• This documentary is a fearless crusade against the “development” model

    Deba Ranjan Sarangi has been a consistent and passionate voice against injustice both within and outside Odisha. He was arrested in 2016, by plainclothes policemen in Odisha.

    Shoma A Chatterji

    March 18, 2019


    Women from the indigenous tribe, Dongria Kondh separate the tendu leaf that they gathered from the jungle around their village. The indigenous tribe, Dongria Kondh will be the first to be displaced by the mining in Orrisa.

    Those Stars in the Sky is the telling title of Deba Ranjan’s latest film. The film is a continuation of Deba Ranjan’s fearless and determined crusade against the corporate giants trying to appropriate the land of the adivasis across almost the entire state of Odisha. The land of Odisha, as rich in minerals, as it is in agriculture and rare medicinal plants, is nurtured and loved by the local adivasis.

    When asked to explain the intriguing title of a hard-hitting documentary, Deba Ranjan says, “When people die, they become stars is a common belief. This film promulgates such belief in view of those killed by the State forces like in police firing, fake encounter, in custody and by the private armies of the corporations. The killing of common people and the rise of corporations have been a reality since economic reforms in India. Under this pretext, this film is essayed between 2013 and 2018 when the State is engaged with a battle among its people for land acquisition of Vedanta, POSCO, and Aditya Birla’s alumina plant in Odisha.”

    Deba Ranjan’s The Conflict  – Who’s Loss, Who’s Gain, a 90-minute film in Odiya sub-titled in English, produced by Pedestrian Pictures explores the lives of a tribal community in Odisha which finds itself on the wrong end of India's progress. Mass movements towards globalization and industrialization put their lives and livelihoods at a greater disadvantage than ever before. The film also focusses on the communal violence in Kandha following the murder of Swamy Laxmananda on 23 August 2008, unfolding the sad tale of scarring violence inflicted on converts from lower castes by the upper castes in the area.

    The Conflict is a courageous and pain-staking coverage and investigation set in real-time about the lives of a tribal community in Orissa. It offers a completely different perspective on the “development” model India tries to present across the media and in the public domain. It unfolds a tragic story on the misfortune of adivasis who are losing and will continue to lose land, their homes and their indigenous culture. Tribals in Kandha and Kashipur have been suffering untold miseries thanks to a government that revels in playing the ignorant onlooker. The film also speaks about the adivasi community “Kondh” with whom Sarangi has been working for eight years before he made this film.

    Deba Ranjan was part of the anti-bauxite mining struggle in Odisha. When the police fired and killed three tribals in Kashipur on 16 December 2000, he was just a few kilometres away. “Since then we have been trying to get justice and have been carrying a fight against the Aditya Birla group’s Utkal Alumina Company and here is where the Odisha police shot and killed three tribals to set an example for those who dare to protest. The Justice P.K. Mishra Commission was set up by the Government of Odisha to enquire into the case of police firing. But the Commission gave a clean chit to the police and justified the acquisition of land for the “development” of the tribals.

    The film opens on a field where there is an uneven row of martyrs' columns erected out of stones in memory of those who were martyred for the cause. Sini Soy, the middle-aged lady activist of Kaling Nagar talks about how she lost her son in the firing that happened on 2 January 2006. In December 2017, the judicial commission set up for the Kaling Nagar firing gave a clean chit to the police. This was similar to the Kashipur firing. “So, the film is a journey of these 17 years people’s movement of Odisha” says Deba Ranjan.

    The flashbacks are shown in blue-tinted monochrome and turn to colour when we come back into the present. Almost 150-200 villagers were booked under a charge of attempt to murder (of the police) says Sibram Naik who was arrested on the same characters in 2005. Sibram says, “Our people were arrested on charges of dacoity, murder, and arson. They were sentenced to 16-17 months and then the company began its work. We lost our people, our land, and our water, but we did not get justice,” adding, “except smoke, what else did we get from the company? We just inhaled the smoke from the company free of cost,” and the camera pans to show industrial smoke coming out of the chimneys to fill the blue sky. He was sentenced for eight years by the Rayagada Additional District Judge Court. 

