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.


How Much Would You Sell Your Mother For?

It is 6 am on a Monday (June 21) and she has just finished sweeping the floor. She offers me a cup of strong tea as we sit under the shade of a large tree, we talk about food. Soon, she will have to run to the fields – not to work, but to see the huge bulldozers coming and leveling her land. The previous day was rather a relaxed one for her and other villagers, as being a Sunday, there was no work on the farms by the authorities.

We were talking about food. Every McDonald’s outlet, at least in the Indian cities, has a four-foot tall bin, to throw the waste food. Despite having a refrigerator, almost every urban household throws food into the bin. I tell her this, and she is shocked, but a moment later explains this phenomenon to me. “I know why they do this – because people in the cities do not grow their own food. They just buy it. We farmers tend to every plant that we grow on our fields. It would be an exaggeration if I said that this is the reason why we relish our food. But yes, because we have slogged ourselves while growing the food, we can never throw it. But it seems like people in the cities eat steel and money,” she laughs.

"Aren't we fighting for our God, for our Mother?"

There are no words or arguments to defend what she accused the urban folk of. Before I could conjure up some more words, she touched the ground and added, “This land is my mother. She has given me food, water and clean air. When I die, she will take me back into her womb. Tell me, would you be willing to sell this mother? And if so, then at what price? We have asked this question each time an officer comes in a big car to convince us to give up our land. He has no reply. But we just help with an answer since he goes mute: ‘Let us know the price at which you will sell your mother. We will then think about the price you can quote, but no, we will not sell her.’ The government says that these steel plants are being made for our development. Forget jobs; not even a needle will come to us from these plants! Do they think humans can survive on iron and steel? Perhaps they can! After all aren’t the city folk always hungry for money?” I lower my head upon hearing the stark truth.

I try to change the topic and ask her about the movement. She says that earlier people would be scared upon seeing a policeman. “Ever since the crossfire on January 2, 2006, took place, we have never retreated. We now look at the cops as piece of dirt. God has given us that strength to fight back – after all aren’t we fighting for our God?”

Freedom?

I realize that I too need to find a place from where I could file reports of all that I see, hear, smell, feel. But when I propose this idea to Rabi, he is defiant. “The cops come to level the fields from 8 am to 12 noon. You just cannot go in front of them. The goons are drunk; the cops will catch you and label you a Maoist.” I argue with him that I need to see for myself what is happening, but he explains patiently. “See, you need to walk a minimum of 3 kms to the main road to take a bus to Jajpur Road, where you will find cyber cafes. But you cannot go there – it is unsafe. Some of our young boys have gone there, but they have returned – what do you do when there are 300 cops?” Around 12 noon, I begin to walk towards the main road. I revel in the cool breeze thanks to an early morning shower, while the green grass on either side of the rough patch of road makes me want to lie down and look up at the clouds. But the euphoria comes to a sudden halt when I see three men carrying bows and arrows, sitting under a tree.

“Johar,” I greet them. They eye me suspiciously, but I rush my words to tell them what I do and where I have been staying in their village. I sit next to them to strike up a conversation, simply because their tools fascinate me no end. They don’t tell me their names, but warn me against going ahead. “Madam, it will be best that you don’t go ahead today. There are too many goons who are mostly drunk.” I try to tell him that I want to see exactly what he doesn’t want me to face, but I understand his apprehensions – as an outsider who may get into trouble, it would be unnecessary burden on them to try and rescue me. For the first time, I begin to sense the nauseating feeling of not being able to move about freely in one’s own land. I know that I would get out sooner or later, but the men, women and children have since long been under such a house arrest.

"This is our parampara."

I am on the verge of breaking down, for, despite having traveled this far without any assurance that my words would be read and the voice of the voiceless would be heard, I was not allowed to see for myself what was happening. I sigh aloud and the men smile. I ask one of them about his bow and arrow. He tells me he is on ‘patrol duty’ till the time the cops continue with their leveling work. “I will be here till the time they are gone. I can see them from here.” I cannot see anything. The heart sees what the eyes cannot see. “Every night, every youth from every household is out with his bows and arrows. We make these at home. This is part of our ‘parampara’. We have to stand on guard for our own land because the cops come in the middle of the night along with goons, from other villages too. Besides, our villagers who have accepted the rehab packages by Tata live in their transit camps and are made to wear khaki. So from a distance, it would obviously seem like a huge police force,” he explains.

“But what about the promised jobs?” I ask, and by now, some women – axes in their hands – too return from the direction of the main road. I learn that they were near the site where the land was being leveled, as they wanted to see the way in which their own Mother was being rendered infertile. I ask them again if I could go, but they tell me to stay put. I try not to think about my itchy feet and turn to the thread of conversation. “They did promise jobs to some of the people who went with them. But the job contract is only for six years. We would get the job of a sweeper or watchman. What happens after six years? There is no mention about that! And by then, we would have lost our land and livelihood, emptied our pockets of the compensation amount, and then we would lose our sanity. They think they can buy us off. But we will fight,” he says, lifting his bow and arrow.
  
