Friday, January 30, 2015
By Ranabir Samaddar
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Thursday, May 30, 2013
In the English media, the 50th Ambedkar anniversary rated at best as a traffic problem. At worst, as a potential nightmare. There was not even a pretence of interest in the person. But this is a time to remember that the larger society ignores or distorts the Dalits' struggle for their rights at its own risk, writes P Sainath.
In the English media, the 50th Ambedkar anniversary rated at best as a traffic problem. At worst, as a potential nightmare. There was not even a pretence of interest in the person. But this is a time to remember that the larger society ignores or distorts the Dalits' struggle for their rights at its own risk, writes P Sainath.
Get ready for a siege." Follow this guide "to escape possible chaos." Even Dalits are joining the "EXODUS." And "You thought Tuesday was bad? It will only get worse today." There is a "nightmare" - a threat of violence. And the poor "Mumbai police will have to bear the brunt of it all."
These were just a few of the headlines (some of them front page, first lead) in the press and on television channels. And they were about the lakhs of Dalits gathered in Mumbai to observe the 50th death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. That is, on December 6. There were, of course, fine exceptions. But mostly, media coverage of the run-up to the event was much like the coverage of post-Khairlanji protests in Maharashtra.
This is not the first observance of the great man's anniversary. Lakhs visit the "chaitya bhoomi" in Mumbai each year on this day. As they did this year, too, with high discipline. And without that hell foreseen in the headlines. (After the huge build-up, the issue faded from the news. Alas, no mayhem.) Then why the hysteria? Is it because the state saw some violence after the Khairlanji murders? Now, every issue stamped 'Dalit' gets slotted into: "Will there be disorder and chaos?"
And so a decades-old event was cast in a frame never imposed on other annual festivals. Some of those, like the Ganesh utsav, go on for 10 days in the city. And have a massive impact on traffic. But they do not get covered this way. And the more dismal display has come from the English media. The Marathi press - at least on December 6 - did better. There were essays on the man, his legacy, his relevance.
In the English media - with rare exceptions - the Ambedkar anniversary rated at best as a traffic problem. At worst, as a potential nightmare. There was not even a pretence of interest in the person whose 50th death anniversary it was. A giant who was no 'Dalit leader' but a national one with a global message. Dr. Ambedkar was not just the prime architect of the Constitution. This was a man who resigned from the Nehru Cabinet - he was the nation's first Law Minister - on issues linked to women's rights. He stepped down when the Cabinet dragged its feet on the Hindu Code Bill that would have advanced the rights of millions of women.
Few in the media asked why so many - sometimes up to a million - human beings come to observe his death anniversary each year. Is there one other leader across the world who draws that number 50 years after his death? To an event that speaks to the hearts of people? To a function not owned or organised by any political party or forum? There was no effort to look at why it is the poor and the dispossessed who come here. No mention that this was a man with a Ph.D from Columbia University who returned to lead what is today the greatest battle for human dignity on planet earth.
There was little journalistic curiosity over what brings 85-year-olds with just two rotis in their hands all the way from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh to Dadar in Mumbai. People for whom the journey means both hardship and hunger. Musicians and poets who perform through the day for nothing. Hard-up authors who print books and pamphlets at their own cost for their fellows. And yet make the trip - driven by their hearts and drawn by the hope of a noble vision as yet unfulfilled. A casteless world.
Which other national leader commands this respect 50 years after his death? Let alone when alive? Why are there more statues of Ambedkar in India's villages than those of any other leader the country has ever seen? His statues are not government installed - unlike those of many others. The poor put them up at their own expense. Whether in Tamilnadu or Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Orissa, see whose portraits can be found in the humblest of huts. It's worth trying to understand why.
The 50th anniversary is being held in the context of Dalit unrest in Maharashtra. But it is being used to take Khairlanji out of its larger context. Crimes against Dalits in Maharashtra have risen steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. There were 604 cases of rape of Dalit women recorded in 1981. That number was 885 by 1990. And rose to 1,034 by 2000. That's based on very biased official data. The real figures would be much higher. And things have gotten worse since then.
There is one exception. Crimes under the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act do show a big dip in the 1990s. But only because the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government arbitrarily dropped thousands of these cases at one go.
