(Below, I have posted an article originally written by Siddartha Mitra of AID – New York, with his permission. Siddartha travelled to the camps housing displaced persons fleeing the Salwa Judum and Naxalite violence in southern Chattisgarh, a state in Central India.
The Salwa Judum is a state sponsored militia consisting of young men and boys (often under 18) who have been given weapons, ostensibly to fight the left wing extremists (so called ‘Naxalites’) operating in the region.
The conflict has lead to atleast 300,000 people fleeing their homes to camps in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Neither the Chattisgarh government, the Andhra government nor the Union Government of India acknowledge the existence of these refugees. No assistance is provided to these persons and they are routinely harassed by the Salwa Judum and local security forces.)
The lost people of Khammam
Speaking about the atrocities he witnessed during the time he spent in the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Primo Levi said – “Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.”
As I write these words, sitting in the middle of a busy city, far from the forests of Khammam, I find it hard to believe that I actually saw the camps in the forests there. That the insensitivity to other human beings, so grotesquely played out in the Nazi concentration camps, could occur in a more sinister manner, outside of history books, in todays world. I grew up with the basic belief in human compassion to other humans, and with the notion that the state is an entity, notwithstanding its defects, has the objective of the betterment of all in its territory – a collective reflection of the individual compassion of human beings. What I saw in the forests stood in stark opposition to that understanding.
There are more than 16000 people, displaced from the violence in Chhattisgarh, who stay across 203 scattered settlements in the Khammam region of Andhra Pradesh (AP), India. Some of these camps are in plain sight, near villages; some in remote reaches of the forests, far from any habitation. There location and presence is well-known, and has been documented by human rights groups. Yet the Indian state denies the settlement camps actually exist. The fact that these 16000 odd people in its own territory can live or die as they choose to while the state can look away, pretending that they are simply not there. It is a disappearing trick that even the greatest magician can be proud of. You can try to look at official records, but none will mention these nameless people.
Why, you might ask? What is lost in just accepting that these people and their camps exist? It is not that they immediately have to be provided with food and shelter by the state; lip service on such matters by the Indian state to its many of citizens has been the norm rather than the rule. They why this exception?
Perhaps there is a greater secret to hide?
The secret that these displacement camps are just a tip of the iceberg, the remains of a great atrocity that has been perpetrated by the state, a shameful fact which must not get known?
Chhattisgarh is one of the most mineral rich areas in the India and in the world. And what a wealth! Tin, dolomite, diamond, uranium, iron-ore, coal, to name a few. After the creation of state in 2000, state government has signed 100’s of MOU’s with different mining companies, to the tune of many billion dollars, with investments projected to exceed trillions. And in no place in the state is the mineral wealth concentrated as in Bastar, the southern tip of Chhattisgarh. The Bastar craton, in which a violent upheaval deep in the bowels of the earth millions of years ago thrust minerals in precious lodes up to the surface, holds riches beyond imagination.
And it is also poor beyond description.
Heavily forested, with an overwhelmingly indigenous population, is also perhaps the poorest in India in terms of human development. There are 1200 villages there, distributed across the forests, with only having 50 medical centers, many of them unattended. With one of the lowest life expectancies of any region of India, and more than 60% of the population living in a state of chronic malnourishment, the people of Bastar live now in the stone ages even decades after India’s independence, in conditions similar to that in the poorest sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of helping them, the state has implemented policies that further affect their livelihood and causes displacement. The callous treatment by the state is one of the factors that has led to the strong presence of Naxalism in the region. The Naxalites are an armed group, mainly consisting of tribals who have vowed to fight against the state, supposedly in protection of the rights of the poor people there and elsewhere in India.
Yet life went on in the forests. Despite the poverty, the indigenous people were at least able to live in their natural surroundings, living with the forests, the land and the water that nourished them and gave them life. But that was about to change.
