Losers in focus

Print edition : September 12, 2008

IN VARANASI, WITH the Ganga in the background. The documentary is part of a movement to expose the subterranean war going on for water.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A documentary film on how market forces are appropriating natural resources that belong to everybody.

GLOBALISATION is the new omnipotent mantra of our age. Dissenters who question the range of inequities following in its wake are pushed to the margins by our mainstream media, which do not admit uncomfortable questions. Thank God for documentary film-makers who go where it is unfashionable to go and who bring us stories of ordinary people who have been not only marginalised but betrayed in the name of development.

The Rising Wave, produced and directed by the Australia-based duo Yask Desai and Shweta Kishore, is a 65-minute film that wisely eschews superficial breadth for depth. It chronicles the lives of people in Chhattisgarh and Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand, who have become economic and cultural refugees in their own land where their families have lived for generations.

It is often said that future wars will be waged over water. The beginnings are seen here in India but so blinded are we by the branding efforts of India Shining and Incredible India that the ongoing war for natural resources scarcely registers on our collective consciousness as for conscience, it is almost blasphemy to the purveyors of market forces.

To make a natural resource such as water, which was always accessible to all and regarded as sacred, into a commodity to be privatised under state patronage is the real blasphemy when we consider our social, economic and cultural traditions. Desai and Kishore do not wave angry flags of strident protest and indulge in rhetorical cliches. The facts are stated in title cards and images and words that affected people speak in their own voices and idiom.

The only expert we see is Vandana Shiva, ecologist and articulate writer. She, too, speaks more in sorrow than anger, reflecting on the violence done to our heritage, which regards the pancha bhutas the five elements, including water as the basic components of life.

The opening image of the film is a celebration and a lament. An autorickshaw driver sits by a pond while raindrops splatter its surface. He sings mournfully of the change that has overtaken this symbol of life replenishment, of water stolen from the farmer and given to the industrialist. The film-makers establish a sense of community and common usage. A woman who dug a large pond for the village is remembered by generations as people use the water for bathing, swimming, fishing and irrigation be it a farmer, a journalist coming home or two elderly women singing half-forgotten songs in praise of the Ganga and the Yamuna.

It is the same with wells lining the historic Grand Trunk Road where a woman offers water drawn from a well to the deity at a nondescript temple nearby. No film on water can be complete without paying obeisance to the Varanasi ghats. The filmmakers do not fall into the trap of touristy prettiness but chart the many livelihoods that the river provides: the boat builder who says the environment is just right for bending wet planks into a gentle curve; the boatman who learnt the trade from his father and whose young son is now learning it. The river is all it gives everything they need.

Now to Raulakot, a village in Tehri Garhwal where the Ganga is imprisoned in a reservoir while the historic Tehri city, 150 villages and fertile fields are submerged. Vandana Shiva speaks nostalgically of how green the valley was in her childhood. Now, you drive past a graveyard of skeletal buses and rusting machinery, withered bushes and rubble from broken, abandoned buildings. Voicing this loss is Devinder, a taxi driver, who recalls the cool breezes of the old days, of how there are no roads now and how it takes more than an hour to reach a place that was earlier 10 minutes away.

A family gets off the ferry and you follow its arduous climb up the hillside, along a dirt track. These people have no access to medical facilities in an emergency because they are dependent on the uncertain timings of the ferry. Fruits have become prohibitively expensive because transport costs have pushed up their prices. Earlier, the local people owned cattle that grazed on the fields, but now they have no milk because there are no grazing lands left as villages cling to the upper reaches of the hills. The killing irony is that there is no power, while their water supplies power to places far away. The reservoirs water is out of bounds for farming as well.

Desai and Kishore do not trot out statistics-spewing experts. We hear stories of the displaced first-hand. Balbir Negi and his sturdy father left their village with others to be resettled near Dehra Dun. The rocky land took seven years to clear; nothing except wheat or rice can grow on it, that too only with the use of chemical fertilizers unlike their Tehri fields, which used organic manure from the cattle they had. Cash crops such as ginger had provided an additional income, but this cement-hard land they now cultivate is inimical to growing even vegetables. From self-sufficiency to dependency is the price they paid for the greater good of the nation.

The films most touching moment is when Negi brings out a large, framed photograph of Tehri and eagerly points out where their village was. A deep sadness underlines his prosaic, unsentimental words as the family clings to the photograph as a reminder of their land and history, of fairs where everyone met everyone, of halcyon days when the farmer washed off the grime of a days long labour in the clean and clear Ganga.

The 260 metre-high Tehri dam is one of the highest in the world. Around 150 villages, fertile fields and the historic Tehri city were submerged for the dam project. A file photo.-PTI

Now, they depend on a pump, which is at the mercy of the vagaries of power supply and unreliable transformers. The change impinges on everyday life. It is beyond the emotionless number-crunching of economic planners who are insulated from ongoing human tragedies not the grand tragedy of theatre but the piling up of relentless small tragedies that can grind the human spirit into hopelessness.

Nowhere is this more stark than Malood village in Chhattisgarh. This is perhaps the first example of the result of the privatisation of 23 kilometres of the Sheonath river. It is a multi-million dollar project, which cuts off access to the rivers water, so that a private firm can supply water to the Borai industrial estate. The water is diverted through an intake well. The fishers and vegetable farmers who used to depend on the river for livelihood now get sewage and storm water runoff. Girishwar, a farmer, asks: Did they create the river to exercise control over it, as if it was private property? Hopelessness is writ large on the faces of these people.

Similar is the case with Mehdiganj, a village in Varanasi district. This time, it is the plant of a multinational soft drinks manufacturer, which has dried up the fields with its deep tubewells. Coca Colas wells are 10 times deeper and suck out the ground water from the villages shallower wells. Pottery is the other major occupation here. You see a young man making khullars (mud pots), but now that soft drinks have invaded their land, is there anything to serve in them?

The film ends with silent workers, mostly women, as they go about their tasks at a water-bottling plant near Delhi. The irony is predictable. Most of them are displaced people from Tehri. What is remarkable about the film and the people it portrays with such sympathy is the absence of anger. It is not exactly a defeatist attitude but more a stoic acceptance of what they cannot change or fight against. That is a cause for concern.

ANOTHER VARANASI SCENE. The film's makers chart the many livelihoods that the river provides to people and do not fall prey to touristy prettiness.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Desai and Kishore do not pretend to be objective and present the other side, the perspective of spokespersons of development. There is really no room for dialogue and fence-sitters on an issue that deprives people of their natural rights.

Interestingly, this film was sparked off by investigative reports that appeared in Frontline. Desai and Kishore have also made The Great Indian Yatra and Of Bards and Beggars films that have been shown internationally.

The Rising Wave is part of the growing movement to expose this subterranean war that is going on everywhere, not just in India. It adds an important human chapter to the unfolding story of how market forces are ruthlessly appropriating natural resources that belong to everybody. Flow: For Love of Water made in the United States is an indictment of universal greed, be it in the U.S., Europe, Africa or India.

The Rising Wave was shown at the Mumbai International Film Festival for Short and Documentary Films in March and went on to win a major prize. Every voice and every individual story is important to understand the nature and reach of aggressive profiteering from a precious resource. It is also an assault on cherished values that we have inherited from our shared past.

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