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Mahanadi – Privatization of the Great River

It is not just coal, minerals and other resources that are plundered in Chhattisgarh, but even the rivers and water are being divided and sold off to private companies. Thermal power plants that run on coal require continuous supply of water. This can only be supplied by the rivers flowing through Chhattisgarh and at the cost of farmers and their livelihood. The Mahanadi river flows through the Janjgir Champa dist., and here 5 large barrages are planned – Sheorinarayan Barrage, Basantpur Barrage, Mironi Barrage, Saradih Barrage and Kalma Barrage. Each barrage is constructed by five or more private companies and the average cost of these barrages is 24, 272.348 lakhs (INR).

Threatened land of the riverbed

The impact of only the Saradih Barrage will be on the villages Saradih, Sakrali, Upani, Navapara, Basantpur, Siriyagarh and Manjarkud, and will also effect a population over 15,000 people. The villagers grow vegetables and grain on the fertile soil of the riverbed. It is however the landless farmers who are most dependent on the riverbed for their rozi-roti or daily sustenance. Kumar Ram, a farmer in Saradih, says “After the monsoons, when the river subsides the farmers of these villages divide the land of the riverbed amongst themselves and grow vegetables on this land.” The riverbed is 1 km wide and in some parts stretches to 2 kms. Vegetables grown here reach the markets of Raipur, Bilaspur, Raigarh and Champa.

Nand Kishor Rout, a gauge reader at the Hirakud Dam says, “If there is even 3 meters of water in the river then the riverbed is drowned. The barrage will raise the height of water to 5.5 meters which will drown not just the riverbed but also half the lands in these villages.”

Saradih agriculture in the Mahanadi river

Seven villages in Saradih alone will be effected and about 15,000 people but there is no precise estimate of how much land will be submerged. If all the four barrages are taken together then about 90 kms of riverbed will be permanently submerged under water. The thousands of landless farmers who sell vegetables that they have grown on the riverbed in local and nearby established markets, will have no choice but to migrate and become bonded labourers in brick kilns in Jammu and Kashmir.

Islets in the river

Moroni land and crops to be flooded

In the Mahanadi, when the waters are high during the rainy season, a strip of land about 15 kms long and 1 km to 1.5 km wide, remains above water and looks like an islet or tapu as it is called in Hindi. The rest of the year the tapu would be dry on one shore. Farmers from the nearby 8-9 villages have land on this tapu and most of their livelihood and income comes from what is grown here. The tapu is made of the fertile mud and silt deposited by the Mahanadi and wheat, dal or pulses (udaad, moong), cucumber, eggplant, spinach, tomato, lady’s finger, bitter gourd etc. are all grown here.

Irrigation of the tapu land is never a problem as ground water is available at a mere depth of 15-25 feet. This land is three times more fertile and fecund than any other. Jalindhar Prasad, a retired gauge reader in Saradih village, says “If the barrage raises water level to 5.5 meters as the officials of the company claim, then not only will it no longer be only 3-5 meters depth of water around the tapu, but large portions of this fertile tapu land will be submerged.” What is shocking is that the government claims that the submerged land from this project will be zero.

Bhogilal, a farmer from Sakrali village, says, “If the water level around the tapu is raised to 8 to 10 feet then how will the farmers use their carts, bullocks, tractors or other animals to cross to the tapu. If your house is surrounded by thorns from all sides, is it safe to live in?”

The main demand of the villagers has consistently been the construction of means for them to access the land on the tapu, and this would be more beneficial than compensation. The villagers have met everyone from the block officer to the minister of Raipur, Raman Singh but no one has given any assurances to them about this.

Moroni barrage construction

How the water will be used?

Let us know discuss what the the Water Resources Department claims will be the benefits of the barrages for the people in the villages – this report was accessed through an RTI application. The first claim in the report is that the barrages will solve the problem of drinking water. However the farmers say there has never been any such problem because the rivers provide fresh drinking water. The second claim is that water will be available for the development of farmland and the villages. Anyone who knows Chattisgarh is aware that the region is replete with ponds and each village has at least two such ponds. Villagers have found ways to use this water for varied purposes, ranging from bathing, sanitation, washing animals, disposal of wastes to use of the fresh water as well. So why is crores of rupees being spent to build a dam to do what is already happening!