In 2005, the Tata Steel company signed a 2 billion $ contract for mining iron ore in Bailadila in Bastar. The iron-ore there is stated to be the best iron-ore in the world because of its sulfur free nature. The very next day, a private militia, Salwa Judum was formed, and was openly backed by the Chhattisgarh state government. In appearance to fight the Naxalites, this militia, armed with Swiss made guns and backed by the state police and the central paramilitary , burned down more than 644 villages of tribal people in the Bastar district, killing and raping countless hundreds of villagers, sending 300000 fleeing from there homes. Some 50000 went into displacement camps created by the the Salwa Judum, 200000 disappeared into the forests, and 50000 fled to the neighbouring southern state of Andhra Pradesh (AP). Of the 50000 that fled to AP, some 16000 people live in the camps in Khammam. It was the presence of this last group that caused discomfiture to the state, as the results of its shameful policies were now for all to see. Instead of redressing the wrongs, the state simply refused to recognise the existence of the camps in Khammam. Such recognition would inevitably lead to the entitlement of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) status to these people, making them eligible for aid.
Not only would recognition by the state make them eligible for aid, it would have opened the whole can of worms about why the displaced got there in the first place. It would expose the bloody trail that leads to Salwa Judum, the mining giants, and to the highest echelons of the state in the home ministry. Accepting them as displaced is also acceptance of the fact that they are the rightful owners of land that is worth billions. Accepting their presence would put flies in the face of corporate greed.
“To government maante nehin hain kya yeh log hain? In logon ka NREGA nehin milta hain”? (“So the government does not accept the fact that these people exist? Do not these people get NREGA?”)
The cool morning breeze was blowing across my face as the motorcycle sped through the bumpy, muddy road. The fields were still wet with the recent rains. Rains had unexpectedly come in December, destroying nearly half of the freshly harvested paddy crop that had been left out to dry in the fields.
Mr. Prasad, who worked in the Agriculture and Social Development Society (ASDS), was taking me on his motorcycle was to be my guide today. We had just started earlier in the morning from the ASDS office in Rekhapalli, and were headed to some of the nearby “IDP” camps.
“Kuch logon ko NREGA card dilate hain, lekin” … (“Some people do get NREGA cards, but..”)
I had heard about these camps, and had also read travelogues of people who had recently visited some of them. Of course the wretchedness as described was not as bad as those in a concentration camp. Instead, the death was more of a slow kind. It was through hunger and malnutrition and despair, and the death of a way of life. It had been difficult to read the reports and see the pictures; I wanted to get a first hand account, to see for myself what it was really like.
We were nearing our first destination, which was a camp that was being held near a busy marketplace by a village. In the distance, I could see the forested hills that separated Andhra Pradesh from the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh. It was only around a year ago that I had visited a few rehabilitated villages on the other side. But now that was a no-go zone, thanks to the Operation Green Hunt (OGH), the massive military and paramilitary operation that had been launched in these forests, supposedly to clear the area of Naxalites. No one knows how successful it has been, or what its measures of success are. But the wake of the the “hunt” had recently resulted in a new wave of displacement among the tribals, fleeing the violence.
This was only one of the 203 encampments that were already there in the forests. The people staying there were mostly Muria’s and Gotti Koya’s who had fled from Chhattisgarh. Some of the camps were deep in the forest. ASDS, along with ActionAID and Echo (European Commission of Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection), was working in providing some form of aid to 146 of these camps. The condition of the remaining 57 is not known.
Fig 1. The map is shown here. The first map shows where these people have fled from in CG, and the second map shows where they have set up camps in AP.
As we neared the marketplace, Mr. Prasad met an ASDS volunteer by the roadside, and stopped to talk with him. Then he turned to me and said “Abhi idhar OGH chal raha hain, jo camp hum jaane waale the udhar ja nehin sakte.” (Right now OGH is going on, we will not be able to go to the camps we were planning to visit).
“OGH idhar?” (OGH here?). I was surprised. I thought OGH was a distant nightmare in the in Chhattisgarh, and in the forests of Jharkhand and Orissa. But here in AP? In the middle of a bustling marketplace?
“Idhar bhi search hota hain”, he said. “Naxal log kabhi kabhi Chhattisgarh se adivasio ke saath idhar chale aate hain”. (The search happens here too. Someimes the Naxals come here with the adivasis).
OGH is here. In the cities, in villages, on the roads that go through and beyond the forests.