As the Dalit voice in organised politics has declined, the number of caste attacks on Dalits in Maharashtra has increased. Earlier, their political strength was their best shield. For decades, they had repelled the worst excesses of landlord cruelty. Untouchability did not vanish. But they did fight it stoutly. This culture of resistance rested on strong political movements. So, though less than 11 per cent of Maharashtra's population, Dalits had begun to stand tall.
But the Republican Party of India splintered and many of its leaders were co-opted by mainline parties. The Dalit Panthers, once a key source of inspiration and strength, went almost extinct. The results of the decline showed up soon. There was no struggle against the dropping of those thousands of cases under the PoA Act. Electoral opportunism saw the RPI factions crumble further. The 2004 polls saw them put up their worst show ever.
You can see it in battles over water as in Jalna, labour boycotts in Raigad or wage battles elsewhere. Attacks on Dalits have risen across Maharashtra. Just a year ago, more than 20 Dalit houses were torched in Belkhed village in Akola district. Akola was once a centre of Dalit political strength. In the 1960s, RPI candidates used to get 40 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha seat here.
Hindutva's rise from the late 1980s saw the RPI fracture further. Too many leaders were swallowed by the Congress and later the Nationalist Congress Party. Dalit unity lost ground. These setbacks were to reflect in every sphere. The shrinking of public sector and government jobs in the reform years hit Dalits badly. Even existing jobs lie vacant. A Times of India report reckons that more than 1.3 lakh government posts in reserved categories in Maharashtra have not been filled up for years.
Meanwhile, the protests after Khairlanji have had an ugly companion. The growing display of caste prejudice in the media. The claims were sick. Khairlanji had nothing to do with caste. The woman who was raped and murdered was of loose morals. There were no "upper castes" in the village. (That last had to come from an English-language journalist unaware that the dominant caste in a given village might not be an "upper caste" at all.) Dalits were holding the state "to ransom." Wicked 'politicians' were behind what was going on. The protests were Naxal-driven.
As always, there were brilliant exceptions. (Even on television.) They did not, though, define the main trend. The same media treat anti-quota activists as heroes. (No matter how much damage they inflict or how close to racist their rhetoric gets.)
Interviews in the run-up to the Ambedkar anniversary were mostly with people whining that Shivaji Park had been turned into a toilet. Or who spoke only about pollution and traffic jams.
It would be startling if political groups did not enter the protests. Corporation and panchayat elections are due in February. And parties won't ignore that. But they did not set off this process, even if they sought to engage with or exploit it. Ordinary Dalits were on the streets long before Dalit party leaders were. Khairlanji was the fuse. An already deep disquiet, the bomb. Many of these protests have taken place outside traditional political frameworks. On the streets were salaried employees and full time workers. People with no firm party links. There were salespersons and teachers, hawkers, and vendors. Landless and jobless. They, not 'vested interests,' were the key to what happened.
The police still plug the 'Naxal' angle. The Maoists just do not have the power to stage State-wide actions. Any political group, though, would be thrilled to get the credit for having launched protests it did not even foresee. It builds its appeal. Note that many Dalit party leaders joined the protests days after they began. Attempts to brand the protests as 'Naxal-led' are poor escapism.
This is a State witnessing the highest numbers of farm suicides in the country. The conditions of the poor are dismal. For thousands, their anger and despair has turned inwards, within and upon themselves. Hence the suicides. With Dalits, that anger is being expressed. Outwards and openly. The larger society ignores or distorts their struggle for their rights at its own risk.
In the end it is more than a fear of violence that annoys elite society and its media. It is a fear of the mass. A worry that these people no longer know their place. A fear of the assertion of their rights and the loss of our privileges. A fear, in short, of democracy. ⊕
25 Dec 2006
Courtesy: The Hindu
25 Dec 2006
Courtesy: The Hindu
P Sainath is one of the two recipients of the A.H. Boerma Award, 2001, granted for his contributions in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian media.
Schools are meant for making better citizens out of our children but in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh, they are forging and reinforcing caste-bondages instead. Inclusive education seems a far cry in the villages of Dewas, reports Shuriah Niazi.
Government schools are meant the 'site of inclusive education', a place where children from all communities, caste, religion, sex can come together for learning and evolving as citizens. Due to their low costs, government schools, are catering to a larger section of society and children, especially in the rural and marginalised areas. However, in Madhya Pradesh, schools are also not able to cut loose from the caste-based discrimination that is already deep-rooted in society.
