“When are we meeting again?” asked Soni Sori, that morning. At the Geedam junction, a few weeks ago, we first met her and Lingaram Kodopi. Their car was parked across the road. There were soldiers stationed outside her home. In all the times that we set foot in her house, over the years, they never asked us who we were. They observed. We nodded. We made a note of their presence as they did ours; a silent acknowledgement that carried no meaning. Some days, we barely looked at each other.
“We will come by next week,” we told her.
Upon crossing the Faraspal bridge, we stopped on the side of the road where branches of mango trees swayed in the light afternoon breeze. Ahead where the settlements began, strewn all over the empty courtyard were soiled dishes and broken toys. Some days, if we looked long enough, we’d find traces of moments where in some lurked memories of childhood, in some the colours of faith, and in some the solitude of an old woman. In villages that we traversed across the country, and even in places that we seldom stopped by, one could find traces of such moments and memories lived by some, and reminisced by others.
After the bridge, beside the stretch of the road where we sought shelter from the sun, is where we first met Mangal. His trademark aviators hung in his corner pocket. “I will take you to the villages. Whenever you come to Kirandul, give me a call. I don’t know how you managed to get permission to visit Akash Nagar. Mujhe toh ghusne nahin dete udhar,” he said with a smile.
A day before we met him, we drove through the road leading to Bacheily towards Akash Nagar. The barren stretch contained several patches of newly repaired roads: some old, some new. As we crossed military camps to our left, in the last ten years, we were told, there have been at least 20 blasts on these roads. “The latest incident happened six months ago. They say andarwaale (a term meant for insurgents) planted a crude bomb,” said someone to us.
At Nakulnar road, the paramilitary forces stopped us for a routine security check. Amidst nonchalant shrugs and occasional glances exchanged between soldiers, we also spotted someone taking a peak into our luggage through the windows. In a while, we passed by another camp before hitting lone stretches of road where the forests gleamed in the rain. The paths swerved alongside swaying panicles of paddy, towering trees and dense forest cover in places where the hills lingered in the distance.
Two years later, news of an IED blast spread across the region claiming the lives of five individuals including BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi. Their convoy was attacked at Shyamgiri Hills by assailants later identified as Maoist cadres who opened fire at the occupants of the vehicles that were headed towards Kuakonda from Bacheli. The blast left a crater at the site of the attack.
Everywhere we looked, there were remnants of death scattered across these lands. In broken tales and hidden tragedies, in buried narratives and shared silences we found them lurking here and there. Some days, we struggled to find them in plain sight: those vacant eyes and silent wails.
On a bend where the forests turned sparse with settlements across the fields, we spotted bikes parked on either sides of the road. On days leading up to the bazaar, one would find such operations underway especially in areas prone to violent incidents. There were patterns to their methods: one that couldn’t be deciphered on most occasions. Some mornings, we would find haggard soldiers sitting across the road at odd times.
“These forests were filled with landmines,” said Mahesh (name changed), a local man working with farmers in and around the area whom we met later that evening, “There are many incidents that one hears about. A long time ago, a friend and I travelled to a village where some of my relatives lived. At night, we realised there was something happening outside. We heard murmurs and hushed whispers; some raised their voices. We were asleep on the floor. Andarwaale had called for a meeting. And, the villagers had no choice but to yield to their commands or bear the consequences. We contemplated running to the courtyard where our bikes were parked and riding back to our homes. We didn’t. Had we changed our minds, we would have been killed that night. Another time, as I was riding through the forests with a colleague, we came across a young man. His skin shone like ebony, I remember. He wasn’t wearing any clothes. From somewhere in the forests, he darted off towards us, and sped away. He stopped for a mere second to stare at us before disappearing into the jungles.”
At the CISF checkpost, a soldier stared at us for a while before gesturing at his colleagues ahead to let us through. As we climbed further, we crossed a check dam that contained stagnant water. There was a strange calmness in the air. Summer winds stirred the trees in the distance. From above, we spotted leafless trunks amidst a cluster of trees swaying slightly. Crossing the conveyor belts that transported iron ore from Bastar, a friend’s uncle who was accompanying us at the time said, “From the Akashnagar railway station, iron ore is loaded on to the trains and transported to Visakhapatnam. 30,000 KW engines are used to transport 60 wagons. In order to transfer material into the wagons, they use automatic loaders.”
