When you have done a bit of activism, writing or reading starts seeming like a luxury, even before others point it out to you. This is so because writing takes place in stillness, the opposite of movement or action. But then stillness is not the same as inactivity. The title of an Indian play called ‘Still and Still Moving’ comes to mind. You can be moved even when you are still. You need to be still in order to be moved.
Keep moving and you won’t confront what you feel about the beggar on your street or the news report about the gang rape or the unpleasant conversation with your family. Movement can be numbing on these occasions; the wounds don’t heal, you stop feeling the pain temporarily. When you remember, it is shooting, with the vengeful, jagged ends of a lightning streak, through one bloody, pus-oozing mass. It suffocates clear thinking and creates a burning thirst for onomatopoeia, shoving you towards a noisily chaotic act like violence. You want to see the accumulated pain get demolished but that’s not what you are attacking. Your target becomes whatever comes in the line of vision or in the venom of provocation.
Writing then becomes holding oneself, pausing, saying ‘It’s ok, it’s ok, together we’ll make sense of this, we’ll crack this.’ It’s acknowledging the existence of pain, which thrives in invisibility and wordlessness and starts to crumble away as we begin seeing it in the eye.
Reading is similar. For days on end I won’t have a book in life because I’d be overestimating movement. A point comes of such uncentering that even in, rather, especially in the midst of a panting schedule I’d drop everything till I start and finish a book. It gives me a story to be part of, it makes me whole. Toni Morrison is a beloved scribe to me because she clothes pain in words and makes its wounded nakedness bearable. These lines from her book Beloved sums up my relationship with books, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
Both writing and reading are conversations. When reading we are listening to someone. If what they are saying relates to us, we also start talking to the story, telling it our secrets, woes, thinking “and that’s exactly how I feel”. Writing is first a conversation with the self, and then an extended hope of finding someone else to talk to.
How can this be removed from reality? Isn’t that the dream, to be able to solve world’s conflicts through dialogue? When faced with a mob of rioters, I’d like to be able to stop them and say, “Could we talk about it?” Of course that too is a dream. But the reason it seems unrealistic – the halting of the rioters – is because, by never having paused earlier, they have got to a stage where numbness is the only victory to be had. They don’t want a break now because then their own dreams and pain would flood them. They don’t realize that if they keep their head up for a while the waters would subside, and then they can grieve and breathe and not be out of breath anymore.
After writing wooed me as a child, in my adulthood for several years I continued to love it but committed to it discreetly and intermittently, “The world would never accept our love” is what I resignedly admitted to the art when everyone else had gone to bed. This happened when I got out of home to attend college and the inequalities of a small town paved way for the shameless class chasms of a big city. I thought I had paused long enough in my sleepy town, where I had started getting tired of my self-deprecatory writing about my privileges. Now I wanted to move, not to be the apolitical intellectual but the political activist, a term I simultaneously aspired to and rejected because I felt I could never meet its expectations. I thought writing is important and has some value but wondered how effective it could be to write in a country where so many cannot even read. I decided that going out there and getting your hands dirty through activism is the least one could do to respect and support people’s struggles.
But by relegating writing-reading to the realm of the elite, we also undermine the potential of the struggling classes to use existing literature to their advantage and create some of their own. Reading is the precursor and writing, a method of articulation. It suits governments to run ramshackle government schools the poor are not inspired to go to, to stifle their channels of articulation and beat children up when they demand that they be taught better. Then the state tells writers that writing is finery that does not accommodate lived realities.
Politicians claim to represent the poor by using another kind of writing – policies and laws drafted in so complicated a manner that they trip over themselves and trump the regular writers and readers. It could be said that middle class writers too should not claim to adequately speak for the poor. If so, it becomes all the more important for the poor to articulate themselves. For that, we don’t need to embarrassingly hide our books but to send them to the fields and the factories, in eager anticipation of receiving them back with notes in the margins, and critiques, challenges and rejections of the narrative in the end pages.
Writing doesn’t have to be related to pedigree or degree. Manoranjan Byapari of West Bengal became literate when in jail and wrote a book that became the talking point of multiple literature festivals in the country. A clear mind, which has nothing to do with literacy, would string together words that reflect that mind’s clarity. This has already been happening in oral narratives, ancestors’ tales, traditional plays and dances, and songs. But this cultural articulation is cleverly dismissed by the decision makers as non-serious, a method not of communication but of entertainment. In a political scenario, a drab presentation by the mediators would be accepted, but a brilliantly executed play on the same issue by the first hand sufferers won’t receive any space. Is it not then important that the poor start writing and speaking directly to their oppressors and, soon after, make space for their cultural representation?
