Will you die for your land (Cover Story1)

India: The terrible price paid for economic progress

India's economic success is a modern miracle. But the dark side of the boom has been its tragic cost to the subcontinent's most vulnerable people. In a special investigation, Daniela Bezzi and Peter Popham report from Kalinganagar, a village that paid a terrible price in the name of progress.

It was dawn on 2 January 2006 when the quiet morning rituals of Kalinganagar, a village in eastern India, were drowned in a noise like the end of the world: a stream of bulldozers and excavators and khaki-painted lorries containing more than 400 armed police came grinding into the village.

For days there had been rumours that something was about to happen. The village, surrounded by dense forest but only 50 kilometres from a major iron-ore mine, already has three steel plants in its midst. Tata, a major Indian company, wants to build another, much bigger than the rest. The villagers, who belong to the indigenous Ho tribe, want none of it: last year police broke up two protest rallies with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Now the bulldozers and diggers went to work, levelling a paddy field which occupied part of the site where Tata's planned new steel plant is supposed to rise. The disaster was under way. Villagers at work in the fields or tending their goats and cattle came running to see what was going on, gathering at a football ground in sight of the fields where the diggers were at work, guarded by hundreds of heavily armed police.

An hour went by. The villagers debated what to do. They sent a small delegation to the officials to ask them to stop work and negotiate. A local magistrate who had accompanied the police was brusque. "You do whatever you want," he told them dismissively, "and I'll do my work." There was to be no parley.

Now a group of villagers walked towards the bulldozers. Their plan, the survivors said later, was to persuade the drivers to stop, if necessary by lying down in front of them. What happened next is disputed: some of the protesters say the first injuries were caused when one of them tripped a string attached to a buried charge of dynamite or even a landmine. Enraged now, more protesters came running towards the police lines shouting abuse (the police claim they also fired arrows). And the police opened fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. The villagers ran screaming in all directions. The police kept up the firing until the ground was strewn with bodies.

By the time silence fell again on the site, 12 local people had been shot dead and 31 injured. One policeman had been killed by the protesters. Several of the villagers had been shot in the back. Some of the casualties were a long way from the field of action. A 14-year-old boy standing outside his home was shot in the chest and killed. A 27-year-old woman was killed by a bullet on her way to bathe in the village pond.

The bodies of six of the dead were taken away by the police. When they were returned two days later, the villagers claimed that hands, genitals and breasts had been cut off.

This is the India where nobody goes, the wild east, the subcontinent's heart of darkness. The three states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh contain more than 70 per cent of India's mineral wealth, from coal to gold, from bauxite to uranium. They also contain many million tribal people, those like the Ho villagers slaughtered in Kalinganagar, people who arrived in the subcontinent long before the Aryan invaders and who still worship their own gods and live in their own style. And like indigenous peoples the world over, they are being ground under the wheels of development.

India is getting rich, but it is still incredibly poor. The famous Indian IT industry employs about a million people - out of the total Indian population of more than a billion. The bitter fact about Indian growth, and what makes it qualitatively different from that in Japan, China, Thailand or Malaysia, is that the overwhelming majority obtains no benefit from it. In fact for many of the poorest, like the villagers in Kalinganagar, it is an unmitigated calamity.

Professor Ram Dayal Munda, one of the most brilliant products of India's tribal belt, identifies a crucial divide in India, akin to Europe's old Iron Curtain. "Jharkhand," he said speaking of his own state, "is the paradox of India today, with all its richness in land and mineral resources and its backwardness at many other levels. It represents the frontier, the dividing line between western and eastern. Western India is well-fed India, from Punjab to Kerala, the India that has already been westernised. Eastern India, the forest land, the wild hunting land, is a region rich in natural resources but where the most elementary human rights are violated."

The issue of the emancipation of India's indigenous peoples, Munda says, was fatally fudged at independence - and they have been the victims of development, not its beneficiaries, ever since. And as the Indian economy slowly comes to the boil, a vast human and ecological tragedy is in the making.

We are travelling with a man who has been watching all this happen and who committed himself 18 years ago to doing everything he could to stop it.

