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Letter from India: dangers of decapitation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2010 - About 20 women and a few men stare at our small group on top of a hill in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. They block our path in stony-faced silence, gripping makeshift weapons in their hands that speak louder than words about their mood: heavy branches, clubs, sickles and axes. A hot wind sweeps over the otherwise deserted, treeless hilltop, ruffling the saris of the women and the lungis (a sarong worn around the waist) of the men. The sun shines cheerfully on these tribal villagers who are poised to attack us this afternoon, unless our guide can persuade them otherwise.

In an age of unprecedented economic growth in India - to the tune of nearly 8 percent a year - development projects continue to abound across the world's second most populous country. Large numbers of Indians are now laying claim to the comforts and securities of middle-class life, and India's rapid development of the last decade has made this possible.

However, other segments of the population still live on the periphery of these new economic gains, and their discontent has begun to manifest itself more openly. They feel they have not only missed out on the profits of the nation's development but that they are the ones making the heaviest and most disproportionate sacrifices for India's growth.

According to our interpreter, these local villagers have assumed that we must have come from a mining company to look at this hill as a prospective mining site. Their village, Sapparla, is at the foot of this hill, and they fear that they will be forced to sacrifice their land, their livelihoods and their community in the name of macroeconomic prosperity and another development project.

Like many other frustrated and angry villagers in India, these residents of Sapparla feel pushed to take increasingly strong actions. Rather than find out through firsthand experience what changes mining will have on their community, the villagers from Sapparla have opted to defend their hilltop by any means necessary, including those that involve sickles and axes.

This brings us to the present situation as I stand on a hilltop in rural India looking at the growing number of armed and angry farmers appearing before me.

The guide for our small group on the hilltop is the capable Makireddy Ramana, an energetic 65-year-old field organizer working for a local nongovernmental organization that helps rural tribal groups and villagers protect their land rights. (Full disclosure: I am volunteering for this Indian NGO, called Samata.)

Makireddy springs into action and explains in Telugu, the language spoken in this part of India, that we have not come here to mine the bauxite (used to make alumina and aluminum) in this hill above their village; we are from an organization that works to protect tribal land rights and prevent mining projects that would harm their environment or rural tribal communities. An Indian subsidiary of a large mining company, Anrak Aluminium Ltd., hopes to use this hill to supply bauxite to its nearby alumina refinery and smelter. Today we have come only to observe the situation of communities and areas affected by mining issues.

Makireddy cracks a few jokes throughout his lengthy explanation, even taking time to marvel at the sharpness of an axe one villager brought. Our would-be ambushers are soon smiling as this rambunctious old community activist regales them with stories of the many protests and rallies he has led against companies that would seize tribal lands.

By the time we start down the hill, the villagers are laughing and joking with each other and with us. One villager shows us the rope she was going to use to tie us to nearby trees. Another villager merrily informs me that he was going to use the sickle slung over his shoulder to chop off our heads if we had been from a mining company. Unsure whether I should be concerned or grateful that he feels comfortable enough to share this piece of information with me, I accept his request to pose for a picture with him and the sickle that was to be used for my beheading.

Later I learned that perhaps these were not idle threats. About three months before our trip to Sapparla's hill, a smalltime local politician named Sagina Somalingam tried to collect samples of bauxite from the hilltop, purportedly to sell to mining companies interested in the deposits. The villagers caught him in the act, tied him to a tree and roughed him up. The local political party suspended Somalingam from its ranks. He died a month after his suspension, allegedly killed by the Maoist guerrillas (known as Naxalites in India) who are active in the surrounding regions.

Another official, Uggarangi Somalingam, was killed in early May by Maoist guerrillas because of his ties to the bauxite industry. Uggarangi had taken his position when Maoist guerrillas killed his predecessor in 2007, again because of the official's ties to and support for the bauxite industry. These incidents made the local Telugu daily newspapers and one or two English papers but barely registered media attention outside of the region.

Eager to learn more about what prompted the Sapparla villagers to nearly attack us, I ask our interpreter to inquire about their history with the mining companies.

Our new friends, dexterously and easily marching down the hillside with their sticks and sickles swinging at their sides, are only too happy to tell us about their previous encounters. Listening to several of the villagers sharing story-telling responsibilities, our translator informs me that mining companies stopped coming to this hill on foot after a 1997 Indian Supreme Court judgment put a hold on mining activities in this region.

The villagers took an unequivocally anti-mining stance toward future projects for fear that mining would displace their village and agricultural lands. They heard of these things happening in nearby communities; this motivated the Sapparla villagers to deny entry to anyone trying to carry out similar projects in their village's backyard. According to several villagers, now the only way the mining companies dare to visit this hill is by flying over it in a helicopter for a quick landing and an even quicker departure.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, the villagers pose with their ad hoc weaponry for several more photos before seeing us off, waving to us until our vehicle disappears around a bend in the road.

Settling in for the long return trip to the city of Visakhapatnam, I have time to consider my own near decapitation and what this recent experience can tell me about the state of development and industry in India. I only chanced to see this side of the development story in India because of a case of mistaken identity, and only escaped with my life and health thanks to our fast-talking guide and field organizer, Makireddy. The initial confrontation, though, gave new and real significance to aloof academic debates on international development and statistic laden articles on the economic growth of rising world powers.

Questions still loom in my mind about what that scene on the hilltop means for India. Is development doing more harm than good? Or are these the hard but necessary growing pains for achieving greater prosperity for all? Is there any hope for villagers like those in Sapparla? What would be a just and practical solution to the tug-of-war between preserving traditional ways of life and using natural resources to speed national development?

While I have no easy answers to these questions, I do still have my head, and for this I am thankful.

Nick Wertsch will be sending in occasional letters from India.

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