    One can see billows of smoke rising from the chimneys of the Utkal Alumina factory filling the sky. The camera then cuts to a dead body on an empty field covered with blue plastic over which a white sheet is drawn to cover it. With each killing and each dead body, the entire screen is superimposed with hundreds of stars spreading out on the entire frame like a metaphor illustrating the title of the film. 

    A human rights activist of Odisha, Deba Ranjan writes columns in newspapers on human rights issues. The film is definitely a passion for him. Conflict is his fifth consecutive film on the subject of oppression. “I made a documentary on Kandhamal when the Anti-Christian violence happened in 2008. At the Crossroads explored how the State is engaged with a war against its own people calling them as “Maoists”. The last Siddhantic astronomers was my fourth film. It was on the life and work of Samanta Chandrasekhar, a mathematician born in the eighteenth century. Those Stars in the Sky is my fifth film in a row,” says Deba Ranjan.

    On 2 March 2013, three leading activists of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, namely Narahari Sahu, Tarun Mandal and Manas Jena were killed in a bomb explosion at the POSCO site. The camera takes a mid-shot of three dead bodies lying covered with a single white sheet on a field with villagers standing nearby. The camera cuts to a dead body garlanded with marigold flowers with the carriers and the crowd raising slogans of “Long Live”. We are given a glimpse of three burning pyres while an activist stokes the fires.
    The entire film is visually rich but does not compromise on glamour at all. Instead, it chooses to narrate the tragic stories that underline the so-called “development” through the gross violation of human rights of the adivasis of different districts of Odisha. The camera moves to the empty huts in the village to enter the hut of Manas Jena and closing in on his widow with a small son. A framed photograph of Manas and his wife hangs on the wall. A weeping Manas’s wife informs us that they destroyed their betel farm too. “How will I manage to survive with my son?” she asks and adds, “It would have been better had the government killed me and my son also.”

    On 22 June, 2005, South Korea had signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with the Government of Odisha for a steel plant on the coastal area of Odisha. The camera moves to the centre of the Anti-POSCO Agitation Area at Jagatsinghpur District and we are taken to a man folding betel leaves and snipping off the stems in this betel leaves-rich area. A female voice-over fills in the pathetic details of how the government and its police did not spare the betel farms too. “They began to destroy the fences with knives and when I protested, they called the lady police. The irony is that we were not served any notice of these unlawful demolitions. Four major political parties are responsible for bringing POSCO into Odisha. One spokesman, who supports the POSCO entry says, “when our elected representatives have brought the Company for the development of our State, where is the problem if we support the company?”

    But the villagers are adamant. This is what they said. “The POSCO will be a curse for us. We are living here happily. But POSCO will bring us misery and death. They have cut down the forests along the coast despite our pleadings not to do so. If there is a cyclone tomorrow, our village will be washed away. Even a simple, low depression might cause 10-15 feet of water deposit here.” But the POSCO spokesman insists that the life of the common man will be five times better than what it now is and also solve the unemployment problem. But how? When farmers are already tilling the soil. Rice, betel leaves and coconut and lots of medicinal plants abound in Odisha so how can illegal industrialisation disguised as development bring progress to the adivasis in the state?

    Tapan Mandal, an activist of the Anti-POSCO struggle was killed in a bomb attack by the goons of POSCO on 20 June 2008. A gravestone with a marble plaque bearing his name stands in his memory. Debendra, a villager, says that monarchy is in full swing through the spread of police oppression to control rebellion by the local villagers in the area. The government has deployed armed police to cover the entire Dhinkia Panchayat which shows how much they are in love with POSCO in Jagatsinghpur District. “We, the villagers of Dhinkia Panchayat have appealed to the nation to safeguard democracy in our area.

    The Tata industries in connivance with the government and the police continue to spread the fear of arrest and are making every attempt to suppress the rebellion from the locals. On the one hand, the company is bribing the villagers steeped in poverty and on the other hand, they have engaged informers and middlemen by paying them a monthly honorarium.

    Sini Soy who appeared in the opening scenes was arrested because the police labelled her a Maoist. “I am a part of the struggle, I am fighting for our rights. Here, whoever fights for rights is labelled a Maoist. She had lost her son Bhagaban Soy and when the police asked her whether she had any links with the Maoists, she said, “If after you have killed my son, you say I am a Maoist then yes, I am a Maoist.”  “The government and the Tata company have jointly killed us. My stand is – either you kill me or you send me to jail,” says Sini Soy who was jailed for 21 months with five criminal cases lodged against her. But she was acquitted of all of them.

