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The Loss As Seen By One Who Pays

With the poignancy of a winter sunset the 20th century is drawing to a close. For millennia the long slow changes have been moulding continents and cultures. But now at this critical juncture in the history of life all previous order seems to be in the throes of some basic change. Change with a bang or a whimper it is difficult to distinguish. In one sense we are all being uprooted and dispossessed from our biological antecedents. This view can be considered as originating from the nebulous realm of fanciful fiction. Or it can be considered a projected scientific hypothesis. But really murderous misappropriations and deprivations are happening all around us in the name of conflicting ideologies, in the competition between races, religions, lifestyles. It may all be justified as for the improvement of a few, for whom it is tangible development. But all this is at the cost of faceless multitudes who are less assertive of their privileges and rights. Narmada yet again brings into sharp focus the whole injustice inherent in the thinking of modern man and epitomised in the concept of Big Dams.

As the flood waters pile up behind the rapidly rising Sardar Sarovar dam, it is becoming obvious that it is a race to riches for a few. These few have now the identity, not only of all the haves but also the support of the State, the might of the powerful nation and the tacit approval of all the victors of the world. Promises of prosperity for downstream urbanites, industrialists and rich farmers in the command areas where water will reach soon are made again and again. And of course the contractors and politicians who are the intermediaries of this development also stand to benefit immensely. But for a large faceless mass, it is a rapid slide to oblivion. In abstract printed figures on the statistics of 'Project Affected Peoples', in the governmental rehabilitation project documents and in land acquisition, compensation proceedings, they are made to appear well taken care of. The entire operation seems to be presented as clean, clinical and unanimously acceptable. But the real situation is beyond description nor can it be really conveyed. It can only be suffered first hand. Or if one has the sensitivity to realize the same insu!t and injury being meted out to oneself more subtly by some other developmental process, it is easier to share the feeling.

The feelings of those so called tribals and poor farmers in the submergible area or of those displaced from outside the submergible area for various dam associated developments cannot be put down in words. It is overnight pauperization. It is total cultural disintegration. It is the negation of the very right and freedom of the ordinary people to live.

Even in the midst of utmost deprivation and poverty people have kept alive a hopeful vision of life. Kept alive in the soul of the people which helps them survive and retain the most cherished values and dreams. This has made human species so different from all other life forms. But when that vision fades a living being suddenly becomes will-less and soulless. The body may putrify fast or may wither and turn into dust more slowly. That is exactly what is happening to Bava Mahalia and his kinfolk in the Narmada valley. This appeal or reaching out is from the depth of a living human being who sees the fading of that vision in oneself.

Transcript of Letter Dictated in Bhilali by Bava Mahalia of Jalsindhi Village, Alirajpur Tehsil, District Jhaboa, addressed to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh

Shri Digvijay Singhji,

We, the people of Jalsindhi village, tehsil Aliragpur, district Jhabua, are writing this letter to you, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. We are people of the river bank; we live on the banks of the great Narmada. This year, our village Jalsindhi will be the first village in Madhya Pradesh to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Along with us, four or five other villages - Sakarja, Kakarsila, Akadia and others - will also be drowned. We were supposed to be flooded during the monsoons this year, but now that the Gujarat government is already closing the sluices, we will probably be submerged in the summer itself. For such a long while you have been hearing that, in Manibeli in Maharashtra and in Vadgam in Gujarat, people have been ready to drown themselves. We the first to face submergence due to Sardar Sarovar in Madhya Pradesh, will also give up our lives, but we will not move from our villages. When the water comes into our village, when our homes and fields are flooded, we will also drown - this is our firm resolve. We are writing this letter to let you know why the adivasi peasants of Jalsindhi who are coming under submergence, are preparing to drown themselves. You, and all those who live in cities, think that we who live in the hills are poor and backward, like apes. 'Go to the plains of Gujarat. Your condition will improve. You will develop' - this is what you advise us. But we have been fighting for eight years - we have borne lathi blows, been to jail several times, in Anjanvara village the police even came and fired on us and destroyed our homes. But our people have, with the slogan we will die but not move, stayed firmly in their places. Why ? The government has been offering money as well as beating us up to oust us. Then why are we refusing to move and resisting the might of the State? If it is true that our situation wiII improve in Gujarat, then why aren't all of us even now ready to go there? To you officials and people of the town, our land looks hilly and inhospitable, but we are very satisfied with living in this area on the bank of the Narmada with our lands and forests. We have lived here for generations. On this land did our ancestors clear the forest, worship gods, improve the soiI, domesticate animals and settle villages. It is that very land that we till now. You think we are poor. We are not poor. We have constructed our own houses where we live. We are farmers. Our agriculture prospers here. We earn by tilling the earth. Even with only the rains, we live by what we grow. Mother corn feeds us. We have some tilled land and some nevad forest fields. On that we grow bajra, jowar, maize, boadi, bate, saunvi, kadri, chana, moth, urdi, sesame and groundnut. We have many different kinds of crops. We keep varying them and eating.

