The Dark Side: A Political Travelogue through Orissa

June 29, 2009

By Shubhranshu Choudhary. Columnist, Sanhati. This article has been reprinted from Dispatches. We thank them for their permission.

Traveling through cut-off villages near Balimela reservoir, to parts of the Dandakaranya forest and the Niyamgiri hills, the writer encounters villagers who have been paying the price of “India’s economic miracle”. His guide-book promises a great place for scenic beauty and adventure water sport – he finds instead darkness, hospitals five hours away, aluminum behemoths displacing tribals with impunity – and growing mutinies.

Balimela reservoir: The cut-off village of Sitagandhi

Our launch took two hours to reach Singaram, the first “cut-off” village on Balimela reservoir, which my tourist guidebook calls “a great place for scenic beauty and adventure water sport.” As the lone boat of the day had left, the only way in was to hitch a ride with the police. As advertised, serene deep blue water surrounded lush and lofty green hills. But life for people in this unhappy corner of Orissa state is no idyll.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, built dams here in Orissa in the 1950s to improve the lives of the poor. He called them “the new temples of modern India.” Balimela was a pioneer project of a hopeful new experiment of a newly independent nation: Nehruvian development.

But rising waters on the river Sileru soon submerged many villages and left more than 150 others stranded on the far side. These are known as “cut-off” villages and are linked to the rest of the world only by infrequent boats. An area meant to symbolize a better future for impoverished Indians now exemplifies the opposite.

The Balimela region is a microcosm of an Indian tragedy. Most of India’s natural resources lie in area long home to “tribals,” ethnic minorities who have lived freely for centuries, hunting, gathering, and farming small plots.

Today, industry and mineral extraction take precedence over human lives. No one is certain how many have died as police, a government-supported militia, and the armed security forces battles people who increasingly fight for their rights. Perhaps more telling are the day-to-day travails of communities that struggle to survive.

When Balimela reservoir filled, the villagers of “cut-off” Singaram went into the hills to a place called Sitagandhi. As our boat reached shore, I met Gauranga Hantal, who showed me around.

“Singaram was a big village, he said, “but people scattered when the dam was built. Only eleven families are left here today. Some ran away, some died.” His family had lived in a different village, which was submerged. They went to Singaram when he was a small boy and when waters lapped at its edges they moved on to Sitagandhi.

In Sitagandhi today there are no roads, no electricity, no irrigation, no safe water, no doctor, and no school. Reaching the nearest hospital takes three hours by boat, followed by a two-hour walk. The nearest school is seven hours away, three by boat and four more on foot.

We sat under a tree, and villagers assembled around us. Visitors are rare in Sitagandhi. Down below we could see the reservoir past the village’s tiny mud huts, each scrupulously tidy and beautifully decorated.

Domrudhar Badnaik is one of four boys from the village who studied up to eighth grade in a distant boarding school for tribals, and then dropped out. “It was too difficult to go back to school when I came home,” he said. “Sometimes the water level would be high, sometimes the boat would not be there, and my parents did not have the money to support further education. So one day I stopped.” In such circumstances, he asked, what’s the point of schooling?

Domrudhar talked on, anger rising in his voice. “Why are we in this situation? We gave up everything for the nation’s progress. What have we got in return? Has this been done to us because we are tribals? Are we not citizens of this country?”

By now the entire village, old, middle-aged, and children, had gathered around. Chandra Galori showed me her deed from the old village of Singaram. “Government has given us no compensation,” she said. “I have no papers for land in this village.”

Balimela irrigates big farms of upper caste landowners in the area. It supplies electricity to big cities in Orissa, while Sitagandhi remains in the dark.

On the reservoir, late in 2008, Naxalite guerrillas staged their deadliest attack ever. They sank a police boat and killed nearly 40 Greyhounds commandos, an elite government force organized to suppress them.