Here, the signboards don’t contain names that depict these lands or their people. Their Gods have no place in such nomenclatures. There’s nothing that remotely resemble them or their settlements. They belong to a different world. We crossed tiny boards that displayed routes to Deposit number 10 and 11. “These hills were named after our Gods,” said a farmer to us weeks later, “Nobody knows them anymore.”
After we crossed the first hairpin bend, uncle yelled, “Look, right over there! Maal is being transferred using the conveyor belt.” In case there’s a strike or if the supply has to be halted for any reason whatsoever, the ore is stored in silos. A few years ago, they called this entire zone mini Kashmir. “The temperatures are rising. Deforestation and constant destruction of the hills have taken a toll on these regions; on us,” said the farmer in an ominous tone.
Once we crossed the blasting zone and a crushing plant, we came across a milestone that read deposit no. 5. There was dust strewn everywhere: on roads and pathways, in broken alleyways that led nowhere, on bends that led to vast wastelands where mountains withered into red dust before the eyes of those who wandered these regions every day. Located south-west of Dantewada, the Bailadila ranges have now been established as an industrial area. “This entire area is rich in ore deposits. I think production in these mines began in 1976. I can’t be certain of the year or dates. The landscape has changed since then,” said one of the engineers we crossed paths with that afternoon. “We were currently at 1104m above sea level. When mining began, the hills rose to an elevation of 1268m above sea level. Today, they are at 1208m,” he said.
There’s a peculiarity that engulfs and roams the landscape in such regions. Like a dying shadow, it looms and withers in places where its original inhabitants lurk. Amidst shattered mountains and occasional glimpses of split boulders, the cacophony of the dumpers and incessant conversations of engineers and drivers masked the true nature of the forests. Everything stood still, and yet underneath it all, one couldn’t help but feel the shudder of the earth.
Nothing belonged here; neither men nor their machines; neither us: the storytellers observing and chronicling its life and death. Buried in a sea of red was the story of this place and its people. “We understand that mining cannot be stopped. We are dependent on technology now,” said a Sarpanch once to us, “But we can do it in a manner that doesn’t destroy the land and its people.”
On March 31, 2016, 209 million tonnes of iron ore had been transported from Bastar to different parts of the country and world. “There still lies a reserve of 375 million tonnes. 821m tak dip kiya hai,” said a young man who walked with us. On one side was dense forests shrouded in silence while on the other mining sites bustled with activity. From afar, the steps cut through the mountains resembled the core of the earth frozen in time. Numerous shades of red and orange swirled in layers where lay memories of the hills. We wondered how long would it take for it to not exist at all. Would anyone remember the mountains that loomed over these jungles in a few decades?
“Step aside!” said uncle hurriedly, “There’s a dumper coming your way. These monster machines keep running throughout the day. They weigh a hundred tonnes. It costs about 30 crores, I think. I once heard a rumour that a Bolero jeep and its occupants were crushed under a dumper late at night. It was only in the morning that they found out what had happened. I can’t recall where I first heard this story. This site has Asia’s biggest conveyor belt. Work never stops here. One will find processes running for 24 hours.”
We heard whispers of untoward incidents reported in the area. Years ago, Naxal cadres beat up a few guards and officials from the CISF. “Back then, they never harmed anyone who was unarmed. They beat them up with sticks and left with a warning: Stop working for the enemy. Since then, their approach has changed. They have changed. No one has any principles anymore,” said an elderly man accompanying us.
As we drove away from Akash Nagar towards Dantewada, we stared at the hills one last time. The paths were lined with Gulmohar trees. The sun went down, the hills disappeared and the forests changed character. Silhouettes of trees appeared grim in the night while the skies adorned a veil of stars. It was another night; it led to another morning; another death in the paper.
This was another day.
Some days, we couldn’t tell the difference.
The next morning, we drove from Dantewada to Kirandul. We spotted Mangal at the roadside as he flagged down our vehicle. “Let us go to Patelpara,” he said gesturing us to drive ahead, “This is Lala Kunjam.” We stopped at a junction near the village. A volley of red dust circled the roofs of homes in a distance.
At Patelpara, Lala Kunjam and Mangal led us towards a man’s house. His name was Ungaram Sodi. He was one of the employees of National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC).
Across the tiny courtyard within his home were hens, cats and roosters that ran astray at the sight of four strangers walking towards them. Clad in a white vest soiled in iron ore dust, he spoke to us about the numerous health issues he and his family have been facing for the past few years.
