For many years, Aravinda Pillalamarri was a familiar face for anyone in Mumbai concerned about the Narmada river. With her American twang and invariably in a cotton sari, she would show up at lectures, demonstrations, marches, whatever: Pillalamarri and her husband, Ravi Kuchimanchi, were enthusiastic participants in campaigns in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a campaign to save the Narmada valley from the reckless construction of dams. Certainly, the campaign has its fierce enemies and critics. But in every way that matters, none of them could match the dedication to India and Indians that many of us saw in Pillalamarri and Kuchimanchi.

There’s a story there.

Successful academics in the US, Pillalamarri and Kuchimanchi could have followed the path of plenty of other scholars there: focused on their careers and, no doubt, found plenty of accolades and promotions. But what interested them was India. In the early ‘90s, while still a PhD student at the University of Maryland, Kuchimanchi founded the Association for India’s Development, or AID, which now has 36 chapters in the US.

Pillalamarri, who was born in India but emigrated to the US with her parents when she was still an infant, was then herself pursuing a Masters’ degree at the University of Wisconsin. While volunteering with AID, she met Kuchimanchi and they later married.

The extra mile

AID’s mission is to identify and support sustainable and just development in India. They raise money to fund development projects in India, small to large. Many years ago, I visited a small one, in Koraput District in Odisha. Among other things, I saw a well that had been dug and fields cleared for cultivation, all using funds that Indian students in the US had contributed.

AID also helped with relief work in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami in December 2004, which killed about 7,000 people in that state alone. I travelled with some of their volunteers as they fanned out along the devastated coast to assess and meet the needs of hundreds of survivors of the giant wave.

In short, I know personally of AID’s dedication to a better India – in fact, a stronger, wiser and more compassionate India. Pillalamarri and Kuchimanchi had something to do with that drive.

Powering a village

In 1998, they decided that they wanted to be closer to AID’s work and their ideals and not halfway across the world. They moved to India to work on some of the association’s projects. One of those was in Bilgaon village in northern Maharashtra.

There are two things to note about this settlement of about 300 families (in the 1990s).

One, Bilgaon had never had electricity. That’s right – from the time of Gautam Buddha, through the rule of the Mauryas and the Mughals and the British, through over half-a-century of Indian Independence, Bilgaon sat in darkness every night. Not even the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada would change that that any time soon, not least because the project, which was underway in Gujarat, would submerge Bilgaon when complete in several years from then.

Two, Bilgaon sits on a spur formed by two rivers, the Udai and the Titodi. The Udai empties into the Titodi in a gushing waterfall, and a few km further downstream, their joint waters empty into the Narmada. That setting got the AID people thinking about a dam too – across the Udai, just above the waterfall. If they built it and then diverted some of the Udai’s flow across the spur to a tank, then downhill to a turbine and generator… why, maybe such a “micro-hydel” project could actually take electricity to Bilgaon’s 300 homes.

Kuchimanchi, some AID colleagues and two young engineers from Kerala, CG Madhusoodanan and Anil Kumar, worked out the design for the project. Starting in mid-2002, with labour from the villagers, they actually built it all: the dam, the channels for the water and the tank. And on Republic Day 2003, someone turned on a switch in the little shed just above the Titodi that housed the generator. Just like that, for the first time in recorded history, everyone in Bilgaon had electricity.

‘Swades’ is born

By any measure, this was a soaring, inspiring story. Here were a whole lot of people simply working to better their and others’ lives – the very essence of patriotism and nation-building, certainly.

Bollywood director Ashutosh Gowariker later heard this story and used it in his 2004 film Swades. In it, Shah Rukh Khan plays a character who returns to India from a NASA job in the US and builds a dam for his village. The inspiration for that role? Pillalamarri and Kuchimanchi.

It’s another matter that by 2006, the Sardar Sarovar had risen so high that during the monsoon that year, its backwaters submerged the small dam on the Udai. Courtesy this thing we call the development of this country, that was the end of electricity in Bilgaon.

