Conflict, displacement and toxic water: Adivasis of Bastar speak of lost lands and dead lakes…

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Trees covered in red dust

There were specks of green shrouded in red dust: a sight not lost on its inhabitants. Dust swirled in the skies, and gathered on the windowsills. The winds carried them further; a dreadful sight to us – the outsiders – who came to these lands to write its tales: some forgotten, some buried and some unknown to most. To the inhabitants, this was home and their reality. Somewhere in between the knolls where villages led to forests, and forests led to mountains, smoke rose in a distance. There were broken twigs sunk in the ground. Children buried a few more ahead: a mindless act muddled between stomping over the ground and chasing one another.

There wasn’t much around us save the unsettling quietness. If we looked long enough, however, we would spot the empty huts, the occasional laughter, the curious stares and restless feet. The calmness receded in phases, and hovering around their shifting glances was resentment. It surfaced in moments when there was nothing left to say in words or silences.

That evening, there were murmurs of a meeting that ensued in Dantewada. Soni Sori had decided to meet the collector with an infant by her side. A few days ago, a 24-year-old Gond woman breathed her last in the local government hospital. Hurre Kartami lost her battle against injustice, the system and perhaps even her fate. Like most days, there was uncertainty in the events that transpired.

A few weeks ago, adjoining the hills near Badegudra, some villagers had laid traps for porcupines. Her husband Hunga Kartami travelled to Kankepara in Kuakonda block with their five-year-old daughter to visit a tribal healer called Vadde in local parlance. Traditionally, these healers possessed indigenous knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants that could be used to cure or prevent illnesses. Suddenly, armed forces who allegedly belonged to the CRPF camp in Tottepara fired at the hunting party in the forests. Upon reaching Kankepara, some witnesses claimed that soldiers ransacked the entire village and dragged Hunga out of the Vadde’s house as he pleaded to accompany his sick daughter back home. There were conflicting reports of his alleged involvement in an IED blast case in Malewada that claimed the lives of seven soldiers. A distraught Hurre shuttled between court, jail and the police station in search of her husband. According to activists and villagers, the armed forces hit Hurre on her stomach with a rifle butt.

Soon, she contacted Soni Sori for help. “It reminded me of the time when my husband and I were in jail,” she told us a week later. Hurre had a premature delivery. Upon her insistence, she was taken to the Dantewada jail to meet Hunga who hadn’t seen his baby boy in a while. He advised her to never come back. She was frail and far too distressed to be running around. He told her to use their savings to repair the thatched roof of their hut. He wanted a better life for her and their children. When Hurre returned to her village, she was diagnosed with meningitis, septicaemia and encephalopathy. Her health worsened and she died a few days later.

That morning, when we first stumbled upon the news report of Soni Sori’s meeting with the then district collector Saurabh Kumar, we learnt that miles away a protest ensued in Jagdalpur demanding justice for adivasis like Hurre who suffered violence at the hands of armed forces. The sordid tale of her death was repeated many times over by activists and villagers in Bastar. After much deliberation, it was decided that Hurre’s second child would live in Palnar Hostel and pursue his education there. The responsibility of her other children Raje (10), Mahangu (7) and her infant child has fallen on Hunga’s aging mother.

“In Jagdlapur, Bela didi and I were abused by the Sub Inspector recently. We were protesting against the death of an adivasi man. They weren’t allowing villagers to bring the dead body back to his village. This is the reality of Bastar. We are nothing but bodies to them,” he said stopping ahead examining the surroundings.

In the midst of tall trees, we spotted huts at tandem. They were smaller than they seemed from outside. We passed by a structure that looked like a cattle shelter. We couldn’t tell. Its walls were smeared in hues of pink and green; an unfinished business. The colours had no intent; the strokes were haphazard. We walked through deserted streets when we spotted it again. The roof was made of tin and khaprail. It was barely held together. A few women sitting on blue plastic chairs glanced towards us as their companions gathered stones from the ground.