What grows in Gujarat? Wheat and winter jowar, tuvar and some cotton. Less to eat, more to sell. We cultivate in order to eat; we sell only the excess for buying clothes etc. Whether the price in the market be high or low, we get food to eat.

We grow so many different kinds of food, but all from own effort. We have no use for money. We use our own seeds, manure from our own livestock - from that we get good crops. Where will we get so much money? Who will know us there? Which money lender will give us money ? If we don't get a good crop and don't have any money, then we will have to mortgage our land.

Here we bring water to our fields by making channels from streams and nullahs and carrying it for kilometres. In other fields we cultivate only in the monsoons. If the soil stays moist then, in the winter, we sow chana and wheat. If we had electricity, then we could also pump up water from the Narmada and get a winter crop. But even though forty-fifty years have passed since independence, there is no electricity in the villages along the river, nor is there river irrigation.

This is regarding our cultivation. But we are people of the hills and of the river. All through the year - in winter and in summer - we have flowing water and good fodder in the forest. We don't live as much by farming as we do by our livestock. We keep hens, goats, cows and buffaloes. Some have 2-4 buffaloes, some have 8-10. Almost everyone has tent-wenty-forty goats. And there's no counting the hens. Not only do we keep our own livestock, we tend the cattle of our relatives as well as of distant people. From Gujarat people come to our hills to graze their cattle. Our fedder and water is so plentiful. By selling our livestock and their milk and ghee, each household earns three-four thousand rupees a year, some earn up to 8-10 thousand. If we face a sudden crisis and need money urgently, we go to the market and sell a goat and promptly get 5-6 hundred rupees. What we get by selling tuvar, groundnut and sesame, we get more than that from our livestock. Many people from Jhabua district have to go to Surat and Navsari as labourers to feed themselves in the summer. We people of the river bank never go to work as wage labourers.

The State is taking us to Gujarat and giving us land, but it is not giving us grazing land. It is very hard to get fodder there- there are no leaves or grass. People keep only a pair of bullocks. They feed them on the margins of the fields or give them jowar stalks. If our bullock dies now, our cows will give us calves. But how can we keep cows there ? We would have to buy a new bullock. If we don't have money, we'd have to hire bullocks from the patidars and give them a share of our crop. We would become labourers on our own land.

We have lived in the forestfor generations. The forest is our moneylender and banker. In hard times we go to the forest. We build our houses from its wood - from teak and bamboo. From ningodi and hiyali splints we weave screens. From the forests we make baskets and cots, ploughs and hoes, and many other useful things In the hills and the forest we get fdder which sustains our livestock. We get various kinds ofgrasses; and when the grasses become dry in summer, we still get leaves.

We also eat leaves from the forest, hegva, mahia, amli, goindi, bhanjan - all these leaves we eat. If there is a famine we survive by eating roots and tubers. When we fall sick, our medicinemen bring us back to health by giving us leaves, roots, bark from the forest. We collect and sell gum, tendu lleaves, bahera, chironji and mahua. This forest is like our mother; we have grown up in its lap. We know how to live by suckling at its breast. We know the name of each and every tree, shrub and herb; we know its uses. If we were made to live in a land without forests, then all this learning that we have cherished over the generations will be useless and slowly we will forget it all.

After the forest, how can we live in the plains or in cities ? We have not seen electricity. But we have made our own light by bringing wood from the forest. Our women cook roti and rabdi on a wood fire. In Gujarat they cook with dung cakes or with jowar stalks in chulhas. It is hard to find fuel to cook with there. Here we have so much that we call the forest our quilt. Its wood gives us fuel to cook with, light to see by and we sleep in its warmth on winter nights. If the forest nurtures us, we too protect it. During the monsoons, when the grass crop is knee-high, we worship neelpi. Till then we don't cut grass with our sickles, nor do we make sheaves of grass. We don't cut the young leaves of teak either.

Such is our life in the lap of the forest and in the belly of the river Narrnada. We worship our gods by singing the gayana - the song of the river. We sing the gayana during the naval and divasa festivals, describing how the world was made, how humans were born, from where the great river came. The Narmada gives joy to those who live in her belly. She has many kinds of fish in her belly - kharhi, moyni, lagan, takun, tumen and tepro are just a few of them. We eat fish often. Fish is our stand by when we have unexpected guests. The river brings us silt from upstream which is deposited on the banks so that we can grow maize and jowar in the winter, as well as many kinds of melons. Our children play on the river's banks, swim and bathe there. Our cattle drink there all through the year for the big river never dries up. In the belly ot the river, we live contented lives. We have lived here for generation after generation; do we have a right to the mighty river Narrnada and to our forests or don't we? Do you government people recognize that right or not?