Situated approximately 10 kms away from Harda block headquarters in Harda district M.P., is Relwa village. It is habited by SCs, OBCs and the general community. Like many other Hindi belt villages, caste based discrimination against Dalits is quite overt here. There are different taps, wells and hamlets for Dalit and non Dalit community. Even the government primary school of this village is not spared from the instances of caste based discrimination.
Class room at a Dewas School. Pic: Shuriah Niazi.
There are three teachers in the Government Primary School in Relwa; one each from SC, ST and OBC. Dheeraj, a 9-year-old boy, studying in class III in this school is already able to talk about the persistent discrimination in his school. He says that his teacher Kuwar Prasad from an OBC community not only calls Dalit students by their caste name but also makes sure that he never asks Dalit students to fetch water for him. Once he had asked a child from his own community to fetch water for him but that child went to play and asked Dheeraj instead to get water. "When the teacher saw me bringing water for him, he called me by my caste name and said that I don't want to spoil my religion by drinking water from a low caste person and threw away the glass of water out of window," says Dheeraj.
A similar picture is presented during the mid day meal where Dalit children are not only made to sit separately from other caste students but are facing more discrimination. Tarun, a 11-year-old studying in class V in this school explains the humiliation. He says, "We are made to sit separately during the mid day meal because master sahab (Kuwar Prasad) says that other caste children will not eat with us. Also, we have our different utensils in school. Every child is supposed to carry his/her thali (plate) and we are not supposed to mix our thalis with other children in school".
Every child carrying his/her plate and not letting it mix with other children's plates. This is a more subtle form of discrimination, because the plates could easily be kept in school, since that is where the meals are cooked and served.
There's more. Tarun says that the lady serving food, Sevanti Bai, belongs to an OBC community and she never touches our plate while serving Dalit kids. "Also we are served first in our school and therefore, she never gives us more than 2 chapatis while she gives unlimited chapati and meal to children from other communities as they are served later. She scolds us when we ask more chapatis but she happily gives more food to other children." Tarun recognised the injustice. "If rules have to have any meaning and relevance, they should be same for everyone," he says.
Other villages of Dewas district are not very different. A class three student at the Government Girls School is, Bisakhedi, vividily depicts the agony of students belonging to the Dalit community. According to Shivkanya, girls living in the locality from the upper caste are given sufficient number of 'rotis' (Indian breads) to eat, but Dalit children get only one roti. She says, "Girls of upper caste locality don't have their meals with us. They sit away from us. They maintain a distance from us while eating.”
Shivkanya's friends Rani, Laxmi, Chandra, Shivani, Ladkuvar tell that they have to drink dirty water kept in a pot, while upper caste children drink from water tank.
At the Boys Primary School in Bisakhedi, Sachin, Ankit and Mahesh, say that they get beaten up by children of Thakurpura if they happen to pass by their houses. In the school, the teachers also ignore us, they say.
Bisakhedi comes under the scheduled caste dominated Sonkachha development block of Dewas district. The number of upper castes outnumber this village having a population of about five thousand. There are few dalits in the village. The village has separate primary schools for boys and girls. The mid-day meal for both the schools is cooked at the same place and distributed from there. Dalit children say they are discriminated in food and education. The state legislator for Sonkacha, Sajjan Singh Verma, merely says he will look into the matter.
Meera Bai, an elderly woman belonging to this community, is a member of the guardian teacher association, of which Shyam Singh is the president. Meera says that not just the children but the Dalit adults also face discrimination. She narrates an incident from the Republic Day celebrations of 2006, when food was prepared in the school for the children. "Being a member of guardian teacher association, I went to see arrangements and found the number of cooks was not sufficient. I therefore started preparing 'puris'. Shyam Singh, objected at this and said I shouldn't be allowed to cook. I was told to leave the room. Since then I haven't visited the school," she says.
School children along with their utensils at a Dewas school. Pic: Shuriah Niazi.
The situation then escalated to the point that mid-day meals were not served in school for 15 days. Meera Bai's story is supported by Kamla, who lives in a Dalit basti (locality). She says that the discrimination here is not only in schools, but the Dalits are also not allowed to enter the temples. However this story is not limited to Bisakhedi village alone. The situation is more or less the same in dozens of other villages of Dewas district like Chaubara, Dheera, Enabad, Dudhlai, Bairakhedi, Patadia Taj, Khajuria Kanka, Devgarh, Bhoransa and Amlataj. The Dalit children of these villages are humiliated day after day.
