One of the best parts of my job is that I get to travel for recruitments. Recruitment is a crucial process at my organization, because not only do we have to identify people who meet our criteria for selection but we also need to get a sense of how committed they are to their community. They are then trained to produce local news for their communities, about their people.
I’d spent weeks researching Chhattisgarh, trying to understand the people, the culture, the politics, talking with everyone I could connect with - activists, NGO-wallahs, representatives of people’s movements – all in the search of the right candidates for our India Unheard program. This was to be achieved by setting up meeting with different people across the state of Chhattisgarh. This meant extensive travel across the state, covering as many as 23 districts out of a total of 27, sometimes travelling over 14 back breaking hours non stop.
Raipur, Chhattisgarh looks like any other city – the usual dirt & squalor, with piles of trash overflowing into gutters with scrawny dogs snuffling around for food. By nightfall, I was pretty much looking forward to travelling the countryside!
To keep a long story short – Stalin and I met over a 150 people in our trip. It was interesting to see the different agendas people had to meet us! While some were genuinely happy to help us, there were many who believed we were there to dole out free cameras or make films about them! What was most incredible was to see first hand stuff that I had read about. Chhattisgarh is worthy of being a holiday destination. Low, rolling hills, lush fields and blinding green forests dominate the south of the state. As do the Naxalites. In the north the craggy hills would have made great picture postcards. Only, the mining companies had kind of blasted away most of them - I mostly got to see raw naked granite, pathetic in its pseudo-splendor.
While travelling, I was acutely aware of an eerie, uneasy calm. I often found myself halfway hoping that someone would just jump out at our car simply to force the discomfort out because something was actually happening! The discomfort was only heightened by the stories people related – of state atrocities, police brutality, public hearings conducted by the Naxals and constant violence and cruelty that prevails in the everyday lives of Chhattisgarhis as easily as power cuts or lack of water or sanitation prevails. There were village after abandoned village because people had simply felt unable to deal with the constant pressures of trying to eke out a livelihood. Areas not taken over by Naxalites were surely strong armed away by either industries or the government trying to set up industries. When I marveled at the amazing roads or full-to-the-brim canals, I was wryly informed that most of the development and infrastructure in place always benefited some industrialist or the other, and your average gaon-walon was more often than not unable to make any use of it. When a company wanted to transport iron ore, the government made a fantastic as-good-as-a-national-highway road for them. And the gaonwalon were graciously allowed to use the road as well. They had, after all, been demanding better roads for decades, so this was a good opportunity to appease them. Then the dratted Naxalites blew up the road. So the government facilitated a single rail track simply to carry the ore into Vizag so it could be shipped out. And the Naxalites blew that up too. So the government started digging up the fields to install a pipeline. The ore was to be made into slurry and pumped out. But all the digging ruined the fields. The crops. And the villagers protested because the fields belonged to them right? Wrong! Only the land on the surface of this earth might be bought by an individual but if the government wants to dig 6 feet below the surface of the earth, they have every right to. So they (literally) bulldozed their way into the farmlands and dug, and left piles of rubble heaped on either side of the pipeline, very effectively destroying the only means of livelihood for hundreds of villagers.
You would imagine that this would be enough to make people protest and rebel and agitate, but the state has a very effective system of dealing with most such protests. Label them Naxalite. Arrest them on suspicions of sedition. Throw them into jail. Torture them. Obviously someone who is speaking out against the ‘lawful’ activities being done by the state to further develop the economy must be anti-state. I had the pleasure of meeting a very jovial activist who, when he introduced himself from being a resident of such-and-such district, was laughed into silence by his friends and fellow activists. Seeing the confusion on my face, they explained to me that it would be more truthful if he said he belonged to jail – he spends almost 9-10 months in jail every year as he is regularly arrested on such suspicions. Going to villages and asking people to speak out for their rights is anti-state.
There is an overwhelming presence of armed forces – truck after army truck regularly bringing highway traffic to a standstill, and the mysterious, camouflaged Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare School tucked away in the hills from the view of the curious. I somehow felt a little sorry for the jawans and CRPF personnel who are posted in a place like this. Rules & regulations mean that personnel are always from outside the state they are posted in. Unable to understand the culture or the people, they are always attacked by the Naxalites simply for the uniform they don or who they represent. But I guess they too, have created an image of themselves where the common man wants to avoid them at all costs.
I had the privilege of escaping all these harsh realities while visiting a very inspiring couple. I had spoken to Dr. Jana a few times of the phone from here in Goa, and we’d made the bong connect. Despite having very little time, and on my friend and guide Ajay’s advice, we decided to make the 3 hour drive to visit Dr. Jana. His home is beside the hospital he & his wife have been working at for a few decades now. In the mid-80s a pregnant labourer was denied medical care at Bhilai Steel Plant Hospital. She bled to death at the doorstep of the hospital. The labourers decided that it was time they did something. Every single labourer in the vicinity worked over time and laboured day after day pooling together a meagre 20 rupees each for every day until they could finally afford to rent a tiny garage space. When the (in)famous Dr. Binayak Sen saw this space, he and his colleagues, Dr. & Mrs Jana, were so moved that they stayed on, and helped the mine workers set up and manage what has now become the three storeyed Shaheed Hospital. Till date this hospital is funded completely by the people who go there for medical aid, and the management is known to have refused funding offers from big companies or rich people because they know that would mean compromising the pride that people take in calling it “their own”.
When leaving Chhattisgarh, I was certain of one thing. Chhattisgarh is undergoing a severe crisis. There is a dire need for the presence of India Unheard there. While I had read about various surveys and reports detailing the number of civilians, security forces & Maoists killed in the last few years, not one mentioned that there have been over 700 deaths on one single road that was built to facilitate the trucks carrying coal for companies. Lack of trained drivers meant tractor drivers took to the wheel, more often than not working overtime to make extra money because they didn’t have fields to live off. The fields now hosted those very same industries they were driving for. Roadblocks and bandhs are common place, preventing people from accessing the cities and towns. The media splashes pages and pages of IPL controversies, but hardly any mention that schools and hospitals are barely functioning because people are abandoning their homes to escape from the violence and hardships. They never talk about the number of adivasis languishing in jail. They support the spreading industrial stain which is slowly but surely strangling the culture of Chhattisgarh, leaving the people with no space to voice their sorrows.
Just as an afterthought I would like to add here - the presence of Naxalites in southern Chhattisgarh has led to a steady increase in the wild life population in those jungles. Albert Camus said: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” Seems like the Naxalites have a pretty clear idea of which species of animal really qualifies as ‘jungli jaanwar’ and needs to be kept out!
Do check out http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/bpl-millionaires for more on Chhattisgarh.