Tribal? No Job? Become SPO
“There has to be a way out!” I had argued with Rabi the previous night. It was getting stifling that there was no way to get to Jajpur Road – just 15 kms away – during the day. Early on Tuesday (June 22) I managed to find the light to guide me out of the tunnel. Rabi’s nephew Sangit offered to take me through another route to the main road on a bike, from where I could take a bus to Jajpur Road. It was 8 am, and true to the corporate style work structure, the cops, goons and other men from Tata were bang on time to level the fields. But instead of walking 3 kms through the fields and past them to reach near Nilachal Ispat Nigam Ltd (NINL), Sangit takes me through more villages through a back route, to emerge on the main road, and then proceed to Duburi Chack, which is the town centre. It is a long route – 5.5 kms. “What if someone from our Chandia village had to go to the town, and did not have a bike?” I asked Sangit. “He would walk.” The road didn’t feel smooth anymore; the red dust in the air was blinding me.
When we emerged on the main road, Sangit discreetly pointed out towards a young boy by the roadside, who seemed to be trying to fix his bicycle. “He stands here till noon everyday. He is an informer for the cops. We shouldn’t take this route again tomorrow.” At first, I feel Sangit was being a chicken. But then again, he would know best – I would return to my safe haven in Mumbai and entertain friends with beer, descriptions of the greener pastures and the dramatic violence of Kalinganagar. But Sangit would have to live here, fight here, survive here or be a martyr here. Nobody is a chicken in Kalinganagar – not the tribals fighting for themselves; not the steel companies and the government which plays God to the tribals.
I notice two young boys, in their 20s, in khaki. Approaching Duburi Chack, I ask him if they were real cops, or people who had left the villages but were made to wear the khaki, or goons from another town camouflaged as men of law. “They are SPOs (special police officers).” I think I almost yelled aloud “WHAT?!” for Sangit almost applied the brakes. “How can SPOs be here? You don’t have militants like in Jammu & Kashmir; you don’t have separatists like in the North East of India; you don’t have Maoists like in Chhattisgarh. What are SPOs doing here?” “The Orissa government says that there are no jobs for the youth. So they are offering them jobs of SPOs. They get paid Rs 4,000. This lucrative scheme was launched early this year and only youths from the Scheduled Tribes (STs) can apply for it. The minimum qualification needed is eighth class pass,” Sangit explained, adding that most youths from other villages outside Kalinganagar who had no idea or inclination about the politics of power and industrialization scampered to bag these jobs. “Evidently, the government is conveying, “You don’t have a job? They become a SPO, kill your own people or get killed.’ This is the government’s way of eliminating the mot backward tribals and grab all the land for industrialization.”
I get onto the bus, and it waits for a good 20 minutes before it can be packed. I manage to get a seat when a conductor pushes a man to ensure that the woman who seems to be from the city has a comfortable ride. The bus begins to move. Two halts later, old men with vegetable bags alight, while an old woman wearing a saree and no blouse, with a heavy cloth bag in her hand, boards the bus. Nobody can see her age. I decide to stand up and give her the seat. The conductor shouts in Oriya from behind, urging someone else to get up instead of me. A young man finally gets up and offers the old lady a seat. The bus moves ahead.
I was thankful to have a window seat, when the conductor shouted out that it was the ‘Nilachal’ bus stop. I look out and can see a string of grey vehicles – gone are the days of the Ambassador; our babus now travel in SUVs. I notice few men in white shirt and trousers, wearing the yellow safety helmet. There were no concrete or metal structures ‘above’ their head. Further ahead into the fields, I saw the reason why my wings were being clipped by the people in the village – huge trucks, bulldozers and tractors have dotted the landscape. I can black mounds and some a mass of white dots. I manage to take some photographs and then I see – those are men wearing the safely helmets, because they can anticipate people’s resistance and ‘offence’ any moment.
People in the bus are wondering what photographs am I taking. But I remember Rabi’s words, akin to that ad for Fritto Lays chips, when the girl would tempt the stranger into eating those wafers, and then step back – “Mom said I shouldn’t talk to strangers!” Here, the strangers I could perhaps befriend could be an informer. Further ahead on the road, we pass by a rail route. I remember what the local journalist RR had told me about this rail track: “This route was laid out after the string of MoUs was signed with the steel companies, post 1992. This route runs from another district called Keunjhar to our east, to Jhakpura, which is the railway station within Kalinganagar. There are iron and chromium mines in Keunjhar and the raw materials for the steel plants are brought to Kalinganagar by this route. It is only now that just one passenger train passes by this route.”
