At the edge of development

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LOOK there is the Indravati Reservoir! said my companion, pointing to what seemed like a bit of sky caught between two hills. I looked hard. Yes indeed, that was the reservoir, looking slightly less blue then the rest of the sky, forming a misty backdrop to Kalati, a little village of mud and thatch amidst rising hills of lush green crops. Kalati, the last village in the Koraput district of Orissa. Beyond it stretched the Indravati reservoir, white and vast, lapping at the borders of four districts.

It is still half an hour away, and we have been walking for over two hours from where all motorable roads end. We hurry on as best as we can, trying to steady our legs which, after climbing for a good part of the two hours, are a trifle unsteady on the steep descent. We wade through a river, cross two little streams, and then, after a breathtaking walk on a path carved through magnificent vines growing wild over ancient trees, we reach the village.

The people are gathered around our young engineer friend, who reached before us, and are discussing the ‘sanitary well’ at the entrance to the village. The well was constructed about a year back. It has been completely covered over by a cement roofing, except for a small hole at the centre. A hand pump has to be fitted over the hole to enable the people to draw water – yet to be done a year later. It is not possible to draw water from the well because of the concrete covering, and the women use a small water hole at the edge of a stream for drinking water.

At the end of the village, under a sal tree, the women sweep a patch of ground and lay out mats and sacking where we all gather in the cool shade. The men sit on small rock outcrops, the women on the sacks.

Slowly, the conversation builds up. Kalati is far away from any market, any bank, any medical facilities. Where do you go for your weekly haat? we ask. Oh! we go to Guma, or to Jhaliaguda they say. How far is Jhaliaguda? It is three hours on the ferry, they tell us. Where do you catch the ferry? Just close by, they point to the reservoir over the hills. For us, the nearby seems quite far, as it would be at least an hour’s walk away, over another couple of hills. Only the brave go to Jhaliaguda, they tell us, the rest of us go to Guma.

Two years back, seven people from the village had drowned while crossing the reservoir. The district magistrate had paid them a visit. Did the collector come here, we ask. The women do not seem to remember the visit. Yes, she came, the men say, showing little interest. Did she give you compensation, did she offer any employment? Our questions seem to strike them as facile, irrelevant. She said she would compensate the families of those who died, but only three families received any compensation, they respond.

Far away from the outside world, even the traders do not come to Kalati to buy goods. We load it on the boat and take our pulses and oilseeds to Jhaliaguda to sell, they tell us. What about brooms and leaf plates, don’t you sell them? We collect only for our household use, they explain patiently. Where will we sell if we collect more, they ask. Leaf plates and brooms are bulky, and loading them on the little boats that ferry them across would hardly help since they have low value.

Where do you go if anyone falls sick? The people just look at us, and the question dies a natural death. The people seem to be in good health, and there are no signs of undernourishment even in the children. But people do fall sick, and never having depended on the government system, they have developed their own methods: their herbs and roots, and of course, the inevitable exorcist, a must for any tribal community, besotted as they are by various gods.

The ICDS worker comes once in a while; but they have not received ICDS rations for the past three months. All except four families are on the BPL list. Some have exchanged their cards to get listed in short-term schemes like the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. The previous day, four elderly people had trekked down to Guma to get their old age pensions. Naringi Dei, the village committee president explains: they give it to us once in three months, and we have to go and collect it ourselves, they will not give it to anybody else in the village. However old or weak you may be, they will not give the money to anybody else, but the person in whose name it has come, she emphasizes. They had also attended the panchayat meeting. What happened during the meeting, we ask. They decided who would get Indira Awas houses, they respond. But nobody in the village was entitled to one this year, as one of the members, Chitro Majhi, (they point him out) was sanctioned an Indira Awas house last year. Did you pay a bribe? Chitro nods matter-of-factly: otherwise I would not have got it, he says.