It is everywhere now.
The authorities claim Naxalites come with the adivasis into the marketplace. Who is to be believed? One thing is certain, of the 200000 people who fled their homes when Salwa Judum burned them down, many went into the forests. There is nothing to eat there, and one cannot survive beyond a few days. Sometimes the people who hide there do indeed come into the marketplace to get food, and creep quietly back into the forest. Are they Naxalites? The authorities claim that sometimes Naxalites come with the adivasis to kill the police. There was apparently a shootout in the marketplace a month ago which left one “Maoist” dead.These claims very difficult to ascertain.
But one thing is certain. Life is no longer the same. There is a atmosphere and fear, suspicion, that now hangs like an unseen shroud all over, in the forests, in the villages near the forests, over the lives of people who live there. Even beneath this seemingly friendly bustle of marketplace, there ran that skein of terror.
Mr. Prasad asked me to wait at a nearby tea-shop, while we went to discuss with his friend which places I could go to.
Red, green yellow – the marketplace shone with the colours. The gaily clad vendors, women and men who had walked long distances to sell vegetables and forest produce.and also the produce. Deep red, tamarind seeds, succulent yellow mahua fruits, roots of different kinds. It was a busy day. Both locals and tribals who had come from Chhattisgarh had set up shop by the roadside.
While waiting by the tea-shop, I noticed a group of around 12-15 people, wearing blue pants, but otherwise not in uniform, carrying rifles, walking towards the marketplace.
They did not appear to be the private militia Salwa Judum; at least not they did not appear as threatening and lawless as Salwa Judum seemed in photographs. And so far away from Chhattisgarh, I did not expect that they would be active.
I realised that this is the OGH that was being referred to. Contrary to popular notions, OGH does not consist mostly of commando style operations in the deep jungle. It also consists of these “search” operations, in seemingly normal areas. Curious to know what they were doing in the marketplace, I followed these men at a distance, to have a first hand look of what it is like. They went from vendor to vendor, checking through the produce, searching their belongings, questioning them. Discretely, I took a photo of them, and then decided to go closer and take some more photos of them making an actual search. However, before I realised it, they had headed to right where I was standing. There was just time to put away the small digital camera I was using into my hip pocket. The leader of the group, a jaunty young man no more than thirty, was carelessly carrying a sophisticated pistol in his right hand. I stood quietly, hoping they would just pass by me, but that was not to happen.
As he passed me, he looked at me sharply, and stopped. So did the police with him. He stood by my side, and two policemen, with rifles, stood just in front of and behind me.
There are 2 kinds of people in the forest, as per Mr. Amresh Mishra, SP Dantewada. Either naxal sympathisers, or naxalites. Presumably tribals who were found in the forests fell into this category. The other more insidious group of people, in the eyes of the state, were those intellectuals and academics who would come and try to foment a revolution among the masses. It was in this latter category that he suspected of me being in. A rabble rouser who had ventured into the marketplace hoping to incite the adivasis who had come there.
I was feeling nervous, but with a determined effort, I tried not to manifest it externally. The last photo I had taken was of the police walking with rifles, something that I would have been hard pressed to explain if questioned about.
“Aap kaha sein aayein hain?” he asked me, looking at me suspiciously.
“Kolkata”, I replied.
At a nod from him, the officer in front of me conducted a preliminary body search. It appeared he was looking for hidden weaponry. In that process, he overlooked the obvious, which was the digital camera in my pant pocket. Soon after, the person standing behind me also conducted a frisking to see if I had any weapons on my shoulder, back. They also looked into my backpack. It had the Sanhati Booklet published in 2010 book far, which had among other things a “Statement against Operation Green Hunt”. I had carried it with me with a vague idea of sharing it with ASDS workers on the ground. Thankfully, they overlooked that too. All that they were looking for was explosives, and maybe pamphlets.
After the search, the two armed police stood close to me, front and back, while the inspector, pistol in hand, stood by my side.
“App kya karte hain?”
His next question caught me entirely off-guard.
“Aap ka kaun sa laptop pasand hain?”
“Laptop?” I was incredulous.
He edged closer, with renewed suspicion written all over him.
