years, this place will be the land of hijras! Forget about the people working in those factories; ‘cancer’ will become an everyday word for these tribals living here,” PDM said in contempt.

"We are the champions...."

Few metres ahead, we see the infamous ‘goons’ of Kalinganagar – burly men on bikes, eyeing the fields where some trucks are unloading sand. The road into Chandia is now clear, and in about 7 minutes, we traverse the rickety 3 kms. Either of the sides is dotted with mounds of sand and packets of water. I return to find Sangit playing on his mobile phone. He is a third year student of History Honours in Bhubaneshwar. He is more than happy to explain the finer nuances of the politics at play here. “You see, when Tata manages to acquire the lands of, say, 50 families of a village, it will report to the government and to the media that it acquired the lands of 100 families. This they do by mentioning every son by a father as a separate family; never mind if the son is still a 10-year-old! Secondly, when it shows such great numbers, it sends out a message that 100 families – which means about 400 people – have been active in the resistance. Now this is seen as a huge number for a middle class, which thinks that the ‘savage’ tribals are posing a threat to development. For them, development means more factories. So, in accordance to silence the 400 bow-and-arrow carrying people, cops are sent in huge numbers. But the reality is that we are not such a huge number.”

I understand what he says, in a different context. The government claims that Maoists are the ‘single most, greatest internal security threat’. The middle class gets furious and types out mails to the news channels and newspapers between their coffee breaks that the Maoists should be eliminated so that development is possible. When the armed forces attack civilians – “We knew there were Maoists in the village!” – the same middle class says innocently, “Somebody has to pay a price for development, no?” Then there are those claims about Maoists having sophisticated guns, lent out with love from China (the middle class wouldn’t want to talk about China’s ‘love’ affair with Tibet). Yet the same middle class wouldn’t admit the truth that the mouse has to be smarter than the cat, to defend itself. The Maoists are better in their ‘strategy’; they capture the guns which lay next to a martyred soldier of the armed forces which was out in the jungle to kill the Maoists. The Maoists are a specter for the middle class – “There are so many of them!” “They are they single most, greatest internal security threat!” Scare the ignorant and the uninitiated, and he will forever live in fear.

It begins to thunder and we take shelter. The huge crowd of goats, cows and fowls gather together in the shed. Amid them is a dog, which runs towards us. He is fearless, unlike the fearful goats and hens towards which one can’t even benignly approach. He sits next to me. Sangit calls out, “Tata! Tata! Come here!” The dog responds and walks towards Sangit, and begins to lick his feet. I went mute and Sangit laughed aloud, telling me that the dog has been named Tata. “Go back Tata, let us live in peace.” Sangit says, but a moment later tells me, “But calling this dig Tata is akin to abusing this harmless dog, no?” I cannot agree with him more.