The other side of this attitude to art and culture, more in cities, is to encourage art in such a way that it becomes a form of entertainment and intellectual revelry for the elite. The worker will have no time to either watch these performances or create her own. When striking workers of an automobile factory, Maruti, came up with a play on labour rights and the company’s violations, they stepped outside the role thrust upon them by their employers and the state and became writers, directors, singers, actors -“creatives” who did churn out material on their employers’ command but produced work that was a pausing, a reflecting upon their lives, a sharing with fellow beings and an assertion that if this be the only choice then this is no alternative at all.
The books don’t have to apologize for existing in a world suffering hunger, homelessness and war. They need to get recycled and go back to the printer, the typesetter, the pulpwood farmer who can put into plugged ears the thoughts that they want to continue farming pulp and that forestland need not be destroyed for it. The books and the pens must stay and plot their sepia mutiny to vanquish hunger and homelessness and war.
asked about their views on uranium mining in Meghalaya, most local
people started with, ‘You know it is a very sensitive issue here’,
and they were not exaggerating. The Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD)
found uranium in Domiasiat, Meghalaya, in 1984, and in 1991, the
Uranium Council of India Limited (UCIL) first started drilling in the
area. But during the next couple of years the project faced a
roadblock. Many name the late Hoping Stone Lyngdoh, a legislator in
the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) of Meghalaya, as
one of the first to have started studying about uranium mining and
its possible adverse effects, and then rallying people to oppose it.
Khasi Students Union (KSU) was another resistance group at the
forefront. Since then UCIL has been constantly trying to resume
operations full throttle and, after a lot of back and forth, earlier
this year the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), which
represents the region’s autonomy per the Sixth Schedule to the
Constitution, withdrew the No Objection Certificate issued to the
visited Meghalaya in May 2017 to understand the situation better, and
most people I spoke to vehemently opposed the project. But there were
also some who felt mining would have brought development to the State
and contributed to nation building. Such people said that because
elections were approaching, those who opposed the project were doing
so to gain political mileage. I heard about a journalist who spoke in
favour of mining and got assaulted. HS
Shylla, ex-chief executive member (CEM) of KHADC, had also supported
the project at one point. Having initially agreed to a meeting with
me, he changed his mind later and sent a statement, ‘Rightly or
wrongly, I don’t know for sure, but the people of Meghalaya in
general and Khasi and Jaintia hills in particular have been made to
accept that mining of uranium will cause deadly health hazard.
People, especially youth, are ever ready to die for this’. I tried
to contact UCIL and AMD for interviews but I was told the UCIL chief
was travelling, and AMD did not respond.
is one part of the project which interests even many of those who are
staunchly against mining. This is the 68 km
Nongstoin-Pambriew-Wahkaji-Mawthabah stretch, which UCIL was to make
into a two lane road. Many among the general public had waited
eagerly for this as it would have connected remote areas to the more
developed ones. With the company currently out of the picture, this
too has come to a standstill though the council has now taken up the
Laitduh, a village around 60 km away from Shillong in Sohra, UCIL had
first made its presence felt around 2003. I travelled from Shillong
to Sohra where a couple of KSU members accompanied me to Laitduh. The
Khasi Students Union has been in Meghalaya for a long time now, and
has a strong hold in the villages as well. The village secretary,
Jingkyrmenlang Lyngdoh, met us in the village and showed us the old
drilling holes, some of whose locations he remembered.
of the rusted metallic pipes in the ground had their mouths open.
