‘This water is toxic. It can’t be used in our farms’

It was him. We knew him by his stride. Lingappa strayed away from his path. His hands held nothing this time. Into empty streets, that summer evening, he disappeared once more. So did all of them, one by one. We saw their faces in the rear view mirror, one last time. Houses turned into tiny specks. There were rows and rows of them everywhere. Dots that disappeared into flaring lights.

At the cross roads, an old man sat on his haunches. He held an empty plate in his hands. It was time for supper. There was nothing before him, and nothing after. He just sat there, motionless and dazed. Soon, the sun went down. And, everything was shrouded in darkness. Shiriganahalli was nowhere in sight. The fields, the reservoir, and the familiar lanes were long gone by now. And, we drove away. Away from them all…

The next morning, we decided to visit the sugar mills. Arun accompanied us this time. “It was here where the farmer movement first gained momentum. In Avaragere,” he explained as we left the city, “They supported us. They stood by us. Without those farmers, we couldn’t have accomplished anything. It was adversity that brought them together and transformed their lives. And, that’s how they did it. Together.”

Shortly afterwards, he fell silent. He did that a lot these days more so than ever. “Take the turn up ahead, away from the highway,” he said breaking his glance from the road, “That path: the one that bends to your left will take us to Kogannur.”

At the next pedestrian crossing, a stray dog whimpered at the sight of automobiles. It stood in the blaring heat for minutes perhaps. Waiting. No one stopped. It sat down next to the dumpster beside a tea stall, exhausted and beaten. It wasn’t going anywhere today.

***
Kogannur was deserted. At this hour, nothing stirred here. Beside us, stood a house with a large door. A dull hum came from within. Its walls muffled the sounds. But we could hear them. Soon, they turned strident. The noises. Long before we knew it, we were surrounded by a small crowd. Uday rushed towards Arun and greeted him with a big smile. He was a member of Karnataka Rajya Raithara Sangha (KRRS).

An old man emerged from the adjacent passageway where two houses leaned against each other. His skin had a sallow hue, and he brought with him a placid smile. His eyes were neither troubled by age nor sorrow. He folded his arms before us, in a manner that he had done several times before, and said, “Oho Namaskara…

He was 81-years-old. His name was Morallappa. “I was alive during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi era,” he said beaming with pride.

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“I cast my first vote in 1958. It was a long time ago. I was 12 years old when India was declared independent. We were free. Everybody spoke of freedom that day, and thereafter.”

He was strong for his age, they told us. His steps didn’t falter. Everyone in the village was fond of him. One could tell. “Thatha thumba old,” said a man bursting into peals of laughter. A young boy behind him lifted his foot and gingerly placed it on the ground. He took careful and deliberate steps. There were tiny stones all over; the ones that could cut your toes. Another boy emerged from the passage sweating profusely. There was no one around him. But his laboured breathing caught his brother’s attention.

“Morallappa has seen the country change and evolve to an extent unimaginable for any of us,” Arun would tell us later, “Leaders of the independence era were produced as a result of struggle against oppression and suppression. However, those who emerged a few decades later failed to have any vision. Corruption has increased and the incessant power struggle resulted in this situation today. We are now catapulting into complete chaos. And, he has borne witness to it all.”

Uday led us to another street through the highway. It seemed familiar, and yet within its landscape it held a distant regard that couldn’t go amiss. The silence too seemed distant here. It neither bloomed nor did it fade away. It made its presence felt in all corners. They were used to it. The people. But we weren’t.

Soon, the winds shifted, and dust rose in swirls. The staccato chirruping of birds had now returned. Their fallen ones were left behind. They couldn’t move on. Some made their homes in attics. A few lived in trees. Like most summer mornings, they looked for home anywhere, and everywhere.

We heard voices nearby. They grew stronger as we entered the village.

“Where’s everybody?” Arun asked Uday.

“Some of them are in the hall. The others will join us shortly.”