“Kya aap ko laptop malum nehin?”
“Haan haan, laptop. Sony, Dell, Toshiba .. “
This pacified him. But he was not done.
“Sony laptop kitne mein milti hain?”
I had no idea. 1000 $? “Challis hazaar?” I hazarded a guess.
It seemed to be in the range. Now tending to thinking that I was what I claimed to be, and not one of those preachers of Maoism, he still continued “Kaun si brand ki laptop achcha hain?”
“Sony thik hain, Dell bhi, ..”.
Lets remember that this conversation was not about laptops. But that is what it had become!
At this point, Mr. Prasad, arrived at last, accompanied by a friend. Seeing me being questioned, he hurried up, with a large ingratiating smile on his face.
“Aare kya baat hain ji. Ye aadmi hamara saath hain, camp dekhne ke liye aaya”.
“Camp dekhne ke liye?” The inspector frowned, and looked at me with renewed suspicion.
It turned out Mr. Prasad knew someone who was a friend of the inspector. In a few minutes, our meeting was concluded, and then at last we headed to the camp.
The camp was partly empty as many had gone to the marketplace. Mr. Prasad did assemble a few of the camp-dwellers, who told us their stories. Most of the stories were the same. They had fled the Salwa Judum. Accounts that I had read predominantly had the same narrative, though there were also accounts of people fleeing the Naxal violence, All the people I talked with in this camp here had the same story.
People in this camp had arrived from different villages. After all, this was a camp, not a village where different families have close ties that span generations. A living, breathing entity that thought as one, lived as one, and shared each others happiness. This camp was more like a resting spot, a place where people waited till either they could return to their homes or perhaps could go into another life. Meanwhile, these people, faced with the same predicament, had learned to coexist with each other.
At least, living near a village, people in this camp had access to possible employment. For most camps in the interior, that was not even an option.
There was a couple that was standing next to their home near where I say. I spoke with them to learn more about their lives.
“To aap kyan karte hain?” I asked. (What do you do?)
“Kuch majuri karta hoon, dhaan kaatneka – kaam milta to din mein 60 Rs milta hain”. (Some labour work. Like cutting grain. If I get work. That might bring me 60 Rs per day.)
60 Rs per day is below the minimum wage of 100 Rs. Who cares? These people were “illegal” anyway.
“To usme khane ho jata hain?” I asked. (Is that enough for your meals?)
“Din mein ekbar khana hota hain usse”, he sadly replied.(We get one meal a day with it.)
Just then, someone, a younger man in jeans and t-shirt, came in from the market, holding a little plastic bag. Look, what I have got, he said with a broad smile – “Ginger, garlic. All for Rs. 20!“
60 Rs a day earns just about a meal for the family. This year, food prices have reached a record inflation of 17.5%, partly due to effects of climate change, and partly due to financial speculation in market.
Noticeable in his purchase was the lack of onions. Already under strain due to market pressures, unseasonal heavy rains in the Western Ghats had driven the price through the roof. Onions, reaching 80 Rs a kg, had essentially left the common mans plate. Seasoning of food, was now to be done with by ginger or garlic, or by dried flowers.
Flowers used for seasoning
And after food, what remains as saving? Even on a good day? Maybe 10 Rs?
In the main hall of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, there is an advertisement for a real estate company, marketing bungalows outside of Delhi. A prominent Indian cricketer, wearing princely clothes, leisurely reclines as he smiles at you. The bungalows starting at only 48.5 lakh Rs * (~ 100000 $). A great bargain! Perhaps for a little more, you will even get eco-friendly bamboo flooring, made by Radius Corporation India Limited, which has brought, yes purchased, the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh, to manufacture the flooring. Sheonath was the first river to be privatised in India, at terrible cost to the communities living downstream the river who lives were destroyed when they could no longer access the river.
Though the rest of India does not see the people of Chhattisgarh, they certainly use the things that come out of this region!
I wondered if the person I was talking to would be ever able to afford the bungalow that had been advertised. At Rs 10 savings per day,it would take this person hundreds of years before he can think of buying this place, or even making a down payment.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that he will live beyond 60. I had seen report on the demographics of the camps. I had wondered why the age group 60 and above had so few people. The demographics in the camps reflected of what it was like in Bastar.