This was a cause for concern for the villagers. They feared such
places might still be radioactive and could then contaminate the air
and the water. Some others were just holes in the ground. At places
they had been partially covered with big stones or cement lids,
bearing the initials of the village. There were also spots which
looked as if they were well covered by these lids but they could
easily be lifted, exposing the holes.
started talking to a group of construction workers and some villagers
also gathered around. Richmond Kharmalki said that if mining took
place in their area it would turn out to be another Jaduguda (in
Jharkhand) where UCIL’s mining of the ore is known to have caused
serious health hazards for the people. Golden Star Kharchandy added,
‘Since we have not been told by the government about what exactly
the effects of the mining could be, people are scared’. To the
development question, Apilattues Kharchandy’s answer was, ‘First
people have to know what sort of development is being talked about’.
continued, ‘In 2003, the company had taken the village’s
permission only for a survey but they also conducted drilling. Around
15-17 people went with the survey team’. One of the men present
remembered carrying a machine for the team as a teenager. At that
time the company had taken the village headman’s permission. The
company officials were seen taking some rock samples. But none of the
villagers recalled any official having spoken about what exactly they
the year 2015, Damil Bynnud, the district KSU President, had read in
the papers about the AMD’s plan to come to the area and had told
local people about it. They had a meeting attended by about 300
people and had decided that they would approach the CEM of KHADC to
prevent the AMD from coming.
local residents believed that after UCIL’s initial work in the
area, even though it had not continued, some villagers had developed
cancer and tuberculosis. I asked if such diseases did not happen
earlier. ‘No, but we think in these cases it was the air from the
open drilling holes’.
a tea shop nearby, some women shared their thoughts. Bullina
Kharchandy, now retired, used to teach in the lower primary school in
Lummawshken village nearby. ‘When UCIL came, nobody knew it was for
uranium. We learnt about this only after the drilling. We did not
want it to continue because we want health, not wealth’. She
laughed, proud of her knowledge of the proverb, and repeated the
phrase. ‘Even if the government promises us safety, response from
other elders, surrounding villages and NGOs has to be taken into
woman in the group, S. Skhembill, said, ‘We do not want development
if it comes only with uranium mining. It would affect our health. We
are farmers; we cannot afford for our animals to fall sick either.
And we have heard they would build nuclear weapons with the energy
produced. We are not in its favour’. This concern for ‘all things
both great and small’ is also found in traditional Khasi stories
that begin with ‘When man and beasts and stones and trees spoke as
one . . .’
asked the shop owner for water and KSU members queried with a half
smile if I would drink the water of this region. I asked KSU if they
would. ‘We have to live here. What option do we have?’ I talked a
bit about Amitav Ghosh’s book Countdown
which mentions how government officials did not have the local water
around Pokhran (Rajasthan), the site of India’s second nuclear
test. The union people wanted to know if Ghosh had it. I didn’t
remember that bit but I added that the author had also not been
claiming that the water was safe to drink.
members agreed to accompany me to Domiasiat in West Khasi Hills,
around 130 km from Shillong, and help me with the Khasi to English
translation. I expected one or two members but on the day there were
two jeeps full of them. Though nobody else I had met had mentioned
this, KSU said they found it safer to go in big groups as the area
has insurgents and there had been some recent kidnappings.
road to Domiasiat is a long and arduous one and the students carried
whatever they thought they would need, an auxiliary cable, to begin
with. When it started working, there was a jubilant cry in the car.
The soft hum that began to play made me think it was a Khasi love
song. A student member, Phulchand, explained what it said, ‘Before
it is too late, let us stand up to defend what is ours’. KSU has a
group of people with whose help they compose such patriotic songs and
sell the CDs. Even if the sales just cover the costs, they are happy
to get the message across to people.
we reached Mowronong view point, the road started disintegrating. The
conversation inevitably turned to the subject at hand. Pulljohn
Wannianj was clear, ‘Constructing a two-lane here can mean one
thing and one thing only: mining. If it's repair and proper road
building for the sake of development, we would have been ok with
we neared Domiasiat, we came across the abandoned buildings where
workers employed at the mining sites would have stayed. Near the
entrance, a sign warned against leaving the campus after 9 pm,
deforestation, alcohol, noise, bringing wives and children, and
marrying indigenous people. The last bit reminded me of how some of
the people interviewed had said that the main fear of the people
(including KSU who have also been against railways) opposing mining
was that of outsiders coming in. Starfing Pdahkasiej, editor of SP
News Agency, who had told me his uncle Dominic Pdahkasiej was the
first person to have been deputed for drilling, had also mentioned
similar concerns among local people, “There is a limited number of
government jobs available. People with MA degrees are applying to be
peons. When companies like UCIL come, there is talk of employment
generation but they always keep the locals in the lower rungs, not in
decision making positions.”