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“Earlier, adivasis lacked awareness. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know the monetary value of our land. So, a lot of us barely got anything from NMDC. Moreover, only those who had patta received compensation. Several palms were greased. Nobody understood why we needed a piece of paper to declare what was ours. Those who didn’t have patta were promised jobs. They started the plant and soon after the contractor failed to keep his promise. Now, they are telling us we can become guards or watchmen. How is this fair compensation? At the same time, railway lines were installed in these regions. The farmlands that once existed below the railways belonged to the adivasis. When the large trucks first arrived here, they dug up the ground and filled our farms with mud. What we would do without our farms? How are we going to survive? Nobody was bothered about us. Our farmlands were taken away by the government. Later, NMDC and the railway authorities distributed raincoats to villagers residing in the area. This happened right before my eyes. Since people lost everything, they decided to move away to lands where they could farm and build homes once again,” said Prakash (name changed) who later identified himself as an ex-NMDC employee.

In the beginning, some families migrated to Ghampuri. Those who belonged to Patelpara travelled to Purgeli together. They cleared the jungle and constructed their homes again. As they worked towards rebuilding their lives, the Mukhiya of Purgeli passed away a while later. They called him Gujjar dokra. He gave them some land to farm. “This is all I have,” he said to them, “Grow whatever you can here.” Below the railway line where trains currently ply from Dantewada to Visakhapatnam, there are farmlands that belonged to Pandu Patel, an old man called Saikud and Prakash’s older brother’s father-in-law.

“The current market area that is bustling with activity throughout the day belonged to an old man too. He was Mandavi. It was his land,” he said, “There was another old man Thambu whose land was taken away against his will. He died a long time ago. If you travel to the other side where the current office of State Bank of India is situated, you will learn that the entire stretch of land was once farmlands that belonged to Thammo dokra.”

He showed a stoic resignation towards his fate and those of others. Such stories haunt us where there’s neither grief nor anger. Behind him, stood a structure with collapsed walls. It was broken from within. Prakash and Mangal mentioned another old man Mungud Kunjam who was from Arveli (near Sameli). He didn’t own any land there. So, years later, he migrated to Bacheli along with his family. “Fate played a cruel trick on him. They fled these parts and now live in Pulgeri. I am not certain where they are today. Several families settled in Gampuri, and the others travelled to Tambodi. Between these three regions, you will find many of the original dwellers of Bacheli,” said another man who joined us a while later. We hadn’t noticed him before. He leaned against the men and whispered to us tales we had heard all morning. “They destroyed our lands here. When they got the JCB Poclain, they dug our earth and filled our farms with mud. There were at least 10 to 15 people including many mukhiyas who lived here for more than 60 years. They aren’t alive anymore. However, we have decent roads. Do you know why? Essar ka maal yahan se pipeline main jaa raha hai. And, it all gets collected at the dam.”

It was in Kadampal where a small tailing dam — a physical structure or an earth-fill embankment dam used to store by products of mining operations — was built decades ago. Tailings can be highly toxic and potentially radioactive. Red oxide discharged from iron ore extraction into Dankini and Shankini rivers had a devastating impact on agricultural lands and lives of tribes who were forced to migrate to other regions many years ago.

 

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“When their lorries carry iron across these regions, our villages are shrouded in red dust. When it rains, the situation worsens further,” said Prakash standing beside us. The babus don’t listen to them. Nobody ever does. The spoke of officers – Ragavelu, Ramachandran, Govindaraju and Satish Shah – who were invited to visit their settlement. There were many others whose names they couldn’t recall. “Look at the dusty lanes, look at our trees, look at everything around you. The ground absorbs everything when it rains. Our crops are destroyed. This dust has chemical particles floating in it. It isn’t natural. Whenever they transport iron to Kadampal, a lot of it falls on the roads. Once dried it turns into red dust. This is also the situation of Patelpara and Nariyapara,” they said.

