We borrowed a motorcycle from one of Ramarao’s colleagues at the Telugu news channel HMTV, and drove along a scarred dirt road to a lonely village called Jerrela, the site of a proposed and intensely controversial bauxite mine. We wanted to interview local tribal farmers about the mine, a vast project that would displace some 270 villages when completed. We expected anger but, naively, not suspicion.
Ramarao and I barely reached Jerrela when we were stopped by a group of young men and women at the entrance to the village, who reasoned that no outsider would come this far into the forest unless they worked for the mining company. They locked our motorcycle in a cattle shed so that we wouldn’t escape and flatly declared, “We would sooner die than give up our land.”
As an inquisitive crowd gathered, a spry, middle-aged man stepped forward, introducing himself as Iswarao. Dressed in a grey sweater and sporting a mass of curly hair, he could be taken for a college professor if not for the bidi in his fingers and his wary eyes. Iswarao demanded to know who had sent us. I explained that we were journalists who wanted to interview people from the village, but he didn’t buy it. He said that he had seen the likes of us before – referring more to me than to Ramarao, who is adivasi himself – when some city dwellers had come to Jerrela posing as NGO workers, and tried to make everyone sign English-language “petitions” that turned out to be statements consenting to land acquisition.
”You’ll need to stay here for a month or two until we figure out who you really are,” Iswarao said. He flicked the tip of his bidi. “Maybe then you’ll understand how much we get from our forest mother you want to destroy.”
A settlement in Jerrela, with Raktakonda – the mountain that contains the bauxite – in the background.
The tawny hills around Chintapalle contain a fortune’s worth of bauxite, the main source of aluminum – 470 million high-quality tonnes in all, most of it buried beneath Jerrela. In 2005, the Andhra Pradesh government, then led by YS Rajasekhar Reddy of the Congress Party, signed over mining rights to a joint venture called AnRak. But it had to employ dubious legal gymnastics to bypass laws restricting the transfer of tribal land to outsiders.
The 1997 Samata Judgement of the Supreme Court prohibits private companies from mining tribal land, but the lease controversially circumvented it by fronting the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation, a nearly defunct public enterprise, as the mine’s legal owner. The APMDC would receive free mining equipment and logistical support from AnRak, and then sell the bauxite at cut-rate to the company.
The area has been in revolt ever since. There were tales of mining company helicopters being shot by arrows, of blockades and even assassinations. Huge crowds thwarted official visits to the mining site, while snarky graffiti covered colourful hoardings bearing the AnRak logo in Chintapalle. Locals pointed ominously to broad new roads that they claimed were only built to allow trucks, hundreds of which would venture up and down the mountain each day. The looming mine inspires a constant, slow-burning anger that is epicentred in Jerrela, which stands to lose the most.
In September 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that although the bauxite mines were initially valued at Rs 11,500 crore, the contracts for AnRak and Jindal Steel (company which won rights to a smaller bauxite deposit in Araku Valley) list their worth as just Rs 258 crore combined – a sharp undervaluation that would decimate not only the companies’ licence fees, but also the 20% share of profits they must invest on rehabilitating the 270 tribal villages the mine would displace. (Some groups, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), argue the real value of the bauxite is as high as one trillion rupees.)
Even though intense public opposition has kept excavators from unearthing even a teaspoon of bauxite in Andhra Pradesh so far, most people in Jerrela fear that it’s just a matter of time before the mining starts.
To further complicate matters, the Maoists have capitalised on this public anger, staging an unexpected abduction a month ago. On October 5, uniformed cadres captured three low-ranking members of the Telugu Desam Party in the village of Kottagudem, just an hour away from Chintapalle, and demanded that the AP government relinquish the mine.
A woman prepares turmeric roots, a crop that traditionally grows in Jerrela.
That evening in 2013, Ramarao and I were escorted to a little settlement on a hill, where, as the night fell heavy and moonless, an old man named Bodaipada rose to speak. “This mountain is eternal, but you want to destroy it.” His words came out wet and muffled, but they contained a clear message. “You promise to pay us crores but can you bring the forest back? This land grows so many different things. Will we ever get our livelihoods back?”
I was scared because everyone thought we were spies and no one understood my Americanised Telugu, and in my fear I wondered if I would be kept here forever. But the strange events of that day had compressed weeks of reporting into a single night. Ramarao, an active participant of Visakhapatnam’s anti-bauxite movement, energetically conversed with the villagers, who were forthcoming in their unanimous distrust of the government.
“They came and said we’ll give a job to every household, pay double the market rate for your land, but we all said no, because this mine was illegally approved,” said Ravi, a college student. “In the hands of a strong man, what are the weak to do?”