further into Wahkaji, another abandoned construction is the primary
health centre that was supposed to function while UCIL conducted its
was informed that after one point cars cannot go in and we would have
to trek through the forest for about thirty-forty minutes to reach
the site. The jeep almost miraculously made its way through the
rugged terrain to the point where the forest began. The small plate
of rice and meat the others had in the morning seemed like an old
story at this point, everyone getting even more exhausted with the
hot sun. With some reluctance, they agreed to share the packet of
biscuits I had. With the renewed energy brought by four biscuits
each, we started walking, trying not to be slowed down too much by
mossy stones and brambles covering our way.
now closed drilling sites shown to me seemed like big water tanks
almost at ground level, now cemented and covered. What bothered
people were the many cracks that had appeared. Where repairs had been
undertaken to fix them, after people’s protests, they had not been
to people’s satisfaction. Phulchand said, ‘If there are cracks
there would be a leak. I've read that concrete can't stop
radioactivity. Only lead can’. The other thing that made them
uncomfortable were open pipes that apparently had been installed to
release effluents. KSU people took care not to fill water in their
empty bottles from streams around this area and kept insisting I
cover my face with a mask even in the heat. For a long time after, we
made do with the half a bottle of water that I, after a moment of
hesitation about whether I’d be left with any and subsequent shame
about the inadvertent thought, invited them to share.
far from the site is Nongtynger village, where UCIL’s engraved
stone talks of its ‘donation’ of something like a small, open
water tank-well. Covered on three sides, the opening showed water on
the surface which two girls were using to the wash their hair and
utensils. We filled our bottles with the water.
next stop was the house of Spleity Langrin, an elderly matriarch,
around 90, who has become the face of the anti-mining resistance. The
early evening light was still clear as it fell on the green fields
around but inside the hut it was almost completely dark. Kong Spleity
was not too well and we decided not to disturb her but she said she
would like to meet us considering we had come all the way. I was wary
of asking the usual questions about her opposition to the project,
feeling she must have already narrated the same story to so many
people. But she said, ‘If it is about asserting my right over my
land, I can do it any number of times. We belong here and we won’t
give up our land till death’. Of her experience with people
involved in the project, she said, ‘The people who had come were
very rude. They did not interact with the people here’.
daughter Silnola Langrin describes the various health effects due to
mining that people, especially women and children, of the area had to
endure. ‘One of them died at childbirth. My sister suffered too’.
However, there are still people who are willing to sell their land to
the company. KSU admits that in the Nongjri area many people did not
want to talk to them because they were upset with KSU for opposing
mining. KSU said in these families too there were children born with
deformities but the parents were not ready to see uranium mining as
the cause. But such people did not change Silnola Langrin’s
opinion, ‘I know because I have seen the effects first hand’.
brother, Flavour Langrin, was happy to welcome anyone who came to
meet them to offer support. With reference to their dark hut, he said
electricity had reached them but after the first two months it never
returned and complaining to the electricity board did not help.
Thongni, 45, is another resident of the Wahkaji area. ‘We
definitely oppose mining, though people in villages supporting it are
upset with us’. This area is so cut-off. What kind of development
would be most helpful for people here? Karmel laughed, ‘There is so
much we need. I don’t even know where to begin’.
dhaba in Wahkaji where we stopped for dinner was run by the family of
a traditional musician. His nephew, Ehbok Langrin, worked in Shillong
and was visiting. About uranium mining, he said, ‘Some say it is
good and others oppose it. But what we do know is we don't want to
get displaced and leave our home. I am an engineer and I was getting
paid better in Mumbai. Yet I came to Shillong to stay close to
an interview, the CEM of KHADC, P.N. Syiem, asserted, ‘Land is a
state subject so how can the state pass a law against people’s
wishes? The MoU we had with UCIL was only for the road. In 1993, they
had been allowed some construction. But some paragraph in it talked
about mining which we missed. Anyway now the MoU has been withdrawn’.
happens now to the two-lane project proposed by UCIL? ‘At times
there are so many complications. The outgoing CEM had opened a joint
account for KHADC with UCIL for this project. First we had to close
CEM was perplexed that despite the council’s supposed autonomy so
many nods still have to come from the State government before
decisions can be taken. ‘We have asked the government for an NOC to
repair the road as 18 kms of work has already been done by UCIL of a
total of about 70 kms. Once it comes through work would be resumed’.
the Experts Say
Om Prakash Singh teaches in the department of environmental studies
in the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. When I raised the
point of people’s concern over open drilling holes, he said, ‘That
is a genuine point. When it rains, the same uranium goes downstream
and during drilling the chances of leaching (which could release
toxic effluents in the environment) increase’. Another issue that
had come up in my discussion with NGOs was that there was only a
small percentage of uranium in Meghalaya and the quality was not that
good either. Singh shrugged, ‘UCIL seems to believe differently’.
