In April 2016, I undertook my first solo cycling expedition through the state of Odisha spanning 1100 kilometers. This journey was an eye opener for me. It forayed me into a hitherto unknown world of tribals who’ve been at loggerheads with the government over their basic right to tenement. This is a world which is so distanced from the cocooned, privileged life that I had lived in Mumbai and Delhi, that the realities I experienced made me question the norm we’re accustomed to. Sure, I have been working in the villages of our country over the years. But the systematic ignorance of tribals that mars our society had equally blinded me to them. I witnessed the fight for asserting community forest rights and individual forest rights by tribals in Odisha. In the face of ever-greedy corporates waiting to mine every last kilo of resources from those forests, this tussle is more pronounced.
This left me in awe of the tribals and activists’ indefatigable spirit as well as fundamentally changed how I look at consumer products, tainted with the land and blood of tribals who’ve been wronged for centuries. As naïve as I was, the 22 day stay amidst tribal villages, cycling through some of the most bio diverse regions of Eastern Ghats sparked an urge to know more about the tribals’ land rights issues. This is an attempt I made to understand how our growing greed for a more luxurious life with more malls, more products on its shelves and air-conditioned offices and homes was driving the tribals out of their homes, their forests.
So when I thought of riding through Jharkhand’s tribal belts, I was half-expecting to have adequate knowledge about the issues that I will witness. The human mind is an interesting phenomenon. Within the 22 days spent in Odisha, I had developed a slight arrogance about the subject of tribal rights, thinking that I know quite a bit about their land rights issues. I had started using the acronyms CFR, IFR, CAMPA,etc. The neophile in me wasn’t as excited as I was for the Odisha trip. I assumed that I had seen most of the problems of the tribals related to usurping of land and denial of their rights. Little did I know that I was about to be proved wrong
My liaison through the state were the super enthused activists and workers from Ekta Parishad, a parliament of the landless, fighting for tribal rights for about 40 years now. Their partner organization NSVK – Naya Sawera Vikas Kendra led by Birendraji saw as much purpose in my solo cycling expedition as I did. They considered this trip of mine as their own and that made a world of a difference to my time spent in the state.
The first day’s distance wasn’t a lot, but the muck rolling off my tires was beginning to get stuck in the new fenders that I’d installed and I had to stop a few times to adjust it. I had to make sure that the fenders didn’t rub against my new weatherproof Continental tires, for fear of wearing them out.
The night’s stay in Bundu was quite an episode. It was proven yet again that the forces of nature were looking out for me. While I enquired for a guest house to spend the night in vain, a young man offered to put me up at his shop for the night. Not only did he make arrangements for bedding, his friend invited me for a hearty dinner at his home. I had just began my cycling expedition and the hospitality of Jharkhands people was winning me over. With a good sleep and a full stomach, I left for Jamshedpur in the morning.
The heat and industrial smoke in the air had tired me more than the 95 kilometers that I cycled. Black soot mingled with sweat had accumulated at the folds of my arms and on my neck, making me look like a mine worker. Wiping the sweat off my face had left streaks of soot, giving the appearance of someone who was auditioning for a commando film. I was really excited to see Jamshedpur, the home of India’s first steel plant built by the legendary business conglomerate Tatas.
My heartfelt admiration for the Tatas dates way back to childhood. As a child whose uncle worked at the Taj Hotels for two decades, my brother and I heard tales of Ratan Tata’s altruistic demeanor while we devoured loaves of plum cake from La Pattiserie, Taj Mumbai’s (The luxury hospitality division of Tatas) own cakery. Once, when in college I was asked to submit a project on an influential personality, I naturally beamed while preparing one on Jamshedji Tata, the founder of steel revolution in India. This man’s vision shaped India, I thought, and Jamshedpur would show us the way to development, my undeveloped mind assumed. My own twin brother Ankit, started his career with Tata’s Taj Hotels and I met my wife at Taj Delhi. So the Tatas have indirectly played an important role in the lives of my family and me. When Taj burned during the terrorist attacks of Mumbai in 2008, a part of us got charred, and we cried like our family was attacked. Subsequent to that too, I heard first person accounts of how Ratan Tata went out of the way to make sure his people, staff were rewarded for their heroism during those attacks.
Therefore it was but natural that I was quite excited to visit Jamshedpur. After all, the town was named after a visionary, it’s railway station was designated after the family- Tata Nagar. I arrived expecting the same standards that we’ve known the Tatas to be symbolic of over the years.
Alas, the reality here is quite different. With a newly sharpened social lens, I now fail to see the point of displacing 18 villages and its original inhabitants into oblivion to build a steel plant, over a century ago. The visionary industrialist who many herald as the torchbearer of an industrial revolution does not seem so heroic from what lies beyond the walled steel plant. The steel plant feeds on iron ore which is sourced from the land of tribals, causing further displacement and woes. The entire town is nothing different from Rourkela, another monstrous steel city in Odisha. Typical to a steel plant town, trucks make road traffic rather difficult, garages operating on them line the roads. Tall chimneys spewing white smoke signal that the coffers of yet another industrial behemoth are being fed, while the income inequality continues to widen, pushing the poor further towards poverty.
As I entered the city, 80 kms already under my pedals, I saw a lady in an adjoining nallah bathing in the water, which had the color of stagnant tea. About 100 meters ahead, I saw small children accompanying their mothers on the steps to the nallah, washing clothes, trying to wash dirt off in the brown muddy water.
This is when realization struck me, that this is yet another capitalistic town which has made the rich richer and poor poorer. Were the Tatas to be blamed for shattering the pedestal on which I held them? Or had I, like millions, been living in a false, illusionary world all along? Had I, too, fallen prey to the conventionally acknowledged norm of development, which makes the educated, high born, urban people richer?
I’m glad that my journey in the tribal lands are prodding me to question the norm of development, to question what benevolence is and what a visionary actually is.
It’s ironical that the gateway to Jamshedpur is through an arch bearing the name of Birsa Munda, India’s first tribal leader, yet what the city represents is just another example of tribals displaced and denied opportunities under the garb of development that has not yet involved them.
I no longer hold such men in high regard; the men who build their empires on the land and lives of the natives, exclude the natives in their own economic growth charts and then shine in the limelight of philanthropy by doing paltry service to those whom they displaced in the first place.
When, you, Tata, come up with a campaign talking about everyone’s duty towards our country, maybe you should consider your duty towards those helpless tribals whose lives are being negatively affected by your actions. Maybe you should take some time to reflect on the things that have led these tribals to lead the deprived lives that they live. Maybe you should try to understand the value of the land and lives you’ve laid down to build your empire. They are citizens of our country and if you pay heed to their plight for rights, you’d be doing something, #NamakKeVaaste.