The Howrah Ranchi Shatabdi Express treats its passengers to a guided tour, with a recorded voice announcing every station, stoppage time and highlighting what the placecity or town-stands for. “Durgapur – the most important industrial town of West Bengal, known for its steel plant. Raniganj-the coal city of West Bengal. It is famous for its coalfields.
“Asansol – the second largest city and urban agglomeration in West Bengal after Kolkata. Dhanbad-the most populous city of Jharkhand and is known as the coal capital of India. “Chandrapura – is an industrial town in Bokaro district in Jharkhand. The town is famous for its thermal power station. Bokaro Steel City -is a major industrial centre of Jharkhand.
Muri – previously known as Hindal Colony. Muri is famous for Hindustan Aluminium Company.” Going from one station to another it struck me as odd that the landscape we were tracing was just defined by India’s industrial camps. As we chugged into Durgapur station, many a proud parent pointed at the refinery and other machinery standing testimony to India’s grand achievement; educating their children and instilling national pride. It was almost like those cities and towns were manned by robots or everything was mechanised and no human life existed.
That is definitely problematic for me. As we passed another station it felt like we were in a museum; re-engaging with a glorious history. These were not dead or abandoned cities; these breathed life and had soul. That announcement flattens life itself. It does not tell us about the people who inhabit it, nor the culture, neither the life of workers, nor those displaced by these grand projects nor does it talk of diseases like tuberculosis or silicosis plaguing workers and residents, neither of pollution and environmental degradation.
This announcement not only hides the life ways within those industrialised towns but it effectively persuades us into buying into this economy based growth and development, that can be blinding. It’s no surprise then that when foreign media presents Indian issues-like treatment of women, marginalised people’s rights, farmer’s suicides, hunger, malnutrition or poverty; a majority of Indians are offended and the comments sections are filled with angry, mocking suggestions of how our space exploration and research, GDP growth rate or nuclear power should be talked about instead. Like that automatically cancels out everything else that goes on with its citizens or justifies the suffering of some citizens.
It is not the responsibility of a railway announcement to comment on the social, political or ethnic fabric of the land, but this is a microscopic reflection of India’s (representative) attitude to what to take pride in and what to showcase as power, control and supremacy. It is clearly not the people who matter; definitely not the everyday person.
Closer to Dhanbad, there were people who looked grey, like they’d been coloured over with a pencil. Their skin glistening with remnants of coal dust, settled on them over years, making them people of lead; normalised and resigned to their fate. Almost all of these lands the train went though was Adivasi land; poor and marginalised people’s land and this industrialisation has not improved their lot. Where’s the development that was promised in exchange for this dispossession? The recent police killings of at least four and injuries to 40 protesters opposing the acquisition of agricultural and forest land by the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. for their coal mines in Hazaribagh shows how little people matter — especially the lives of those lying in the fringes of this growth agenda but at the heart of the action. This is possibly the 12th year of resistance in and around Karunpura valley; yet their pleas for respect and dignity for their lives and livelihoods count for nothing.
Politicians and administrators rattle off the same ironical cliché that mining is necessary for the advancement of the country and the tribals. So the announcer says that Muri was earlier called Hindal Colony – what kind of display of clout and arrogance was that? I guess not more powerful than Jamshedpur or Tatanagar; a name still in use imprinting its conquest on Adivasi terrain. These are just not just names; these are erasers-eradicating entire peoples, their histories and identities. Sakchi or Kalimati with over 90 per cent Adivasi population became Jamshedpur in the early 1900s and soon there was an imbalance in the demographics by about a third.
Where are those Adivasis? What happened to them? Where did they go? Why did they have to go? Why weren’t they employed at Tata Steel? What kind of development did or do they enjoy? Three years ago I happened to meet some Santal villagers who had been vehemently opposing the building of the Tata Steel International Airport that would displace a minimum of 6 villages and vast stretches of forestland. They asked me if their lives were less valuable that they were expected to leave their ancestral land for an airport they’d never use.
They said their ancestors did the same for Tata Steel, and were they only expected to sacrifice for the well-being and needs of others. The protests still continue today amidst threats and intimidation but they are standing their ground; till they can no more. That is humbling. Soon enough we’ll have railway lines criss-crossing the length and breadth of these industrial towns, basking in the glory of economic growth and status. This train ride was no heritage walk for me; it was a piercing reminder of India’s colonisation and exploitation of its own people.
Image by – Amit Bandre