    The focus shifts to Niyamgiri Hills which is an Anti-Vedanta Struggle area. In 2006 Sterlite, a subsidiary of UK mining company Vedanta built a refinery in Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India. The intention was to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills, which is a reserved forest area. It is also home to indigenous communities who are dependent on it for their livelihood. Niyamgiri is the source of two rivers Bansadhara and Nagaballi. The refinery consumes 30,000 cu.mtrs of water per day severely affecting the ecological systems and the communities. The toxic waste material from the refinery pollutes air, ground and water. Since 2003 different groups have mobilized to fight Vedanta. Has the mining project, thrown hundreds of tribals living off and within Niyamgiri Hills into an uncertain future that spells their death? 

    Early in 2005 British mining company, Vedanta Resources began plans for a multi-billion dollar bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri Mountain in western India. The bauxite would feed Vedanta’s aluminium refinery located near the foothills. The first phase involved land acquisition and deforestation. In the bigger scheme of things this was just another industrial project in India, but closer to the ground, it threatened to destroy the culture and environment of the native Dongaria-Kondh tribe. 

    The region is riddled with many deaths due to malnutrition, mental pressures and fear. Drika Kadraka, an old man who was the leader of the Anti-Vedanta Movement in Niyamgiri hung himself to death from a jackfruit tree on November 15, 2015, for fear of the police. He was the key person of the movement. Drika had farms in Chakata village in the Munijole Panchayat and like Drika, the Save Niyamgiri Movement against Vedanta has lost many of its activists. Manda Kadraka, another activist was killed in an “encounter” by the paramilitary forces on 27 February 2016 and the police claimed he was a Maoist. Bari Pidikaka died due to lack of proper treatment in Rayagada Jail on 27 June 2017 after spending two years in jail. In 2006, Vedanta had constructed its Alumina Plant in Lanjigarh in Kalahandi without its bauxite mining lease.

    When Vedanta began mining bauxite from Niyamgiri, the adivasis strongly opposed the move and the matter reached the Supreme Court. The firm is called SESA Sterlite Limited. A Supreme Court Order commanded a sensitization of the mining activity 10 km away from the top of the hill so that the central worshipping place of Niyamgiri remains undisturbed. Finally, all village councils of Niyamgiri unanimously opposed the government of Odisha’s plan of giving mining lease to Vedanta and then, the Supreme Court cancelled the mining lease Vedanta was given. But the Niyamgiiri residents are not happy. “We will continue to fight till the factory at Lanjigarh is closed. Lado Sikaka, leader of the Anti-Vedanta struggle says, “As long as the factory is there, the danger of our extinction is there.

    The narrative is cut into by insertions of television news claiming the Make in India ideology that backs the mining projects of the different companies in Odisha. There are clips of a conference in progress at the Aditya Birla Utkala Alumina Company in Kashipur area held in 2015 that stands out as a biting satire on “development” according to the government and the multimillion MNC projects that involve the draining of the livelihoods and the very lives of the adivasis in different parts of Odisha. The conference is shown in Bhuvaneshwar with the state CM present alongside Kumaramangalam Birla, CEO of the project.

    Then we get to see and hear of a chain of deaths resulting from severe malnutrition. 19 children of Nagada village in Odisha’s Jajpur district died of Bronchopneumonia and Malaria in July 2016 as a direct result of severe malnutrition. One news headline dated August 20, 2016 stated that the Government of Odisha “admits the death of 22 tribal children due to malnutrition” according to Child Development Minister Usha Devi. Every year, children die of diarrhoea and severe vomiting and the villagers have neither money nor food to take them to hospital. This is more common in Nagada Hills in the Jajpur District of Odisha. But the adivasis and the local villagers are unwilling to let go. And the fight goes on though the sky fills up with stars and stars and stars.
     


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    Shoma A Chatterji is a National Award winning author, freelance journalist, and a film scholar, based in Kolkata, India.

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