“The police can’t scare us,” echoed a group of young women who declined to state their names. “We’ll fight them with arrows and sticks if we have to. We’re going to lose, but not without a fight. We’re all ready to die.”
I was impressed by how neatly these statements channelled Chintapalle’s long history of tribal revolt. There was the first Rampa Rebellion in 1879 against a British tax on toddy, and more recently the People’s War Group in the 1980s and ’90s, followed by their successors, the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Perhaps the most storied episode – the one that transcended village folklore into the threshold of mainstream film and history books – was the two years Alluri Sitarama Raju spent leading raids on police stations after the Madras Presidency tried to restrict shifting cultivation. Raju was shot in 1922, but he remains a potent symbol of resistance here, because the Indian state – whether run by the British or by our own – was never able to fully annex Chintapalle.
“Just as Alluri Sitarama Raju created problems for the British, we’ll unite and create even bigger problems for the company,” declared Bodaipada, the old man. “Watch us.”
As a token of what they would lose to the mine – and also, I suspected, as a test of faith – the villagers served a rare tribal delicacy for dinner: curry with the larvae of vespid wasps, harvested just up the mountain. “Tribal prawns,” Ramarao called them. The fat worms were runny and pungent, and tasted like a good blue cheese.
The next morning, Iswarao and the others sent us off, politely apologising for the misunderstanding and asking that we remember their plight.
A harvest of tamarind, the Telugu word for which the town "Chintapalle" is named. Local adivasis say they fear losing the bounty of crops like tamarind and turmeric if the mine goes through.
On October 5, three local politicians of the Telugu Desam Party travelled up the mountain to the village of Kottagudem. They had voluntarily gone to meet the Maoists, when they were kidnapped and accused of collusion in bauxite operations. A spokesperson for the group soon announced that if the government didn’t immediately abandon all mining plans, their hostages would be harmed.
It was the first documented time the CPI (Maoist) had ever reneged on its promise to keep someone safe. It was also a jarring reminder of how the rebel group has capitalised on public anger to make a comeback in northern Andhra Pradesh, after police emphatically drove it out in 2005.
Visakhapatnam’s remote, rugged hills were a hotbed of insurgency for decades, until a police action in 2005 dramatically contained the Maoist presence in Andhra Pradesh. Since then, there have only been small flare-ups along the border with Odisha. “Their activities have gone on in that area since 1980,” said Koya Praveen, the superintendent of police for rural Visakhapatnam. “This is not a new thing happening today.” Still, people from the area say the abduction was eerily reminiscent of the old days, when Maoist commanders would dictate terms to tribal leaders, putting them in the sights of paranoid police forces.
Over the past few months, Maoist leaders have held large rallies and reportedly instructed tribal leaders to join the anti-bauxite movement – and to oppose the government “in all aspects” – or face consequences. I heard a bizarre story about a district-level politician who was caught taking soil samples from Jerrela, but escaped as he relieved himself in the woods. Three comrades shot him in his home a week later. The tales go on.
Paddy fields at the foot of Raktakonda.
The October 5 kidnapping was clearly gunning for a response from Chandrababu Naidu, the head of the Telugu Desam Party and current chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. As opposition leader under the previous Congress government, Naidu had vigorously opposed bauxite mining, saying that the leases to AnRak and Jindal “smacked of corruption” and would devastate tribal livelihoods.
But he took a surreal U-turn soon after becoming chief minister last year, when he donned a buffalo horn headdress at a celebration for World Tribal Day in August 2014, and declared that bauxite mining in Visakhapatnam was inevitable.
Naidu inherited a newly-bifurcated state with a massive fiscal deficit – at nearly Rs 18,000 crore last year, one of the highest in the country – and one-fifth of India’s total bauxite reserves. The mining industry cheered his victory, along with Narendra Modi’s at the Centre, as the kind of authoritative, “pro-growth” leadership it needed.
A September 2014 report in the Business Standard quoted a series of executives saying that if anybody could break the “logjam” over bauxite, it was Naidu. And AnRak has finished building a 1.5 million tonne bauxite refinery in Visakhapatnam, after optimistically announcing that the company would soon be cleared to start mining. (They are still waiting for that approval.)
Even though the TDP government has promised that the Integrated Tribal Development Authority would oversee any mining operations, and that no private sector players would be involved, tribal groups on the ground are alarmed. On September 20, hundreds of adivasis from Chintapalle and the nearby village of GK Veedhi marched in protest after (unsubstantiated) rumours spread that work on the mine’s foundation would soon begin. They carried sickles, axes, bows and arrows, declaring war on anyone who would mine bauxite. A similar event took place just a month earlier, when nearly 800 people waved red banners and demanded better land rights and access to drinking water over bauxite. Anti-mining activists and CPI(M) leaders lashed out at Naidu for flip-flopping on his stance.