“Scheduled tribes have been deeply affected ever since NMDC arrived here. This entire region belongs to tribal people. My family was moved to Gampur. From Gampur, they shifted to Purugal where more than half of my family resides today. There’s nothing left there. NMDC didn’t provide us with any adequate compensation for what we lost. We got Rs 9,000. What do I do with that? How will my family survive? Those people didn’t even know how much land we possessed in all. How then will they know what we have lost?” said Ungaram casting a glance sideways, “First, we lost 10 acres. Then, we lost 5 acres. Whatever little we had left, NMDC took control of our lands. In Tamodi too, you will find the same story. Once you travel a little further, you will hear similar tales of sorrow and loss in Gumiyapal. That’s where Mangal is from, isn’t it? There are many from his village who suffered the same fate. This is an old story. This happened in 1965. An entire generation of people have witnessed the devastation of forests and hills in these areas since the establishment of NMDC. At that time, perhaps the population was a little more than 2000. Now, Kirandul has transformed into a town. We still have our farmlands and villages but things have changed. These were tribal lands, you see. They captured everything: what was meant to be ours. What we gained is loss of land, home and identity.”
He mentioned how NMDC is building staff quarters below the hills. Earlier, they all resided in Akash Nagar, he explained. However, due to increasing population, they have now shifted to Kirandul. High-rise buildings will accommodate several people. Tiny structures where resided many of their own employees will be destroyed to make way for new houses. According to the sarpanch of the village, NMDC offered no compensation to those villagers who were asked to leave, yet again. “Maybe, they did,” said another man, “But we can’t be certain. One day, NMDC officials arrived at our doorstep and said to us: You can’t live here anymore. We need some land to build accommodation for our people.”
“Laal dhool ka kya prabahv hai?” we asked them.
“Yahan toh sab laal hi laal hai...”
In a matter of minutes, he burst into a fit of giggles. They laughed with him, at him and perhaps at themselves. Yes, everything turned red here. Laal dhool. Laal paani. Laal salam, said a young woman to us one evening as we sat around the tree sharing stories, memories and laughter.
Curse of the red dust, some called it. Others blamed it on their fate. The dust brought in a host of several issues. “There are different kinds of diseases being reported from these areas now. Some children have been diagnosed with cancer. We don’t know why or how. Water has always been red. So, has the landscape. Why then are we falling sick? We aren’t the same anymore. Our lifestyles have changed. Many have died. Pneumonia and heart conditions have claimed several youngsters. Our water absorbs the chemicals from these sites. 20-year-olds are beginning to look like they are 40. We eat dust every single day.”
It accumulates on the surface of farmlands destroying crops in the region. It can’t be removed, say the farmers. Trucks carrying iron dust ply on these routes. If the roads aren’t washed with water in the evenings, the whole village turns red. “If it rains, the ground absorbs everything. Green leafy vegetables barely grow anymore. We mostly rely on vendors who bring them from Jagdalpur or Odisha. And, that’s how we survive. If these vendors and vegetable stall owners hadn’t set up their businesses here, we would be in big trouble. Of course, that means we pay a lot more for our fruits and vegetables. It isn’t their fault. They bring in supplies from towns that are 150 kms away. We all are struggling and we need each other to survive.”
There were many who gathered that afternoon. Some names we recall. Some we don’t. Conversations led to chatter in the courtyard. While a few people who worked with NMDC informed us that displaced villagers built homes elsewhere, the others shook their heads vehemently. “That’s not true! There are people here sitting in front of you who have lost their homes. It has been more than 50 years that we have been fighting for our rights. Do you know how long it took us to get them to build the road here? We all fought for it.”
The highest amount of iron ore exported to Japan comes from Bastar, quipped Mangal in conversation with the villagers. NMDC’s presence has brought forth development in those areas whose existence was barely known to the rest of the state. “The facilities are meant for the employees of NMDC alone. Nothing comes to the villages or its inhabitants. This region produces some of the best quality iron ore in the world. NMDC works on its own terms with respect to developing these areas. If you travel just 0.5 km from this village, you will see there’s nothing around for miles. No development. No progress. Nothing. On paper, there’s a lot of work underway. 10% of NMDC’s profits are used for development of backward regions. However, ground reality is far from the truth. Where is this development happening? Who knows?” asked the men sitting around us, “There are no roads or medical facilities here. Also, Essar that has its plant here doesn’t really do anything. Vikaas ke naam pe vinaash ho raha hai idhar. Employment of our local youths in these big companies requires us greasing their palms. It’s all a game of money and power. We have heard stories of people paying 7 to 8 lakhs to get employed by NMDC. What will the poor do? How will our children compete with them? Outsiders reap benefits from our misery. It’s all a game to them: our jobs, our lands, our lives.”
