Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wild and Wonderful Jharkhand, Part 2

After a few weeks of nagging my hosts to help me visit a very "sensitive" bauxite mining area called Lahodaga I'd been hearing about, I was sort of haphazardly put in contact with some people at a missionary school near Dumri. This school was chartered by a local Adivasi priest to educate a couple of local tribes, one of which had never had its language put into written form. I'll say a quick word about the nature of Christian/missionary work, schools, etc in this part of India...To my understanding, German, British, and Belgian missionaries came to the interior tribal areas starting in the mid 1800s and over the next several decades set up quite a few schools and ended up intervening on tribal peoples' behalf when the British government was trying to impose laws that would have stripped them of their ancestral land. This was probably the most Christian area I visited in India, and it wasn't uncommon for a single family to have both Christian and tribal religion members. I didn't see any white clergy on several visits to churches, nunneries, and other religious institutions; it seems to be perpetuated solely by the local Adivasis themselves.

Back to Lahodaga...After a chaotic series of minibus transfers in the absolute middle of nowhere in rural India, me and my "guide" (who turned out to not know any more about the place or the situation than me) were let off at a dirt road junction where the driver pointed in the direction we'd have to walk another few miles to get to the school. We arrived just after sundown to a fresh chicken dinner, and it turned out to be a very nicely designed school though it could use a bit of financial help to finish the last bit of construction. The next day was a bit of a miss but interesting nonetheless. I tried to explain that I really wanted to see some areas with large scale hill-top bauxite mining and speak to people who had been affected by it, but we ended up having a bunch of sisters (as in nuns) jump in the jeep and direct us to a convent for our first stop. It was a very lengthy tour of a big pretty Catholic campus, then they wanted to go stop at one of their parents' homes for lunch, and while it was very tasty and I really appreciated the hospitality (and they strangely insisted that I let the matriarch of the house wash my feet) it also knocked out any real chance to see strip mining affected communities that day.

Before going to bed for the evening (and after dropping the sisters off), we made a detour to the jeep driver's home village which was just down the road. Here I got to see mahua liquor being made for the first time, and it was pretty awesome. I also got to see some really drunk villagers, how people steal electricity from government power lines, and one dude demonstrated how they make their clay roof tiles which is something I'd been pretty interested in. The next day proved to be much more fortuitous almost right off the bat.

No one had told me there was a model solar energy village right down the road, so needless to say it was a massive surprise when we suddenly rolled into a remote hamlet that had a very impressive photovoltaic array, not to mention a community-owned rice mill and a state-of-the-art water purification system. Apparently someone from the village ended up being a well-known priest out in the greater world and was able to secure some government funding for this model village project. Obviously I was stoked to just randomly happen upon this seemingly very well-functioning example of how rural India could sustainably become a bit more modern, though it seems pretty doubtful that this will become a widespread phenomenon anytime very soon.

After dropping off a sick kid to his family somewhere outside Lahodaga, we finally made it to the super-devastated site I'd been looking for. Several miles before actually coming to the Hindalco bauxite mines at Bagru Hills, I started noticing these elevated cable cars carrying something or other above the arid farmlands of western Jharkhand. A hair-rising ride ensued up and around the side of a mountain on a road that was not unlike the road up to a strip mine in Eastern Kentucky. At the top was a guard gate, and for some reason they were willing to let us come onto mine property and wander around. It was very, very much like a big mountaintop removal site from Appalachia on the top, complete with random pieces of rusting heavy machinery, apathetic security guards, and of course huge gourges of destruction where the earth had been laid bare to get at whatever of value was inside it. But one main difference with back home was that quite a few people seemed to be living here. Not just any people, but the people who had been here before the mining ever started, and who were now the ones operating the machinery at best or doing grunt labor at worst. The story here was that this community didn't know it was even possible to organize against a mining project when Hindalco first came around back in the 1960s with orders that they had the right to mine the land and that the people who had traditionally lived on the land would either have to find somewhere else to live or could work for the company and live in company-built housing. According to the very friendly, hospitable fellow who befriended us and became our unofficial guide, they would have definitely resisted back then (when he was just a boy) if they'd known they could. They used to have diverse forests and rich farmlands that they could easily support themselves with; now they only had the meager earnings from the company, which was barely enough to pay for basic schooling for his kids. He was one of the main guys running the miles of cable cars that I had seen on the ride up here.

Well, that had all been a pretty intensive series of experiences, so I reckoned I was due for something a little more recreational. I had met a young woman at the Netarhat firing range rally a week or so ago who was from a town in this area where I now found myself, and we'd made plans to hang out if I ever ended up over her way. I spent a few days with Nisha and her family in Gumla, which is really not a very interesting place in and of itself but I did enjoy riding a moterscooter with her and one of her friends waaayy out into the hinterlands to visit her mother's village. I don't think they had electricity there whatsoever, all of the buildings were traditional earthen structures (very durable, weatherproof, and naturally air conditioned), and we had a very nice hike along with her beautiful and tough single mother cousin up to the top of a hill overlooking the area. Once we got there she told me that this was one of the main forest hideout areas for the Naxalites (remember the anti-government guerrilla force?), but we shouldn't worry because they knew her and wouldn't want to mess with her dad. OK.

