Sarita Biswal tells us about how her video, Deforestation Wreaks Havoc on Climate that helped bring the residents of her village, Kochila, Odisha together and put an end to the activities of the local timber mafia.
I grew up in the Cuttack district of Odisha, surrounded by lush jungles. The inhabitants of my village Kochila are primarily tribal, and our lives are deeply linked to the forest. But our region was plagued by a timber mafia, and I saw our precious trees dwindle before my eyes as a result of their activities. I was determined to stop these people, and I did. Which is probably why the story has stayed with me.
This was my third video. I wanted it to be my first, but the issue was a hard one to tackle and I didn’t have the confidence or the support base required when I initially started out. Even during the making of this story, I had a hard time getting people to talk on camera. They were still unfamiliar with the process and the subject was a particularly sensitive one. The timber mafia was very powerful, with ties to the police and the forest department. The villagers feared repercussions.
It took a lot of convincing to persuade them. I showed them my VV profile video, and promised that we would confront any problems that might arise together. This needed to be done, it was their right to be heard, and I would stand by them the whole way. To instil confidence in our strength as a group, I even led them on a raid to stop the mafia at work one day. They finally agreed, but were still camera shy. While perfectly articulate when speaking to me normally, they would forget everything they had to say as soon as I pressed the record button. I must have interviewed each person at least 10–12 times before I could get the bytes I needed.
Nonetheless, filming went smoothly enough. There were repercussions later of course, but my impact story grew out of these. I soon started receiving threats from members of the timber mafia. They would kill me or rape me, they said. But I have never really been afraid of threats. It means that the other person is scared, which can only be a good sign. I finished my video and screened it to the village. The people were thrilled to see themselves on film, it was a wonderful experience. And it was at this community screening that my impact video was born.
The night before, we had tried unsuccessfully to catch some members of the mafia at work. They had got wind of our plans and escaped. Now, at the screening, I saw some others walking off into the forest. My video had just been shown and public outrage was at its peak. I asked the people how they could sit by and quietly watch as their woods were stripped before their eyes. That was the tipping point.
It was the women who rose first. They got up and ran after the mafia men, who began to disperse in fright. One of the forest officials was present at the event. I threatened to turn him over to the police if he didn’t act, so he also followed. I always carry my camera with me, and I managed to capture the whole affair. But I was afraid that the men might get away, so I jumped onto a friend’s motorcycle and we chased them down. It was all very exciting. One of the members tried to attack me with an axe before the village women caught him and beat him up. Another ran for 2 km with a sari-clad lady in hot pursuit. She eventually managed to catch him and bring him in. I had incessantly phoned the police and the forest department, and a squat team finally arrived. We arrested five men that day, and we also seized the house of one of the local gang members.
I stayed out till evening filming that impact video, and I was very happy with the end result. I felt it was better than the issue video, when people were still reluctant to speak on camera. I would have liked to include some footage of mafia members in the act of stealing wood, but that was very hard as they operated by night. I did try though. But it was pitch dark, there was no electricity, and it was raining on top of everything. The men heard us coming and ran away.
I learnt a lot through the whole experience – how to handle the camera and, more importantly, how to handle people. It took effort getting them to rise, and then it took effort reining them in. When we seized the gang member’s house that day for instance, his wife grew abusive and aggressive. A fight broke out, and I think the villagers might have killed her in the heat of the moment had I not been present to hold them back.
Social activism can be a fairly risky business. While I can handle threats directed at me, I feel afraid for my family and community members. If I lead people into danger, I am responsible for them. But the pay-off is generally worth it. It is the poor who fall victim to this world’s injustices as they have no voice. I want to become their voice. I might not be able to change the world, but I can definitely give it my best shot.