August 15, 2012
By Siddhartha Mitra
Ori Sisha is a wry man. His long wiry, brown frame, wrinkled at the edges, speaks of many hours sent under the beating sun. His steady gaze, behind his thick glasses, does not belie any emotion. In his seventy odd years, he has seen a lot of the world, and from his outlook it appears he is not convinced that people in the world necessarily mean his well-being.
It is morning in the RITES office in Chitrakonda [Malkangiri district, Orissa – ed.]. The morning sun, filtering through the iron net on the window, is spreading itself on the wall and floor, lighting up the room. Mr. Sisha, who resides in the neighboring village of Lambasingh, has come to tell me an interesting story, which I believe he has narrated to several people before. For he has seen that few living today recall it having taken place.
His is the story of two displacements. Of one dam, and then another.
The story starts in 1951, when he was just a young boy. It was a time of great change in India; independence had come only a few years earlier, ushering in a new era. All over India, the “temples of modern India”, as Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of dams, were coming up. One of the largest projects nearing completion was the Jalaput dam in the Machkund river, in Southern Orissa. These dams were to determine the fate of the tens of thousands who lived in the tribal heartlands of India.
Mr. Sisha recalled the day the District Collector first came to the his village, which was in the submersion zone of the Jalaput dam. A colonial era term, a “Collector” no longer collected revenue, but in essence was the head of the local administration. The Collector was short and to the point. The people needed to leave, because of the dam that was coming up. These were the days before the Forest Rights Act, or PESA. Eminent domain, the law that the government had sole right to determine which lands were to be used for “development”, was the ultimate law of the land.
They would not be the only ones. 91 villages were going to be submerged by the Jalaput dam.
When, asked the bewildered villagers? And where?
It was a sacrifice for a greater cause ,the Collector had said, trying to soften the blow. It could be done over a few years, but they did need to move. In five years, their village would be many feet below water. They could get compensation, and also could choose between one of several places.
But it had to happen.
In those days, few resisted, or even thought of it. Though few in the forests of India had any idea about the nation and the nation building in rapid progress, it seemed to such people that the best way they can participate in those precipitate times was to sacrifice their lives, as they knew it.
After scouting the possible destinations, the village decided to move into the Chitrakonda valley, some 100 km away, further South in Orissa. Nestled next to the beautiful forests in the Koraput district, the area seemed verdant, promising hope for the future life.
But what did it mean to move a village?
It meant leaving one’s roots behind. One can move household goods. Pots and pans can be put in a bullock cart, carried in person; but can the home one has lived in for generations be moved? Can one take the mango tree and the peepul tree that has stood in the village center, providing shelter for years, where stories have been woven around for generations? The abode of their deities and the home of the myths?
One would have to start life all over again.
Each family was given money to purchase 5 acres of land for farming. At the then going rate of 10000 Rs per acre, the money they got just covered the land costs. Houses had been built for them, like in the many Resettlement colonies, houses in a line, much unlike the individual houses in their own village which stood apart from each other.
It took them years to move. Mr. Sisha still remembered the beginning; people would walk several days, sometimes having to cross streams. While younger people were easily able to wade across the rivers, older people, especially older women were not able to. They were left behind in the beginning, and later on, bamboo rafts were constructed so that they would be able to cross the streams.
Most of the livestock was left behind. It was impossible to have them cross the streams.
And then there was the actual business of settling down. In all, the new village had 68 families. The dark forests seemed forbidding, and rumours of wild animals in the forests made them uneasy. What if snakes and tigers came in the houses? Hearing their concern, the Maharaja of Jeypore, Vikram Dev sent the master carpenter Sadashiv Tripathi, to construct strong doors and windows for the houses. “There were three windows and two doors to each house. Each house had 2 rooms, one of which was a kitchen”, Mr. Sisha recalled.
What about growing food? What had seemed promising and fertile land at the beginning, turned out to be land that did not quite grow the Mandya crop that was harvested. In somewhat of a panic mode, the villagers on their own cleared an area on the forest higher up the valley, an act they knew was illegal and punishable.
When the Balimela forester found out about the tree felling, he filed a case against the villagers, and gave them notice. The villagers were summoned to meet him at the local headquarters, which was three days walking distance away. Rains had come; the villagers asked for a new date for after the rainy season. The new date they were given was in during Diwali, in month of Kartik (Kartik maash). The day finally arrived, and the villagers, in a walk filled with trepidation, reached the forester’s office. After waiting for a whole day, to their surprise and relief, they were fined just 25 Rs per person! It seemed too good to be true at that time, but there was a hidden catch to this, as they soon were to discover.
Life came back to normal. In those days, the forest was rich with produce. There used to be 4 crops, and only organic fertilizers, which used leaf compost, though curiously no cowdung, as is widely used in organic fertilisers in India today. People also seasonally worked as labourers. In those days, labour was cheap. The rates were 15 paise (4 anna ) for small folks, 14 anna for adult men, 10 anna for adult women. Evidently, child labour was not only officially sanctioned, there was a fixed rate for it. In today’s India, it is illegal, but only in theory. Underage children in the labour force working today in India get far less than the adult counterparts. Which system was better?
Few years later, in 1957, news reached them that their earlier home had gone under water after the Jalaput dam had closed its gates. And four years further on, in 1961, Mr. Sisha’s father passed away.
In the very next year, the villagers were in for a rude awakening. This time, it was not the district Collector who alerted them of their impending fate. Some villagers noticed that new shops were opening up in the city further up the valley, which were owned and operated by people from outside the region. Wealthy outsiders had been brought in and re-settled there. From their past experience, and from what they had heard from other villagers, such things were the precursor of a new resettlement colony. Sure enough, the the state officials informed them that there would be another dam that would come up.
This time, they were told they could live in the forest area they had cleared. But they would get only Rs 200 or Rs 250 as compensation, a meager amount compared to what the going rates were. The Collector argued that since the government had to use dredgers to remove the roots of the trees that were cut down by the villagers, they were offsetting the costs that way.
And so they moved again. 50-60 villages in Chitrakonda (Balimela dam). And there they have stayed, in the village of LambaSingh, for decades since then. In 1981, the then Madras Presidency gave them the “patta” or the right to the lease of the land.
What about the mining? Have they heard of it?
Yes, they have. But they are not willing to move again. “Where will we move to? There is no place to move.”, said Mr. Sisha, the glint in his eyes steeling further. “Even the forest does not have any more resources left. There are few bamboo trees left.”.