Responding to reports of deformities and diseases found in people
living around mining sites, he said nothing had been proved.
2004, Singh was part of an environment impact assessment (EIA) group
and had visited the concerned areas in Meghalaya. ‘The area-the
flora and the fauna-seemed normal. The method involves generating
baseline data which is later compared to the data of that place after
mining is done. We can predict possible adverse effects and the
mining company has to follow guidelines on the basis of which
clearance is given’.
companies adhere to these guidelines and is there a strict check on
them? ‘The state pollution board is supposed to get regular reports
from them but, yes, I would say that implementation is not done
properly’. What about the safety measures for the workers on the
site? ‘Those too have been neglected in our country in the past;
email, I invited the views of some other academics on the subject.
Craig Hart, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and
Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC),
shared, ‘Generally, open drill holes are not a problem. The only
issue would be if there was water coming out from it, as it could
cause an adjustment in the water table. In these cases, concrete
could be used to fill them’.
Klein is an associate professor of Mining Engineering in the same
institution. He was of the opinion that ‘the risk would also depend
on the concentration of uranium at depth. However, drill
holes can fill in over time so I really don't believe there is a
radiation issue. To test, you could measure radioactivity near the
drill holes and some distance away’.
mining engineering assistant professor, Marcello Veiga, UBC,
said, ‘The main concern of uranium is not in the mining
step but in the nuclear energy plants’.
problem with scientific takes is that both in India and outside, the
community has often been divided about the mining of uranium. Not
enough has been done to break down this information in a layperson’s
terms for people to understand. NGOs and unions are accused of
propaganda but they are the ones who succeed in having conversations
with people while companies share information mostly with selected
urban, educated groups and officials.
do the Tribal Chiefs Stand?
1853 report on the Khasi and Jaintia Hills by AJM Mills, sent on
deputation to the Northeast frontier by the British government,
documents treaties between the then government and the ‘Khasia
chieftains’. While the chiefs agreed to accede to the Company in a
lot of matters, they also put up a fight to retain their autonomy
wherever possible. The very first clause of one such treaty reads,
‘We (the chiefs), in conjunction with those who reside and trade in
our territory, shall continue to conduct the business of our
territories, keeping the ryots contented, in conformity to the former
rules and customs. This country will have no concern with any of the
courts of Government . . .’
too the tribal chiefs continue their efforts to assert their
independence. The chair of the grand council of chiefs of Meghalaya
(Federation of Khasi States), John F Kharshiing, isn’t one to mince
words, ‘Kashmir was lucky to have article 370 grant it autonomous
status. We had nobody to speak for us when these decisions were being
isn’t the KHADC precisely there for this purpose, to protect the
autonomy of the Khasis? Kharshiing rejects this claim, ‘Our chiefs
are not represented by KHADC. The council is a political body’.
has been active in mobilising support against mining activities.
Around 2007-08, he travelled to rural Mawkyrwat, taking a television
set and a copy of the film Buddha
Weeps in Jaduguda.
‘We should focus more on other advanced technology rather than
atomic power. Look at the cyber attack on Russia; everything happened
back to the uranium rich areas in question, he recalled a British map
that shows the presence of thick forests and special birds in the
region that could get endangered. He also mentioned proximity to
international borders and the requirement of huge amounts of water in
the process of mining. ‘If the centre tries to forcibly do anything
here, they would have a Kashmir like situation at hand’.
India where companies are granted EIA waivers and penalties are not
paid even upon proof of violations, scientific studies and their
results have not been the only basis of whether a company gets to
launch operations that might impact the environment. In Meghalaya
too, the issue of uranium mining is fraught with the apprehensions of
student bodies and NGOs; the tensions between the State, the district
council and the tribal chiefs; and the concerns of the people about
land ownership and displacement, health, environment, the true
purpose of nuclear energy, and whether mining is the mandatory cost
they have to pay in order to be the benefactors of some much needed
development, including the basic services of roads and electricity.