In Dewas district, discrimination clearly begins from school. Children learn discrimination here. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a OBC school teacher based in Dudhlai, says that they teachers try to ensure that children sit, play and study together. "But we are helpless before those children who choose to maintain a distance and do not mix up with Dalit kids due to some prejudice. They do not change despite a lot persuasion."
"We reproached the children who discriminate in this way. But we have our own compulsions. We’ve to live in the village, we can’t oppose too much," says the teacher.
However the mid-day meal is quite popular among the children. One reason behind going to school for these children is the meal. But due to the bias against them, these children are not able to get their rightful share in meals.
Sundar Singh of Ambedkar Vichar Manchi, who works in fifty villages of Harda block is of the view that discrimination exists mostly in rural area schools. "If we do something than people from lower caste residing in those villages face the consequences," he added. Singh says they may face social boycott or may be transferred from the area under pressure from people from the upper castes.
This is the grim picture of humiliation faced by Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh. Their only fault is that they are born in a Dalit family and thus are made to bear the brunt in their everyday lives. Dalit children have accepted this discrimination as their fate and have perhaps started believing that it is only the other caste children who can serve and eat full mid-day meals, fetch water for teachers and visit the kitchen.
Schools are meant for making better citizens out of our children but in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh, they are ending up forging and reinforcing caste-bondages instead. The big question in Dewas is this: What are we promoting through our schools, inclusive education or 'sites of discrimination'? ⊕
Shuriah Niazi is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist. This article is part of a series on education sponsored by Aide-et-Action India, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making education the lever for development.
The battle between Sterlite Industries and tribal communities over mining in the Niyamgiri hills may not be just over yet, but the most recent Supreme Court judgment empowering the gram sabha has come as a temporary reprieve for the people. Kanchi Kohli reports.
The morning of 18 April was both high pitched and definitively calm. The fate of the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha was once again being decided upon by the Supreme Court of India. Till 10.30 am that morning, while most people whizzing past the apex court in New Delhi remained unaware of the significance of the proceedings inside, there were many others strewn all across the globe who had been waiting for the court's verdict since much before the D-day.
The Niyamgiri juggernaut could have gone any which way. Either the apex court would have paid heed to the legal argument presented by Sterlite Industries and the government of Odisha challenging the Ministry of Environment and Forest's (MoEF) decision of 2010 to disallow mining in Niyamgiri, or the hills could continue to breathe. The actual verdict turned out to be somewhere in between these differently envisaged futures.
Niyamgiri's politico-legal journey
Till 2004, the Niyamgiri Hills spreading across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha were barely on the global map. But once Sterlite Industries (part of M/s Vedanta plc, registered in the London Stock Exchange) and the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) disclosed their plans to mine bauxite at the hills and transport it to Sterlite's alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, there was no looking back. Three sets of cases were filed before the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee set up as part of the ongoing Godavarman case and the case went on for the next four years, with the court agreeing to a “way out” that could let mining take place through a special purpose vehicle (SPV) and other related mechanisms.
One of the key legal issues from the very beginning of the legal battle has been that Sterlite had initiated the construction of the refinery without approvals for the mining component, integral to the project's viability.Launched after much ado in court and several options, OMC's Lanjigarh project in Niyamgiri Reserve Forest in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts claims a potential annual production capacity of three million tonnes of bauxite by open-cast mechanised method, involving a total mining lease area of 721 hectares. But of this, 660.749 hectares is forest land, and the diversion of the same for such purpose requires separate permission - which was still pending at the time the project began. Sterlite and OMC linked and delinked the mining component several times over to ensure that the construction of the refinery does not get impacted (See previous articles at India Together at linksone, two and three).
Over the last nine years, primarily three things have been core to the advocacy of several national and international environmental, cultural, human rights and livelihood protection discourses: the socio-cultural and ecological importance of Niyamgiri Hills, the impact of mining on the Dongria Kondh tribal community, and their invocation of their sacredNiyamraja. Niyamgiri is now no longer a remote and lesser known destination in eastern India. In early 2008, both the area and the issue also received strong political attention when the Indian National Congress, and in particular party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, promised to back the Niyamgiri issue and the Dongria Kondhs.