A small crowd gathered in the building beside us. We were told a KRRS member was contesting in the upcoming elections. The farmer union had their own party. They called it Sarvodaya Karnataka. Their candidate Shekhar Naik lost to BJP by 37 votes last year. Farmers hope that he wins this year. They believe it would allow them to find a voice in the political realm; it would help them build better lives for themselves.

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“It is illegal to campaign at this hour,” said Arun. “This isn’t an attempt at campaigning. We are here as friends. Avaragere has had a history of supporting farmers and making their voices heard. So, let us not open this discussion to politics. Let us unite as friends.”

Seated before us was Hanumanthappa. He pursed his lips as the proceedings went on. At times, he muttered under his breath. A man, sitting beside him, lifted his head when an old farmer rose to speak. His name was Bollappa. Neither one had spoken a word. He stood mute. They waited, all of them. For what, we wondered. Occasionally, there would be a murmur in the background. Fading voices would merge into silence.

His voice quivered as he spoke. “No one who occupies the throne sitting in their comfortable offices has ever come here to take a look at the reality of the farmers. Our reality has always been decided by them. Those babus. There are very few people who have put in any effort to understand fundamentally what we have to grapple with on a regular basis.”

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Someone stood up behind them. We had seen him before. He walked with a slight limp and his gaunt frame caught everyone’s attention. He cleared his throat and declared, “There are only two ways through which we could bring about change: one through protesting and fighting for our rights for which everyone needs to unite, and the other is through politics.” The old man nodded his head. “We should have transformed our community into a massive movement so far. However, we have failed to do so despite innumerable attempts,” said another man.

They spoke of social battles, of conviction and betrayal. Everyone had a last say in matters that concerned them. Some nodded. Some stared. Some just looked on wearily at others. They all participated, nonetheless. “We have tried our best to unify the entire community but we haven’t succeeded so far. You already know why. We still have a chance. Someone from our organisation will now represent us. Choose your candidate wisely this time. Make the right decision: one that will set your future, our future in the right course,” said Arun. They all clapped and left. But many didn’t break their silence that day.

As the crowd dispersed, one of the farmers walked us to the car. “We will find out how many have actually lent their support this time once the results are out. Everyone promised they’d cast their vote for our candidate last year. They all wanted to see a farmer activist lead us. But we lost. Let’s see what happens this year.”

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A few months later we were to learn that Shekhar had lost yet again. People had made their decision and it didn’t augur well with those fighting for their cause. “Will he try again next year?” we asked Arun a few months later. His answer was distant much like the silence in Kogannur that day. The cause will be forgotten, we feared. “No one remembered it anymore,” he said. They had nothing to spare, not even moments. May be we would hear of more causes next year.

We wouldn’t.

***
Kukkuwada. The town where dark waters flow endlessly from one field to another, where the acrid stench of rotting waste doesn’t bother anyone anymore, where farmlands remain parched forever, where dying plants sway to dead winds. Somewhere in the midst of nowhere existed such a town where lived people who foretold familiar tales fraught in despair. Kukkuwada was that town, people told us. Where unheard voices lived in unremembered spaces…

“Shiriganahalli is behind us. Don’t take the detour ahead instead keep driving towards Hadadi Road,” said Arun examining the map drawn by villagers. He looked out for signs of paths, roads or fields. Signs that’d indicate we were close. He didn’t find anything. Neither did we. So, we drove past vast stretches of paddy fields, that afternoon, crossing paths with farmers on bicycles, and frail old women walking for miles looking for shelter. Nothing much happened at this hour. Still, the sun shone bright on these unnamed lands.

A raucous flock of birds broke the stillness of the day. From one end of the skies to another, they circled in patterns bequeathed to them. In swarms, they rose and fell amidst farmlands beside us. They never broke their flight. A part of the reservoir appeared again. The rest stayed hidden. The waters glimmered as the winds turned docile. Its ripples travelled far and wide.

“We need to take a hard right as soon as we cross the fields. Where the arecanut palms end, look for a tiny junction. That should take us straight to the village,” said Arun gesturing at the fields nearby. We followed his instructions as he inquired with a few men sitting on the roadside.

