New Internationalist

A Savage Environmentalism

Issue 421

The mud village of Bhagirath Nagar has been declared an urban slum. Yet, argues Jeremy Seabrook, its Oud community are the ancient and genuine conservators of the environment.

The Oud people were originally nomads, who travelled across India specializing in the excavation of ponds, water-reservoirs and irrigation canals. Their villages were made of earth, a fleeting architecture but permanent skill; and even today their fragrant homesteads still attest to the power of their artistry in construction.

They were literal conservators of the earth, since their living-places could be maintained indefinitely, taking no more resources than could be returned to the natural world that provided them. It is, therefore, a tragedy that the community of Oud people to the south of Delhi, in the mud village of Bhagirath Nagar, should have been declared an urban slum, and as such, ready for demolition.

The houses are cool, austere and sweet-smelling; a rich deep brown, the walls are cracked where they have dried in the sun. They are no longer thatched, since the area which produced the grass for renewal has been barred to the Oud. Sparsely furnished, most consist of a single room, although some have a small courtyard, with a separate kitchen. Chickens and goats forage in the low-walled enclosures, reminders of a distant pastoral nomadism. The main street of the village is the least attractive, since its little shops are mostly of brick. One is called the Love Music Store; others sell small luxuries – paan, but also biscuits and Cadburys (this has become a generic name for chocolate), Coke, sachets of Sunsilk shampoo, Lifebuoy soap, Palmolive and Colgate.

There have been at least three recent efforts to evict the people. Two smaller settlements nearby were demolished in 2006, following a failed final appeal to the Supreme Court against the classification of the community as a slum; an outcome predictable in an age where the institutions of the State have scant sympathy for the poor. The people of Bhagirath Nagar, men, women and children, sat on the road on a permanent dharna (vigil), and the eviction could not proceed. Ration cards, entitling people to subsidized food, were not renewed after 2001, when the village was scheduled for demolition; and every day they are on the alert for the next effort to remove them. One elderly man tells how on the day of the first attempted eviction the trishul (trident) in the hand of the temple god shook spontaneously, a sure sign of divine favour that the people should remain.

A twist of fate

There is a bitter twist in their fate. For these ancient and genuine conservers of the environment are being ousted in the name of environmentalism. The area they occupy was designated a ‘wild life sanctuary’ in 1993, a green space upon which they have become retrospective encroachers. The real irony, however, lies in the fact that the greenery around them is almost entirely made up of kikar shrubs, prosopis juliflora, an invasive exotic bush from South America, which has colonized large areas of north India. It creates a green wilderness, in the shadow of which little can grow, since it consumes water to a depth of several metres; and the topsoil becomes a thin ochre dust.

Their right to remain here is contested in the very name of that of which they have been custodians and protectors – the environment

If this place is indeed a ‘sanctuary’, it should be a shrine to the human souls which perished here, when this was the site of the Bhatti mines, open cast reservoirs of red sand, for the extraction of which the Oud were brought here in the 1960s. Their ghosts haunt the spectral monoculture which has grown over the mines – still visible as vast craters and crumbling cliffs of the substance which contributed spectacularly to the development and construction of Delhi. Some children, whose playground this is, show the way to the abandoned mines, darting through the thorny scrubland till we stand on an escarpment looking across the great cavity in the earth, filled with the unstoppable kikar.

The people of Bhagirath Nagar say that when officials of funding agencies or the World Bank are flown over the area by helicopter, they see only an expanse of green, which they declare must be conserved at all costs. They do not know that this is a green desert. It is no longer home to any mammals, except for the unwanted monkeys of Delhi, which are collected from the city and dumped in the area. And sure enough, as we sit beneath a tree, a Government truck goes by, with a cargo of rusty wire cages full of monkeys to be released into this false sanctuary. Since this is not their natural habitat, they live off the villagers. They steal food, attack people, and many have bite-marks in their flesh; two children have died as a result of injuries inflicted by monkeys. As the truck passes, the desiccated earth rises in thick choking clouds.

Urban eviction

The Oud, with their own myth of their origin, long migratory history, their proud claim that they are Kshatriyas (the Hindu warrior caste) and not tribals at all, has been reduced to a banal tale of urban eviction by the reductive mentality of the agents of a globalizing urbanism. Their right to remain here is contested in the very name of that of which they have been custodians and protectors – the environment. For their frugal conserving culture, their instinctive respect for the earth which is their sustaining element, is an object-lesson, to which industrial society ritualistically defers, but does not recognize when it sees the reality. All the rhetoric about sustainable development is negated here in the assault upon the lives of those who practise what the rich now preach.

The survival of witnesses to other, less rapacious ways of life is an obstacle to development in crisis; rather than listen to the plain, emancipatory lessons of the Oud people, value-added inputs dedicated to ‘simple living’ and reducing the carbon footprint must replace the natural ecology of people who have never been ‘developed’ in the first place.