Something changed in the landscape, water, air and perhaps even within them over the years. They couldn’t be certain. They knew what had caused it but they couldn’t say how. Our bellies are bloated, and our children are sick: they complained to the local doctors. “This isn’t an isolated case. Many of the poor villagers can’t afford filters to drink clean water. The dust sits in our bellies. There are numerous diseases that one suffers from. I am not a doctor but I certainly don’t need to be one to understand that the presence of iron dust can cause certain health issues.”

They were promised tar roads. Some told us, it has been almost 60 years since they put in the first request. When labour charges were 50 paise per day, some of the elderly villagers were hired to level these roads. Here, work was abandoned several times over the last few decades. “Sometimes, NMDC tells us they’ll build tar roads here. Then, Essar says they will do it. There was one time when even the Nagar Palika said they would do it. What is the point of these tall promises?  Once, NMDC got some people to sweep the entire stretch and rid it of dust. They placed large stones on the ground a while later. Soon, all the tar disappeared, and no one returned. There was nothing left of the raw materials. How are we supposed to walk barefeet on such treacherous trails? There’s a pipeline that runs both in Kadampal and Madari. There was a patwari who came to see us. Earlier, the patwari was from Bacheli. He called people from Essar to our village. He told me that the pipeline area needs to be surveyed. I asked him if he had a list. The least you could do is open the file. Why do you need to check the line again? I accused Ramchandran of bribing the Patwari. If you install one more pipeline here, our lands will get destroyed. They told me it was imperative that they conducted the survey. Only then would they know where exactly do their lines run. Go to Essar: I told them. The then authorities involved with the project maintained records of their work, didn’t they? Why don’t you check them? It was Ram Varma who was in charge when the plant first started functioning here. There was someone else. I can’t remember their names.”

A truck passed by us. With roaring engines came whorls of dust that settled on the roads. We held our breath. He didn’t. It didn’t bother him anymore. He had to live with it everyday. We lowered our eyes at the ground where cracks had begun to form while the men stared ahead at the truck until it disappeared behind the trees. “Sab chutiya bana rahe hain,” he exclaimed in disgust, “Sab aadmi log dhool kha kha ke shareer kam hota jaa raha hai. It isn’t worth drinking our water nor can we bathe with it. At times, it’s sticky. To outsiders like you, it’ll taste like melted iron. You won’t be able to handle it neither can we. We have no choice but to consume it. And, if we state our concerns, they accuse us of creating issues that are political in nature. Our hand pump fails from time to time. One day, PWD officials came to our village and assured us that they would install a new one. We can’t survive without water. I have barged into offices demanding that they repair them. I am not the only one suffering. ”

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They walk for miles at a stretch looking for clean water. Once, in Tota para, NMDC had dug a well in the area surrounding the settlement and installed a small motor that burnt out over a short period of time. Upon receiving the report that the machine had failed thereby resulting in villagers consuming toxic water, NMDC informed them that they would undertake repair work immediately. “Sab laal paani chal raha tha. Na jaanwar piyega, na aadmi piyega! Now, everything is covered in mud. They didn’t do anything. You can go see it for yourself. You can see a small wall jutting out of the ground and nothing else. It almost seems as if nothing existed there,”said Prakash, “The then collector had forbidden NMDC to wash iron ore in the plant. Look at our legs. The dust never leaves the cracks in our feet. Usme diesel, oil, grease poora mix hoke aata tha. Back in the day, we (as employees) would lend a helping hand in the process. It’s a good thing that the collector refused to let them continue. Now, we are getting relatively clean water in some places. At least our animals can survive. Do you know how many animals died over the years? We would get some compensation if our cattle died. It has been six or seven years since the plant stopped washing iron ore here. Now, when it rains, nothing flows here from the plant anymore since they built cement channels at dhobi ghaat to Kadampal where it all gets accumulated.”