These are the two India that Dr. Binayak Sen, the doctor and human rights activist who had spent decades in Chhattisgarh, had spoken about years earlier. One of immense riches, and the other of untold misery, living in distant worlds. One India which relies on the resources that rightfully belong to the other.
Some more people had gathered around. One of them pointed to hut behind where he sat. A woman lived there, a single mother. Desperate for food, she had ventured into the forest in the hills that we saw in the background, to pick some berries to sell in the marketplace. Picked up by a patrol, she was jailed in the Konta police station for a month on suspicion of being a Naxalite. Only repeated entreaties by other camp members, when they had finally learned of her whereabouts, secured her release. They had pleaded that her child would die if she was not freed.
Presumably they did not bother to question her about laptops. In any case, in the forests, if you do not have “business”, you are a Naxalite or a Naxal sympathizer. Does not matter if you were a tribal who has lived there for generations.
After this visit, we headed next to the next camp, which was in reality a food center. Mr. Prasad referred to it as a “feeding center”. No, in case you were wondering, it was not for pigs or cows, but for tribal people. A place where the most vulnerable, like pregnant or lactating women, and children who were severly malnourished, were given food once a day.
These centers form a core part of the ASDS effort to help the IDP’s. Without it, many children and women in these camps would have perished.
The food center also served as a school for the children. They were provided basic knowledge of Telgu. Charts, hanging from a clothes line, had pictures of what the external world looked like.
A chart of world leaders, featured, in the same panel, Gandhi, Prince Charles, Mao De Zhong and Hitler. It seemed indeed a unfortunate tragedy that while most upper and middle class Indian’s think of the tribals as Maoists, most of the camp members would not be able to recognise their supposed ideological leader. There was also a chart showing different electrical appliances. Not to mention the fact that there is no electricity in these camps, and most of these people have never seen any electrical equipment, and would have no idea how to use one were they to see one. At least, they could get a view of why they have been evicted from their lands.
On the wall, there was a chart of the women that recorded the heights and weights of the women who were being helped in the feeding center. Among them was Madkam Masaiah, pregnant, age 26, weight 38 kg.
38 Kg(84 lb)? Pregnant? What was the BMI, 15 or 16?
Below 18.5 is a sign of chronic malnourishment.
How long Makam going to she live? What will be the future of her child? If that child is not born deformed or stunted?
Madkam is that 33.5 % of the adult population which has a BMI < 18.5. Or rather, As Dr. Binayak Sen had mentioned, the 60-70% of the people of Bastar who were in this category. What according to WHO guidelines falls under the definition of famine, and as per the definition of UN, marks the state as committing genocide against its people. If these people belonged to it or ever will. Not Congo, orRwanda, where conflict was over resources has ripped apart so many lives. The structural violence in our land is a far more deadly exterminator of the unwanted.
And was this daily struggle to feed oneself, the terror stalking when they try to venture in the forests to get some produce in trying to make a living, was that all the suffering they needed to go through?
There was a far greater existential threat. Talking with Mr. Venkatesh the next morning, I first learned about the “reconciliation camps” and why they were vital.
“In logon ke liye reconciliation meeting sabse kaam mein aata hai”, he explained to me. “Us meeting mein sab aatein hain. Forest dept sein, panchayat sein, local leader, aur camp sein cluster leader. To in logon mein baat hone sein samjhauta hon sakta hain. Nehi to bahar ki log inko rahne sein bura maante hain.” (The reconciliation meetings are the most useful things for these people. Everyone comes there. From the forest dept. from the panchayat, local leaders, cluster leader from the camps. It is these camps that promote and understanding of the situation, otherwise the locals are in deep distrust of the outsiders.)
The locals perceive these outsiders as a threat. Being of a different cultural background, they cannot relate to these people. And then there is the issue of resources. The forest department officials have to find a reason to allow these people to set up camp in the forests. They have worked out a system, though not officially. They take a certain amount of money, from each camp dweller, 1000-2000 Rs, to allow them to stay. At the same time, the IDP’s would need to periodically report to the local authorities, who seem anxious that these people do not attempt to return.