While the Supreme Court through its August 2008 judgment recommended forest diversion, it directed the MoEF to do so in “accordance with law”. What this meant was that the road for mining was gradually being cleared up with the diversion of forest land under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 seemingly “sorted out.” But this left the room open for the MoEF to take a decision on the matter in accordance with law. While the in-principle or Stage 1 forest clearance followed on 11 December 2008, the statement of the August judgement, in which the MoEF was asked to take approval in accordance with law, came up substantively over the last two years when Niyamgiri's future was being debated in the apex court.
In the course of Niyamgiri's legal escapades, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) and its corresponding rules of 2008 came into effect, even though its core principles had been articulated by community based organisations even earlier. Following the FRA, several government-appointed committees (all of whom are referred to in the 18 April SC judgment) had opined that granting forest clearance without following the process of the recognition of rights under the FRA would not just be illegal, but also unconstitutional. The forest land therefore could not be diverted for mining purposes till the rights of the people in the area were duly recognised and, as per the August 2009 circular of the MoEF, consent of the Gram Sabha sought.
With all of the above factors and perhaps more influencing the decision, Jairam Ramesh, the then Minister, Environment and Forests, rejected the proposal for final forest clearance for mining in Niyamgiri on 24 August 2010 with the support and recommendation of the statutory Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). He cited various reasons, including the ecological and human costs of mining but core to the rejection was the issue of recognition of rights under the FRA Act, 2006.
MoEF's order had stated, “Their (Dongria Kondhs’) dependence on the forest being almost complete, the violation of the specific protections extended to their “habitat and habitations” by the Forest Rights Act, 2006 is simply unacceptable. This ground by itself has to be foremost in terms of consideration when it comes to the grant of forest or environmental clearance.”
Arguments behind the April 2013 judgment
For Sterlite and its parent company Vedanta, however, this was not to be the end of the road, and which is what makes the April 18 judgment of the SC significant. Counsels arguing for Vedanta/Sterlite and the government of Odisha, described the MoEF's 2010 order as going against the earlier judgments of the SC that had allowed the formation of SPV (November 2007) and given a go-ahead for the forest clearance after a clear set of steps had been followed (August 2008). MoEF's decision was also argued to be untenable and unsustainable under law.
The considerations of the FAC and the various committee recommendations which pointed to the importance of the FRA process as well as other legal violations in the clearance-seeking process by Sterlite were also questioned as part of the arguments in Court. In fact, the counsel for the government of Odisha, reiterated the earlier stance of the state in the FRA matter saying that several of the individual and community claims from Rayagada and Kalahandi Districts have been settled by giving alternative lands.
The counter to all of this was the fact that all committees and processes followed by the MoEF - such as seeking more information, setting up of additional committees - had been done in compliance with legal mandates to be followed before a clearance is granted or rejected under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The MoEF argued that this was something even the SC had allowed for in its 2008 judgment when it said that the next steps need to be in accordance with law. All this needed to ensure that the conditions laid out during the Stage I approval, which included that the FRA related issues be addressed, are complied with. Only then can Stage II approval be granted. It is a different matter, of course, that the MoEF itself chooses to violate this principle in many other cases - both on the forest clearance procedures as well as those which need to be in compliance with the FRA.
As part of the judicial review, the SC judgment deliberates upon a whole range of issues. Two critical ones - other than that of religious rights of the tribals which is not being discussed here - relate to the interpretation of the scope of the FRA and second, the principle of “eminent domain,” both of which today have a very critical bearing on industrial, mining and infrastructure projects in the country. [“Eminent domain” refers to the power a government or the state has to obtain the property of an individual even without the person's full consent. In stricter legalese, it is defined as “the power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality, or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property.”]
The SC has regarded the FRA as a law having a “social welfare or remedial statute,” and one which seeks to protect a range of rights of tribal and other forest dwelling communities. This includes customary rights to use forest land as a community forest resource and is not restricted merely to property rights or to areas of habitation. The judgment, however, is silent on the larger question surrounding the point at which any “right” starts to shift from custodian or stewardship to that of ownership and hence can be bought, sold or acquired even after being recognised.
