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Our Land, Our People

When we’re on the road, in the field, on assignment, we meet people, hear things, see things. Some of these snatches of conversations and micro-portraits make it into larger narratives, some stay in our notebooks.

With “Our Land, Our People” we dig deep into our notebooks to bring faces, voices, experiences, snapshots, videos and sounds from the land to you. These are The Peepli Project outtakes, if you will.

They are also some of our best-loved, most memorable moments when #OnAssignment.

Find the series at this link under Menu.

Kaushalya, Joga village

Kaushalya said to me, “do ladkiyan hain toh kya hua?” (So what if I have two girls?)

We sat by a well in the middle of an oasis-field (a khadin) fed by harvested desert rain. As we spoke, Kalpana, her little daughter, pulled water from the well into a child-sized pot and balanced it proudly on her head. She loves bringing water in her own little pot, and insists on accompanying Kaushalya when she is not in school.

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Mr. Jadhav, Jonai Circle, Assam

“I do milk-work,” he said in Hindi with no Assamese accent. “Next time you come to the area, call me. Take my number.” He fished out a tiny 2″x 1″ booklet from his breast pocket. Hunted for the number, showed it to me, reading it upside down in English. Mistaking the 9s for 6s and correcting himself.

“Call me. I will make sure a meal is ready for you. I will feed you well. You must come and eat with me and my family.”

Then this milkman, this Bihari settler Mr. Jadhav, continued on his way, crossing sand and water towards his makeshift home 45 minutes away.

I learned later that he had, not two months ago, lost four out of six cattle, his farmland, and a homestead on the banks of the Brahmaputra to erosion.

Moinuddin, Dibrugarh, Assam

Early one morning, I asked my hotel manager for directions to the fish market. He sent Raju with me to find me a cycle rickshaw. An old man stood, one hand on a rickety blue cycle, at the end of the road. “Twenty rupees,” he said with a smile that revealed three fence-post-like teeth.

I climbed in. And from my perch, watched the inscrutable machinations of serendipity at work.

Moinuddin, once a fisherman, had been pulling rickshaws for 20 years, ever since the river went quiet and the fish disappeared. (Fish catches in this part of the Brahmaputra have fallen 85-90% over the last few decades). He’d watched the city exchange their wild catches for farmed alien species. He’d watched kids of humble fishermen grow up to become fish-barons, their riches feeding on the bland imports.

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A parched Karnataka

It will be a tough dry season ahead for large parts of Karnataka, in southern India. A hundred and thirty-five taluks have received less rainfall than normal, classifying them officially as “drought-hit.” Most of these areas are primarily agrarian and crop losses are yet to be estimated.

The failure of monsoon rains is said to be the worst in forty years.

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What happens when there’s no water

Mother Jones finds a California town without running water.

“They take “showers” with water from a bucket, use paper plates to avoid washing dishes, eat sandwiches instead of spaghetti so there’s no need to boil water, and collect water used for cooking and showers to pour in the toilet or on the trees outside.”

The clincher:

“Juana Garcia, a 49-year-old mother of five, lost water two years ago—in some ways, her living conditions remind her of those she left behind in Mexico when she moved to East Porterville in 1988.”

Feels familiar.

Millionaire water thieves

At Karanjade, a cluster of new apartment buildings bordering Panvel, well-off residents steal drinking water from a large mains nearby. A popular method involves puncturing the main pipe with a heavy stone and running away. The pressured water shoots out in a fountain several metres high for days, providing a virtually unlimited supply for the apartment-dwellers as well as the labourers who construct the buildings. “Bisleri hai,” a man from Karanjade village described the taste. The residents are expected to become more law-abiding when the construction of a nearby tank for the buildings is complete. For the others, this is the only dependable source of water.

H2 whoa

Why the idea of ocean cities is back:

“Today all the technologies that we need — local wastewater treatment, floating platforms, rainwater harvesting — they all exist.”

The Messenger, Karanjade, Maharashtra

“Excuse me, do you know a woman named Lakshmi? She has three children. Her husband is not here,” asked the man who had travelled far from home. Golden light streamed through the wet clothes hung in the alley. He stood outside a concrete hut’s doorway, speaking to a woman inside. Two toddlers gazed at him from the room. The ground was wet. Flour dust hazed the air. The young woman lying on a khatiya jumped out of bed, and took two steps to reach the doorway. She wore a nightgown. “Why? What happened?” she asked.

Krishna then began the story he told every stranger who asked, and every person who didn’t.

“I’m from Karnatak,” he said in a rough language the woman focused on to understand. “My train journey began at four in the evening yesterday, and I reached Thane in the morning. I went to Khandeshwar to find her. But she is not there. Then I came here” – Karanjade, a village wedged between new buildings – “to find her.”

He had traveled over six hundred kilometres, asking the same question. He asked whichever person seemed permanent – the village totems who saw and heard everything – until a vegetable vendor remembered not only the woman, but where she now was. He took directions and walked to find her. Young mothers gathered around to listen. He brought something unique here; a misfortune that did not affect them all. He told them that he had news for her, but did not say what it was.

The man held a folded bill with prices scrawled outside. Within was the woman’s name, and her new village. The young mothers studied the handwriting. “Karanjade. This is the village, but there’s no Lakshmi nearby. What happened?” He wept, and they brought him a plastic chair and a glass of water.

Finally he told them. The first woman said, “You will find many of them here.” She further added, “women without husbands”.

Nobody thought she could be found without an address, or a number of some kind. They simply said it was difficult, and that he should try other lanes.

Three rakhis dangled on his wrist. Grey hair, front teeth missing, the rest slightly crooked. Large eyes. His shirt was white, with thin stripes and full sleeves, and a brown back that revealed where he had slept. His chest shone where the buttons were open. His slippers were a size small. When he talked to people, he sat on his haunches, his hands empty but for the vegetable bill. Not a thing else on him.

Away from them, walking along Karanjade’s narrow backstreets, his hushed crying caught in his throat. He stopped before each open door, looking for clues. The light bounced off shiny tile roofs and buildings with recent coats of paint, pitching houses with open doors into darkness. He studied the clotheslines, and if a man’s pants hung there, he went on.

Everyone’s answer was the same. Where was Lakshmi, then? Perhaps in the next alley, or the ones after. He looked at the ground for minutes at a time, unwilling to go further. The faces held no answers. Eventually he said he had to travel back to Karnataka by the last train out. “I have to go.” If she called her mother – his sister – they would tell her about her husband.

She would find out eventually.

Forest Department Says ‘No’ To Wholesale Elephant Capture For Now

“I have seen this video on Whatsapp,” said Karnataka Forest Minister B Ramanath Rai. “I cried. If you see the video, no person on earth will have the heart to recommend removal of elephants.”

The minister was referring to my video of the capture of a wild elephant at Hassan, one of 23 that were captured from the area. He was speaking to an invited audience of scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, NGOs and advocacy groups, besides farmers and planters from the Coorg region which has been affected by the man-elephant conflict I have been covering.

It was the sort of moment journalists hope for, the reason we become journalists.

When we go into the field to research and report, the unstated hope is that our stories will create impact, provoke thought, spark discussion and debate around policy, and become a catalyst for change.

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