The forests of Khammam, though not having the splendor of the forests of Chhattisgarh, still have very many trees that provide expensive wood to be used in furniture. Many such trees, like teak, are felled in the pretext of setting up the camps, and are likely smuggled out of the region. The deforestation is blamed on the IDP’s; at least to get to stay in the forest.
Felled teak tree, by a camp site
By noon, I was on the way to visit two more camps. This time, I rode pillion on a motorcycle with Javed. These camps were more in the interior, in areas of cleared forest.
The first camp was seemed well established. It had been around for some time, since the early days of the Judum. There was even a bore-well, the construction of which needed to have special permit from the forest department. This camp had a food center, and was also the place where a health camp would be held later on in the day.
As I entered, a girl passed by, herding some cows out of the camp. These people had been lucky. They had been able to get some of their livestock with them. Many other villagers in the camps had not had the same luck. Either they had fled in a hurry, or the Salwa Judum systematically killed their livestock when they attacked their villages. The Salwa Judum would not only kill the cattle, they would eat them too.
Javed had gone to find out some camp dwellers I could talk with. Meanwhile, I decided to take a walk through the camp, through the muddy road that went through it. It was early in the afternoon; thenoon sun had warmed up the day. The night had been very cold, part of the unseasonal cold weather sweeping India. There were some people walking around, and a few taking an afternoon siesta outside their huts. I wondered if these people had been able to sleep in the night, in their reed huts, which did not quite stop the wind from getting in.
Being far from a village, there was no employment that the people could get. A few children, some with tell-tale swollen bellies, signs of severe malnutrition, played around.
Walking past a house, I noticed a tribal girl, maybe ten years old. Wearing a blue dress, she was standing by the gate to a house. There was a far away look in her face; she appeared to take no notice of me. But there was something about her, that made me stop and take her picture.
A tribal girl in an IDP camp
I often look at that picture now. I wondered what she had thought of me passing by. Did my passing by matter at all? Perhaps with good reason. She might have seen many human rights-wallahs come and go. But had her life changed? Perhaps the faint memories of the past in the home in the forests were still fresh in her mind. The happy times that now seemed to be lost forever. Maybe she realised that the outsiders would never be able to restore that life, despite their assurances? And they could not bring back those whose lives had been extinguished by the Judum. Would the visitors even pause to reflect on that?
The film “No one killed Jessica” made the headlines recently. Vidya Balan, who had played the part of the sister of Jessica Laal, had been nominated for awards. The film, which traced the intrigue surrounding the murder of Jessica Laal, an upper class socialite, had resonated with middle and upper class Indians.
But will there ever be a film – “Who killed Soyam Jogi?” A film with the title “Where is Sodhi Sambo?”
No. Possibly never. For the simple reason that for the rest of India, these people are not human. They simply do not exist. They do not look like you or me. A Bollywood actress with the features of this tribal girl will never me able to get a role in the mainstream films. The dark skin, the thick lips. And of course, the inability to speak Hindi. A girl lacking any of the appurtenances that go with the slick, “civilised” city life of modern India. In the chapters of history, these tribals will possible never have a mention. Perhaps they are doomed to die as they had lived, in their own worlds, in the only environment they ever knew.
“Chaliye, aap se baat karne ke liye kuch log aye hain”, Javed said as he met up with me. I went over to the food center, where people had assembled. (Come, some people have gathered to talk with you.)
It is difficult to have these conversations. Yes, these people have an existence here. In this camp, they had cleared a nearby area for farming, and the grow some rice and pulses there. Again, this was very much an exception, most camps were located such that the people there had neither a way to make a living o grow their own food.
Some were even reconciled to the life in the camp. But the elephant in the room remained. This was not their home. Moving to the camp was not the same as relocating from one city to another. These people had left the land they worshiped, the land they felt one with that land that was life to them. The future remained only with an unknown anxiety, with fading dreams of a return. What hope could I give them?