The other significant point in the SC judgment is related to the powers of the government or more broadly, the state. The April judgment clearly states that the FRA “neither expressly nor impliedly, has taken away or interfered with the right of the State over mines or minerals lying underneath the forest land, which stand vested in the State. State holds the natural resources as a trustee for the people.” However, it remains open-ended on how the resource below and resource above (forests) would relate to each other when communities want to exercise their rights over forests and the state would want to stake its ownership on the mineral below. Would the eminent domain powers of the state/government reign stronger than anything that a gram sabha would have to state? Niyamgiri could sure be a test case for this if indeed the gram sabha, in whose hands the decision on the projects rests now, decides against mining. And then, who would take on the role of the “State”, the government of Odisha or government of India?
The SC's decision therefore vests the future of bauxite mining in the hands of the gram sabha or the village assembly in Niyamgiri. It is this assembly which will decide upon the older and newer claims under the FRA and the right of the Dongaria Kondh, Kutia Kandha and other communities to worship the Niyamgiri hills. Since the Niyamgiri hills region would have more than one gram sabha, the contours of how this process is carried out remain to be seen over the next two months, during the course of which the complex process of rights determination and rights recognition needs to take place. Any decision on the final forest clearance will follow that.
According to newspaper reports, in the light of the above order, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has issued detailed instructions to the Government of Odisha to take forward the SC directions by issuing advertisements to inform villagers, making arrangements to record their meetings, sending observers and ensuring that company representatives or anyone who might have a fearful influence are kept out of village assembly meetings. The state of Odisha has also been asked to prepare a list of villages and hamlets which are likely to be affected in the area where OMC and Sterlite propose to mine bauxite. The reports indicate that the Tribal Affairs Ministry wants to be apprised of the progress in a consistent manner.
This does not seem to be the end of the road either for mining in the Niyamgiri hills or for re-engaging in further legal battles, but even as the gram sabha and subsequently the MoEF deliberates on the decision they would eventually take in the matter, the hill and its people get some more time to breathe.
Kanchi Kohli is based in New Delhi and a member of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.
By Shree Padre
Keni, the miraculous mini well of adivasis of Wayanad in Kerala, is well on its way to becoming a part of history - a victim of rapid environmental decline of this once bountiful state.
The name Wayanad comes from two words, Vayal (paddy field) and Naad (land), meaning ‘The Land of Paddy Fields'. It is set high on the Western Ghats with altitudes ranging from 700 to 2100 metres from sea-level. The district has a considerable population of tribals. Keni, an amazing water body developed using traditional wisdom and which doesn’t seem to have parallels anywhere in the whole country, is found only in this district.
Kenis are located on wetlands, on the edge or middle of paddy fields. Cylindrical in shape, they have a diameter and depth of around one metre only. The wall is of a specific type of wood. During construction, these wooden parts are driven into the soil.
A Keni is not a property of a single family. It is a community drinking water source. Being a shallow water body, it doesn’t require a rope, pulley or pump to lift the water. The water source is just enough to dip the kodam, the round utensil used to lift water from wells.
Soil in Wayanad is clayey. As such, wells in low lying areas have water that is slightly stained. But the Keni water always remains crystal clear and transparent like glass. Not only that, a water body of the size of a hundred-litre drum gives more than thousand litres of water every day, round the year!
In some places, a layer of sand is found around the outer wall of a Keni. This might have been put to filter the inflowing water. Kenis retain the same level of water both during monsoon and summer. Generally as many as 15 â€“ 20 families take water from one Keni. Once a kodam full of water is lifted from the well, it gets refilled in just a minute or two.
Dr E.J.Joseph, Scientist, Agriculture at CWRDM (Centre for Water Resources Development and Management), Kozhikode has studied Kenis in depth. He says, “In the entire district there might be 200 to 300 Kenis. No one seems to have counted them. According to some elders, there are some which may be 500 to 600 years old. In most cases they have used the bottom portion of the toddy palm (Caryota urens) for this. Though many of them have deteriorated and are de-shaped today, they are not completely destroyed.”
Adds Dr Joseph: “A surprising thing that I have noticed is that while the colour of water in the recently constructed concrete ring Kenis is slightly different, in older Kenis you see very clear and pure water. None seems to have studied the reason for this difference.”
