Project Koraput: Land Bank

by Jen Saffron
March 22, 2012

Laxman, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

The clock ticked 21 minutes to download today’s international exchange rates.  49.1 rupees to the U.S. dollar.  Impressive.  We decided: cash in the $2500 before day’s end.  Debendra placed the brand new $100 bills into a yellow bag in his briefcase, then clutched the briefcase under his arm while eating curries and rice with his hands. The electricity flickered overhead, we finished our milky Indian coffees, and Hebel drove us to the bank.

There are laws about exchanging that much money in these parts.  Only foreigners can do it.  The bills are carefully inspected, Visa copied, signatures scripted.  Given the amount, which is enough to build a small home, the bank manager escorted us to the teller, a shy woman with a black plastic headband.  First, she counted 12,275 rupees.  When we pointed out the missing zero on the end of her tabulation, her face changed to disbelief.  A guard with a gun watched the door.  After the transaction, we made a beeline for the car and told Hebel to step on it.

This money, comprised of hundreds of donations funneled through Community House, will secure the second parcel of land – the Hindu woman agreed to sell, instructing Debendra to come by after morning chores.  Debendra showed up the next day at 6:00 a.m. to show his honor, returning at 8:00 with his lawyer and the briefcase.

There are no simple plans enacted in the third world – and what, building a village with two women, a pastor, and a PayPal button?  Time and money are their own machines, and they tell us who’s the real boss.   Getting things done often turns into trying to get things done.

We hatched a plan for today, anyway, to photograph landless people purchasing yet a second plot of land, with Hindus and Christians working together in peace.  The legal paperwork would be written up with the public invited to witness.  Not us, though because the presence of the white women would jack the price and the deal would sour.  With the money and signatures secured, Debendra would signal Bikram, his oldest son, and we’d arrive to record the final thumbprint seals by the Koraput survivors.

But, it was noon and still no word from Debendra.  An hour later, he rolled up on his motorcycle, clearly flustered.  “The political people are now involved.  They came, unannounced, and said they would buy the land for a higher price!  It’s now a competition.”

We were stunned.  What about the Hindu woman honoring the deal?  Debendra said nothing was sure.  But he was sure of one thing: someone had talked and now the political cronies were speculating.  He asked the villagers to keep their mouths shut, knowing it doesn’t take just two white women with cameras to cause problems, as greed lurks.  It can just take one person making a comment to an outsider – one matchstick lights the whole jungle on fire, Debendra says.

Nandaguda has a Christian street and a Hindu street, both lined with mud houses.  Poverty aside, the village is tranquil and surrounded by rice fields, a canal, and pastured animals. Hindu or Christian, they have much in common, living together on the outskirts of Jeypore.

At their recent town meeting, they agreed that welcoming the survivors would prove beneficial, as the increase in residents would establish a Panchayat, or a small municipality.  Electricity, better water, paved roads, schools – these come with the Panchayat blessing.

There were exactly two Nandagudans, however, that did not concur.  One of them, a young woman, confronted the survivors to make her position very clear. Taking a break from digging, 70 survivors lunched in the Nandaguda church on Christian Street, sitting on the floor eating dal and rice.  The young woman approached and unleashed a string of trash talk.

The survivors continued eating from plates made out of leaves, just looking at her.  These people had already seen their houses torched and had fled for their lives.  Taking on a catfight wasn’t part of the rebuilding plan.  Chanchalla and her son, Prabhat, tried in vain to calm the dissent.  Eventually, the young woman ran off and although the survivors maintained dignity, talk followed the incident.  Was this rebuilding plan really going to work?

Sumitra, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

That night, a meeting ensued outside Debendra’s family flat.  Away from heated talk among the men, we stayed in the shadows with the women and their sleeping babies.  Building consensus is messy, often slow work.  The patience and perseverance required for this iterative community work, in the face of immediate need, places grassroots projects like this at risk.

And, who are we to have involved ourselves?  We’ve been skating a thin line between camera work and social work.  But, we’re clear why we are here.  We decided to simply act, working with the full awareness and respect of the privilege we’ve been granted – the trust of the survivors, allowing us access to their intimate community and engaging in planning talks even though we can’t make big promises.

We will cull thousands of photographs, audio recordings and writing to help propel the Koraput Surivors Project forward.  And, as profound and adventuresome as this trip has been, this is just the beginning, with much more to learn and more decisions to be made as the new community unfolds.  Back in Delhi, now, we’re already scheming our return.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.