Naxalites, named from the West Bengal village where they started in 1967, are loosely organized Maoist extremist groups. After Indian forces suppressed their urban rebellion, they moved to the forests where they add a lethal dimension to tribal frustrations.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalities in 2006 as the country’s “biggest internal security threat, which can halt the juggernaut of the Indian economic miracle.”

Angry young men like Domrudhar have been drawn to the Naxalite movement at a quickening pace. “We will not lie to you,” Gauranga told me as we sat among the villagers. “They did come to our village before the attack. They stayed for some time. We gave them water to drink and then they went off.”

One cannot expect a more frank admission in a first meeting with people who arrived in a police boat. Clearly, Naxilite inroads run deep.

I asked about the economic situation. As I had imagined, ganja (marijuana) is the villagers’ main source of income.

“We know it is illegal but what is the choice?” one man said. “We cannot survive with the little food crop we grow in these hills. The marijuana traders come from far off places. No one else comes to our village, but these traders arrive.”

District Police Chief Satyabrata Bhoi had told me earlier that the Naxalites earn substantial amounts by demanding a levy from marijuana traders.

It is hardly a surprise that tribals make up a huge majority of Naxilite recruits. They make up only 8 percent of India’s population but half of all those displaced for “development projects.” The territory tribals occupy, about 20 percent of India, contains most of the country’s natural resources. For many tribal people, driven from their villages and homes, the forests are a last sanctuary.

Although the Naxalites’ stated purpose originally was to help the poor, the movement has grown as a political force. Tribal hostility feeds its objectives.

After 40 years, the government is now trying to build a bridge across the reservoir, but the Naxalites have scared away contractors. “In the current situation, building the bridge is impossible,” the police chief told me. “I cannot provide security for it.”

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Recruiting tribals as Special Police Officers

We caught the regular once-daily boat back and listened to villagers.

Sadan Khilla from Simlipadar was on his routine three-day trip to the weekly market. “I had six children, but five of them died before they reached the age of five,” he said. “I do not know what they died of, maybe malaria.”

Ram Khara was happy that Naxalites had scared police away from his village of Bandhamadi. “The police used to ask for money under one or the other pretence, and our women are especially happy they are staying away.”

Chief Bhoi admitted the government had conceded the cut-off area, giving Naxalites a safe haven. “After the attack on the Greyhound commandos,” he said. “Police personnel have been asked to avoid the area. Instead, they have recruited tribals as Special Police Officers (SPOs).”

The name sounds quite grand, but SPOs are a ragtag militia. In the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh, which has longer experience with SPOs, these underpaid and untrained officers are accused of grave human rights violations.

Playing with a new laptop in his huge bungalow, Nitin Jawale, the young district administrator, defended the SPOs. “I know the Maoists are gaining strength very fast in the villages, but we are working on a counter strategy. There are lots of limestone deposits in my district, and we are looking at the possibility of bringing cement industry here. That could be a solution to the problem.”

I remarked that capital-intensive industries have not solved the problem in other parts of India. Mostly, they make the rich richer and the poor poorer. “We will do it in a different way this time,” he replied without elaborating.

The government plans primary education in tribal languages and festivals to strengthen communities. But that seems to be too little too late.

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Mutiny in the land of HAL and NALCO

From the Balimela reservoir, I traveled to nearby parts of Orissa. As industries stream into the region, guerrillas build up their bases in the huge Dandakaranya forest, spread across five Indian states over an area of about 100,000 square kilometers. The British cut trees for the railway lines here. Paper mills came next, followed by bauxite mines, and the largest aluminum smelter in Asia.

Local journalists directed me to Bagwat Prasad Rath, a university professor whose white beard and beatific mien give him a saintly air. He put it succinctly: “Development here has meant a slow killing of the poor. It is a silent genocide through continued deprivation of resources.”

Bijay Muduli, headman of Mathalput village, said that NALCO, the National Aluminum Company, had acquired the villagers’ land but only a tiny fraction of them had seen any benefit. “It is development for educated people from cities,” he said. “For villagers like us, it was complete destruction.”

