Community Correspondent Diaries: Savita Rath

Savita_retouchedSavita Rath shares her experiences of bringing down corrupt industrialists, angry policemen and filming her video, Jindal Coal Mines: Destroying Land, Disrupting Life 

Ever since I was picked for the VV training camp, I had a goal in mind. Everyone has a pet project; mine was to fight the Jindal conglomerate that has been bleeding us dry for so many years now. The hopes of my whole community rested on me for this one. Through a campaign of sustained physical and mental abuse, that man has gradually taken away everything we had. He has leeched our lives of meaning and reduced us to beggars in our own land.

This was actually the first video I made, though my coal satyagrah story was published earlier as it had greater mass appeal. The end of my training happily coincided with the start of the people’s movement in Kosampalli. Kosampalli is 70 km away from my own village; the road connecting them is a dirt track running through a reserved forest. Someone came to collect me and, slipping and sliding through rain and mud, we made the trek on a motorcycle.

Five minutes after our arrival, we were surrounded by police. The villagers had been on strike for five days and things were heating up. My presence only aggravated the situation further. The officers were convinced that I had come to make trouble, they accused me of inciting the populace. Soon the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, the Sub-Divisional Officer of Police and the Chief Superintendent of Police had been summoned to the spot. Jindal’s henchmen who had been loitering around also went and fetched their Executive Director, Dinesh Kumar Bhargav.

The atmosphere was extremely tense. The authorities insisted that my objective was to defame them, I maintained that I only wanted to cover the story. The camera and the VV card around my neck really shielded us all that day, at least 12–13 lives were saved. The police had initially arrived with the intention of breaking up the gathering and lathi charging the protestors, but the rolling camera stopped them in their tracks. Even Mr. Bhargav found himself defenceless before it. Caught off guard, he agreed to meet all of the villagers’ demands within a month.

I was scared that the officers might snatch my camera. Unaija Khatun Ansari, the SDOP, even tried to lure me away from the crowd. “You and I, we are both ladies”, she said, “Why don’t you come with me? I will drop you to Raigarh”. Wary of being alone with the police, I responded that I wouldn’t like to trouble her. Raigarh was far off her route, my friends would drop me back.

That night, the people asked me to stay back in Kosampalli. They were worried that, following his resounding defeat of the day, Jindal might decide to retaliate after dark. They wanted me and my camera in their midst as safeguard. I stayed up that whole night. Nothing eventually happened, but I copied all the footage onto a friend’s computer, just in case. At 5:00am the next morning, I was taken by a back route to Gare, the neighbouring settlement. The villagers were scared of escorting me themselves, they feared that they might be ambushed on their way back once I was gone. So five people from Gare got out three motorcycles and accompanied me to Raigarh.

In the weeks that followed, the government and the Jindal corporation obviously backtracked on their word. Everything they had agreed to was whittled down to a measly Rs. 1,200 for each house destroyed. When the residents objected, the authorities addressed me: “You are the self-appointed mother of this adivasi block. Why don’t you ask your children to accept the compensation we are offering them?”. “They are poor and illiterate”, I responded, “They don’t know how to put money to good use. Why don’t you just build them houses in the Rs. 1,200 instead?”. This silenced them, but it didn’t improve the actual situation.

To this day, the locals live in appalling conditions. Their homes are rubble, their wells are dry and their neighbourhood lake is now a quarry. With the surrounding power plants sucking away all the groundwater, their only remaining source of sustenance is the Kelo river, itself contaminated with chemical effluence from these plants. Jindal’s goons silence all opposition with threats. The police, while refusing to lodge FIRs against these men, are only too happy to arrest protesting residents as Naxals under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.

When I look back at that video, I can’t help seeing small errors and omissions. It was my first video, and I made it very fast in an atmosphere of urgency. Today, I would have done a better job. I wish I had been able to capture footage of the actual mine blasts as they destroyed village houses. But my camera storage capacity is limited, and mining activity was also on hold during the five-day bandh in which I did my filming. I would also have liked to include some women in my report. My biggest oversight, however, was not recording visual proof of the agreement Mr. Bhargav signed that day under pressure. I should have remembered to include it as a clip in the B-Roll. Since then, I have made sure never to repeat the same mistake. At the moment for instance, I am doing a story on elephants. If their presence here can be proven, the region should be declared an elephant corridor, unfit for industrial activity. This time, not only have I filmed newspaper cuttings of elephant raids, I even have footage of the actual animals leaving the jungle!

But I learnt a lot through that initial experience. I learnt that the camera was a deadly weapon in my hand, I learnt that it equips me to take on the most formidable opponents. And I intend to harness its power to one day achieve the goal I set myself

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