Mining company puts earthquake village in limbo

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The Independent Online

Julria is just another thirsty, impoverished village lost amid the babul bushes in western India. With dozens of other towns and villages in the far west of Gujarat, Julrai woke up one year ago today to the stony earth pitching and swaying, the mud walls of the flimsy huts cracking and shearing and tumbling down.

At least 20,000 people died in Gujarat's great earthquake. Julrai, six hours north of the epicentre at Bhuj, was lucky: villagers were bruised, shaken and frightened out of their wits, but no one died. Once the shocks subsided they hauled their bedding into the open, put up tents and waited for the authorities to help them rebuild their homes and lives.

Finally, 60 days later, outsiders began to arrive. Greenpeace volunteers came to install solar lighting. And a team of officials showed up – but instead of relief supplies they brought tape measures. One of the Greenpeace workers was Rakesh Sharma, a film maker from Bombay. He watched the officials arrive and begin work.

"They had come to conduct a survey," he says. "I couldn't understand how this was relevant to earthquake relief." Another Greenpeace volunteer was filming the installation of the solar lights. Sharma says: "I grabbed the camera and followed them around." Sharma did not realise it at the time, but he had stumbled on the first stages of a process that within months was to devastate Julrai far more thoroughly and finally than the earthquake. And he filmed the whole thing. The result, entitled Aftershocks, receives its première in Gujarat this weekend.

Gujarat's earthquake produced many victims in addition to those who died. Hundreds of thousands whose lives were torn apart are still stranded amid the wreckage. The state government's response has been scandalously sluggish. Corruption is alleged to have been rampant.

But the case of Julrai is unique. Here the force of the earthquake was harnessed to achieve corporate goals that otherwise would have taken years to bring about.

The people of Julrai are of the Rabari caste. Centuries ago they came as nomads from central Asia. The men dress in creamy cotton: oversize, piped-icing turbans, pleated and flared tunics, tight plus-fours. The women drape themselves with densely embroidered fabrics in dazzling colours, and hang miniature chandeliers of brass jewellery from ears and noses. The villagers are almost uniformly illiterate. Their land looks barren but when the monsoon rains come they hastily plant millet, pulses and sesame. They graze their goats and long-horned cows in nearby forests.

Beneath the poverty-stricken surface, though, Julrai possesses hidden riches. Like much of the Lakhpat district, it sits on fat seams of lignite. The Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation (GMDC) already mines millions of tons of lignite in other parts of Lakhpat, feeding nearby power plants. The corporation has licences to exploit the lignite under Julrai, too, but the villagers have shown a stubborn inclination to remain where they are.

India is changing fast. Privatisation is finally beginning to happen after years of talk. Infrastructure is being rushed into place, to feed the newly prosperous cities. GMDC, formerly state-owned, has sold 26 per of its equity and is listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Further sell-offs are in the pipeline, but meanwhile there is the menace of cheap lignite imports from China. Pressure to raise production and profits is intense.

For GMDC, last year's earthquake arrived as a gift from God. After the corporation's officials had measured everything there was to measure, they held a public meeting. They had a proposal to put to the village: vacate these ruins now, and within months your lives will be transformed. "If you vacate," V H Shukla said, "GMDC will construct two-room homes in a new location. There will be piped water, a road near by, a community hall, a school with two classrooms, light connections ... This village is squatting on our land. Vacate, and we are ready to help you. We will look after you. All of you will prosper." Sharma captured the proceedings on film: the turbaned peasants cross-legged in the dirt, agog; the fleshy, shirt-sleeved company men behind their desk on the podium, rattling off their promises. The meeting concluded with a vote: 88 out of 120 present supported the company plan.

Those who assented recorded the fact in a big ledger with their thumb prints. Faultlessly democratic, Mr Shukla declared the scheme as "passed by majority".

Sharma says: "They had signed away all their rights. GMDC had made no formal commitments, offered no monetary compensation, or jobs, or alternative agricultural land. But the resolution was etched in government record books."

Today, on the earthquake's anniversary, Julrai is in limbo. Those who agreed to the company plan moved to the new site, where no permanent homes have been built, let alone the other amenities. Even more worrying, the state's land, revenue and forest departments have yet to approve the new village.

But the plight of those who stayed behind is even worse. They continue to survive among the earthquake debris, but their defiance has put them beyond the pale: no relief supplies are delivered, the water tanker no longer pays its weekly visit, food rations have dried up. "In official records," Sharma says, "the village has been completely abandoned."