Pulitzer Center Update

Letter from India: A Refinery or a Village's Existence

K. Devudama describes her fights against a mining refinery as the translator, Raji, holds a neighbor's baby. Image by Nick Wertsch. India, 2012.

Farmers still till the land that is in dispute, such as this plot. Image by Nick Wertsch. India, 2012.

Devudama and her husband, Swami Naidu, do not want to leave their village. Image by Nick Wertsch. India, 2012.

Inside the shade of a tribal hut in rural India, I am listening to Devudama tell her story in Telugu. Our translator sits between us with the neighbor's baby on her lap while the neighbor chats with a friend. The baby is busily gumming our translator's arm. Two dogs sleep in the sun, and children's clothing is drying on the slanted, low-hanging roof of the opposite hut.

"After we chased the contractors away, we broke the glass of the cars and took the keys to their motorcycles. Then we took all of their land surveying supplies and hid them in our houses," Devudama calmly tells me.

I met Devudama earlier this morning when I saw her appear in the local court for the town of S. Kota in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Probably in her late 30s, thin but not frail, short but not diminutive, the smiling wrinkles around her eyes creased when she introduced herself. She was there to face charges for disturbing the peace during a separate protest against the construction of a refinery, but she had other cases pending against her, including a run-in with the mining contractors three years before when she broke the windows of the government vehicles in which the mining contractors had arrived.

Roughly 50 villagers were at the court this morning to answer similar charges of disturbing the peace and also protesting the aluminum refinery, but the judge never showed up. The court attendant said something about the judge being moved to a different district, a new judge would be appointed soon, probably not for another few months. A new date was fixed for all the villagers - farmers and housewives - to come back to court.

The site where the refinery would be built straddles both government and private land. In 2005 the state government of Andhra Pradesh entered into a memorandum of understanding with the mining company Jindal South West Holding Ltd. that gave the contract to Jindal for building a new aluminum refinery that would process minerals mined in the region.

To build the refinery, the company acquired land through government leases near the town of Srungavarapukota, better known as S. Kota, which included Devudama's village and farm land. Under the Land Acquisition Act, written under British rule in 1894, the government can acquire private land, by force if necessary, as long as the land is to be used for a public purpose. Public purpose, in India, includes any activity aimed at development, and in the opinion of the government, the refinery falls in this category.

However, another law requires the government to give advance warning to the affected communities and give those communities an opportunity to voice concerns against the project. In this instance, government officials disregarded the standard procedures for prior notification. The villagers knew nothing about the project until surveying began for the refinery construction.

Those were the strange men in government vehicles who showed up in the villagers' fields the morning of Jan. 26, 2007. Now, in the quiet surroundings of Devudama's village, she told me how she learned of the threat to her lands that day.

"January 26th is a holiday in India," she explained, "It is our Republic Day. All government employees have the day off. But on this day we saw government vehicles arrive on our land, and we were suspicious. Someone called me from my house to go to the field. We asked these men who they were, but they lied to us and said they were government officials doing a government survey. But government employees don't work on Republic Day."

She included a few other phrases in Telugu that my translator neglected to translate, but I got the general gist of it. A savvy villager had called the newspapers once their suspicions were aroused, and the media soon arrived. When confronted by reporters, the contractors admitted they were not government officials. The next day's papers carried the story, but word of mouth spread the news to other villages by that evening.

As much as the attempt to begin construction on their land angered Devudama and other villagers, she seemed equally incensed by the contractors' attempts to conceal their identities and begin preliminary construction work when the village would be caught unawares, especially on an important national holiday when most people would be away from their fields and celebrating.

"They were so desperate to take our land that they came on a holiday!" she continued. "The men who came in the vehicles were from the mining company. They started to unload their instruments for surveying our land for their refinery, but we drove them off and took their instruments."

This incident launched a local campaign against the refinery that led to dramatic showdowns in public hearings, protests and fasting, and more public hearings.

Despite heavy local opposition to the project, government and mining company officials pressed ahead with plans to clear the land for the refinery and issue modest compensation packages to displaced tribal people in a move roughly the equivalent of an eminent domain ruling in the United States. In December of 2007, demolition teams came to the villages and farm lands to mark which trees needed to be cut down and which fields needed to be bulldozed.

But when the demolition teams returned with their tools, Devudama and the villagers were waiting. They took away the demolition workers' axes and saws. They surrounded the vehicles or forced the workers to retreat. They even tied some of the demolition workers to the trees marked to be chopped down. When the police finally arrived they booked a second case against Devudama and a few of the other ringleaders a second time.

As extraordinary as this story might seem, it is not as uncommon as one might think in today's India. Development projects abound across the country, and within India there is a general mood of optimism about industrial growth and economic progress. But development projects are sparking intense social debate that sometimes leads to dramatic public confrontation as evidenced in Devudama's village near S. Kota.

Now the refinery construction is at a standstill, tangled up in a public interest litigation case filed by the villagers with help from local non-governmental advocacy organizations. Devudama paid her bail and must appear in court every month as part of her release conditions.

A wall for the refinery stands half finished in the distance, but other government programs in the village, like a public housing project, have been stopped mid construction due to uncertainty about the village's future. Legal limbo has put a halt to construction of the refinery - as well as any government service facilities in the area - for the present. One day there will be a decision, and it's possible that the village and farmlands will be destroyed and the people will move to the slums that sprawl out from most of the major cities.

But back in her village, the smile lines around Devudama's eyes wrinkle once again as she emerges from her hut carrying a photo album of her daughter for our inspection. A few other villagers stand about discussing the odd appearance of the foreign guy scribbling furiously in his notebook. One of the sleeping dogs stirs and lifts its head to look at the chicken strutting across a path, and time itself seems to hang in legal limbo in rural India.

Nick Wertsch is volunteering with Samata, an NGO that focuses on development issues and land rights for tribal people in India. Views expressed in this guest post are not those of the Pulitzer Center.