There are consequences to them raising their voices against the mining companies, to them fighting for their rights, to protest for what is rightfully theirs. What do we fight for? they lamented all afternoon. “If we talk about jal, jungle, zameen, if we talk about the constant destruction of our lands, if we talk about blatant flouting of rules, we are labelled as Naxal sympathisers. Do you know what happens to such people? They end up mysteriously dead in Naxal-police encounters. If you are lucky, you spend the rest of your life in jail. It is a crime to fight injustice here. You won’t see any facilities to ensure clean drinking water supply. At the banks of a river or pond, tribal communities make makeshift pipes as thin as needles to collect clean water. You distribute millions across the country, and we aren’t even worth your attention!” said Mangal gesturing the others to join us.
A silence lingered in the air unfurling partially in moments when they chose to look away. Their words were measured. Their pauses were prolonged. In these spaces, where death often lurked in corners, where their loss was seldom momentary, where they sought humanity in frozen glares, one was mindful of what they uttered.
“Since 2001, there have been powerful people and companies making an attempt to setup their plants here. According to what I have learnt, Jindal and Tata have also submitted their applications,” said Mangal and further added, “I believe there are three active mines currently in Kirandul and three more in Bacheli. There are many more mines that will be setup here. So, the government is selling all these mines to corporations. With the TATA steel plant coming up in Lohandiguda and the mega power plant in Dilmilli, lands tribunal are making an attempt to resolve issues with villagers. In the pretext of getting permission and access to tribal lands, gatherings are organised with tribal leaders where they present their false promises to naïve villagers. Demands of tribes are barely heard. Why aren’t we talking about ground level reality? Why is everything so dependent on paperwork? Why isn’t there any accountability? This is a fifth scheduled area. Therefore, the only people that have any right to lay claim over lands in Bastar are the tribes. However, despite these laws, the tribes have no say in what’s happening here. Poora naukarshah aur rajya sashan ka chal raha hai. It’s not that we are against development. We are just questioning unethical and unlawful ways of achieving it. Adivasis want progress too. We want our children to prosper. They deserve to have a better life. Why can’t our children occupy higher positions in these companies? Why are they denied the chance? These lands are rich in minerals. The tribes don’t understand that the government and these corporations are profiting by destroying our ancestral lands. We get nothing. You come here to break our mountains, dig our earth and take what’s ours. They draw a veil around our eyes as they always do.”
Quite often, people blame specific individuals and institutions that play a pivotal role in destruction of both land and lives. The problem, however, is far more complex and multi-faceted for fundamentally it all boils down to selfishness. When individuals in police forces, government structures, mining companies, and even in the local communities turn a blind eye to the suffering of villagers for their own personal gains or benefit, what we get is a situation that we are currently faced with in the mining belts of Bacheli and Kirandul.
Here, when companies arrive to tribal lands, the locals fear they might lose their homes, farms, water and the forests. They fear mining sites would crop up in and around their villages.“Everything is poisoned here,” said a man we met a few hours later, “Nobody wants to let go of their homes. But if we protest, they file charges against us and before we know it our land belongs to someone else.”
The young woman walked out with a tumbler of clean water once again before we left. Her soles were cracked. Their feet turned red when they walked bare-feet in the courtyard. Everything turned red here: the dust, the trees, the water and soil.
Outside, there were children sitting under trees breaking twigs they had gathered from the fields. “This is a holy place for villagers,” said Mangal pointing at the hills as we walked further towards paths that led to villages away from the road, “You are supposed to see lush green fields and children running carefree. You are supposed to see flowers in bloom, and clean water. You are supposed to see our homes where once lived our ancestors. Look around you. Dheere dheere inka jeevan khatm ho raha hai. When it rains, red water flows from the mountains into the fields.”
Here, every shrub, every twig and every branch is covered in dust. Weeks later, we returned to these lands when grey clouds hovered over the mountains. Streaks of red flowed down the steep slopes into farmlands where resided the men we met three years ago.
A sea of red: that’s how they appeared to us, that morning…
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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