Ahead of Kadampal, on the other side of the forest, the channels were never built. Water mixed with pollutants from the plant flows into the villages and farmlands. People refused to let them build channels that would divert toxic water away from their lands. The men didn’t know why. They couldn’t understand what the intentions of their leaders were when they opposed the project. “A lot needs to be done, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean nothing has been done yet. In the last five years both villagers and animals have had access to relatively clean water. It is quite a challenge to procure it. But we have something at least. When it rains, the channels get clogged. We then have to manually clean them in order to ensure that the poisonous water doesn’t overflow into our fields or homes. They have dug up our mountains. What else can we expect? Water from the hills will flow into the surrounding villages during monsoons. Parapur and Korenar suffer the worst. The naala ahead of the petrol pump in Kirandul and those in Parapur have numerous issues. Today, they are dry but a few weeks later, it will require machinery to unclog them.”

They tried to recall names, numbers and events in the afternoon. They were young when they lost their homes. They spoke of pora dokra and nija dokra who also received Rs 3,000 as compensation all those years ago. Prakash doesn’t remember much. He was a young boy who followed the elderly tribesmen and women into lands that at first seemed familiar, and yet they longed for home, for a place that they called their own. “Yes, they did collect the money. I think they went to the bank in Dantewada. I am not sure,” he said.

“Nija dokra. Haan, ye usi ka daur tha!” he repeated many times over as we walked away. We never crossed paths again not in the three years that we traversed these lands. At times, his thoughts weren’t structured. His words seldom found meaning but he wished to speak.

We listened.

***

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Operations at NMDC mining site

A few days ago, a group of Maoist cadres stormed into the mining facilities of NMDC and set ablaze nine vehicles in the SP-03 screening plant. Some reports suggested that it was an act of defiance and discontentment against the setting up of two permanent security camps in Potali and Chikpal. A crowd of at least 300 villagers armed with bows and arrows stormed the Potali camp a fortnight ago protesting against the security forces. They live in constant fear of being gunned down by soldiers or Maoist cadres. Over the last few weeks, drones and helicopters have been hovering over their villagers thereby creating an environment of fear and anxiety amongst the tribes. The weekly bazaar held every Wednesday wore a forlorn look throughout the day. People barely left their homes, and no one walked on these trails lest they get noticed. On the roadside, lay a structure commemorating two Maoist slain commanders Varghese and Linga who were killed during combing operations in the forests of Dhanikarka a few months ago. The memorial was destroyed by DRG women commandoes.

While the former was a senior cadre of the Malangir Area Committee who was also an IED specilaist, the latter was an active member of the local organisation squad in the Katekalyan Area Committee of Maoists. They were allegedly involved in the IED ambush attack that led to the assassination of BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi and four policemen a few months ago.

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Image for representational purposes only

Several tribesmen from Kakdi, Burgum, Nilavaya and Nahdi travelled to Durva para in Potali and held a meeting with villagers wherein they shared amongst themselves challenges faced by them owing to the large presence of armed forces in the area. They feared that they would be picked up by soldiers from their farmlands where they often go in small groups with bows and arrows. They would be accused of being sympathetic to the Maoist cause and therefore be subjected to proving their innocence time and again. Recently, in an aggressive encounter between Maoists and the police in Sukhpal, a few innocent farmers were allegedly killed in their own farms and accused of conspiring with Maoists against the armed forces. Villagers from Kirandul surrounded the local police station and refused to leave until those who were falsely accused of torching vehicles in the NMDC facilities and arrested were released immediately. They claimed that it was an attempt by the soldiers to protect those surrendered Naxal cadres who have now joined the army. There have been numerous attempts by disgruntled ex-Maoist cadres in the past wherein they wage a personal vendetta against those villagers who opposed them in the past. Amidst the arrested were a lone farmer who didn’t have any family and an 18-year-old young girl who at the time was chopping bottle gourd in her courtyard.

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“At some point, these too were farmlands,” said Mangal as we drove towards Kadampal.  Red trees, red roofs, red water and red earth: all around us, everywhere we looked, the landscape turned red. “These lands never belonged to the mines.” In 2015, NMDC had announced that they would undertake massive de-silting work in the Kadampal tailing dam which according to official reports was created to generate power, and for irrigation purposes.