He accused NALCO of dumping acid and sewage in the river. “We agitate all the time,” he said. “I have been to jail more than fifty times so far, and now there are more than forty criminal cases against me.” He said villagers believed the company’s promises when it moved in 25 years ago. “We were told the area will develop, and all of us will benefit” he said. “But we know better now.”

Muduli’s assistant, Debraj Bhuiyan, added, “Our agriculture production has plummeted due to pollution from the factory, and most people in our villages have turned into alcoholics,” Bhuiyan said. “They just drink and die. This is ‘development’ for us.”

A few miles away, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) makes fighter planes for the Indian Air Force in the township of Sunabeda. Meanwhile, villagers led by a firebrand named Kamlu Pangi do battle with HAL.

Pangiguda was one of several villages that lost its land when the company acquired it factory site in the 1960s. Kamlu and others have returned to squat there.

“My parents were frightened and took whatever compensation HAL gave them and ran away to a nearby village,” he said. But the money was not enough to buy land, and villagers resented them. “Our life was a nightmare. One day some people told us that land in our village was lying vacant inside the HAL compound, and we should recapture it. We thought however risky this may sound, it would be better to die cultivating our own land.”

By night, Pangiguda is an island of darkness in an ocean of light and wealth. Roads, power, and water stop just short of the village. Yet 60 families brave it out with kerosene lamps in their thatched huts. They accuse HAL authorities of trying three times to burn the village. A court recently served them with eviction notices that demand payment for makeshift homes they occupy illegally.

Companies like Nalco and HAL insist they acquire their land legally and respect Indian law. But tribals insist their livelihoods and ways of life are vanishing.

Pangiguda’s example inspires other villagers nearby. Other small mutinies sprout all around.

Bidyut Mohanty is a young activist from mainland Orissa whose father fought the British for India’s independence.

“Every one thought I was mad to come to this backward area instead of working in the new economy in big cities,” he said. But he found people who had been displaced three or four times as new industries were set up. “Now we are preparing them to fight for their rights. The only development over time is that now multinational companies have joined in displacing people, and our government works as agent for these companies.”

Mohanty explained that since few tribals have any formal education, they find little work in the highly mechanized factories. Even unskilled labor is contracted from outside. As most of the land is not registered with authorities, villagers get almost no compensation.

Apart from small plots, tribal people depend on common resources like forest and grazing land. Industries seize these at an alarming rate, Mohanty said, and people have no choice but to take the Naxalities’ help to fight back.

Anger in the Niyamgiri hills

Anger is growing everywhere. Not far away in the Niyamgiri hills, the British company Vedanta has put up a giant aluminum smelter. But people refuse to leave the beloved hills they call sacred. So far, they have stopped Vedanta machines from moving into the forest to build roads.

“The water which comes out of Niyamgiri is like milk for us,” 60-year-old Anjana Chandi said in Kadamguda village. “It feeds us like a mother. If Niyamgiri goes the water will finish, and so will our lives.”

Mahendra Chandi, 40, said Vedanta tried to cut the forest at night when villagers weren’t watching. “Now some of us are awake in the night also, and we will not allow them to cut the trees or build a road to go to the hills.”

Chandi dismisses arguments that development helps local people. “The company says they will give jobs,” he said. “But will they give a job to my son and my grandson in the years to come? The job comes to only one person in a family. What about the rest? The land will sustain our future generations, as it has done in the past.”

Meantime, Vedanta pays increased costs to import ore from Australia. It has provided resettlement and compensation to some villagers. But for many, that is not the issue.

One villager, Arjun Chandi, put it clearly: “The choice is quite simple for us. Either we will die in this fight, or our future generations will. We have decided to give our lives to save our land.”

The cashew trees of Lamtaput

I wondered how any industry could be profitable in such a hostile neighborhood. Surely, they must calculate the dent that future security costs will make in their profits. Some years back, three people died in nearby Kashipur when police fired on crowds protesting a joint venture of Indians, Canadians, and Norwegians. The foreigners pulled out. But the Indian company is pursuing the project, now delayed with huge cost overruns.

