Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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Kids died of hunger, elders went missing and houses were burnt for opposing land acquisition

A Mumbai girl travelled to the villages of Kalinganagar in Orissa last summer and came face to face with stories of children dying of hunger, elders gone missing and houses burnt to ground just because they protested against land acquisition. Here is a reproduction of Priyanka Borpujari’s diary notes which first appeared on her blog Just Be

“I too need to buy a camera,” said that man of 40 when he saw me taking photographs around the village in Chandia. I told him that he would have to learn how to use it, and that I could teach him a thing or two. He insisted upon seeing the photographs I had taken. Satisfied with my meagre photography skills, he shocked me with his question, “How many pixels?” I replied, and asked him where did he learn about pixels. “On TV, when they show that they will give discounts if I order. A neighbour has Tata Sky at home. That is when I saw it,” he replied. Quite an irony that one of Tata's products has given this man a new view of the world, while he struggles daily against the same company's atrocious ways to grab their land in Kalinganagar.
“What will you do with the camera?” I asked.

“I need to take photographs of our villagers. With every protest in every corner of Kalinganagar, we are losing our kin. I need to take their photographs before they are all gone. But tell me, can we take a video from this camera? Suppose the goons attack us – will we be able to shoot everything and show it later to the others?”

I saw in him the desperation to keep intact the memories of his brethren. An hour later, he was satisfied with all that I taught him about the use of camera. I grabbed this chance to ask him in return about how the bow and arrow were made. He seemed to be more than pleased to teach me.

Both the bow and the arrow are made of cane, and the tribals go hunting into the jungle to pick up the best of the plants. The tip of the arrow is made of iron, and some families have specialised in the art of making these. They used to be available for Rs 5 a piece. But, just like the way a war is profitable for any government, the blacksmiths are also charging up to Rs 30 for every piece of arrow tip that is made. The other end of the arrow has feathers tied. This, I was told, gives the arrow a spin when it is let loose from the bow. The arrow continues to spin when it hits a target, thus making a perfect hole. Without the feathers, the arrow would just slide in the air and would cut through the target like a smooth knife. Ironically, the soft and light feather is what makes the arrow so effective.

No one knows it better than these warriors. They have stocked up their homes with dozens of arrows, yet they are waiting for their anger to brim to a level when they can use their ancient tools against the rubber bullets, the steel bullets and the INSAS rifles.

They have stocked up their homes with dozens of arrows, yet they are waiting for their anger to brim to a level when they can use their ancient tools against the rubber bullets, the steel bullets and the INSAS rifles.

One family which wishes to have used their tools of ancient warfare is the Kalundia family from Gadhpur village, about 3 km away from Chandia. I walk to their village across the Common Corridor, and find the men on their fields. They want to make the best of the days before it rains, and before their land is levelled. Nobody knows the essence of making the best of now better than this family.

Panjabi Kalundia (45) lives with his brother Debendra (40), along with their respective families. Both brothers share the same grief, which can be dated back to May 9, 2005. It is tough to ask a man of the death of his child; it is easier to ask a woman about strength and hope. Maharashtra Seamless was another steel company which had earmarked 1,500 acre of land for a steel plant. Among those resisting the land grab was this family. They were accustomed to the police coming every morning, surrounding the village to terrorise the people, and leaving by noon time. That had become a routine and the villagers managed to do their daily work at home and on the fields accordingly.

But May 9, 2005, was different, for it was the day of the bhoomi pujan of Maharashtra Seamless. The cops surrounded the village of Gadhpur once again, while in another part of the Kalinganagar, some villagers were opposing the bhoomi pujan as their land too was to be lost. “Around 9 am, I was at home with my elder son who was just able to walk then. He is seven year old today. My younger daughter Jima was just a baby and was asleep on the cot. My wife had gone to the village hand pump to get water. Suddenly we heard that the cops had come, and that they were with guns this time. We ran towards the Mahagiri hills behind our village. I ran with my son,” said Panjabi. About 100 families reside in Gadhpur and that day, all of them were scattered in the hills.

“I thought that the cops would go back soon and so I too ran for my life into the hills. I remembered that Jima was at home, along with Rahul, my brother-in-law Debendra's son. Rahul was younger than my son but elder to Jima. I knew that we would be back soon. But that 'soon' turned out to be two whole days,” Panjabi's wife Sumi (30) told me in broken Hindi and Oriya.

The cops hadn't left the village, was what they had heard. Without food or water, the men and women of the village survived through the ordeal, without knowing where their family members were. Two days later, someone informed that the cops had finally left. Sumi was the first to have reached home. She saw Jima lying on the cot, and Rahul on the floor. Both were dead. “It was the summer and the hunger must have been unbearable. We never thought that we would be away for so long. I reached after my wife to see her wailing. The two children died of hunger and thirst. Without bullets or any firing, Maharashtra Seamless killed our children,” said Panjabi, as we sat on the cairn near his fields.

