Jal Jangal Zameen Tales

Let me start with a question: why was the Gujarat Model not projected as spectacularly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as it was in 2014? A sinister answer awaits us. Modi – I probably managed to normalise a corporate led model thriving on the exploitation of workers and the expropriation of peoples’ money and resources. At least on the surface. We at the Peoples’ Film Collective have felt the need to disturb such normalisation, to the extent it has happened, ever since Modi – II started. So for our monthly screening in June we decided to focus on a key frontier of recent development wars – the conflicts around Jal-Jangal-Zameen.
The frontier in fact is an old one. It emerged during the colonial era and remained during the years of the post-independence welfare state. Post-liberalisation the fighting over here has intensified, more so under the present political dispensation. As we held our event on the evening of 8 June at the Jogesh Mime Academy – our usual venue – one such battle was brewing in Chhattisgarh. Over the last few days, the indigenous people of Bailadila have been waging a heroic battle against the handover of over 300 hectares of forestland to the iron mining giants (read monster) called Adani. With immense courage they have managed to put a stop (hopefully a permanent one) to the transfer of those lands.
The Baildalila story, though reminiscent of older battles, is not a simple rehash of old tales. Jal Jangal Zameen struggles are diverse, internally contested and have evolved over time. The modus operandi of the capture of forest lands has changed over the years and so has the forms of resistance. The movements against land acquisition for industries and real estate have added a new dimension to these struggles over the last decade. Water wars have extended from the rivers to the coasts and has now started in our cities. Acute water crisis has caused regular water riots in the Delhi summer. In order to capture the range and depth of the Jal Jangal Zameen issue we had to modify our usual programme format for monthly screenings and add a panel discussion before showing two films.
Among the speakers in the panel were Subhendu Dasgupta, Bappa Bhuiya, Sourav Prakritibadi and Jaya Mitra. Subhendu Dasgupta spoke on lessons learnt from a few of the environment-focussed movements in Bengal in the past. Jaya Mitra spoke of the connection between environment and human societies and histories, citing several examples. Both being veterans of environmental movements reminded us of past failures, particularly in Bengal and eastern India, emphasised on the need to draw more people into these movements and work on creating alternatives to the dominant development model. Jaya Mitra usefully drew our attention to the politics of the coastline, an issue that was otherwise missing from our conversation.
Bappa Bhuinya spoke in details on the philosophy and strategies in the “Save Jessore Road Trees” movement. Since 2017 onwards, local people and students from schools and colleges near Jessore Road – one that connects India and Bangladesh – have been campaigning against the chopping of more than four thousand fully grown trees along the highway (for its widening). The movement claims that it does not oppose the development of roadways but would like to ask why roads cannot be built on either side of treelines. Does making of roadways necessitate the mass felling of trees? Reminiscent of the Chipko movement, people have regularly formed mini human chains and encircled and embraced the trees when the local administration has sent contractors to fell them.
Sourav elaborated on the ongoing movement at Ayodhya Pahar to stop the devastating closed loop dams over Turga and adjacent rivers and the proposed mass killing of trees. In April 2008, Purulia Pumped Power Storage Project (PPSP) was launched on the Bamni River in the slopes of the Ajodhya Hills near Baghmundi, despite protests by the local communities. Recently, work commenced to establish yet another Pumped Power Storage Project, within 3 kms of the earlier PPSP. The movement has raised pertinent questions regarding the feasibility of the dams in the first place, the impact on the unique ecology and biodiversity of the Ayodhya hills, the impact on its local culture and on the lives and livelihoods of the local people.
Instead of a thorough question and answers session following the panel discussion, we chose to do something different this time. We invited Ujaan – an eight year old fellow citizen of ours whose life has revolved around the Jessore Road movement – on to the stage to say a few words. Ujaan was four years old when the movement started and has literally grown up with it. Instead of giving a speech, she read out a heart-warming poem on the lives of trees.
The documentary films that followed took us to the Sundergarh district of Odisha. Lok Shakti Abhiyan leader Prafulla Samantara, recently regretted that although Sundergarh, like other forest areas, is a fifth schedule area, where Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) is applicable, yet these laws are being violated to facilitate corporate loot. Both the films screened talked about Sundergarh. First we had a new documentary film, “The Call of Khandadhar Hills” (directed by Tarun Mishra) and then a recent short fiction film, “The Waterfall” (directed by Lipika Singh Darai).
Both of them have even been shot around the same location, in the forested hills, near the Khandadhar waterfall in Sundergarh, where the Paudi Bhuinyas face a threat to their environment and livelihood due to indiscriminate iron ore mining. The rivers Baitarani, Brahmani and ultimately the Mahanadi too are bearing the burden of corporate-state plunder, along with age-old cultures, histories, memories and sustainable ecosystems of the people. The two films look at the impending catastrophe from two different perspectives – that of the villagers, and that of the city folks. In course of the films, strict lines between fiction and documentary blurred out and the imagination of a different world became possible through the words of wisdom of mahasardar Bilua Naik who featured in both.
Before the evening ended, there was a brief interaction with Tarun Mishra and Anindya Shankar Das, who confirmed what Sourav had told us in the panel discussion; that the development/environment binary is nothing but a product of destructive “development” practices. We ended on that note, and went home with a basic message that had been communicated throughout the evening: mainstream politics is consistently marked by a lopsided imagination of development as that of improvement of the lives of a few at the cost of many, blatant manipulation of law and political violence to see such development through, and a lack of appreciation for alternative worldviews on development; movements that challenge such politics are building up all around us and asking for support.
Photographs by Aniruddha Dey
Report by Akash Bhattacharya

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