In Pangiguda, people opposing the aircraft company know that asking Naxalites for help is hardly an ideal solution. Yet options are limited.

Bidyut Mohanty took me to a village called Lamtaput where non-violent resistance is an unending battle. When Nehru’s development started, displaced people moved south to the Balimela area. But when a dam was planned there, too, most went to high ground above their old homes.

Malti Badnaik, 40, was a child when her family decided to return to the village of Barangpali. Life was too hard on the hilly land so people also worked as laborers in the plains below. One day, she said, district officers came to commiserate about the low-income paddy fields and offered to supply cashew plants, which yield higher returns.

“No one would need to go work as farm labor, they told us,” Malti recalls. “They promised to give us the rights for the trees when they were big. We readily agreed and looked after the cashew plants for about five years.”

Instead, the government set up a cashew company. A district officer who tried to give villagers title to the plants, as promised, was transferred. With Bidyut Mohanty’s help, the villagers organized a protest.

Then the government gave rights to collect the cashews to some nontribal villagers. This sharply divided the community. “It was like the divide and rule policy of the British,” Chandra Hantal told me. She grows cashews with her family but fighting with authorities has turned her into an outspoken activist.

“One day there was a huge fight,” she said. “The nontribals got goons from the nearby villages. But we managed to throw them out of the village and collected all the cashews and sold them for 60,000 rupees ($1,200 dollars). There are 43 families in my village. Each got 1000 rupees, and the rest went for expenses towards the legal cases which were slapped on us by the nontribals. Now we have made a vow that we will not allow any outsider to enter our village to touch the cashew trees.”

Villagers organized sit-ins at the police station, district offices, and the state capital, 300 miles away. Finally, the government gave them deeds to the land and their cashew plants.

Parting thoughts

“This is a good example of people’s power,” Professor Rath told me later. “If we see more such examples, then there is a hope for democracy. But unfortunately there are not many of them.”

He expects future fights to polarize between what he called fascist political forces supported by big business, on other hand, and militant communists on the other. Wealthier classes that make up 20 percent of India’s population benefit from the current model, he said. But the rest may not.

“The greed of corporations is so naked that I fear anybody with a conscience will be forced to accept the leadership of Maoists in this fight,” he said. “With all its faults democracy has been better than autocracy but this corporate democracy is getting so rotten that the intellectuals may be forced to count on the communists. The rich and middle classes who constitute up to 20 percent of India’s population, and who have benefited from the current model of development will readily accept the leadership of corporate-fascist alliance, and I fear the rest will go with the Maoists.”

Rath concluded: “I hope I am wrong, but the future of India does not look good to me. There will be a bloodbath in the years to come.”

I hoped he was wrong, too. His is only one viewpoint. But I left Orissa a very worried man.

4 Comments »

4 Responses to “The Dark Side: A Political Travelogue through Orissa”

  1. Rishi Says:
    July 2nd, 2009 at 06:39

    Nice article. Thanks Shubhranshu.

  2. mahapatra Says:
    August 2nd, 2009 at 15:43

    people like this author, already make thier concusion and just come to states like orissa to gather proof. highly prejudiced article anywway!

  3. Samarendra Das Says:
    September 2nd, 2009 at 11:47

    Hi Shubhransu Did not realise that you wrote it long ago. Arjun Chandi from Kdamguda quoted here quite appropriate to bring such strong voices.
    Best,
    S

  4. siba p Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 06:53

    i m from malkangiri and all i can say is that whatever this guy( the author) has written is all crap. i dont know why these arm chair philosophers( like choudhary) who visit such places once in a life time claim to experts on such issue and other ignorant magazines make them a hero, when their intellectual level is that of a stupid. the authors assesment is far from truth. i also feel that this is a typical cse of bengali bias against oriyas. things r better off here than lalgarh. mind you.

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