In a sea of dust where walked neither man nor animal, there in the midst were machines that stormed in and out of the dam. At some places, we caught the appearance of shallow trenches: all illusion created by water and mud. We wondered what it looked at night when the moon rose over the hills; the drudgery of machines replaced by stillness.

We never returned to find out.

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“Whatever is dumped here is meant for NMDC. They tell everyone that they filter water and supply clean drinking water to the villagers. I believe dirty water flows all the way from here to Dantewada. From here one can see everything,” he said taking long strides ahead as I slipped and fell down. Mangal rushed back our way to check on us. “Be Careful. It gets slippery down the slope,” he said adjusting his shoes. “The authorites who wax eloquent on work happening here barely come to visit these sites. They hand over tenders to contractors who do as they please while the officials do not move from their fancy offices. Only if they knew what the plight of adivasis is in these regions! Dam ke beech main bhi ek basti hai. Do you see the mountains ahead? Do you what they are? They are piles of iron dust. You can’t scrub it off your skin with soap. They have chemicals in them. It is not enough that you merely sanction funds for development programmes. There has to be accountability. There has to be a fundamental understanding of ground reality. What happens when you remove agriculture from the lives of tribal communities? Nothing remains. Nothing survives.”

***

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A little further down where trees barely stood up, a middle-aged man walked briskly towards farmlands on our left. Villages looked deserted. A few returned home, a while later. Many died here. Some fighting for home. Some fighting for their rights. And, some succumbing to a state of helplessness, and loss. The man turned around swiftly as Mangal called out to him. His name was Channuram Mayami. He looked at us with great intent as Mangal explained to him what we were up to all morning. At times, he nodded looking away pointing at streets meandering through trails that ended nowhere in particular.

“Yes, nothing,” he said with disdain, “It led to nothing. We protested, begged and even threatened to stop them. It didn’t change anything. Their trucks are forbidden from entering these roads. But nobody follows these rules. This road is meant for public transportation only and not for their trucks! Let them build separate paths for their vehicles.” Itna dhool mithi, lamented Mangal as they spoke hurriedly. “I told Zamir Khan that he was wrong,” he said to Mangal. “He said my morals have fallen and that I was speaking nonsense. The contractors bully us. What are we to do? One day, a few of them came to visit me. They threatened me to not utter a word against them or their work.”

He spoke of lost lands and dead lakes. There was no water source left for them anymore. Their farms are dying and their water turned red a long time ago: longer than one cared to remember. He pointed at the farmlands behind him. “It’s mine,” he said moving closer to us, “They tried to grab it, you know. I refused to let them take it away from me. This is my farm. I had gone to the office where the important men sit. One of them asked me how much money I would need. No matter what your offer is, I will not give away my land. There was a Sampat sahab who tried to coax me into letting go of my farm. This is all I have, I said to him. The rest of it belongs to my family including my uncles. I can’t dupe them and sell their land for money: I said to him”

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Months ago, a group of boys stopped trucks in their tracks and demanded drivers to turn around. There was no one in sight. The trails were not washed with water as promised. There was no one who cleared the stretches of land leading to the dam. The contractors lied to them. “Maal le ja rahe ho toh alag se road banake le jao. Don’t destroy roads meant for the public. Govind came to meet me in the morning that day,” he said looking at the shrubs nearby, “He made the same tall promises as he did last year. I will get everything done within a month. It has been a year and his excuses remain the same. I told him if the situation persists next year, I won’t allow anyone save the villagers to set foot on these roads anymore. The contractors and police officers are working hand in glove with each other. Once, when we hadn’t harvested our paddy yet, we requested them to restrict the movement of trucks on these routes for two weeks. The red dust would destroy our grains! They refused. Rai sahab who was the Thana Inspector remarked: Shoot them. Shoot the villagers. I told him: Go ahead. Kill us!”

[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]

(to be continued…)

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