The people of Kalati are quite self-sufficient. All except three families have low land on which paddy is cultivated. This year, however, the unexpectedly heavy rains destroyed their paddy fields by causing heavy landslides. It will take them years to clear the debris and recover their land. The revenue officials had taken a list of people whose lands had been destroyed, but the compensation was meagre. With assistance from the World Food Programme, the voluntary organisation, Agragamee, had offered to help people clear their land. This was their only hope, though they were looking forward to getting compensation from the government .

Life goes on for the people of Kalati despite the isolation, and the ups and downs. When the people need loans, they go down to the sahukar in Guma; when they need money, they go across to Jhaliaguda and sell some of the products from the forest; when they are out of food, they go to the hills which yield rich harvests of edible tubers. No epidemic has struck the village, as it has in the past four or five years in other villages of Girliguma panchayat. The only problem is the porcupines that destroy their crops, forcing them to keep vigil night and day. An occasional RI (revenue inspector) comes to slap fines and extort money and agricultural produce as they reap rich harvests from the shifting cultivation on the slopes.

How was it before the reservoir was formed, before the Indravati dam was made, we ask. There were villages down below, they disappeared, and we don’t know where the people have gone. Did none of them come to settle near your village? We ourselves do not have land, where would others come and settle, they ask. The women, however, seem to be more disturbed by the reservoir. They are less adventurous, and do not easily take to crossing it on a boat. Thus, they feel very cut off from their relatives on the other side. We cannot even meet our daughters once a year, they say. This is difficult for a tribal community where kinship ties play an important role, and are reinforced during festivals and other occasions, through visits, and generous gifts of local produce.

Naringi Dei takes me to a small hillock, which she and her husband have recently cleared for cultivation. The crop of maize on the hillock is poor. The rains were too heavy for maize, she explains. She takes me by the hand and leads me to a small shrine hidden behind a cluster of bushes. At the centre of the shrine is a little plant with large round leaves. As long as this plant grows on our land, there will be no famine, she explains. Her eyes shine with a simple faith. I nod and we quietly tiptoe away.

On our way back, we meet an old woman from Kalati. She had gone down with Naringi Dei for her pension, but remained behind since she had fallen sick. After having sheltered in somebody’s house for the night, the old woman was slowly returning home. Her forehead is hot and she has not eaten anything since morning. She must have been walking for at least two hours when we met her. How are you going to manage, we ask. It is alright, she replies, I can walk back. We give her a packet of biscuits, which she gratefully accepts.

Development is a many faceted word; it affects different people differently. The Indravati reservoir is one of the ‘temples of modern India.’ Tunnelling immense caves through pre-Cambrian hills, turning round the flow of four rivers – the Indravati, Podagad, Kapur, and Muran – and severing entire districts, this monumental brainchild of modern engineering has generated power and brought irrigation to many people. Thick cables snake high overhead carrying electricity to industrial units in Rayagada and other nearby townships, while water from the tunnels irrigates the dry lands of Kalahandi. Miraculous development indeed, but as the President of India in one of his Republic Day addresses had cautioned: ‘A great socialist leader had once said that a great man in a hurry to change the world who knocks down a child commits a crime. Let it not be said of India that this great Republic, in a hurry to develop, is devastating the green mother earth and uprooting our tribal population.’ Yet, this great country, in its hurry to develop, is tripping its tribal communities over, and it does not even bother to lift them up.

The settlements around the Indravati reservoir are deprived and marginalised. Though they have sacrificed much for the reservoir, a luxury like electricity, or even irrigation, is not their lot. They are still encroachers eking out a precarious living on hill slopes that the state classifies as government land, and will not part with even for the sake of the displaced.

The worst plight is that of the displaced communities among these settlements. More than a decade after displacement, they have not been recognised as deserving of government welfare. The boundaries of administration have been entirely messed up for these settlements because of the reservoir, and several of them are cut off by more than a day’s journey to their block and district headquarters. Yet, the state has not bothered to look at these people once it got them out of the way for development.