Thinking of it, what hope should we give them? What are these people to us? Lets revisit the whole debate surrounding indigenous people. Are not they backwards people, who live in forests. Perhaps you are not willing to say this loud, but is not that how most people view them? As people who have not seen the light of civilisation, people who are unable to fully use the resources that their lands might contain?
So they should be brought to civilisation, yes? And what do we need to bring to them? Electricity? Washing machines? A malaria vaccine? Concrete houses, filtered water? Cars, factories, smoke, dust, destruction of ecological niches? Or perhaps the opportunity to live in the broken fringes of the cities, working as construction labour or doing other small jobs? Is that fair? Do we have nothing to learn from them? The people who have been in the landmass we call “India” far before most modern day Indians ever came here?
It was in the next village, the last one I visited, that I found an answer to this question. That last camp was a more remote encampment, around 10 minute bike ride from the camp I just visited. There was no road to speak of that connected these. The bike we were on swerved and rattled through what appeared to be a dry creek bed.
“How do you go in the rains?” I asked Javed.
“Now you see why my mirror is cracked?” he smiled, pointing to the side-view mirror.
Of course, that did not dissuade him from taking a phone call on his cell while controlling the bike with one hand.
This camp was also smaller than the previous one, and lacked a bore-well. For water, the villagers needed to walk half a mile to a stream, which flowed over a gravel bed. There was a small stagnant pool on the side of the stream, which served as the source for drinking water.
“Filtered” water in a gravel bed
“Look, naturally filtered water”, Javed said.
True, there was some filtration. How much? But this is the kind of water that is used for consumption in many villages in Bastar today. Though hilly streams are perhaps less polluted than the one in the plains, they are never entirely safe. Bloody diarrhoea is endemic in Bastar, and last year, a cholera outbreak killed over a 100 people in Chhattisgarh. News of the outbreak had been deliberately suppressed to present the WHO from calling it an epidemic. Such news would be dim the shining light of the Chhattisgarh state.
“We are trying to make a well – at least ten feet deep”, Javed commented. “This way, the pure groundwater will seep in”.
The “well” consisted of five concrete rings, stacked over each other in a hole in the ground. The hole was around 10 feet deep, and some groundwater could be visible below. It was not as safe as a bore well, but seemed a better option than the shallow gravel bed.
Testing the depth of the well
“The rings had to be carried by hand, because there cars could not get in there”, Javed mentioned.
Water 10 feet deep in the well
After visiting the well, I came back to the village. As I was walking past a dwelling, Javed said – “look, he is making a traditional seed pot”.
We walked over to the family, seated outside the hut. The man was busy making a traditional seed basket, while the mother was rocking her baby to sleep in bamboo crib, suspended by a rope.
I had never seen the likes of the seed basket before. It was made entirely of leaves, whose ends had been sharpened by snipping them off, and it was woven in an intricate manner. He had just finished making one, and at my request, he started to make one more. In any case, he would have to make another one.
The seed pot, and the sleeping baby girl (Sunitha)
It was fascinating to watch him weave the leaves together in an intricate web. I tried my hand at weaving the basket, but just was not able to do it. It certainly was not easy. Once completed, the seed basket was quite sturdy, and held at least 3 pounds of the grain without breaking. The grain was mixed with some ash, and some leaves, prior to storing. The basket was suspended from the rafters by a strip of very sturdy bark, which was incidentally from the same tree as the leaves were from. This seed basket would store food for up to two years.
Weaving together leaves (no thread) to make the pot
When have you last even imagined that food grains can be stored in a non-plastic, non-metal container? BPA, or lead free? Let us not talk about half the food grains that rot in lack of adequate storage in the godowns. Let us just talk about food storage in individual homes, in peoples larders. A storage mechanism that has has no environmental impact; storage boxes that are completely recyclable, and need no power to generate?
What happened to our much-hyped technology? The modern miracle?
You can argue that this is not for mass production. Agreed. But it is a solution for these people. And could be a solution in many villages where such trees are available. It can also be an alternate to plastic in many such places. And this is not the only thing that we can from the indigenous people. Certain tribal customs, like water conservation and diversion for agricultural needs, as practised among the indigenous tribes living in the Himalayas are superior, sustainable solutions compared to “modern” mass irrigation methods like channeling water through long plastic pipes. The indigenous people have been the stewards of the land for millenia. Of course, certain of their practices, like slash and burn agriculture, could be reduced through proper education. There can be a give and take. But ignoring their ideas entirely could be a great loss to our society. And a loss to the environment.
