Double jeopardy in a Kutch village

Mid-summer this year, village in Kuth on the western-most tip of India resolved to divide itself. About 40 families, out of a total of 70 odd, gathered their belongings and moved eastward, closer to a tar road, by whose side the grazing camels scatter at the approach of the occasional motor vehicle. The older women of the village shed silent tears as long-time neighbours walked away without turning back. Children, untouched by the emotional baggage of a splitting village helped the elders in their new venture of getting nearer to civilisation.

This is a story of Julrai village that broke up into two, barely three months after the earthquake that brought almost every brick and mortar structure all over the western region of Gujarat to the ground. In Julrai today there are houses with roofs caved in and there are walls cracked so wide that stray dogs can walk through them. There are freshly painted windows and doors that open out on to nothing in particular. There are the remnants of rooms with no walls. There are houses whose external form has survived the quake. But peep through a half opened window and the sights and sounds of seismic devastation present themselves—the eerie creak of broken beams straining to collapse or a section of roof waiting to be detached from its mooring and fall to the earth. And then there are heaps of rubble, remains of what used to be houses. These were once the homes of people who now live in tents less than 60 metres from these narrow lanes of desolation.

Julrai qualifies to be reconstructed by the government of Gujarat. The criterion for such bureaucratic recognition is the magnitude of destruction. The government is committed to rebuild those villages which have sustained more than 70 percent destruction in the earth quake. In addition, an NGO called Self Employed Women's Association (SIMA) and a government owned mining company, the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation (GMDC), were both willing to reconstruct the village.

GMDC and SEWA, quite naturally, had dramatically different approaches to rebuilding the village. The sequence of events that followed forced SEWA to withdraw, leaving Julrai in the hands of GMDC and the government of Gujarat.

Julrai's fate, in fact, was written about 400 years ago when a group of shepherds, called Rabari, chose to settle down on a stretch of land that had soft soil and enough vegetation to feed their livestock. However, they did not know that beneath the land they settled on was a huge stock of lignite, which GMDC would discover sometime in the 1980s. GMDC- has been energeticaly pursuing the people of the area, trying to get them to relocate, so that the corporation can go ahead and convert the area into an open-cast mine. The earthquake that devastated lives provided GMDC the opportunity to clear the land of people without compensating them adequately.

The story of Julrai sounds familiar. It bears the stamp of modern times. It involves a powerful state machinery, the expropriation of defenceless people, democratic deceit, organised betrayal and ultimate marginalisation. It seems like the familiar charade staged by elected democracy in which the victims of eviction are asked, by the governments they elect, to pay for the 'development' that deprives them.

Julrai is some way into the interior. The road from Narain Sarovar to Julrai cuts through the saline winds of the Koree creek. Then, moving across the salt-water lake, it takes you to desert terrain where the road disappears behind dunes. The camels walking in the distance emerge into view head first. Strange, fierce-looking reptiles dart across the tar road whose vapours blur and distort human vision. To reach Julrai you turn right at a point where there is no apparent turn. Not more than 50 metres from that inconspicuous turn the landscape changes. Dune after dune of soft soil-all numbered-screen from view the large pits, from where half-clad miners look up at passing vehicles. The serpentine route through the bentonite (a clay formed by the decomposition of volcanic ash, which has the capacity to absorb large quantities of water and expand to several times its normal volume) mines quite often crosses the path of the chinkara (Indian antelope), a graceful animal that has been declared endangered. Some years ago the government built a sanctuary around them. some years later the government built these mines inside the sanctuary.

The day before lulrai was to formally split a group of young girls, with some children in tow, walked through the village to offer samplings of a wedding feast to the goddess who appears to the older women in their dreams and guides the villagers. Behind them followed a Rabari groom, dressed in a long achkan, skin tight at the chest and loose and flowing like a frock up to his knee, a turban decorated with silver coloured threads bright against his sunburnt face. A girl wrapped in a bright red, beautifully embroidered cloth then came running to announce it was time for the feast to commence. This was the first time after the earthquake that the village witnessed a festivity. It was also the last festivity of the undivided village.

On the outskirts of the village, where only shrubs grow and sustain the pastoral economy of the village, a few young men sit under the meagre shadow of a babul (acacia) tree, unmoved by the festive happening in the village. They had their goats, languidly eating leaves from thorny shrubs, and some gossip from a distant village, to see them through the summer day.

Everything seemed preety normal on the surface. But trouble was brewing. The village folk were divided into two camps- one group wanted to shift and brave the rigours that life presented in the new location, while the other wanted to stay where they had lived, suffered and survived the earthquake. An observant outsider cannot see much material gain in either proposition.

The villagers' dilemma had begun about a month after the killer earthquake struck. A vehicle loaded with officials was guided to the village through the maze of dirt tracks by the talati—a man who, as the last and lowest link of Indian bureaucracy, is responsible for actually interacting with the people. They were introduced to the village elders as senior officials of the GMDC, which was going to reconstruct the village, house by house. A few chairs were promptly produced for the officers and a meeting was quickly convened. Villagers were told that the company was planning to reconstruct New Julrai, about three kilometres to the east, very close to the tar road where 'progress' was assured and inevitable. Jivra, a young man in his 20s, showing off the site for New Julrai says, "Sitting here on this hillock you can see several vehicles passing by during the day." Progress indeed, and not very far away. You could actually see it from time to time. No matter that it was merely passing by and quite infrequently at that.