Pillalamarri and Kuchimanchi stayed on in India for several more years, home-schooling their young daughter while also spending time in the town where Pillalamarri grew up: Bel Air, Maryland.

On the outside

On December 21 last year, Aravinda was out for a walk in her neighbourhood. Out of the blue, a police officer stopped her and asked what she was doing. “Walking,” she said. Someone had called the police about “suspicious activity” in the area, he police man told her said, and that’s why Pillalamarri was now “under criminal investigation”. Why was she not carrying any ID, he and a supervisor asked; was it because she was “here illegally”?

No doubt, Sureshbhai Patel’s case flashed through Pillalamarri’s mind. Patel, then a 57 year-old grandfather, had come from Gujarat to Madison, Alabama, to spend time with his son’s family. Out for a walk one day in February 2015, he was accosted by police officers who had received a call about a “skinny black guy” wandering the neighbourhood. Officer Eric Parker suddenly slammed Patel to the ground, injuring his spine. Parker was later acquitted. Patel remains partially paralysed.

That’s what merely walking about will do for you, perhaps especially if you’re a foreigner.

Or maybe, Pillalamarri thought of Ali Sauer, a Canadian student of environmental science, who had travelled to the Narmada Valley in the summer of 2000, to study the compensatory afforestation programme there, a mandated part of the Sardar Sarovar project. She later wrote an article in the Economic and Political Weekly about the failure of the programme, titled “Planting Trees, Uprooting People.”

She returned to Canada for some months, and travelled to India again on July 21, 2001, hoping to visit the Narmada Valley. Only, she was detained at the Delhi airport and immediately deported. The reason cited was that she was “a threat to national security”.

That’s what criticism of this thing we call “development” will do for you, perhaps especially if you’re a foreigner.

Inconvenient truth

Fortunately for Aravinda, nothing happened with her remotely like either Patel’s or Sauer’s experiences. After the officers did some checking, she returned home.

But in mid-January, she appeared at a Bel Air town meeting to recount what had happened to her. Her purpose, she said, was not to point fingers but to ensure that everyone did “their part” in the effort to “uphold civil rights”. The Chief of Police, Charles Moore, agreed that “there could have been more sensitivity on the part of the officer” who questioned Aravinda.

In that sense, this is now a good example of how the police can respond to action by civil society and, in fact, institute changes in policy.

Moore recently issued the following statement:

“Given the promise to move forward with plans to engage the community to address the concerns raised by Aravinda Pillalamarri as a result of her encounter with the Bel Air Police Department on December 21, the following is a report on the actions and plans to date as a result of a series of meetings with Ms. Pillalamarri and other concerned members of the community. It is no longer our intent to continue to report on the incident itself, of which, much has been reported. Now is the time to begin work immediately to ensure the citizens of our Town that change will occur and measures adopted that will ensure that all our citizens receive equal and fair treatment when interacting with members of the Bel Air Police Department.

“Ms Pillalamarri will be working very closely with my office as we move this project forward. A policy statement and protocols that address fair and impartial policing in our community are now in the works and will be available for all to view on our Facebook page in the very near future. At our very next meeting, we will discuss the training of our officers, future community meetings, the creation of a community council, a citizens’ academy, and body cameras. 

“Again, Ms Pillalamarri will be involved in these meetings, as will other members of our community, as her input and her experience will be very valuable to the process. Her perspective will help to frame the direction we need as we foster a meaningful dialogue. As we continue to meet, we will keep the media and the community informed of our progress and our action plans. We want to thank Ms. Pillalamarri for bringing this incident to our attention and for her willingness to work with the Bel Air Police Department to ensure that our policies and procedures reflect the public safety needs and concerns of all members of our community.”  

It ended well in Bel Air. But will that keep happening as suspicion of the “outsider” continues to rise, whether in the US or in India?