Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh, Orissa

While I'd had a fairly dramatic experience of being biked around remote, rural, "tribal" Andhra Pradesh in the Araku Valley, it turned out to be a very tame precursor of what was to come. I caught a train from Vishakapatnam up the coast to Bhubaneshwar and then to Puri to attempt to attend an independent film festival, though this didn't exactly turn out as planned. I ended up meeting a British author named Felix who has spent the past 10 or so years living half time in India and half time in Britain, and he ended up being a wealth of information and an excellent contact.

After spending a couple of days checking out the beach and some veerry old and intricate Hindu temples, I started on a journey that I could not have expected. As I may have mentioned before, part of this fellowship travel that I'm on is to spend time in places which have parallels to my homeplace in the coalfields of Appalachia, which to me means places that are fairly remote, have lots of hills, and also some issues with mining. I had heard for awhile that the mountains of southwest Orissa are capped with bauxite, the mineral used to create aluminum, and that the process for mining is very much like mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. I'd also heard about some "primitive" tribal groups in this part of Orissa who had successfully protected their mountains from mining by a huge multinational corporation, but I was told that it would be next to impossible to actually go to this place due to the remoteness, lack of English speaking, and potential danger from company agents. I was therefore very happy when the aforementioned Felix (who has written a very good book about the worldwide aluminum industry and its effect on rural India) informed me that there would a big festival/celebration on top of one of the mountains that has so far been saved in the next couple of days and that he could put me in touch with the right people to find my way there.

To give a little background info, the aluminum company that wants to strip mine the Nyamgiri mountains (Vedanta) has a history of being insidious, relentless, ruthless, and very good at PR so as to make themselves appear to be a valuable asset to the community while destroying vast areas of land and forcing indigenous populations to leave their homeplaces and accept housing in cramped concrete boxes where they might have an opportunity to earn a few dollars a day as day laborers, as opposed to the self-sufficient farmer-gatherer lifestyle they had known. Although they had not been able to get the lease to mine these mountains, they had gone ahead and built a massive aluminum refinery in anticipation of the leases but are now being forced to import bauxite from other parts of India to justify the plant's existence. I arrived in Lanjigarh after a confusing navigation through the train system and a local jeep where I was bounced down some of the roughest, dustiest roads I had ever seen, doubtlessly made that way by the dozens of bauxite trucks making their way from the train station to the refinery and back. The jeep actually stopped at the gate of the refinery, and I was greeted by at least a mile of cruelly ironic propaganda painted on their fortified border wall containing bizarre messages such as "He who destroys a tree destroys himself! So beware!" and "Life: Not fair but still worth living. Drive carefully!"

From the gate I had to find my way to the contact that Felix had given me, but unfortunately he wasn't answering his phone. I decided to start walking in what I assumed was the direction of the actual town, and as I passed a non-descript, unlabeled building a friendly fellow with good English came out and offered to give me a ride if I would come in for a cup of tea first. It turned out that this was the local Vedanta CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) office, which apparently doubled as an interrogation chamber. Before I knew it I was in a tiny room surrounded by about 8 men looming over me while one very official-seeming fellow asked me many, many questions, often repeating the same ones and not seeming a bit friendly although the guy who originally lured me in would occasionally chime in that they are my best friends and only want to make sure that I stay safe. After trying to convince him for a half hour that I'm just a recently graduated traveler who is randomly visiting mining areas with no objective in mind, I finally had enough and stormed out of the room. The original guy was still wanting to give me a ride, and for some reason I let him. He did actually let me go after dropping me in the town, and luckily by this time my contact was answering his phone.

After that extremely creepy and jarring experience, I was greeted by a local fellow who gave me a ride to a meeting point where I caught a ride in a jeep with a few other folks to the foot of the mountain where the celebration would happen. There was a very nice organic hillside farm at this gathering area, and I was very surprised at how green this place was considering how brown the rest of India is in the dry season. It turns out that in addition to being great for refining into aluminum, bauxite is also a natural sponge which is amazing in its ability to retain and slowly release water over the entire year, providing clean water for drinking and agriculture for communities both near to and far from the source. Strangely, these perennial streams and rivers tend to disappear after an area has been strip mined and the communities often face life-or-death water shortages. After a large enough group of people had gathered, we started up the 30 minute trek to the top of the mountain where the festival would be held.