Bulu Imam is not the obvious candidate for such a role. He is a child of India's native elite, the sort of people who are doing best out of the boom. His conversation is larded with the names of old friends who are chief ministers and senior civil servants and politicians in Delhi. His grandfather was president of the Congress, the party of Gandhi and Nehru, and India's first delegate to the League of Nations. His father, Tootoo, was educated in Britain and raced Bentleys around Calcutta race track when he was not out pig-sticking or hunting tigers.

Bulu got the tiger-hunting bug, too: father and son did it as a business, luring over American millionaires to try their luck in the forests of Jharkhand, in the south of the state of Bihar. Put a whisky in his hand and even today the shikar (tiger-hunting) yarns pour out of Bulu till the cows come home. Like all serious hunters, he got to know his chosen terrain intimately. That meant for him principally Jharkhand, literally the Land of the Forests.

A plateau the size of Ireland, Jharkhand rises out of the Ganges plain like an immense apparition, and for many centuries it must have been quite as frightening and forbidding as the forests of central Europe in the Middle Ages. The dense sal forests (a widespread, timber-yielding tree) were full of leopard and tiger and elephant and cobra. The occasional clearings, with small mud dwellings abutting paddy fields, were peopled by adivasis, literally the "first people" who spoke neither Hindi nor Bengali, who worshipped Sing Bonga, the sun god, and were dead shots with the bow and arrow. They were rumoured to practise human sacrifice.

All that was before the arrival of the British. But although many outsiders settled in Jharkhand during the two centuries after the British redcoats first showed their faces, much went unchanged. The villages remained as simple and tranquil, the forest as dense. And the tigers were still plentiful. When he was a young man there were tigers in the woods a 20-minute walk from his home in the town of Hazaribagh (the name means "One Thousand Tigers"). And because shikar was his vocation and his trade, he got to know the woods of Jharkhand extremely well.

Shikar was eventually banned by the Indian government - to his father's great disgust. Then one day in 1988 Bulu was asked to put his knowledge of the forests to a special use: the English travel writer Mark Shand wanted to ride an elephant across India and he needed a guide. Bulu agreed, and for three weeks he led Shand and Tara, the elephant, across the Jharkhand plateau, rarely using metalled roads. Instead they travelled on dirt tracks and long-abandoned logging paths. "I never looked at a map," he says of the experience today. "I don't look at maps, I draw them. It was tough because in many places the forest had grown back and we had to hack a way through. It was an unbelievable experience."

After weeks in the forest, one day they broke out on the edge of a vast open-caste coal mine. "We travelled through the mines for two or three days," Bulu remembers, "using the shoulders between the mines for a path. There was a 300-foot drop on either side, and the mine was about 12 miles across: it was a series of mines all linked up. With an elephant you go very slowly, and the landscape comes up to meet you."

The scale and the finality of the devastation such a mine wreaks was brought home to him. Bulu knew that the government was planning another vast mine like this one, to be called the North Kanpura Coalfield. "It was here that I came face to face with what the new coal field would really mean. The impact on me was tremendous." It had to be stopped.

Thus began his long immersion in the history and prehistory, the culture and the folkways of the plateau.

Five thousand or more years ago, Jharkhand's inhabitants made enigmatic, superbly decorative carvings on many large rock faces in the area, carvings that have never been properly examined by experts. Two thousand years ago, Buddhists and Jains built temples and carved devotional statuary at dozens of sites across the plateau. The sites have yet to be properly documented, but even casual digging uncovers the remains of ancient statues, often in excellent condition. Now, as the coal field project grinds towards completion, one by one these sites will be swallowed up, as if they had never existed.

And of course the villages go, too, without remorse and often without compensation or rehabilitation. The adivasis in the Hazaribagh area, as in many of India's tribal zones, decorate their simple mud-built houses with exuberant painted images of birds and beasts. They have lived in this region for many centuries, and until the coming of the British had it all to themselves. Theoretically their possession of the land is protected by India's Constitution. But Constitution, tribal rights, and a long history notwithstanding, two dozen villages have already been swept away like so much rubbish, their villagers decanted into the slums of Ranchi, the Jharkhand capital, or dispatched to Delhi to be domestics of the upper class. Many more villages are in the firing line.