Nisha and I had some other random adventures in the following weeks, such as happening upon a place of worship on this remote rock outcropping where we witnessed a nearly naked Sadhu rescuing a calf from drowning in a pool, inviting me back to Gumla where I was some kind of special guest along with her father (apparently the guy was some sort of mafiesque Don Corleone political figure but I could never ascertain his exact position) at the massive Sarhul festival, and a special trip to the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh where we were hosted by her aunt's monastery/school and went to go check out the nearby mega-industrial town of Korba. Needless to say, I could nearly write a book on these exploits alone, but that probably wouldn't be the best use of blog space.

I finished off my "really screwed up places in Jharkhand" tour in the infamous coalfields of Dhanbad and Jharia. The underground mine fires have been blazing in the Jharia district for nearly 100 years, and they're showing no signs of stopping. Dhanbad was a fairly decent-looking modern Indian town, but just behind the facade were apocalyptic mountains of destruction, smoke and gases spewing out of the ground just feet away from houses, abandoned old megalithic industrial structures, little kids carrying big baskets of coal on their heads, and coal dust absolutely everywhere. Just googling "jharia coal fires" should give you enough to go on for awhile, and although I had read about the place and even seen a documentary about it, it's really something else to physically feel the immense heat of the ground and then to see kids and women scavenging coal from huge open pit strip mines in either bare feet or tattered flip flops so they can have something to try to sell to be able to eat that day. I honestly don't know how they do it; I couldn't keep my hand on the ground for more than a few seconds. Maybe I'm naive, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find more abject forms of poverty and tougher overall living conditions anywhere else in the world, excluding actively war-torn areas. Obviously the government should be doing something to not allow this situation to perpetuate especially when India is making so much money from haphazard industrial expansion, but once again we see what really matters in mining areas when people are pitted against minerals in terms of value...

My last official stop in Jharkhand was a bit more of an uplifting example than the most recent visits. I had connected months ago with a fellow coordinating the Jharkhand Alternative Development Forum, and from our emails it sounded like we had very similar interests and goals in terms of promoting local sustainable development. He and some others would be traveling to a remote hilly area in the south to visit a community bioenergy and organic farming project and I was invited to come along. It was definitely remote, and I surely enjoyed the windy, bumpy, hilly roads on the way out to the village site. I was told at a certain point that state vehicles wouldn't travel any further than here for fear of Naxalite ambushes, but the Naxals were aware of and very supportive of the project we were going to visit. It was basically a big firebox that would have huge chunks of wood shoved into it to convert water into steam in a compartment within it, and this steam would be used either to turn a small generator that powered lights throughout the village or it would power an oilseed press. They were using the oilseed press when we arrived, and it was honestly pretty awesome to see these folks take organic mustard they had grown, use fallen timber they had gathered as firewood, and process mustard oil that they could sell at local markets or use for their own cooking. In the background a building was being constructed that would later house a seed saving bank and an organic farming training center, not unlike some of the other projects I'd visited in Orissa and earlier at Navdanya.

Thus concludes my month and a half in Jharkhand. While this is a very long entry, I feel like I just barely skimmed the surface of what was probably the most intense and impactful of any place that I visited during this entire year abroad. Part of me still wishes I could go back there right now, part of me is very glad that I'm not there, and part of me might still be there. I feel like I should have some kind of wise conclusion to all of this, but for some reason I still don't feel terribly wise...Jharkhand to me represented most concisely what India as a nation is going through right now, which in a way is what the world has been going through since the Industrial Revolution. India is racing headfirst toward being a "developed" country with malls, cars, cell phones, and semi-regular electricity, and the fuel for that is coming most directly from places like Jharkhand. The Adivasi people are the ones most intimately affected by the ugly side of industrial capitalism, though many of them openly embrace the coming industrialization as the best way forward, including current chief minister Arjun Munda who hails from the same village as the afore-mentioned bioenergy project.

Of course I have my own opinions as someone who deeply respects and reveres traditional, "tribal" ways of living that don't rely on external inputs and are very resilient; in fact I think the "developed" world could learn a lot from the few people who still practice this lifestyle. I definitely had some interesting exchanges trying to explain that to tribal youth who just want to go to college, get a good paying job, have nice clothes and a nice motorbike, and who accept the industrialization that will displace their families as "the price of progress." This place is the battleground at which the raw things that modern society needs to survive clash directly with the sustainable societies who had lived on top of those resources for thousands of years in relative contentedness, and it literally is a battleground as evidenced by the Naxalite insurgency. I would like to be a resource as much as possible to connect people abroad with folks on the ground there who are doing good work, so please contact me if you would like to somehow support any of these people or spread the word about what's happening there. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FULL PHOTO ALBUM ON FACEBOOK

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