The third claim is water recharge will happen. Vinod Verma, in his book titled Garh Chhattis, refers to a local proverb “chh: agor chh: kori” which is actually a reference to the 126 ponds that Chhattisgarh is famous for having. The villagers do not exploit these resources, but tend to these ponds that are their life source; they ensure that they do not dry up and ground water is replenished.The fourth stated claim or ‘advantage’ mentioned at the end of the report whcih is the only real benefit of the barrages, is that the water will be made available for use by the power plants. The government has set a price for this water that will be given to power plants, according the report on financial returns, at a meager cost of Rs. 3 per ghanmeter i.e. 3 rs for 1000 lts of water

The farmers of Sakrali are angry, they say “The politicians often raise slogans for development for farmers, but what the government is doing is only development for private companies. The Saradih barrage will give water to the private companies, but the farmers will not get one drop for irrigation. So who is this development for? The farmers or the company owners and management? If this water was made available to the farmers instead of the companies, then the land that now gives one crop would give three crops. Then we would agree that maybe this is meant for our benefit, but this is not what is happening.”

The protest and movement of the people of Saradih village against the barrage is still going on. They do not want that their demands be shoved aside like those who were effected by the Tehri Dam, they don’t want to be uprooted from their villages, land and water like those displaced by the Narmada Dam, they don’t want to be evicted like those effected by Hirakud Dam, Rihand Dam and Mullaperiyar Dam. They want that the government for the time-being to stop thinking about their development lest they end up as bonded labourers in the brick kilns of Jammu and Kashmir again. 

“The Law and Image Workshop”

“Surveillance” according to the OED means ‘supervision’ or ‘close watch esp. on suspected person’. The meaning forms an immediate connection with ‘Law’ and the powers-that-be in terms of Althusserian ideology. The installation project organized as part of the workshop on the Law and Image at the Media Studies Lab in September 2008 engaged actively in countering/negotiating/ subverting the power  tilt in the study of ‘law’ and its influence/ impact/ reception of the ‘image’ and vice-versa.

Diverse narrative strands developed in the course of the project.  Firstly, discussions on the consequences of actually organizing the ‘experiment’ offered a narrative of negotiations making inroads on ‘space’ and ‘rights’ in terms of legality and human interest!

Secondly, a parallel ‘prehistory’ to the entire notion of ‘surveillance’ formed another narrative strand, vis-à-vis Avinash Deshpande’s The Great Indian School Show and Shaina Anand’s KhirkeeYaan. While The great Indian School Show, set in the Mahatma Gandhi High School in Nagpur, chronicles events at this school, which has installed close-circuit cameras in all classrooms, corridors, the playground and all exits, KhirkeeYaan interrogates surveillance by using CCTV equipment in a local area as a mode of communication. These onscreen narratives were accompanied by images of the project installation on a cellular phone belonging to a ‘witness’ to the installation and a non-participant of the workshop. These images were thus brought under surveillance per se and transferred to cellular phones belonging to workshop participants.

An audio-visual recording of the project participants while discussing the repercussions of the installation epitomized the fluid relations between ‘signifiers’ and the ‘signified’, forming a fourth narrative. The written word or law, a supposedly abstract system , converted into a dynamic ‘reality’ which perpetuated itself through its living inhabitants, or perhaps the ‘image’ in terms of both participants and events within/without the workshop!


26th September, 2008 – Friday

The board was made the previous night and left in the guest house. It was then collected from the guest house where a white chart paper background was put on the board. On top of that a blue notice was put, with the words (in white) – This area is under surveillance.

The board was put in the corner of the film studies department, next to the room in which Subhajit sits. This was also a smoking corner in the department and also where the students sit on a bench. It was a hang out space between classes. The other smaller poster was put inside the PG 1 classroom on the back of the door. The idea of putting a fake webcam that was suggested the previous day was mooted as it was not possible to put it high up and on top of the television set. It would be obvious that the webcam apart from not being a surveillance camera, was also not connected to anything.

During the day there were several reactions ranging from disbelief and disinterest to a frenzied search for a camera inside the classroom amongst dangling wires. There seemed to be no serious fall out though a number of students reacted adversely to the presence of the board. There were less people in the hang out corner in the department and a certain amount of anxiety as to why there was a felt need for surveillance in this department. Some in the group also realized that surveillance board had interfered with the authority of the department staff that takes care of this area and also incidentally is anti-smoking. However a large portion of why surveillance often takes place in spaces like malls, shops, universities is to watch the staff and less to watch the customer. Hence the board produced that kind of anxiety as well. Though most people did not seem to think of it as a hoax, probably if the board was there for longer, some people would eventually have made the connection to the law and image workshop.

The board was removed by 3 pm and explanations were given during the day to different groups. The worskhop group met at 4 and had a discussion about how the project had panned out, in process and what took place during. It was decided to go ahead and to make a blog where each would write a paragraph or two about any specific aspect that they found intriguing. The discussion by the group was taped on video camera.

