December 05, 2010

life in general: (part 1) 'unheard voices..' book written by harsh mander

There is one book that is very dear to me. It is Harsh Mander's 'Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives' written by him some years back.

I share below excerpts from the book. It is one of the 20-odd stories of common Indian people that Mander has written about in the book.

Excerpts from the book:

Two decades after he was uprooted from the land of his ancestors, Nanhe Ram, still speaks little. Looking much older than his sixty years, he sits for long hours outside his dilapidated hut in the resettlement village of Aitma. He has no land, no cattle, no sons; his ageing wife labours all day in the forests or in the fields of the big farmers of the village, to keep the fires burning.

There is anguish but little recrimination, as he talks haltingly of the past. The first time they heard about the large dam that would submerge their village, he recalls, was when daily wages were twelve annas (which would probably be in the mid-1950s). Their village, as, indeed, the entire region, was hardly connected to the outside world, and until then they had encountered very few government officials. When men on bicycles, wearing trousers and shirts, rode into their villages to inform them about the dam, the tribal people living there had got scared and run away into the forests.

He did not know then that a gigantic thermal power complex was being planned in the neighbourhood of his village, at Korba, for which the two rivers that flowed there, the Hasdeo and Bango, were to be dammed. Fifty-nine tribal villages like his were to be submerged, twenty completely and the rest partially, along with 102 square kilometres of dense sal forest, to create a vast new reservoir of 213 square kilometres. No one consulted with the 2,721 families of these villages, condemned to become internal refugees in the cause of ‘national development’, profoundly and irrevocably. Some 2,318 of these families, who like Nanhe Ram were the least equipped because of their temperament, culture and lack of experience, to negotiate their new lives.

The survey work continued for six or seven years, and it was in 1961 that the first phase of the project, for the construction of the barrage and major canal was sanctioned. Nanhe recalls their fear and excitement when a small plane flew in as part of the on-going survey work. However, it was only a decade and a half later, in 1977, that the first settlement, Nanhe’s village, was actually submerged. In the intervening years, construction continued apace, but no one from the government planned any steps for their rehabilitation or even as much as spoke with them about how they might rebuild their lives in the future. They were completely ignored.

In 1977, a few months before their homes were actually submerged, the farmers were packed into a truck and driven to the divisional headquarters of Bilaspur, located in the heart of the Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh. Nanhe recalls that they arrived at the imposing building housing the district office in the late afternoon, and were bundled into a courtyard. There they were addressed by an official, who informed them that their village would be lost to the dam reservoir in just a few months, during the net monsoon, and that the government was therefore paying them the first installment of their compensation. For Nanhe, this was a niggardly Rs 540.

When their truck returned to their village, it was morning. The inhabitants found that the local revenue officer, the tehsildar, was waiting for them. The tehsildar wanted to recover the land revenue due from Nanhe out of this compensation amount. Nanhe lost Rs 300 to him, and the remaining Rs 240 also disappeared before long merely in day-to-day survival.

During the meeting at the district office, someone had timidly asked, But where are we to go when our village goes under in the next monsoon? The official had replied tersely, How do I know? Why don’t you go to your relatives’ homes? But, some weeks later, a bank of activists held a series of meetings in their village. How can they ask you to go to the homes of your relatives, they thundered. Did your relatives build this dam? They organized demonstrations and rallies, in which many young tribals of the village also participated. Nanhe was confused and frightened, and he held himself aloof. Eventually, the government conceded that the tribal families that were being submerged would be given house-sites in a resettlement colony located in the forest uplands.

In the few months that remained, Nanhe made plans in his own way for the future. Where and how they would live, he did not know. He was worried first about his cow, whom they all loved. He knew that he would not be able to take care of her in the resettlement village, at a time when even keeping his wife and two daughters alive would be very hard. He also could not think of selling her, because she was like a member of the family. So he gave her to an Ahir cowherd, and promised to pay him Rs 150 each year for looking after her. Nanhe continued, despite all his subsequent tribulations, to save and send money for the upkeep of the cow for ten years, until the cow died.

Just a day before the monsoon broke, the trucks arrived. The people were given only a few hours to bundle their belongings into the trucks. They were then driven to the resettlement village, in which house plots of .05 acres each had been hurriedly cleared for them in the forest. The rains broke early, and Nanhe and his family spent the entire monsoon huddled with their few belongings under a mahua tree. In the dry spells, Nanhe struggled, trying to build a small hut, while his wife scoured the forests for food.

The remaining instalments of compensation were paid only fifteen years later, in 1992. Nanhe received a cheque of Rs 2,000, which he used to repay loans to the moneylender. Nanhe survived on occasional wage labour, but only barely. It was around then that for the first time, under pressure from activists, the government initiated a few livelihood programmes. Although the government has since spent some two crore rupeeds in the resettlement region in recent years to belatedly provide livelihoods to the displaced families, there has been little success. Fishing in the new reservoir is dominated by outside contractors. Forty lakh rupees were spent on a poultry farm, which ran for a few months, with twelve beneficiaries who were given 100 birds each. The birds suddenly died of some illness, and the farm closed down. The manager of the poultry farm departed after making a young tribal girl pregnant. Ambar charkhas or spinning looms were installed, but raw material supply and marketing were erratic. The looms provided wages in fits and starts, and that too only one rupee a day.

The resettlement villages are at the periphery of the large artificial reservoir, connected by earth roads that get submerged after the rains each year. In these inaccessible, remote, artificial settlements, not only are jobs hard to come by but life is very hard in other ways as well. Schools, health centres, credit cooperatives and ration shops rarely function. If someone is seriously ill during the rainy months, the only way to reach a hospital is by undertaking a perilous journey of three hours on a small leaking dinghy.

Not surprisingly, of the 208 families that had been resettled in Aitma, only sixty remain. The rest have migrated, either to the forests as encroachers, or to the city slums, in desperate search of means for bare survival.

Nanhe is among the few who remain, because he had neither the strength, nor the will to struggle and to start life anew one more time. He sits quietly outside his hut for most of the day. But sometimes when he speaks, he says softly to anyone who is willing to hear. When I am on a boat, in the middle of the reservoir, and I know that hundreds of feet beneath me, at that very point, lie my village and my home and my fields, all of which are lost forever, it is then that my chest rips apart, and I cannot bear the pain…

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