Chemical waste. That’s what it first smelt like. Something rotting away for miles. We drove straight for half an hour. There were no houses in the vicinity. But there were signs of the village that the men first spoke of, signs of life wilting way. Oddly, the fields had patches of brown amidst a sea of green. In disappearing shrubbery, occasionally we’d spot a farmer plucking weeds off the ground. The smell of decaying molasses never left us, that afternoon. It followed us everywhere. But he seemed unperturbed.

To our left, appeared a structure just as the villagers in Shiriganahalli had predicted a few days ago. “This must be the compound wall of the sugar mill,” said Arun staring intently at its walls. Before us stood a distorted landscape with familiar sightings. One could see it. In abandoned fields, and hidden landfills. At first glance, nothing seemed different here save the stench. Neither the inhabitants nor the land had any chance of succour, we were told.

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Grey sludge stirred in open sewage lines. Water remained stagnant in a few places. We followed the sewage line from one field to another till it led to open farms. A small channel built between the fields and mud roads irrigated the farms. Across the mills, the water path swerved towards the right. In 700 metres, these channels had developed cracks and ridges. Water turned murkier as it seeped through the soil. It frothed in the corners. “Crops look the same but they are unhealthy,” remarked Arun, “Look at the trees. They are stunted in growth. But there are several factors that could cause such issues in plants.”

We felt nauseated. The foul odour was stronger than ever. Two men on their bicycles slowed down behind us. Their eyes raked with wonder. We didn’t know who they were. In moments, one nudged the other, and they left. We couldn’t continue on foot anymore. So, we walked back and decided to take the car through the mud road. The path would lead us to a spot where the canal met the reservoir.

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In several places, by the roadside, we spotted tiny logs of cement lodged in the edges of the irrigation channel. It now split into many pathways as the channel bent towards the fields. This was to ensure that water reached the farms without any obstruction. An old farmer limped his way across the road. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned his head to the right looking for any vehicles crossing his path. Arun ran to him.

“What do you grow in this region?” he asked.

He seemed perplexed at Arun’s question. “Paddy and coconuts mostly. We try to grow them. Some crops survive. Some don’t,” he answered after much deliberation.

“Why don’t they survive?”

He looked behind him once more. A tractor rumbled in the distance. And, it caught his attention. “This water, you see right here, flows into our fields,” he murmured to Arun. “It is toxic. It can’t be used in our farms. This is the irrigation canal. Idu ontarra visha. Water seeps into the soil and is absorbed by the roots. Whatever we consume is laced with toxins. It’s poison. All of this,” he said walking away.

“Why are you here?” he asked stopping to catch his breath.

“We wanted to see the farms,” Arun answered him with a polite smile.

The rickety mud roads came to a halt. About fifty metres away from the main road, on a patch of land that seemed more elevated than the rest, a tractor stood still beneath coconut trees. Within moments, the engine sputtered and roared steady sending lumps of mud flying across the farms. It jerked forward as the driver struggled to get it away from the off-road trail.

By now, the toxic water channel had disappeared. We couldn’t trace its path anymore. The stream of grey sludge was nowhere in sight. Once on the muddy path, we headed to the left towards the paddy fields. Here, the water source ran dry. Toxic waste accumulated in moulds were left unattended in numerous spots. In the centre, they were gathered in concentrated amounts. To our right, mud slid across the landfill as coconut trees stooped downwards. Their lifeless branches stayed still. Arun paused to observe its bark. “It doesn’t look healthy,” he declared.

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In half an hour, the land resembled sunken marshlands. The grey sludge now meandered through farms obscuring cropped shrubbery in its path. Where dead stalks loomed large, puddles ran down the path turning into tiny streams. It hissed in places beyond our reach. Here, plants had a peculiar tone of brown and green. Neither colour overpowering the other. Some leaves bent downwards. The others never saw light. Floating endlessly amidst toxic froth, a few met their demise before their time. In a distance, birds bathed in these waters. Many quenched their thirst unaware of its origins. These waters were poison. The lands could tell. The fields turned drier with every turn. Towards the reservoir, dead branches creaked in the afternoon sun as we set foot on a bed of dry grass and broken twigs.