25th September, 2008 – Thursday

The group began by discussing their idea with the head of film studies department, to allay and address some of their anxieties of where the project would lead them. It was then decided that to do it in the space outside the JU Media Lab might be too volatile. The space attracted people from several departments and activities that took place there would not entirely be permissible and thus such a board would cause far too much anxiety that would not be easy to control. There may be political repercussions and administrative repercussions as the University authorities might be questioned by the students about this act. It would no longer just be an experiment or a tentative foray into attempting to see what surveillance would do and how it might change a space.

Several things were discussed, including how such a board might be linked to recent ragging incidents, the smoking ban or to keep watchful eye on a student friendly space.
So the project was shifted to the department building, where the head of film studies would be questioned first by anyone objecting ot the board, and hence would be able to control what happens henceforth. The group more or less agreed on this, and especially that it would be too risky to do it in front of the JU Media Lab.

Some suggestions and decisions made

  • It was also decided that posting to the student orkut community of JU about this would not be such a good idea, as again the repercussions cannot be contained within a small group of people.
  • That there would be a board outside the classrooms but in the film studies department corner of the Arts building. There would be also a small poster inside a classroom that says – This room is under surveillance
  • The group decided that rather than going around recording reactions on camera (still or moving) what they would do would be to write about the reactions and the changes that they observed. That this would allow it to be a self reflexive exercise where they reflect on how they themselves have been influenced
  • Some of the discussion was also on how the execution of this idea, which in itself rather simple and much simpler than shooting a short film or even re-editing a trailer, was far more difficult than expected. The details of where and how, the depth of discussion about all possible aspects of the project and the anxiety that it should not cause serious trouble, were making this a far more difficult but also more interesting process.

After the discussion, various responsibilities were given. Some were to organize the board and install it on the next morning. Some would observe the day’s events as they could be present in the film studies department. Others who couldn’t would write about the discussions over these last two days as they had been fairly exhaustive.

24th September, 2008 – Wednesday

After 1 and a half weeks of the workshop on law and image, the participants decided in this session to talk about possibilities of what the output of the workshop should be. There was a quick summarizing of what was covered previously in relation to the broad philosophical and inter disciplinary enquiries possible in film studies and legal studies, laws related to copyright, surveillance and obscenity. After this some of the ideas suggested included a fake trailer for a non-existent movie like Titanic 2. This was discussed and some felt that even though hacking/remixing/re-editing are useful skills to learn, this would not be interesting enough as a product.

An idea was suggested to develop a project around surveillance where the law instead of retreating or avoiding the image (as in the case of censorship) moves into and has a close and intimate relationship with the image. Shaina Anand’s presentation had also covered several projects (including her own) that deal with censorship. Such as the CCTV project in Manchester that allows ordinary citizens to see how surveillance works and the Khirkeeyan project that takes cheap and ordinary surveillance equipment (small cameras, wires, tv monitors etc) available in the market to fashion out of it, community television in a small slum in Delhi, rather than as a mechanism of watching and policing people.

The project suggested was to use the Jadavpur University context that everyone was familiar with and to introduce into it, unfamiliar elements of surveillance. While there would be no actual surveillance or production of images, a board or a sign would be put outside the JU Media lab that announced that ‘This area is under CCTV surveillance’.
In the context of UK and several countries in the West, surveillance has been accepted in a very matter-of-fact way inspite of strong civil rights and free speech movements prevailing. Even in India, surveillance that exists in a range of spaces ranging from the metro, the malls to internal surveillance mechanisms in beauty parlours and restaurants, has not really raised much objection or discomfort.

The idea was to see what the reaction to such a board would be, would the space change in character, would it be considered believable, would it cause anxiety or just disinterest? How would different people react to the board, ranging from professors, lecturers, students, office staff, those with affiliations to student political movements, those in film studies and those outside the department.
Some suggestions or points of discussion were

  • It was also suggested that a post be made on the local orkut community of JU asking why such a board had suddenly appeared, and whether this meant that surveillance was taking place in JU.
  • The group felt that though such a board announcing CCTV surveillance is usually red on yellow background, and a metal or thick plate nailed on the wall, this would be a poster on a notice board or stand. The colours would be white on royal blue, since most official announcements in JU were made like that.
  • The words were to be – ‘This area is under surveillance’ rather than ‘This area is under video surveillance’ as it was felt that that might provoke more anxiety. It would also hopefully indicate to the fact that there is always some kind of surveillance inspite of a lack of official CCTV infrastructure, mechanisms of ensuring that certain spaces in a university are always under a panoptic gaze of official or semi-official authority or even the policing gaze of others around. A network of social relations and invisible prohibitions ensured that to a large extent surveillance may even not be really required in such spaces yet.

All of these were discussed at length. It was felt that there could be reactions that would spiral out of the control of the group in the workshop, inspite of it being an experiment and playful, temporary interference with the normal ways in which spaces around JU Media lab function. The group decided to discuss this further on the next day and if to undertake this project, to do it for only a day.

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