Scorched Lullabies: Community in Karnataka’s Amrit Mahal Kavals Struggles to Save its Livelihood

Jagjit Singh

Just like Mr. K. in The Trial wakes up one fine morning and for reasons never told, is arrested and exposed to the tedious judicial processes for a crime he himself doesn’t know, people in Doddaullarthi, some 220 kilometres from Bangalore, woke up one morning and, for reasons never revealed to them, found their fate attached to a Science City of ‘national importance’. Here the word ‘national importance’ is very significant; it signifies something holistic and inclusive, and of course crucial and urgent which can’t be argued against, just like the slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram. So, the first time when this crucial project interrupted the daily lives of villagers they were going for their morning chores in the open fields with their folded lungis where they saw few sophisticated men calculating the length and breadth of the land which they think was given to them by some Maharaja in the distant past. Yes, this is the same morning when the reader realizes that Gregor Samsa has been transformed into an insect. In those days, the Maharaja was the supreme authority and so was his voice, it held more authenticity then any patta or registration document we now need to fix the owner of a land, which again is a much more complicated task then it might seem to some people. But those days were over and not everyone knew that they were over. The people in villages (Doddaullarthi is one of them) around Challakere, whose livelihood and daily life was dependent on these lands, called Amrit Mahal Kavals, certainly come from the stock that didn’t know their time was over.

They are still living in the past which most of us, who have lived their lives in cities, have only heard in grandmother’s lullabies- Ek baar ek raja tha (Once upon a time there was a king). I was little surprised and confused after few of my initial visits to Doddaullarthi, that people still invoke the Maharaja of Mysore, show respect and allegiance to the ruler who gave them Kavals for their cattle, claim rights over the land since it was ‘Maharaja himself’ who gave them this land. They seem to have a little connection to the realities of modern state that now rules them. Of course, they have never heard about the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Nandigram. How these Kavals could be transferred without their consent or knowledge is still very baffling to them. I think they believe that the Maharaja of Mysore would have asked or at least informed them if he had any such plans.

But the confusion doesn’t end here. It’s not just that those people in the village were confused, the state government, judiciary, and activists are also equally confused. But a disclaimer should be added here: not everything is so confused; the state along with all the beneficiaries of the to-be-feast knows that it has to ‘acquire’ the land, they are just confused on how to acquire it. They have pledged to save the grasslands, and the endangered species, and sometimes a few vows to protect their own people too since we are living in a democratic country where people are supreme. So they had to find a way to reach a level of hypocrisy which can’t be questioned. What’s better than national building? But today let’s focus on the confusion of the people who can’t afford this confusion but will have to- the people living in the villages around these Kavals. But even here let’s talk about the ones who are worst hit but haven’t still found a mention in the discourse around the issue.

They belong to the shepherd community who are directly dependent on these kavals for almost everything. The story goes like this: the shepherd community, which is mostly landless, used these Kavals for sheep grazing, sorry not just sheep grazing but there were traditional plants which were used by these shepherds as medicine, and also some places of worship in the kavals and some water sources. The kavals also have a high cultural significance to the day-to-day life of the people here. The only thing government had to do to transfer these kavals was to label it as waste land, though activists have been arguing that these kavals come under forest lands. They also cite a union government notification. But one day government decided to transfer these Kavals, which are also ecologically sensitive and are home to endangered species like the Black Buck and the Great Indian Bustard, for projects that involved organizations like DRDO, ISRO, BARC, etc. Few years after acquiring the land these organizations started building a huge compound wall around the Kavals to restrict sheep, cattle and people from entering these Kavals. Now this community of shepherds have lost the land which they had been using for generations. The medicines for sheep and cattle which they used to get from the Kavals now they have to buy from the market. With no other source of income they sometimes sell a sheep to get medicines for rest of the folk. Some shepherds are paying money to graze their sheep on private lands.

So coming back to the question of confusion, now they are confused what to do with the sheep and less important- with their lives. See, again it’s not the philosophical question we aware-of-time people mostly think about. It’s more basic and rudimentary, devoid of any frills, and therefore little boring too. If they knew what to do with the sheep, the answer for life is automatically answered. And there is no single trajectory these shepherds are following which I could follow and give you as some sort of explanation or prediction as to what exactly is happening. It’s as absurd as any Hindi movie I have seen recently. The first shepherd I met sold all his sheep, because he couldn’t feed them anymore due to the compound wall; built a house in the village and is now drinking the rest of the money. Yes, the local bar is attracting more customers these days.

There were others who were selling their sheep and goats on regular basis for subsistence and other ‘emergency needs’ like school fees, festivals and regular ailments. Even here, life is not easy. The prices of goats and sheep have also come down drastically in the last few months. Then I met someone who was planning to leave the village and was moving to Bangalore. When I asked the stupid question as to what he would do in Bangalore, he answered in the same stupid way: ‘I don’t know, coolie (labourer) may be’. In fact I met many of these kinds who were leaving the village or were planning to leave and were moving towards the cities, Bangalore mostly. Some were ‘brave’ enough to say that they would fight the decision and won’t let their land to be acquired. The villagers have organized themselves under Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Horata Samithi which has been ‘resisting’ and protesting against the transfer of land. But after years of wait at the DC office and in the courts without any success people have started losing their faith in the protests too. I heard that in the beginning there was lot of enthusiasm in the movement against the transfer but that has waned away now. The government doesn’t listen, the courts have turned their back, and in between they have to earn livelihood and continue the fight too.

There, on the other side, these organizations of national importance had already built high compound walls and were deploying guards who wouldn’t let any infiltration to happen in the Kavals. No, I am not imagining another conflict zone, not even a tussle in fact. Just a passive extinction of a community, a simple community living there for generations, woken up one day, beaten and thrown away from their place. That’s all, no academic jargon!

Jagjit Singh is a final year student in the Azim Premji University