The journey of the Oud to this place has been long and tortuous. Scattered all over India, their work took them for a season to wherever there was demand for excavations for water tanks or canals. Their knowledge of earth remains – many are now employed in cable-laying – and their understanding of the substrate helps them to work faster and more effectively than other labourers. They are now recruited by middlemen in gangs, and work at piece rates: the efficiency with which they work sets them at a disadvantage, for they receive only a fraction of the worth of their labour. Some work as truck drivers, others as construction workers; others have become tailors and embroiderers. Women embroider quilts: an elderly dignified woman called Malka Devi shows her work – an intricately crafted pattern woven on to the cloth in crimson and green thread. One man is a bus conductor, another a day labourer, while others make heroic daily migrations to Gurgaon and beyond, to work as stone crushers. Baljeet is an apprentice car repairer for 50 rupees ($1) a day; Arjun drives a truck for 100 rupees a day, taking junk metal to a factory for recycling. Police sometimes stop the truck and take money. Yet others demolish buildings brick by brick, which they salvage and sell on to builders. A small boy of about 14 drives by on a big tractor; his companion is even younger. What choice do we have, say the elders, children must work to help maintain their families.

A piece of land

After Partition, most Hinduized Oud opted for India. Many of those in Bhagirath Nagar first came to refugee camps in Delhi. They were given a pair of bullocks and a piece of land in Rajasthan. They failed to prosper, because they had never been agriculturalists. They sold the bullocks and bought mules and donkeys, their traditional beasts of burden. Their land soon passed into the hands of others.

In the 1960s, the Bhatti mines on Delhi Ridge underwent a great expansion. The city, until then, despite being the capital, had remained a somnolent provincial settlement. Bajri, red sandstone gravel, was extracted as hardcore for roads and building foundations. The land was seized by private contractors, who recruited the Ouds, with their mules and donkeys, to work in the mines. They used hoes and picks to excavate the great chasm in the now overgrown hills; and the earth echoed with the metallic music of their implements. In 1975, the mines were taken over by the Delhi State Industrial Corporation and a special housing project was set up for the people under the auspices of Sanjay Gandhi, after whom the settlement was then re-named. The nationalization of the mines did nothing to halt the predations of contractors. The mines were closed in 1991, following many deaths of miners in landslips and a collapse of fragile pit-walls. The State did supply certain amenities – a road, bus service, street lamps, a health centre, schools –  but it was declared a slum in 1993. Eviction was planned as early as 1996; a project perhaps not unconnected with the fact that much of the adjacent land in the area was being taken over for ‘farmhouses’, ‘plantations’ or ‘orchards’ by the privileged, extensive estates on which luxurious villas stand.

The village occupies 60 hectares, with an extensive temple. Inside the temple compound, the atmosphere is calm and reflective; the sound of a bell, a garlanded cow, some old men on a frayed length of carpet who recall how the efforts by the Government to evict them have been fiercely resisted and thwarted.

Cultural heritage

The Oud are a dignified people with a rich cultural heritage. They form a distinct samaaj, or society, which has been documented by Anita Soni, a Polish-born anthropologist who has worked with them for many years. They claim descent from Bhagirath (a great king in Hindu mythology), and were cursed by a rishi (sage) they had offended, who reduced them to ashes. The grandson of Bhagirath took upon himself the mission of rescuing the souls of his ancestors. He went to the Himalayas and did penance for many years, beseeching Shiva to restore the Oud to their former state. Shiva eventually relented, and sent Ganga back from heaven to earth; the locks of Shiva renewed and protected the forests, streams and earth which ensured the survival of the Oud people.

All the rhetoric about sustainable development is negated here in the assault upon the lives of those who practise what the rich now preach

‘Our children have become thin and weak,’ they now say; and in a sentence they sum up their experience of degradation and loss of function. But not of spirit. On the plots formerly occupied by kumhars (potters) – also creative workers with earth – young soldiers are busy planting saplings, some say as a memorial to the fallen in the Kargil battle in Kashmir of 1999. Their resolution matches their dignity; their claimed lineage, the accumulated experience of having been ‘re-settled’ in occupations alien to them – both farming and mining – have strengthened their determination not to be moved on and become in fact the slum-dwellers they are not.

These are people who have always used the renewable element of earth, who have contributed to the construction of Delhi in an urbanization which has turned against them and called them slum-dwellers. Industrial society, under the banner of a bogus environmentalism, then seeks to evict them, so that the resource-base which the Oud carefully worked and conserved may become an object of plunder by the rich; while they, who truly revere the earth, are evicted from the livelihood it can no longer provide them with.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist magazine.

With special thanks to Anita Soni.

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