Without food or water, the men and women of the village survived through the ordeal, without knowing where their family members were. Two days later, someone informed that the cops had finally left. Sumi was the first to have reached home. She saw Jima lying on the cot, and Rahul on the floor. Both were dead

Panjabi has two more children today after the death of Jima while his brother Debendra – whom I could not meet – also has two children. Needless to say, Sumi was continuously caressing her toddler in her arms as we spoke. In all, fives lives were lost during the protest on May 9, 2005. The company faced much flak and left the area. The 1,500 acres land to be acquired by them has now gone into the hands of Tata. “We lost our children to Maharashtra Seamless. Now we have lost 13 acre of our land to Tata's project, leaving us with just two acre. We have not got a single penny. What more do these companies want to steal from us,” asked an angry Panjabi.

Before I left them, I asked if they had a photograph of the two children. “We don't even know how old they were! We have only given you the rough estimates of our own age. We are poor people. How would we have photographed them?” I realised I had asked an inane question.

 

 

The same stories, everywhere. Stories of loss of life, loss of land, loss of dignity – among those resisting the repression, as well as those living in the transit camps, who had given their land out and had accepted a rehab package. The main transit camp was on a highway, and similar to the huge green signboard that welcomes every visitor to Kalinganagar, a huge board read out, 'Welcome to Gobarghati Transit Camps'. I was told to go there only on the last day of my stay in Kalinganagar, lest I was hauled and prevented from further moving around. I rode on the bike with journalist RR, and 500 metres into the camp was a bright orange two-storey building onto the left. A signboard read out that it was a computer institute. Welcome to the land of lies. Another 500 metres into the area, and across the barren land around were those buildings.

The structures reminded me of the chawls in Mumbai – rooms stuck together, and the facade decorated with several clotheslines. But we didn't stop by – RR said that the young boys sitting at the entrance were not mere youths whiling off their time but security men. They were keeping a tab on every person entering and exiting the area. I could well estimate that the rooms allotted to the people were very tiny, with a small verandah to walk around. The structure was more like a village school – the classrooms were the tiny houses, the beams supporting the asbestos sheet as the roof marked the separation between the houses, the doors painted bright blue. In the small courtyard outside was a slide for children in the little open space, as well as monkey bars – akin to giving a Grade IV malnourished child a McDonald's burger instead of the basic food for survival.

We crossed the transit camp and as I looked back, I could not help but think of the confinement that these people were subjected to. No land to farm, a tiny house and a meagre sum of compensation to live on – this was far from what a self-sufficient tribal would ever have a nightmare of. Yet, this was a reality for several families who were lured with the prospects of good jobs.  We rode into the camp meant for those displaced by Nilachal Ispat Nigam Ltd (NINL).

We met Dubi Munda (60), who was once a resident of Nuagaon village. NINL was the first company to have set up a steel plant in the villages of Nuagaon and Madhavpur, and it displaced 613 families. Munda's fate was determined by both NINL and MESCO – his house came under the land acquired by NINL, while his farm land of 18 goonth (25 goonths make an acre) was acquired by MESCO. He received a total of Rs 37,000 for his farm land, but wasn't expecting any amount for the loss of his house. The January 2, 2006, firing was an unexpected boon.

He explained: “In 1997, although we did not want to give up our house, it was razed down. Nilachal gave us Rs 11,000 and told us that a piece of land was waiting for us here in Gobarghati, while we would also get a job. We were brought here, which is just 2.5 goonth in area. We erected the house on our own, with hay for the roof and mud for the walls. But there was no land to farm, for a survival. I somehow pull through by taking up contract labour jobs here and there,” said Dubi.

In 1997, our house was razed down. Nilachal gave us Rs 11,000 and told us that land and job was waiting for us in Gobarghati. We were given just 2.5 goonth area, erected the mud house on our own and I somehow pull through by taking up contract labour jobs. 

When the January 2006 firing took place, the family received Rs 1.5 lakh for the construction of their house. “We would ask them several times about the promised job, but they kept on dilly-dallying it. When the firing in January 2006 took place, we were told that we were entitled to receive Rs 2 lakh, but Rs 50,000 was deducted for using this land. I was smart enough to have this place named after my second daughter Chando, so that she can get the job for a longer period,” Dubi said.