The toddy palm stem would usually be cut a year before construction of a Keni. It would then be kept immersed in water for a long time. As a result, except the very hard portion, the inner core portion disintegrated and got washed away. Apart from toddy palm, Anjili (Artocarpus hirsuta), Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) and another tree called ‘Kori Maram’ in Malayalam were also used. If it was the Amla tree, the bottom portion would be excavated in square shape before being introduced into the Keni. Nowadays, getting a huge toddy palm stem of the required size is itself very difficult. As such, the development of Kenis using wood from theseÂ has ceased over the recent decades.
A decade ago, a government scheme calledGiridhara was introduced to provide drinking water to adivasis. At that time, team leader George Mathew had located sixteen Kenis in Panamaram panchayat. “None of these are new. These must have been dug at least half a century ago,”Â he pointed out.
In some of the areas wherever Kenis were situated earlier, the panchayat had deepened the dilapidated water bodies and inserted concrete rings to renovate the same. Lukose Jacob, Director, Hilda Trust, a Wayanad NGO points out that such interventions, done in the hope of development, have unfortunately led to problems in quite a few cases. Deepening has dried up a few Kenis altogether. While clean water was available from some Kenis earlier, renovation work has resulted in stained water. “Kenis collect water from the shallow soil layer. If you go deeper than five feet in these paddy fields, the water table remains deeper down. The Panchayat, without realizing this grassroot reality has deepened Kenis to 15 â€“ 20 feet. As such, poor adivasis now neither have the old nor the new water source. These Kenis have dried up,” says Jacob.
That was the situation a decade ago. Now, as paddy fields in Wayanad are increasingly being abandoned and large scale deforestation is on, the water table is receding deeper and deeper. This year, unprecedented drought has been reported from many parts. The number of Kenis has now dwindled to only a few.
There are two Kenis still remaining about a kilometre away from the Shiva temple of Trikkaipettah. Both have good water. Local resident, 55-year old Krishnan Kutty recalls that about 30 years ago, people from areas within one and half kilometer radius-around fifty families-were drawing water from here. Now, except the adivasis, all others have independent wells. Despite that, they take drinking water from Keni because the well water is not that good. Hailing these he says, “These haven’t dried up in any of the past droughts. Even during the unprecedented drought of 1983, this Keni gave water. It is like an ‘akshayapatra’. You go on taking water; it goes on refilling after a while.”
What is apparent from all of this is that earlier generation of adivasis had good water divining knowledge. The site selection was perfect. This is evident from the fact that if the location is shifted or the wells are deepened, it doesn’t catch water. It is perhaps a pity that not only have we been unable to acquire such knowledge, but have also failed to hold on to the resources that traditional wisdom yielded.
By Shoma A Chatterjee
On a fragile island spread across 150 kms at the border of India and Bangladesh, thousands of people lead precarious lives at the mercy of the River Ganga. Shoma Chatterji reviews Char - The No Man's Island, a film depicting the tragic realities of their existence.
The documentary in India still lacks a public platform. Attempts are made from time to time to make them accessible to the mass audience but these come in fits and starts and are rarely sustained. So, one has to wait for a festival to watch these films or, if one is friendly with the filmmaker, ask for a DVD and watch it at home. But documentary filmmakers like Sourav Sarangi are hardly deterred by the lack of an audience. Their films reach out far beyond Indian shores and are praised by the audience and awarded at festivals.
Char - The No Man’s Island, is a classic example of a film that continues to win accolades at home and abroad though it remains distanced from the larger Indian audience. Though this is a documentary, it has a real, full-blooded story. It revolves around Rubel, 15, who smuggles rice from India to Bangladesh. He has to cross the river Ganga acting as the international border. The same river eroded his home in mainland India when he was just four. Years later, a fragile island called Char was formed within the large river. Rubel, with his family and many homeless people settled in this barren field controlled by the border police. He dreams of going back to his old school in India but reality forces him to smuggle stuff to Bangladesh. But he fights on while monsoon clouds arrive inviting the flood and the river swells up again. “Char may disappear but we won’t,” smiles the boy.