You city people live in separate houses. You ignore each others' joys and sadness. We live with our clan, our relatives, our kin. All of us pool together our labour and construct a house in a single day, weed our fields, and perform any small or big task as it comes along. In Gujarat who will come to lend us a hand and make our work lighter? Will the big Patidars come to weed our fields or to construct our houses ? In our weddings and funerals, everyone contributes to the brideprice or the funeral costs. If there is a quarrel then the elders of other villages sit as panch to break the quarrel. If we are uprooted from here, then how will we arrange for our weddings and funerals, who will come to settle our quarrels? Here, if we are out of seeds or if our bullock dies then everyone - all our relatives - help us out. In Gujarat, if there is no rain one year, if our seeds finish or if our bullock dies, then who will give us another bullock or some seeds? Our daughters' and sisters' husbands villages are close by here; our wives natal homes are also near. When we go away from here, then we will never get to meet our relatives. They will be as dead to us. The women of our village threaten us, "We are willing to leave our husbands; we can always find other men. But we can't get other parents; so we will never leave this place. In Gujarat, if any sorrow or evil befalls us, to whom can we go to tell of our troubles? You are not going to give us the bus fare and send us back, are you?"

Here in our villages, from our villagers, why do we get so much support? It is because we are all alike here; we share a common understanding. Only a few are tenants; everybody owns land. No one has a lot of land, but everyone has a little bit. When we go to Gujarat, the big landowners - Bania and Patidar - will crush us. As early as forty-fifty years ago, they took away the land of the adivasis who used to live there. Even now they are doing this. And we strangers - we don't know the language or the customs; it is their rule. If we can't do the kind of farming that needs a lot of money, then we'd have to mortgage our land to them, and slowly they would take it over. If they took away the land of the adivasis who lived there, then why won't they take away ours? Then who will give us other land ? This is the land of our forefathers. We have a right to it. If this is lost, then we will only get spades and pickaxes, nothing else.. We were born in this village. Our umbilical cords are buried here - it is as if we were sprang from this earth. Our village gods are all here. Our ancestors' memorial stones are all here. We worship Kalo Rano, raja Panto, Indi Raja. We also worship Aai Khada and Khedu Bai. Our great devi is Rani Kajol. Her and Kumbai and Kundu Rano's mountain is in Mathvad. If we leave all of them, then where will we get new gods from? People come from all over to celebrate our festivals - indal, divasa and divali. For bhangoria, all of us go to the market where our youth choose their own spouses. Who will come to us in Gujarat?

You tell us to take land in Gujarat. You say that our leaders are inciting us, and that we should not be swayed by them. So we are not being swayed by them. We are being swayed by our land, our forest, our river and our livestock. They are what is leading us astray.

You tell us to take land in Gujarat. You tell us to take compensation. What is the state compensating us for? For our land, for our fields, for the trees along our fields. But we don't live only by this. Are you going to compensate us for our forest?l n the forest we have teak, bamboo, umbar, tendu, salai, mahua, anjan, palash and many more. What will be compensation for this? Or are you going to compensate us for our great river - for her fish, her water, for the vegetables that grow along her banks, for the joy of living beside her? What is the price of this? Our livestock and the fodder - water that is essential for it - are you going to compensate us for that? How are you compensating us for our fields either - we didn't buy this land; our forefathers cleared it and settled here. What price this land ? Our gods, the support of those who are our kin - what price do you have for these? Our adivasi life - what price do you put on it? You tell us to go to Gujarat, that our situation will improve there. There will be schools and our children will get educated. There will be roads and travel will be easy. There will be electricity and if we fall sick, there will be doctors. We also say that we want all these things. But we want them in our own villages. Our women have to start grinding corn at the break of dawn. If we get electricity, we can get flour from the mill. If we get hand pumps, we won't have to drink river water in the monsoons. If we have a school, our children can get educated too. If we have electricity then we can take water from the river and get a winter crop as well. But why don't you give us motors for irrigation, electricity and schools in our old villages? Forty-fifty years have passed since independence - why haven't you given us these things till now? Why do we have to go to Gujarat to get these things? Our relatives from other villages spend all the year labouring in Surat and Navsari. Why don't their children get an education there? Do they get electricity there? They have to build tall buildings and themselves sleep on the roadside. This is becoming the state of adivasis everywhere. The government doesn't ask us, consuls us; you sit in Bhopal-Delhi-Ahmedabad and decide our life and death. Do you think that we adivasi peasants are not human too?

We have been fighting against displacement, but even those people who have agreed to move have been forcibly settled in Gujarat. Till today, you have not shown an inch of land in Madhya Pradesh. You tell us that the policy here is not as good as Gujarat's. Are we the residents of Madhya Pradesh or of Gujarat?

We understand that you will consider and decide this matter in your own way. As you are the new Chief Minister, we have put this entire matter before you. We have also reached our collective decision. For the fist time in Madhya Pradesh, land will beflooded, our village will be drowned. All of us adivasi people are going to drown in Jalsindhi village

The land in Gujarat is not acceptable to us. Your compensation is not acceptable to us. We were born from the belly of the Narmada, we are not afraid to die in her lap. You will just keep watching now Gujarat has shut the sluices; in the summer before the monsoons our village will be filled with water and we will drown in that water.

We will drown but we will not move!

        - Bava mahalia

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