No effort has been made to bring them into the folds of the nearer district and block units to enable them to access government facilities and supports. The people cannot even lodge a complaint at the police station if they have a problem, since the police station closest to their village is in a different district and will not accept their complaints. Hardly any displaced family has been able to use the compensation amount usefully, as the availability of land has steadily decreased, given land acquisition for the dam and the reservoir, and a consequent upward swing in land prices made it almost impossible to buy land close to their new settlements. Most oustees have been forced to buy land several miles away, with the result that they have not been able to make proper use of it.

Tribal villages like Kalati, which have been touched but lightly by the winds of development, are stoic, allowing time to ease the pain of the death by drowning of their near and dear ones. But how complacent can they afford to be in their pristine isolation? Life has already begun posing its challenges. A little further away, villages are succumbing to the pressures of the market and giving up their land for eucalyptus and other commercial plantations. Land is also being acquired for tourism development and mineral exploration in some of the other villages. Across the reservoir, in Kashipur, the well-known struggle against land acquisition by mining corporations is already taking epic proportions; the people of tribal communities have sacrificed their lives while the state is reluctant to concede that their stand is legitimate. It is anybody’s guess whether the people of Kalati will give in to market forces without a fight or whether they will stake all in a struggle and emulate their brethren in Kashipur.

The state, in its concern for market forces, bends over backwards toting up huge loans as it constructs multi-lane highways, conjures up rail lines, and whips up power from quiet and untouched river valleys. But not even a small percentage of such concern is expressed for its own tribal communities which are easy vote banks. On the contrary, it decides that these communities should be sacrificed at the altar of development. If it can spend crores through World Bank loans for infrastructural development, then surely it can also spend some resources on its own communities to ensure the basics of livelihood, and ensure that when market forces enter an underdeveloped region, the people will at least be able to meet them on their own terms.

The villages around the Indravati reservoir have sacrificed much: land, community resources, including forests, water, crops, their traditional lifestyles, religion, traditional institutions, social security and more, for the Indravati reservoir. When money is doled out, the cost of these losses is never calculated. Nor is it possible to calculate these costs in terms of money. Yet, having forced people to sacrifice, the state just offers compensation and then dusts its hands off.

There are several villages like Kalati that have been affected by the dam. The government has not even considered constructing roads in these areas, so that communication could improve for the local communities. The people in Kalati do not have a school, proper drinking water facilities, and access to basic health. Amartya Sen has written enough about the need for ensuring basics to a community before throwing them into the arena of a free market economy. But proud as we are to have a Nobel Laureate from our country, the state bothers little about what he says.

When one goes to a village like Kalati, or even to a village like Dudungchuan, which is a settlement of families displaced by the Indravati reservoir, the inner spirit of resilience of the tribal communities is striking. Yes, the state has given them an unfair deal. It has treated them worse than wild animals, for whom laws exist to protect their lives and habitats. But the people engulf you in their warmth. They take you into their homes and offer everything they have; they open up their hearts and minds and share their innermost sorrows and joys with you.

Within their settlements, they are slowly rebuilding their lives, taking government subsidy when available, but otherwise doggedly carrying on as best as they can. It is this implicit acceptance that has perhaps been their downfall. One feels like crying out, don’t do this, hold what you have close to you, or they will take it all away. Perhaps, now they are also learning. Today, we will not give in like we did when the Indravati reservoir was built, the people say. The people of Kashipur are right, we support them in their struggle. We have also learnt from their struggle, now nobody can take our land and forests from us, they say.

There is a wealth beyond all resources in the tribal regions. Theirs is a wealth of spirit and knowledge that perhaps has little value in today’s materialistic world. But it is wealth that needs to be preserved and nurtured, as it is wealth that cannot be lost by sharing. On the other hand, if the state treats them like obstacles in the path of what it imagines is development, there will only be destruction and alienation.

Vidhya Das