It had been quite some time since I had been on exile. The prospect of working in a Hydro Power plant, at a quarantined village near Siang (Arunachal Pradesh) is indeed exile! Is it really a part of a ‘Civil Engineer’s’ career progression graph? I always thought.
One fine morning while we were peacefully at work,“Dhak”! Someone slammed at one of our site investigation equipment and it fell into pieces. “Iski jagah tumhara sir hone ko sakta, Chala jao idhar se, tumhara company ka admi nai rehna idhar”. Our hair stood on end. The moment the unruly tribal men disappeared from our sight, we ran towards the guest house as though a ghost was chasing us.“Gaon ka mukhiya Maoist group ka supporter hoga”, was what the guest house cook revealed, and that, was real bad news for us. We all went underground for days. One fine day, three of us decided to meet the ‘Mukhiya’ and make an attempt to ‘sell’ the idea of the social impact of this Project. After all, it was in the company policy to ensure the socio-economic development of the area in vicinity of Power Plants.Unfortunately, nothing seemed to shake the Mukhiya, “Kuch nai hoga”,was all he had to say. He was convinced that Policies never translated into action and are mere artifacts of company literature. He let us go that day, saying that we were too young to die.
It was an unsaid norm at the village,that the young boys would join the local Maoist group. Quite disturbed by what we had heard from the Mukhiya, we decided to get things verified. Much to our dismay, we found that he was actually right. Companies would generally trick the locals into sham contracts and would acquire their land for minimal compensations.Our company was no exception. I did not know, perhaps I still don’t know, whether the Maoist groups are anti-social elements or the very custodians, of the interests, of those marginalized by the society.
We felt terrible, as if we had been abetting this heinous crime of ruining several lives. We certainly had to do something,to elevate ourselves from this sense of disgust. We decided to meet the Mukhiya once again, but this time we had a plan. In order to execute our plan, all we wanted from him was, some time – about One month, and a team of 20 most educated people in the village. The Mukhiya agreed, but on the condition, that if we do not show desired results in a month’s time, we would have to leave the area forever. The next day, under the pretext of working late at the site, we put our plan to execution. The team of 20 was divided into two groups of 10 each. Group1, would solely focus on ensuring that appropriate relief and rehabilitation measures were adopted by the company and Group2, would concentrate on a business plan that could make the village self-sustainable.
In the first week we just concentrated on motivating ‘Team 20’ (as we fondly called them) and creating direction, alignment and commitment in them. We then taught them the ‘How’ of things. It had by then become routine for us to secretly slip away from the site office, in the evenings. Seeing us work till late in the night one day, the Mukhiya generously donated an old cow shed for our ‘Mission’. By the end of the second week, Group1 had gone through the company policies on Rehabilitation and Resettlement and found that they were not conforming to the law. This was inacceptable! We pleaded the Mukhiya to write a letter to the company CMD stating the same and also marking copies to the State Government. Mass sensitization of these issues, which were becoming rampant in the state, was perhaps the need of the hour. In the third week an RTI was filed on the Rehabilitation and Resettlement measures adopted by various companies operating in the region. Soon the word spread and a lot of other village panchayats, NGOs and persons from the Media, showed interest in joining us. While all this was going on, Group2 did an extensive market research on some agro based raw materials that were in demand and could be grown in the kind of climate we had. In the meanwhile the company CMD passed orders to replenish the Project affected area for extensive farming. By the third week, we had established contacts with a couple of companies, willing to buy raw herbs from us.
Now, all we had to do was form a cooperative society. On the 30th day ‘HimHerbs’ was born and Team 20 had transformed into budding entrepreneurs. “Tum log hamara ladka ladki ka life bana diya”, said the Mukhiya with tears in his eyes. Indeed! the existential reality of this village did transform, from what could have been a potential Maoist faction was now a Co-operative Society.