Once in Jajpur Road, life seems normal – children wearing crisp uniforms go to school, men ride on scooters to work, women shop for vegetables, jobless youth in bright shirts letch at young girls, saloons are busy doing business and grooming men. Not for once did I feel that I was so close to Kalinganagar, which can easily be India’s Bermuda Triangle. I finish my work and meet another local journalist PDM. He claims that RR and he are the only two journalists who have dared to enter the Bermuda Triangle when the cops had enforced a strict clampdown on the road. PDM said that there were several occasions when he and RR would ride up there, but their bags would be filled with basic medicines for those ailing in Kalinganagar, who couldn’t come to the medical centres.
We ride back to Kalinganagar. The sky is blue and not a single cloud to give the hope of rains. Around us, I see the steel plants in the distant. Not a single tree is visible. White fumes emanating from tall pillars make temporary clouds on the sky, leaving the nose pungent. “Villagers walking here will suffer sunstroke!” I exclaim. “Not sunstroke; they will suffer from moonstroke!” I am silent for a while and PDM understands that he owes me an explanation. “The sunstroke is evident, thanks to the heat and the naked field with no trees. But people here are being killed at night too by sudden police attacks. People will die here from breathing the poisonous fumes emanating from the factories. All of this will happen silently and not under the daylight when everyone can see everything. It will be a forced night – everyone in Orissa knows about Kalinganagar, yet they choose to pretend to be asleep. It is such a sleep that you cannot wake up a man from.”
Processing of iron ore before it cam be made into steel means the use of chromium hexavalent, to make the steel resistant to corrosion. Every person worth his love for Julia Roberts would have heard of this chemical, when the actor played the role of Erin Brockovich – an environmentalist who fought for the people of Hinkley in California, since their water bodies were contaminated with the chemical, which is highly carcinogenic. In Kalinganagar, the use of this chemical is crucial to the production of steel. And impotent men. “In the next 10 years, this place will be the land of hijras! Forget about the people working in those factories; ‘cancer’ will become an everyday word for these tribals living here,” PDM said in contempt.
Few metres ahead, we see the infamous ‘goons’ of Kalinganagar – burly men on bikes, eyeing the fields where some trucks are unloading sand. The road into Chandia is now clear, and in about 7 minutes, we traverse the rickety 3 kms. Either of the sides is dotted with mounds of sand and packets of water. I return to find Sangit playing on his mobile phone. He is a third year student of History Honours in Bhubaneshwar. He is more than happy to explain the finer nuances of the politics at play here. “You see, when Tata manages to acquire the lands of, say, 50 families of a village, it will report to the government and to the media that it acquired the lands of 100 families. This they do by mentioning every son by a father as a separate family; never mind if the son is still a 10-year-old! Secondly, when it shows such great numbers, it sends out a message that 100 families – which means about 400 people – have been active in the resistance. Now this is seen as a huge number for a middle class, which thinks that the ‘savage’ tribals are posing a threat to development. For them, development means more factories. So, in accordance to silence the 400 bow-and-arrow carrying people, cops are sent in huge numbers. But the reality is that we are not such a huge number.”
I understand what he says, in a different context. The government claims that Maoists are the ‘single most, greatest internal security threat’. The middle class gets furious and types out mails to the news channels and newspapers between their coffee breaks that the Maoists should be eliminated so that development is possible. When the armed forces attack civilians – “We knew there were Maoists in the village!” – the same middle class says innocently, “Somebody has to pay a price for development, no?” Then there are those claims about Maoists having sophisticated guns, lent out with love from China (the middle class wouldn’t want to talk about China’s ‘love’ affair with Tibet). Yet the same middle class wouldn’t admit the truth that the mouse has to be smarter than the cat, to defend itself. The Maoists are better in their ‘strategy’; they capture the guns which lay next to a martyred soldier of the armed forces which was out in the jungle to kill the Maoists. The Maoists are a specter for the middle class – “There are so many of them!” “They are they single most, greatest internal security threat!” Scare the ignorant and the uninitiated, and he will forever live in fear.
It begins to thunder and we take shelter. The huge crowd of goats, cows and fowls gather together in the shed. Amid them is a dog, which runs towards us. He is fearless, unlike the fearful goats and hens towards which one can’t even benignly approach. He sits next to me. Sangit calls out, “Tata! Tata! Come here!” The dog responds and walks towards Sangit, and begins to lick his feet. I went mute and Sangit laughed aloud, telling me that the dog has been named Tata. “Go back Tata, let us live in peace.” Sangit says, but a moment later tells me, “But calling this dig Tata is akin to abusing this harmless dog, no?” I cannot agree with him more.