It was indignation provoked by a comparable though much smaller threat in Britain - Rio Tinto Zinc's plan to mine on Snowdon - that gave birth, in 1972, to Friends of the Earth; its first campaign success was to stop Rio Tinto in its tracks. As the local head of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Imam has been striving for 18 years to generate a similar head of steam over the fate of the plateau. But despite the support of foreign scholars and the listing of the Jharkhand sites in the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Heritage at Risk World Report and elsewhere, the state has not been deflected even an inch from its intention of sacrificing a vast, historic area of outstanding natural beauty for coal mines, dams, thermal power stations - and uranium mines.

A key component of India's "miracle" is the way the country is growing more powerful. With the tests conducted in the desert of Rajasthan in 1998, India barged into the nuclear club; and this month, despite those tests and to the horror of the nuclear disarmament lobby, it has signed an agreement with the US to develop its civil nuclear programme. And once again, progress in the Indian context comes with appalling human costs. It was at about the time of those nuclear tests that we first learned about the disaster known as Jaduguda.

The uranium for India's bombs came from Jaduguda, in Jharkhand, the only uranium mine in the country (though several more are now being opened up). The mine is located in the middle of a cluster of tribal villages. Not close to a village, with high barbed wire fences keeping the peasants well away, but in its midst. The pond at Jaduguda, we learnt, where the hazardous waste is dumped and allowed to settle, can be accessed by the men, women, children, dogs, cats and cows of the village. (The mine's boss claims that the pond was closed to the public, and some reports suggest that villagers may have cut their way through the perimeter fence.) In the summer the pond dried out, and some villagers used it as a short cut to get home. The village children played tag on it. The mine produced no stink, no clouds of filthy smoke, did not tear up the countryside and dye everything black like an open-cast coal mine. A uranium mine was, it seemed, the sort of mine you could live with.

Then the first deformed children began to be born in the village. People of the village and the cattle they had washed regularly in the water of the pond began dying prematurely of cancer. A child was born with only one eye and one ear, mentally handicapped as well, unable to walk, and he grew bigger but no heavier. Women became infertile and their husbands abandoned them, and they began to be persecuted as witches, the true aim being to steal their land. The Uranium Corporation of India Ltd maintained that none of the village's health problems were connected to their activities.

Jaduguda illustrates the way that India moves into the future: this is the style of its progress. When the state wants to do something it just does it. Land is requisitioned, the earthmovers arrive. If there are rules to be followed - and, according to the Indian Constitution, land held by tribal people in tribal areas subject to the Constitution's Fifth Schedule cannot by any means be transferred to non-tribals - it is a sound bet that they will be ignored.

That's the way things worked under the lumbering, supposedly benign and paternalistic socialist system that ruled independent India for its first 50-odd years. And now the ground rules have changed; now big business is in the driving seat. In what direction are things likely to go? To the advantage of the poor and hapless, or to their detriment?

Last October Jharkhand made business news headlines when Laxmi Mittal, the world's number one steel-maker and third richest man, Indian-born but now based in Europe, announced that he was making his first investment in his native land: setting up a 12-million-tonne steel plant somewhere in the state, at a cost of US$9bn. Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have signed tentative agreements with more than 100 companies to build plants. If all came good, the total investment would be more than $20bn.

"If even one steel mill came into the state it would make a huge difference," said a man in the drinks trade in the Ranchi Club, the former hangout of the British in Jharkhand's capital, taken over and expanded by the local elite. "It will have a massive knock-on effect - on taxis, hotels, every other business. It's happening already thanks to the firms that have already moved here: for the first time shopkeepers here are learning what it means to have money. With a steel mill, the taxes the firm will pay will have a ripple effect all over the state. We were in Malaysia recently on holiday, and we said, God, India could be like this. Of course it may not be good for every individual adivasi ..."