I was mainly walking with progressive urbanite Indians who were supporters of the cause of the local tribal people, as well as some disinterested reporters and a few of the tribals themselves. Once we reached the top it was nearly dark, but for the first time I was able to really see the people who I had been hearing about for some time. The Dongria Khond are considered to be some of the most unaltered by modernity Adivasi people in India, and this was most obvious in the distinctive hairpieces, facial piercings, and simple handwoven dress that was especially apparent with the women. They were also the most beautiful people I have ever been around, and it's really hard to describe exactly what I mean by that. There was a quiet, almost shy kind of look in their eyes, but also intense strength and confidence. They also seemed supremely healthy and full of calm energy. I spent the night and the next day trying to be as unobtrusive and unobnoxious as possible, very self-conscious of my camera (which I tried to keep as hidden as possible) and my glaring whiteness. Among other things, I heard many songs and saw many dances, and witnessed the beheading of a ram as a living sacrifice to the mountain deity that they worship. My biggest regret is that as I was descending the mountain to return back to the town, a group of young Dongria Khond men stopped me and seemed to be asking me to come back up the hill with them. I had already made an appointment with a nearby organic farming organization for the next day, and I declined their offer as they smiled and continued on their way. I'll always wonder what might have happened, whether they might have invited me to stay with them for some time, or what...

Soon I was bouncing down the road past the slums surrounding the Vedanta refinery toward the nearby town of Bissamcuttack to meet up with the Living Farms NGO. Similarly to the Naandi project in AP, their work was focused on preserving traditional organic farming and promoting new techniques that can help farmers to not be reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Unlike Naandi, they're not partnering with Vedanta on any PR campaigns! Once again I was ferreted around on the back of a motorbike to many remote villages to check out composting projects, community seed banks, organic rice and vegetable fields, as well as lots of very friendly people (all Adivasis or Dalits, the lowest caste) and tons of goats, cows, and buffaloes. One difference with this trip is that at many, many of the stops that we made I was offered a fresh tree sap drink known as "tarae." I decided to rename it "magical tree beer" because somehow it comes right out of the tree as a fermented beverage, though unfortunately it continues to ferment in your stomach, producing some undesirable side effects. Still it was a very nice way to see the hilly Orissan countryside. These folks also refused to accept any donation from me even though they spent quite a bit of time and gas over three days to show me around, and they were much, much smaller and less funded than Naandi.

After a brief excursion back down to the seaside town of Puri, I decided to check out the coal mining region of Orissa near the border with Chhattisgarh. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local fellow who has been working on community rights in the Jharsaguda area for sometime, and soon I was meeting Mr. Gopinath Majhi in the small town of Belpahar. This very kind though somewhat defeated and weathered fellow hosted me for a few days in his family's home and took me around to see places that had already been extensively strip mined and those that would soon be destroyed, as well as people who had been struggling for some time. In the midst of it all, I also got to witness my first and only Indian wedding, a story in and of itself. There weren't too many success stories to tell here, as the government-owned surface coal mining operations had repeatedly forcibly evicted people from their land, often with zero or very little compensation of efforts at relocation. Only recently had people started to receive some reparations, though it was often fairly bizarre. We rode through one town where everyone was dismantling their own homes; apparently the government mining company had agreed to give them good paying jobs but only if they would destroy their own homes in advance of the mining operation. The amount of coal dust and dry, parching heat in this place made the Appalachian coalfields seem like paradise, but this would actually not be the most dramatic example of mining destruction and exploitation I would see in India.

Orissa is known as one of the poorest states in India with documented starvation deaths in the past 10 years, and I reckon that I was in some of the poorest parts. However, the issue of poverty here and elsewhere in heartland India is a complicated one. In the places where I visited people who could grow their own food without external inputs and save their own seeds, they were money-poor but contented and rich otherwise. In the places where mineral extraction and heavy industry were making this previous lifestyle impossible though they might actually have more money due to dangerous day labor, I saw the most abject poverty of anywhere in the trip so far. This theme would be continued as I traveled northeast to Jharkhand, arguably the poorest and most chaotic state in the country.

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