Can we not learn? What is the arrogance that makes us think that we are superior in every way? Look at the crib. Would it rather be a plastic crib, that rocks rhythmically on a battery run motor, which a mechanical voice singing a toneless lullaby?
Most people think that tribal people are not willing to embrace change. This is not true. Those people desperately want help in many areas, like health-care, education, like having access to safe water. But most of all, like any other human being, they crave for dignity. The dignity that they have known as human beings living in freedom. They are smart enough, even without education, to realise that the life we are offering them after displacement does not have that dignity. And unless we can address this, they will fight for survival, holding on to the only fragment of life they know.
After talking with the family for a while, I left, and returned to the village I had started from earlier in the day. The medical camp was in sway. A doctor performed medical checkups of men, women and children, accompanied by a team of experienced nurses.
I asked the doctor what were the major medical problems there. He replied that he had seen several cases of cerebral malaria, in this camp, and in neighbouring camps. The other more prevalent problem was that of skin infections, from poor sanitation. I was not sure if the closely packed residences, and lack of potable water, compared to the spread out village homes in their ancestral land, contributed to spread of disease.
That evening, I returned to ASDS, and left to take the night bus back. As the bus rolled out of Rekhapalli, the sun set over the darkening forest, shooting one last ray before sinking behind the nearby hills, their tops turned red by the setting sun. A full moon, riding last rays the dying sun, buoyed above as darkness fell. As the night wore on, the moonlight bathed the landscape in a magical glow. The fields glistened in the soft white light, and the hills, now fading in the distance, stood silhouetted against the starry sky, like silent sentinels. Yet the forest that draped the receding hills remained dark and impenetrable. Even then, I could see a distant light or two beneath that dark canopy. Perhaps they were small fires, signs of people who were living there?
I wondered what it was like in the camps now. Camps in the dark forest. Did the people there light a camp fire? Cluster around in small groups, cooking a meal, if they could, huddling around, trying to find warmth? Or were they, just waiting, waiting for another day, a new dawn? Hoping for the justice that might never come?
There has been much talk about the massive theft of public money, through scams like the 2G scam, Commonwealth Games scam, Adarsh Housing scam. Without doubt these are great drains of the exchequer. But no one seems to raise questions when the property of indigenous people or the poor in India is stolen from them by force, in the name of development. The Special Economic Zones (SEZ) scheme itself is supposed to have cost the exchequer 160000 crore Rs, a number comparable to the money supposedly lost in the 2G spectrum scam. Is not the amount stolen from the tribals and farmers in India, in the name of development, far higher? The development that has led to their forced eviction and inundation of vast tracts of their lands? Even the POSCO project, which affects both farmers and tribals, will lead to a loss of 20000 crore Rs to the state. And how can one even put a number on such figures, which do not take into account the lives lost and societies fragmented? Yet the upper and middle class could not be bothered less. When money is stolen from the farmers and tribals, it is no longer theft, but appropriate use of resources for the nation. The same nation that the those people supposedly belong to.
We need to stop stealing their lives from them. For our sake and theirs.
There is a legend among the Maadia Gonds that the world was created when the supreme being threw down an iron anvil with great force into the ground. There was a great upheaval, and when things became calm again, life grew on the hills, water flew down in rivulets, animals took up shelter, and there came to be came living, breathing communities. Today it is as if the end of those people has come. The same anvil that had cast down is being wrenched out from the heart of their homeland. And with them, many lives, hopes, and desires. The tsunami of destruction, far more earth-shaking the wave of creation, is upon them. A great fissure has been rent in the earth . Flames that have sprouted up by the fissure. And we, in our far off city vistas can only watch it happen; the distant dark jungles, that forbidden yet fabled land, the land of the black gold, where scattered fires burn in the night. We reach out to grasp that precious prize, yet at the same time hesitate when faced with the fires. The fires that might become an all-consuming inferno and destroy us all.