“When I met Rubel I was fascinated. He was a very charming and bright boy who was forced to smuggle rice from India to Bangladesh. His ambition was to come to India and study in a school, which he could not. Here again I saw a conflict. These were the motivating forces. It took time for me to conceive the film in this manner,” says Sourav.The story goes back to 2002-2003 when Sourav witnessed an entire village close to the India-Bangladesh border disappearing into the river Ganga because of erosion. The houses, the trees, the roads, the structures - everything that the villagers had created over the years was going down. That image made a deep impact on him. “I saw how hundreds and thousands of people became homeless overnight. I was making a journalistic film with my friend about river erosion. We made the film but this question haunted me - where do these people go? Where does the huge expanse of land go? The question remained within me and I kept visiting the place, meeting the same people who lost their homes. They accepted me as a friend from a city. And very slowly, Char- The No Man’s Island was born.”
Sourav Sarangi’s films focus on the spirit of the poor, the marginalised and the ignorant. He did it brilliantly in Bilal and has done it again in Char. The film points out how even Nature has neither sympathy nor understanding for this vulnerable group who live a precarious existence in a piece of land that has risen up on the Ganges near Farakka Barage in West Bengal in 1975 in the fear of losing everything to the eroding shores of the river and the rising tides which can happen any minute, washing them away. The island is named ‘No Man’s Island’ because it is as fragile as the people who live on it.
The camera that is also an invisible ‘character’ in the film and a ‘voice’ speaking silently about Rubel and his fellow beings, follows the lives of these people, sometimes with candid forthrightness and often, clandestinely in the middle of the night through a monochrome green light that invests the scenario with a strange, mysterious aura, revealing the people in the tragic reality of their lives dictated by the border patrol, who are merciless in their dealings with them. Sarangi has painstakingly followed the cycle of seasons across the panoramic landscape whose picturesque beauty stands in sharp contrast to its real brutality that leaves lives teetering between life and death. No school, no medical facilities, no NGO to take recourse to when a young married girl is not accepted by her husband and in-laws because her parents cannot shell out Rs.50,000 in dowry!
The film had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, followed by screening at the Indian Panorama section in IFFI, Goa. It bagged the "Golden Kapok Award" at GZ Doc 2012 in China, was screened at the CHOP SHOTS in Indonesia and Dubai International Film Festival 2012. It had a special screening at ISIFF, Dhaka in Bangladesh. It won a Special Mention in the Muhr Asia Africa Documentary-Awards. It has been selected for the Berlin International Film Festival and was screened at the International Forum of New Cinema section in Berlin. It has recently won the National Award for the Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film at the 60th National Awards. It was the only Indian film selected to be screened at the 12th Tiburon international film festival, where it won the Golden Reel for Best Documentary.“The film was made possible because I got funds from Calcutta and from Locarno International Film Festival. I also found support in Japan. I collaborated with Italian producer Stefano Tealdi, Danish producer Signe Byrge Sorensen and Norwegian producer Jon Jerstad. Hence the film became an international co-production,” says Sourav. “I got technical, financial and creative support from all over the world. In fact this has become a good module for international co-production. I traveled to Japan for post-production and enjoyed the state-of-the-art technology there.”
There is another character called Sofi, a ten-year-old boy whose father was shot dead while caught smuggling on the border making him the sole earning member. “When I first met Rubel, he was around Sofi’s age. When I began to shoot, Rubel had grown up and I included Sofi to reflect the innocence I had seen in Rubel when I had met him some years ago and Sofi became a supporting character in my film,” says the filmmaker.
Char is not a portrait film though to many it might appear to be one. It tells the story of a community and how the community survived the onslaught of Nature that kept changing the landscape over seasons and through the years. It is thus a story of survival, of the idiosyncratic moods of the river Ganga which, the director insists is the real protagonist of the film.
“I saw the conflict between human existence and the harshness of nature, the strength of the nature that can destroy and that can create,” says Sourav. Today, around 10,000 people from India and Bangladesh, Hindu and Muslim inhabit this island spread across 150 kms of land that could increase or decrease depending on the mood of the weather, the torrential rains and thunder and the course of the river’s flow. The film spans around a year’s time, capturing the seasons of the year beginning with Durga Pooja. The white kashflowers that bloom only during the festive season and are famous for their depiction in memorable poetic aesthetics in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali are swallowed mercilessly and brutally by the hungry river and the angry weather.
The film also weaves in the story of Rubel wanting to leave the Char to make a life for himself. He goes away to Kerala but fails to get a job and comes back while the film is being shot. In the end, Rubel, now grown, has gone away again and this time, his family has no clue about where he has gone and when he will return or whether he will return at all. Like the river Ganga that has toyed with the lives of his people, he has changed directions too.⊕