Divide, Kill and Rule

I walk back dejected but Rabi, who is back from his own fields and meeting other people in the villages, tells me that he would make me happy in the evening. We go to Champakoyla village which now has just 20 families. Ten families were ‘displaced’ by Tata, one by one. Earlier in the day, the fields of the people in this village were leveled, while three houses were bulldozed. When we reach the picturesque village, the men show no sign of dejection. They are busy playing a game of cards. Rabi waits for them to put a neat closure to the game. I whisper in jest, “They are doing something important. They would not want to be disturbed.” He smiled and replied, “They are extremely upset. They wouldn’t have been playing cards at 5pm – they would have been returning home from their fields.” The heart sees what the eyes cannot see.

Searching for the last straw of grass amid the black sand and slug.

I am introduced to Sonia Tiria, leader of Bisthapi Birodhi Jan Manch (BBJM) in that village. His wife Diyugi (32) was shot in her waist during the January 2, 2006, firing. He remarried a year later so that his two children – now aged 12 and 10 – could be taken care of by a mother. He tells me that post the firing, the 10 families marched along with Tata. One of the families is that of his own brother. “Tata and its money divided our family. It is rather sad to see my own brother Pradhan and his children taking up arms against us,” he says, as he points out to the broken house of his brother. Beyond the rubble lay the grave of his deceased wife.

The villagers offer to show me the bust of Ramchandra Jamunda, who was killed along with Diyugi on that fateful day. In all, two people became martyrs on that winter morning. They want me to see the spot where the firing took place, and we walk about 500 metres. I meet a 40-something lady, who, I ma told, is the midwife of the village. She tells me in Hoo language, which is translated to Hindi by the men, that several women have died during delivery due to complications. “The health centre is 10 kms away. There is no way, other than the bicycle, upon which a woman in her labour can be carried. Nobody in this village has a motorbike. Life here indeed is in accordance to the will of God,” one man translates her words for me.

Sonia shows me a house that stood erect the same morning, but was now in rubble. “What about those cows?” I ask. “These belonged to the owner of the house. Of course Tata doesn’t offer a shed for the animals of those who give up their land and accept their rehab package.”

 
Your God, My God

We arrives near a tiny lake, next to which is a stone pillar built in the memory of the 15 martyrs. There is a wave of tranquility – the Hoos believe that the souls of the deceased bless the living on their path. They tell me that more than 25 platoons of police had arrived on Jnaury 2, 2006, and they stood near the lake and fired. Bullets from INSAS rifles, as well as rubber bullets, hit people even 3 kms away.

As we walk back after having paid our obeisance to the pillar, I ask the people, “Aren’t you fighting a losing battle?” One of elder men walks rushes ahead to tell me his amalogy. “The five Pandavas fought with 100 Kauravas. But the Pandavas had the Gods with them. But it doesn’t seem like God is on our side, at this moment.” Defying his pessimistic view, another said, “But we have faith in the law. Someday, it will hear us out. We have to die anyway. But we will die fighting for our land. We don’t want to use our bows and arrows either to fight – we use them to hunt animals, not people. We hope we don’t have to use them on people. We reach a patch of land – about 100 sq. metres – which is akin to a forest. One man points out, “You know Madam, this tiny forest provides us with everything we need. But the government says that Maoists inhabit this forest! Even a tiger would find this space tiny! But while the government makes such tall claims, Tata officers often go around this forest!”

“That is some company’s tower and its God. This is the people’s tower and our God.”

It is moonlit night and hence we don’t miss the electricity. Rabi continues the meeting with all the people from the village, while I am introduced to three teenage cousins – Padmini, Janki and Sushmita Jamunda. Each of the three girls lives in a hostel in Jajpur Road and is in their 12th grade, studying Science. Each of them wants to become a doctor. Janki, the extrovert among the three, tells me after some time, “If we become doctors, we would be the first doctors in this village and for the villages adjoining ours,” she says with a certain pride, and I shower my words of encouragement. She then goes on, with inputs from her sisters: “We do have a medical centre in Dhangadi, which is 10 kms away. But ever since the clampdown by Tata’s goons, it has been really difficult to get there for treatment. Some of our villagers have had to state that they come from some different village, whose land is not in the process of being acquired by Tata. That’s how they have managed to save themselves.”

We talk about festivals and food, but they want to know how big is Mumbai. I don’t do a good job of it: “Do go there once and make some money, but do not forget to return to your roots. Because if you continue to live there, your heart will turn into a stone. Your village needs you,” they understand my point. Janki replies, “Yes, we know what you are saying Didi. Look that side – the entire sky has become orange because of the light from the steel plants. That is hardly 2 kms away from here. Yet, we don’t have electricity in this village. We used to have a clear stream, but the water is now polluted because effluents from the steel plants have been released into it.” She takes a deep breath before saying aloud, “Where there is the adivasi, there is the jungle, the water, the clean air. We take only little from the nature, and companies grab even that!”

Rabi and I ride back around 8 pm. The moon above lights up the rickety road for us. At one point, we see about thirty people under a huge tree. “They are people from Bamiagonth village. They have been sleeping outside ever since May 28 this year, to stay on alert if we are attacked. Only the very old stay indoors. But toddlers and their mothers too stay awake through the night in shifts. This is the way we patrol and protect ourselves,” Rabi says with pride.