The people and the land

Today’s ‘Hindu’ had a lovely Saturday essay by Chitra Padmanabhan, about a Santali tribal girl aged 14 who worked as a laborer on the Damodar Valley project. When Nehru went to inaugurate the dam, in his own style, he chose her to throw the switch and start the hydel plant. There was a large photograph of Nehru (smiling) and the girl (thoroughly intimidated) with her hand on a Dr-Evil-like lever.

Chitra said something in the essay that struck a chord with me. She said, finding that photo reminded her of the geography lessons she had in school decades back, and all of those places that we read about that were chockfull of minerals and natural resources – Singbhum and Hazaribagh and Chikmanglur and a hundred other place names. We read about them and imbued them with an aura of glamour, as though, visiting Singbhum you would see, casually strewn around, nuggets of iron and nickel and copper. It was almost like places out of the Arabian Nights, treasure-filled, waiting for the intrepid and enterprising of India to go and build factories and mines to bring that wealth to the nation.

And somehow, in our collective imagination, there was one part that was conspicuously missing – the people who lived there.

When we thought of it at all, we all thought those places were completely uninhabited. They’re not. They are teeming with people, just as in every part of India, often with large populations of tribals and Dalits and other economically deprived communities. And when we find this out, these people are somehow thought of as interlopers on our ideal world of resources and mineral wealth, who have no business, really, living in a place and having no appreciation of the tonnes of galena and bauxite they live over.

The tragedy is that these people have as their spokesmen some of the most divisive people in India. Arundhati Roy. Medha Patkar. P Sainath. All, for all their good intentions, outsiders.

In an ‘ideal world’ – (whose? Perhaps Gandhi’s, definitely not Nehru’s) – every individual has the right to the land they live on (and live off). And the Santalis would, over generations of working with copper, compose incredible mythologies around it, mythologies and technologies and trade. And they would respect the land and the mineral wealth, just as the Saudis, for example, respect their oil wealth, and the Chinese their vast wealth in rare earth.

Sometimes India is exploitative, and the urban, middle-class vision of the country degrades and cheapens. There is a class of people whose closeness to the land is so many orders of magnitude greater than ours. How sad that we look down upon them.

Rudyard Kipling has the final word, from my near-favorite of all his poems, ‘The Land’ –

‘Have it jes’ as you’ve a mind to, but -‘ and here he takes command,
For whoever pays the taxes, old Mus’ Hobden owns the land.

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