We calculated the price of the land – going by the price of Rs 50,000 for 2.5 goonth, the family should have received Rs 3,60,000 for their 18 goonth of land, instead of Rs 37,000 that they got. We told this to Dubi and he just laughed it off. There was little he could do anything about it now. Of his three married daughters, Chando lives with her parents along with her husband and toddler. I ask her about the job, and the description is another practical joke. “Again, it was the firing that got me the job in 2007, for they feared that we too might protest. I got the job of a gardener for which I underwent training for two years. I was initially paid Rs 1,500, but now I get Rs 14,000. But it is no great sum – we do not have lands to farm and hence we have to buy everything from the market today. Earlier, all we had to buy was just cooking oil and salt. We have lost a lot,” Chando said. What kind of garden needs to be tended by a gardener with training for two years?

The family has now erected a concrete house within that small area, but it is far from completion. The Ra 1.5 lakh has long been exhausted. They get water and electricity at random. I asked Chando about any facilities that she gets thanks to her job. “A family of six members are entitled to medical benefits in Bhubaneshwar, but if we do not claim the medical allowance of a total of Rs 4,000 within six months, we will lose it. And that means no medical benefit thereafter,” she said with a smile, understanding the trap that she had fallen into.

 

We took leave and then Dubi said slowly, “We were initially excited about this new idea of development, thanks to the steel plants. We were told to dream about jobs, education for our children, medical facilities and electricity. But for 10 years until the January 2006 firing, I had to think daily about the next meal. Even now, if Chando doesn't go to work for about two days, we are all worried that she will lose the job. We have lost our land; we have lost our peace of mind.”

We were initially excited about this new idea of development. We were told to dream about jobs, education for our children, medical facilities and electricity. But for 10 years until the January 2006 firing, I had to think daily about the next meal.

Peace in pieces. This is the story of every household in Kalinganagar. I leave the place from the highway, and on my way in Ambagadia – just like the tribals – I bow my head before the 15 edifices erected for the 15 people who lost their lives on January 2, 2006. While 12 of them died immediately, three others succumbed to their injuries later. Among the 15 martyrs were three brave women.

1. Mukuta Dei Bankira of Chandia village

2. Aati Jamunda of Chandia village

3. Ramchandra Jamunda of Champakoyla village

4. Diyugi Tiriya of Champakoyla village

5. Sudam Barla of Bellahori village

6. Bhagwan Soy of Gobarghati village

7. Landu Jarika of Bamiagoth village

8. Gobind Lagori of Bamiagoth village

9. Janga Jarika of Bamiagoth village

10. Ramlal Mundoya of Baligot village

11. Ramo Gagarai of Gadhpur village

12. Bona Badara of Gadhpur village

13. Shyamo Gagarai of Chandia village (succumbed to his injuries after a month)

14. Kisan Buriuli of Chandia village (succumbed to his injuries after six months)

15. Bir Singh Gop of Chandia village (succumbed to gangrene on both thighs after a year. He had lost both legs in the landmine blast)

I learnt from Rabi Jarika that people who die a natural death are buried in the premises of the house, and it is believed that the souls of the deceased will guide the rest of the family. So almost every courtyard in Kalinganagar has a tombstone. However, those who lose their lives in an unnatural way – like the 15 killed in the firing – are cremated, as it is believed that burying them will lead to rest of the generations also dying an unnatural death. The tombstones of the 15 at Ambagadia, nevertheless, have guided this revolution in Kalinganagar. It guides those who fight each day while being under the 'house arrest' in their own villages; it guides those who have been arrested on various false charges – ranging from arson to murder. Some of those arrested in the recent past, from villages around Chandia, include:

1. Chakradhar Haibru Junior from Ambagadia village

2. Nanika Jamunda from Ambagadia village

3. Suresh Haibru from Bellahori village

4. Jogendra Jamunda from Chandia village

5. Devendra Jarika from Chandia village

6. Birsa Tamsoi from Chandia village

7. Kunja Gagarai from Gadhpur village

8. Budhansingh Jamunda from Gadhpur village

9. Pakoi Gagarai from Gadhpur village

10. Paresh Gagarai from Gadhpur village

11. Babula Soren from Baidubori village

12. Babuli Deogam from Baidubori village

13. Madan Kalundia from Baligot village

14. Konai Purty from Masakhiya village

15. Majura Purty from Masakhiya village

16. Turan Purty from Masakhiya village

17. Biren Hembram from Masakhiya village

18. Pratap Chola from Masakhiya village

Would they just be a list of names to be forgotten? Would they just be names of dacoits as would be propagated by the corporates? Would they just be names of revolutionaries? Would they be just be one of us, fighting like any of us would have?

(Today, the local protest stands successfully quashed and the process to erect the steel plant is going on in full swing.Though several of the arrested people have been released, the silence of civil society and mainstream media against the atrocities commited in Kalingangar is palpable especially when compared to Vedanta and POSCO projects which have grabbed headlines.) (Images by writer)

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