Two-facedness over resource extraction is an almost cherished political tradition in Andhra Pradesh (and to be fair, across the world). In Chintapalle I encountered a haughty activist with the YSR Congress, a hagiographical party started by YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s son after the late chief minister died in a helicopter crash in 2009.
Photographs of YS Rajasekhar Reddy, the late chief minister who pushed through the bauxite lease, are, ironically, pinned to trees across Chintapalle.
The activist rattled off all the ways the bauxite mine would devastate the fragile ecology of the hills, cover the fields in toxic dust, and plunge adivasis into destitution. “The mine will be the end of the Agency as we know it,” he declared, using the term commonly used for tribal dominated areas in Andhra Pradesh. He was spreading this message (and photographs of Reddy) from church to church – neglecting to mention that YS Reddy had signed the bauxite lease in the first place, that Reddy’s close associate Pratap Reddy owns a significant stake in AnRak, and that his son Jaganmohan Reddy, leader of the YSR Congress, stood to make a lot of money off of AnRak. But then, as now, the YSR Congress was in the opposition, and such posturing was dishonest but politically expedient.
This duplicity – and its implied contempt for poor people – is exactly what infuriates the villagers in Jerrela. Manuguru Laxmana Rao, a former sarpanch of the village, recounted a visit to the National Aluminum Company Limited bauxite mine in Damanjodi, Odisha. APMDC had organised the trip for local leaders from Jerrela, hoping to convince them that the mine would bring jobs, education and prosperity to their communities. That effort backfired.
“Do they think girijans are fools?” he said. “They showed us the schools and clean homes of the managers and foreign workers, saying that we could have all this if we let them build the mine.”
But then, by sheer accident, the group stumbled across a sweeper, who belonged to a community displaced by the project. She took them to the slum where she now lived, and they were horrified by the sight: adivasis living beneath tarpaulin sheets, sick and malnourished and betrayed by false promises of a better life (Felix Padel and Samarendra Das have written about similar accounts from Damanjodi in their book Out of This Earth.)
"Children were going hungry, some were born with birth defects," Rao continued. "They won their trust with magical words about development. The lady warned us, 'Let them kill you if you have to but never give up your land.'"
This elderly man declined to give his name, but said, “Our village is our right. Did we ever buy or sell bauxite? So why should it matter? I’ve never seen it.”
Proponents of bauxite mining often invoke development and national interest, but those concepts have become slurs in Chintapalle. I met Ashok at a weekly market in Jerrela, where women sold locally-farmed cabbages alongside laptop-toting vendors peddling MP3s. A recent college graduate, Ashok couldn’t understand why, for all the concern over development, his village never received a drinking water connection despite years of petitioning.
“We’ve always asked for the same thing: development that makes our lives easier,” he said. “Real development means every village should have a road, electricity, drinking water, NREGS and jobs for the educated. The area should stay beautiful and every poor family should come up to a strong standard.” He spoke so fast that he had to stop to catch his breath. “But when you people say development you don’t mean that. You only mean getting rich off bauxite.”
Even the Maoists have accepted bribes from miners in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha in order to look the other way – a form of extortion that does little to serve the tribal communities that the mines have displaced. A subcontractor for the National Aluminium Company Limited mine in Damanjodi once told me that out of all the people he pays off to run his bauxite operations – ranging from the police to bureaucrats to MLAs – local Maoist commanders demanded some of the highest payments.
The militant group finally released the three TDP leaders unharmed on October 15, after they pledged to quit politics and join the anti-bauxite movement. The state government never had to engage with the militants’ demand to abandon bauxite mining – at most, Chandrababu Naidu, speaking to the hostages’ families on Monday, said his administration was undecided on the matter.
Posters sponsored by Anrak Aluminum Limited dot the town. This one says, "Women's safety is our duty. We need to keep them smiling."
The warped logic of conflict over bauxite has poisoned the air in Chintapalle. Even if Chandrababu Naidu sincerely wants to redraw the mining leases, fully respecting laws about consent and fair compensation – which in theory could be a good, mutually beneficial thing – he will find local support all but impossible to redeem. He will be tempted to use force against a vulnerable population, and repeat the same tedious cycle of violence that mars industrial projects across the country. As a resurgent Maoist presence is met with state brutality, the paranoia over informants on each side amounts to endless suffering for the people who call the area home.
At the moment, it is impossible to conceive of a scenario in which bauxite is mined without violence in Chintapalle – though a good start would be to simply follow the law, which requires a project in a scheduled area to be scrapped if the local tribal communities don’t agree.
“We are doing our best to win over the people,” said Koya, the police officer. “Initially the total public was hostile to us but in some places people have become more supportive of the government.”
For that, Ashok has a simple idea: “Give us development that actually helps us."