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“It looks like the canal has been diverted from the main channel,” said Arun stopping to examine the view, “The waste must be dumped into the reservoir up ahead.” A stagnant contaminated pool lurked underneath these soils altering the quality of both water and land. Effluents discharged from the sugar mill can be absorbed into the subsoil and seep into ground water. The production load inevitably leads to deterioration of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems triggering environmental degradation and subsequent destruction of flora and fauna.

“May be this has already become a part of the food chain,” said Arun rubbing his forehead, “We have set into motion a chain reaction of processes that could have devastating consequences in the long run. It will affect us all.”

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Upon walking further, as we followed the canal, we discovered the massive dumping ground that stayed hidden in plain sight. It was here where the waters would intermingle through the narrow paths and find its course into streams and ground water. The reservoir too wasn’t left untainted. For, the waters spared nothing.

With the Kukkuwada project aiming to raise production capacity of sugar from 4,500 tonnes cane crushed per day (tccpd) to 7,500 and facilitating the expansion of its power unit capacity from 24 MW to 54 MW, the fate of these farmlands now hangs in balance. There have been numerous reports of fish mortality and severe damage to paddy crops in the past. Prolonged usage of sugar mill effluent for irrigation purposes may compromise the health of the soil and farmers fear they may not last long. Throughout the country, waste dump sites around sugar mills have recorded a significantly higher toxic content beyond permissible levels thereby prompting farmers to raise their voice against hazardous industrial pollutants poisoning the water system.

“There won’t be any unity if we were to fight again. The mill is run by influential people. People who have means and power,” said one of the farmers in Shiriganahalli a few days earlier. Davangere Sugar Company Ltd. was established in 1970. The chairman of the company is Dr Shamanur Shivashankarappa, an MLA and ex-MP, Davangere. Currently, he is the Cabinet Minister for Horticulture and Agro Marketing.

In 2015, according to numerous reports, 65 sugar mills in Karnataka owed over 2,238.8 crore to farmers for two consecutive sugarcane crushing seasons. Despite the state fixing a price for sugarcane, the mills paid farmers a much lower price resulting in dues. Out of 65, 18 were controlled by political leaders. Shamanur Shivashankarappa’s too appeared on the list.

The fields will disappear someday. Paddy won’t grow there anymore. Soils that once fed them will turn against them. They still have their farms that they call their own. One day, they wouldn’t even have that. We wondered what would become of them, of their homes, of their children. They’d perhaps learn to deal with it over time. Loss does that to one. They learn to deal with everything. Except life. Nobody will ever tell them how to.

“Let’s head back. We can eat at the stall beside the mill,” said Arun as we walked to the car. We drove to the main gate and stopped for some tea and biscuits. The board read Davangere Sugar Company Ltd. Some women stood on the roadside waiting for the next bus. Nobody stopped us, that day. The guard wore an impatient look as employees gathered in huge numbers outside the premises.

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We returned home. The city engulfed the skies with its cement facades. But the fields wove a different story. Davangere had beautiful sunsets. Today, was one of those days. As sugarcane vendors set up their carts on the roadside, we saw a group of men draped in orange walk bare feet with cloth bags over their heads; their foreheads smeared in ash.

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“Where are you going?” we asked them.

“Ananthapura,” answered one of them. They were pilgrims. All of them.

They had been walking for 300 kms. They slept wherever they found shelter, and carried on walking until their feet took them to their lord’s abode. They were travellers. Their journey had purpose.

The winds changed their course. They always did at this hour. The men turned into a distant orange blur. Just like the sunset, they disappeared from our sight…

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help…. As a part of the first leg of the project, we have now embarked on a one-year drive (#DriveForChange) through rural India.Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502
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