Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tragedy, Stickers, and Exhaustion

It was our first day going to the field. I was excited. Our first settlement was in Venkatapuram which was some 90 km from Bhadrachalam. Fortunately for me, Naveen was the driver/Telugu speaker/field worker extraordinaire. Unfortunately for him, I was a fairly useless fly on the wall, frantically taking notes as he did the talking and rapport building with the community members. Our first community, Sudibagu, was a village of some 20 families who had walked for three days to come to Andhra Pradesh. People in their native village had been killed. Many had been beaten up by the police. Houses were burnt. The fear made them leave everything behind, save for a few vessels. It was their Sarpanch that asked them to move to the forest area where they are currently residing.

There was a school in this village, and by school I mean a thatched, wall-less structure where children of all ages were sitting amidst a small blackboard and some slates. The teacher was a government employee but not from this village.

The "School" (Photo Credit: Naveen Ramisetti)

The IDPs led a hand-to-mouth existence. Sources of income ranged from working on local landowners' fields to uprooting tree trunks through the NREGS to selling some of the crop cultivated by their relatives in Chattisgarh. There was no financial security and hence no food security. Nevertheless, people claimed to be happier here, because they did not have to face the wrath of the Special Police Officers (SPOs). Additionally, there has been some intervention from civil society organizations like ASDS and a Christian organization called Operation Building Living Water. The Sarpanch has also provided their community with electricity. 

After a "lunch" of dates and 4 mini-bananas we were heading to the second settlement when a plainclothes policeman pulled us over. No, we were not in trouble. He was selling Police Commemoration Day stickers for the low, low price of Rs 200. Actually, it was ridiculous. He was being forced to buy this sticker at an exorbitant price, or be questioned needlessly about our whereabouts. Naveen asked for a bill. The police laughed at the idea. After half an hour of back-and-forth the police agreed to bring the price of the sticker down to Rs 100. It was paid, without the bill.

Ramachandrapuram was the second settlement we visited. The IDPs had suffered much greater violence than in Sudibagu. In Chattisgarh, their whole village had been burned down, destroying all their possessions and grain stores. Furthermore, many of their family members and acquaintances had been killed by the Salwa Judum. Many of them had been held in police custody, while others had spent months in the government camps. Since they had nowhere else to go, the police held them in these camps, permitting them leave only to take their cattle out for grazing. Those that managed to run off and hide in the forests were found by the Maoists who pushed them to move back to their villages. They were then picked up and put in the camps by the police. It was a lose-lose situation.

Whether they are better off in Ramachandrapuram is debatable. They have no proof if identity. No ration card means they have to buy rice at Rs 10/kg instead of the subsidized Rs 2/kg a ration card would give them. Political parties like the CPI take Rs 100 from each family and promise them ration cards and land pattas which would legalize their current residence. This is an annual ritual of empty words, as nothing has been provided to the community so far.

Ramchandrapuram (Photo Credit: Naveen Ramisetti)

We were the last group to arrive back at Bhadrachalam. Exhausted and hungry, I devoured the rice and sabjis laid out in front of me at the restaurant where we all went to eat. After two hefty servings, it was time to update reports for the day. There was so much to think about, and so many questions. Hopefully, they will get answered with time.

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