Field Notes from Madhya Pradesh I sit in the train, feet up on the seat across from me, looking out between the window’s bars onto the bumpy, desolate, dry terrain of Madya Pradesh. Across from me, a multi-generational family is opening up their family-sized tiffin (lunch box) and distributing all of the parts of the Indian meal: roti or flatbread; sabzi or spiced and cooked vegetables, daal or lentil soup, and rice. Kids swing their legs from the upper bunks and grandparents below help to hold their youngest grandchildren. I turn my attention back into the voice in my ear.
“Wendell Cleveland was thirty-six when my dad interviewed him. He’s sixty-nine now. The story was about him and his father Kay Cleveland. The Army Corps of Engineers came into Elbert county wanting to dam the Savannah River and create a twenty-six thousand acre lake by flooding all of the land in a river valley. The Clevelands’ farm was right on the river, right on the path of the lake.”
The rest of this podcast has been mildly interesting, but at this, my interest is piqued. Land issues such as these were why I was in India after all.
“Wendell watched for a year as the water came closer, drowning the farm acre by acre. When the lake was full, the water was almost all the way to Wendell’s house.”
I hear the reporter ask descriptive questions, like “How deep is this water that we are looking out on?” I hear Wendell’s voice, talking about how even though developers may dangle incredible deals in front of him for lakeside development, to him the land has no value because it can’t be farmed. The reporter describes Wendell, saying, “He stands on the hill and points to everything where it used to be. Every time he points, he is pointing at the lake.”
Two days later, I am standing at the front doorstep of the home of a woman who is in a state of inconsolable desperation. Actually, it’s the front doorstep of her second home. The first one is underwater, and the third will be built shortly.
A giant lake surrounds three sides of her second home, which will soon be on an island. She points across the lake at other homes whose roofs we can barely see above the water. Later, I find out from an idle schoolteacher that the school is underwater as well. My host holds a head of a cotton plant in her hand, and says, “It will all be drowned.” Even the smallest children in the village can tell you where the water reached to, on which day, and what crop is now underwater.
But while Wendell is being offered millions of dollars for lakeside development, the locals in this town are being shortchanged for the value of the land. The government has decided to build a dam to provide water to nearby cities, and plans to reimburse the residents for their land. But, they’ve put down this soil as “wasteland” rather than “cultivatable land” because the reimbursement is much less.
“This land is not wasteland,” she says, “Look at the black soil. It is farming land.” I look down. Though the soil looks rocky to me, there are crops of cotton, soyabean, lentil, and vegetables growing on all sides.
A few weeks before, some of the people from this village went to a national protest for land rights, which started from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh (several hundred kilometers away from where I now stood). The goal was to walk to Delhi, the capital city of India, if the government wouldn’t sign land reform policy. It would take over 20 days. Over 50,000 people from all over India converged. If you sat down for a soda and watched them go by, it would take over half an hour from the first to the last individual. Every day for the year prior, each person present had saved one rupee and a handful of rice in preparation. Halfway through the march, a bill providing land reform was signed by the Minister of Rural Development, and massive celebrations ensued.
I was at the meeting that convened the march and walked about ten kilometers on the first day. The day before, I had spent many hours roaming around the fairgrounds from where the walk would begin, trying to guess which language people were speaking, or which regions they had come from. The whole day, I spoke with no one. Well, I talked to organizers, other foreigners, and fellow activists. But instead of being emboldened to speak to the farmers present, I felt ashamed and entirely incapable of relating. My purpose at this event was uncertain: as a foreigner, my white face in the photo would lend credibility to the movement, but then what? I had special opportunities to meet leaders, and an up-close seat at the convening meeting, but what would come of it? This access, on the whole, felt unearned.
I have never gone to bed hungry. Not the “If you won’t eat the food I make, then you won’t eat anything at all!” hunger circa 1999, but the hunger of someone who didn’t eat so their little brother could. When I read The Good Earth, the story of the Chinese farmer migrating due to starvation feels as unreal as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. When it comes to acting in solidarity with the poor, I’m left bewildered and unsure of my role. In India I am either told that as a foreigner I have ultimate authority and am given a carte blanche to do just about anything, or I am told that I’m a threat to local systems of knowledge and am denied access outright. What do I bring to the table after all? As a privileged and educated Westerner, I can flash an indignant middle finger at MNCs or buy organic and local or write frustrated articles like this one, but ultimately, I find it an insurmountable challenge to extend a hand – giving and receiving -- to people who live at the margins.
After the protest, I wrote these lines in my journal:
There is no hole inside me where my livelihood used to be.
There is no persistent hunger, no fragile hope.
There is no sense of urgency.
Each of these were reflected on the face of the woman now in front of me, handing me a cup of chai next to her fields-turned-lake.
We were about to hold an interest meeting for my digital storytelling project. People were late, she said, and pointed to the direction they were coming from. A rope was strung across the lake, and tied to a tree on the far side. The boy who had been sent to collect the people was sitting on a raft, and pulling him self across.
At our meeting, a local organizer introduced me to the group. “This is Laura. She is from outside, but she lives in Gujarat. You know Gujarat?” People looked hesitant. “It’s where people from here migrate to, where they get lung diseases in the factories, or do hard labor in construction.” People nodded: this place, they do know. I felt uncomfortable, but imagined that it would have been worse had she described America from the same angle, and was internally grateful she chose to associate me with Gujarat instead. My partner Pravin led discussion on the role of photography and digital stories for social change. This was my third or fourth meeting of this kind, which usually follow the similar pattern of explaining, convincing, convincing again, and then leaving with a few phone numbers of semi-interested but mostly-busy participants. We were nearing the end, and Pravin asked the typical question, “So when will you be free to work with us? When is a good time, when you aren’t making food or in the fields?” I liked his tactic of asking them to name a good time, rather than it coming from our side.
“What fields?!” a young man asked. “They are all underwater! We are free all the time, for this project of yours.”
This was the second time that day that our team had been put in our place, reminded that communities cannot merely be a backdrop for a standardized development model. Earlier we had held another meeting in a different village, and an organizer who had come with us told participants the story of these drowning farmlands. “Not only have they lost their land, but they lost all of their food for this year,” she told. “What will they eat?” An old man responded, “They haven’t lost their food for a year, they’ve lost their food for a lifetime.”
This is why I had come here: to be told I was wrong, to be called out on oversights. To be given a chance to impress and given the boot upon failure. This wasn’t a carte blanche and it wasn’t outright rejection, but a place in between. At the convergence earlier this month, I had felt an extreme lack of place. I was out of place, I was without a place. Now, a month later, being put in my place was helping me to find it.
Multimedia: Link out to Gogo’s images on Photo Philanthropy http://photophilanthropy.org/galleries/?photographer_first_name=Goran&photographer_last_name=Basic