For the earthquake ravaged villagers, the GMDC officials looked like the blessing they were waiting for. "We know that when GMDC comes to our village it means god has arrived," one person told the officials in a meeting. Let us therefore know this god. GMDC was once a fully- owned corporation. of the government of Gujarat, with exclusive mining rights all over the state. Then, in the brave new world of liberalisation, in a daring feat of disinvestment, the Gujarat government let go of 26 percent of its equity to private investors. Presently, the corporation holds mining leases for approximately 62 million tonnes of lignite spread over 2366 hectares. The corporation also holds additional leases for an area covering 25,000 hectares, containing an estimated 525 million tonnes of lignite. Julrai is a small dot on the map of this leased area.

The corporation, now accountable to its shareholders, is keen to grow in leaps and bounds. It has filed applications for mining leases in Valia, Tadkeshwar and in Bhavnagar covering over 7000 hectares of land, bearing lignite deposits to the tune of 200 million tonnes. Thus, the corporation will have secured mining rights for 935 million tonnes of lignite in the state.

The meeting between the village elders and the GMDC officers ripped open the façade of democracy at the grassroot. The GMDC officers spoke at length of the economic progress of society. They spoke of the role the corporation promises to play. They spoke of success stories. Referring to Panandhro, a town GMDC acquired a decade ago and converted into a hub of lignite mining, a GMDC officer told the meeting "those who were walking miles are now riding motor bikes… those who were labourers are now shop keepers". The villagers were given the choice of opting for the path of progress as the GMDC defined it or living a decaying life, with the threat of being eventually evicted by a court order thrown in for good measure. To the people of Julrai the path to progress had never before seemed so completely devoid of alternatives.

This 'humanitarian' intervention by the GMDC sparked off a series of seemingly contrary responses among the villagers. General distrust over the government's ability to deliver the promised post-earthquake rehabilitation package drew them to the GMDC-engineered pipe dream of living nearer to the tar road, where state transport buses and trucks plied. On the other hand, they had a lurking suspicion of a raw deal from the corporation, which was not willing to give them anything in writing. The corporation's representatives had shown them a piece of land in the vicinity of the tar road and suggested that it could be the location of New Julrai. But the corporation had not moved the government machinery to even acquire the land for relocation, leave alone constructing the new village.

The frequent visits by the GMDC officials and their persuasive and/ or coercive skills convinced some of the villagers that the only way to secure a kind of livelihood was to get out of the way of GMDC. But others questioned the wisdom of this course of action. "At the moment we are sitting on a large stock of lignite. If we show even the slightest willingness to move from here no one is going to care for us," said Paba Rabari, the young and articulate leader of those who have been refusing to budge from their ancestral land.

The only trader in the village, Shantibhai Shah, however had a different approach, one that is perhaps appropriate to his calling. It neither forsook the possibilities of a beckoning opportunity, nor did it abandon the going concern. In the world of speculation, this is called "hedging the bet". He came up with the idea of having a foot each in both the places. He sent his younger brother to settle down at the new location while he continued to stay on in the devastated village. Soon some other families followed the trader's option. This, after all, was the most rational choice.

That being the case the question then arises, why did the entire village not follow the trader's path of maximising gain and insuring against deceit? Why did some people choose to stay on despite the odds? Equally, what were the new stakes that enabled some people to forget 400 years of communal fraternity? Village elders say that every man in the village is a part of one founding family that multiplied into a village over a few hundred years. The last question is answered easily enough in familiar and intelligible terms. Simple economic motives of survival and expectations, tempered by past experiences, guided them in the difficult and risky choice they were called upon to make. The decision, irrespective of whether it will turn out right or wrong, is based on principles that correspond with the realities of the new world in which they live. But this framework of pragmatic, material calculations alone cannot penetrate or make intelligible the sum of the responses of the village.

There are other perceptions and views of the world, possibly repugnant to the 'rational' mind, that also motivate and determine decisions. The Rabari community prays to a goddess called Mommai. Each Rabari village has its own messenger to the goddess. At critical moments, Rabaris consult Mommai through the messenger, who seems to get 'possessed' pretty much at will. Unfortunately for Julrai there were two people who laid claim to being the village's divine messenger and both carried contradictory messages of what Mommai wanted the villagers to do. One messenger advised villagers to move to the new location while the other told them to stay put.

The sum of all the factors that cause villages faced with the choices forced by 'development' to fracture in this fashion are generally hidden to the opaque abstractions that concentrate only on the rationally intelligible aspects of a pro- cess. Probe a bit into the social psyche and many grey areas begin to emerge. In the current age of 'result- oriented' political, non-political or apolitical activism, deviations from the presumed rationality that is supposed to govern choices tend to get ignored. The Julrai experience may also be an eye opener to all those who, in their struggle against social, economic and political marginalisation of people, have forgotten to look at the many shades of meaning and motivations among communities that face the threat of eviction, displacement and relocation.

In Julrai all the different shades combined to produce three camps in the village. Some shifted bag and baggage, some refused to move and a few partook of both the old and the new. But in the end this situation was not acceptable to GMDC. "Unless you all move, the GMDC will not be in a position to do anything," the officials had clearly stated at the very beginning of the exercise.

The village has split—into Julrai and New Julrai—but to no one's particular gain, except perhaps the trader's. Julrai is now half of what it was after the earthquake. But what of the progress at New Julrai? To go to New Julrai you do not have to turn right like you must to reach Julrai. You do not have to negotiate the bentonite mines or go through the chinkara sanctuary. It is right there by the road, on a small mound. Yet the settlement is almost invisible. You do not see houses of bricks or mud. All that you see are some tents fluttering violently in the wind. No matter what time of the day or night you visit the village, you will see someone fixing a tent. The trader has opened a makeshift shop in New Julrai as well. In the evening, youngsters who could not find employment for the day in the bentonite mine sit on the mound watching the clean and deserted tar road. Of late, the GMDC officials have stopped showing up.

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Himal Southasian