Five years ago Ranchi, the state capital, was a sedate, rather genteel country town with many Christian mission schools, where bicycle rickshaw was the favoured way to get around. Today it feels like some raw place on the frontier. Rickshaws fight for space on roads clogged with lorries and vans, the air is full of choking smoke, Main Road is dominated by the aluminium-clad tower of the city's first swanky hotel, Capitol Hill. Rising above the crowds of sugar-cane wallahs and beggars are huge advertisements for iron bars, nails and wire - but also for business suits. Thin young men riding bicycles with carts attached to the back struggle to move their loads, which protrude far behind the cart, of steel reinforcing rods for cement. Money is being made here, a chaotically affluent city is being thrown together.

But then, two days into 2006, the bloody end to the protest at Kalinganagar south of the Jharkhand border threw the whole jamboree into question. At a demonstration held at Kalinganagar after the New Year massacre, a woman on the platform put the adivasi case very simply. "We are ready to give our lives but not our land," she said. "Because without our land we will die anyway."

She wore a green salwar kameez and a red headband - the uniform of the Maoist guerrillas, who are now a big factor in the struggle over how India should develop.

Called "Naxalites" after the town of Naxalbari in West Bengal where their insurgency first broke out in 1967, the Maoists have had their ups and downs, but they have never gone away. And today they are stronger, more numerous and more ambitious than ever. And with the opening up of India to foreign capital and the expected arrival of millions of dollars of steel money, the dispossessed and those who fear dispossession are rallying to their cause.

Inspired by dramatic Maoist successes in Nepal, the Indian comrades have been swarming into virgin terrain. In November 2003 they were active in 55 districts across nine Indian states. By February 2005 this had ballooned to 155 districts in 15 states, covering nearly 19 per cent of India's forests. The Home Ministry says they now have 9,300 "hardcore underground cardre" and possess 6,500 modern weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles, Claymore land mines and modern electronic equipment. They are, it is claimed, trying to carve out a Compact Revolutionary Zone, a "red corridor of armed struggle", stretching from the Nepal border in the north via Andhra Pradesh right down to Tamil Nadu in the south. The mineral-rich states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh are right in the middle of that band.

But can the villagers trust the Naxalites? "All the Maoists start as ideologues with principles," said a senior Jharkhand policeman, "but after a time they find that being a Naxalite is a functioning business, fuelled by fear." Anybody who wants to do business in the areas they control knows they have to pay up, he said. "They take a levy from everyone, the coal barons, the mining companies. Those who have been here a long time know exactly who to pay and how much in order to stay out of trouble. Recently the Naxalites gave a press conference over the Nepal border in which they issued a warning to the multinational companies that are planning to set up in the state. That was advance notice of money required ...

"Jharkhand is a treasure trove for the Naxalites because of the money that can be extorted from the mining companies. The foreign companies that want to come in will have to be prepared to do the same, if and when they come into the state."

On 9 January this year as every year, the Munda tribe, one of the biggest in the state and who once (as their legends relate) enjoyed sole possession of the Land of the Forest, gather at a place called Dombari Hill, to commemorate another in their long series of tragic defeats. At the top of this steep, conical hill in 1900 a force of adivasis led by their most charismatic and famous hero, Birsa Munda, prepared to attack a British force that was far smaller but armed with modern weapons. The two sides faced off in the darkness, then on a muffled order the British charged up the steep slope with bayonets fixed. Seven Mundas died in the ensuing rout.

The view from the top of the hill shows what the Mundas were fighting to defend. In all directions dense forest stretches unbroken to the horizon. Despite the military defeats and all their other reversals, in this corner of Jharkhand the Mundas have succeeded in clinging on to their land, and the culture and traditions handed down across the centuries.

Ram Dayal Munda, former vice-chancellor of Ranchi University, was one of the speakers at the Dombari Hill commemoration. What will happen, we asked him later, as a result of the killings in Kalinganagar?

"The people will close ranks," he said. "They will increasingly see themselves in opposition to the authorities. They will rebel. They will be crushed. They will rebel again. There are 90 million adivasis in India, and 20 million are on the road: lost, uprooted, displaced, wandering around ..."

 

 

This Article was published on 11 march 2006 in the London edition of “The Independent”
http://www.independent.co.uk/

 

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