If she built a country: A film review

Maheen Mirza’s film ‘Agar wo desh banati/ If she built a country’ looks at the widespread displacement on an unprecedented scale for mines and industries in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. The devastation of the environment, the cutting-off of the relationship of the people with their forests, the appallingly scant resettlement and compensation for the local adivasi people and the devastating consequences for their livelihoods is dealt with.

The women of the villages of Raigarh draw attention to how a lot of of them have been cheated of their lands as well as compensation while mines and power plants sprung up around them in the last decade. The company is seen quelling the protests of the villagers while the policemen continue to be mute spectators.

Mirza who has been a part of Ektara Collective, a strong proponent of the independent cinema movement that seeks to build inclusive and collective cultural spaces has also been involved in the making of films such as Jaadui Machchi and Turup, among others. She along with associate director of the film Rinchin have highlighted how the coming up of the mines has led to clearing of forests, toxic air pollution and dumping of ash in the area.

The film was screened recently at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi by the Kriti Film Club, which screens documentaries on issues that has been ignored by the media and policy makers alike.

The film portrays the manner in which people’s relationship with the forest and environment has been cut off as the extent of the land grab has increased vastly. This, even when the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act mandates that in the Scheduled Areas, the Gram Sabha must be consulted prior to commencing any project in the village and particularly in the case of any activity involving acquisition of land. The Gram Sabha is specially empowered to act to prevent land alienation and to restore land unlawfully alienated from a tribal villager.  

“We live in nature! We die in nature! It's our life, if you occupy our land where should we go and how do we live? Whose land is this,” says a tribal woman.

The film draws attention to how gender relations in the adivasi society have been altered due to rampant land alienation. Women's role in the forest based and agricultural systems, largely invisible and unpaid continues to worsen as they are being further dispossessed from these resources. They have been reduced to daily wage labourers as they lost access to land and forest resources.

Corporate grab of land involved dealings and transactions between the patriarchal head of the industry and the patriarchal head of the family, leading to further exclusion of women, the film depicts (Image: Agar wo desh banati)

The film depicts how the Gram Sabhas were never informed or consulted, while land alienation took place. Women reported how their no objection certificates were forged and they were coerced into hushed consent to give up their lands. When people asserted their rights under the PESA Act, cases languished in the courts for years as people continued to be displaced.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006, which empowered traditional forest dwellers to "access, manage, and govern" forests within their villages, too is being flouted and the rights of the adivasis not upheld. The film shows them lamenting the systematic alienation from their ancestral lands and rampant atrocities on those who resist. The people state “we have never accepted these policies of loot and plunder and will resist them to our last breath. We have never begged or asked for anything. We only assert our rights to what is ours and has been taken from us.”

People had to grapple with the new reality of being surrounded by toxic, polluted mined lands as companies toss dumpers of dust. The film portrays the story of Janki Sidar, a local adivasi woman forced to the margins and her personal struggle against land alienation. She was at the forefront of the struggle against the violence in the everyday lives of the adivasis while both private and public mining corporations encroached upon their coal-rich forested lands.

In 2000, she learnt that two of her land plots in this Scheduled Area were grabbed by the state by propping up another woman in her guise. The land was subsequently registered in the name of a non-existent adivasi with the collusion of the revenue authorities such as the Patwari of her village and land dalals (dealers).

Sidar filed a first information report with the police for fraud and thereafter a writ petition in the High Court in 2011. She fought the case for nearly a decade to restore the alienated tribal land. She was lucky to eventually win what was rightfully hers.

The film raises relevant questions on ecological degradation due to mining, land grab and displacement of adivasis. Above all, it questions “What does development really mean?” As the adivasis grapple with all this, they seek justice for themselves and their communities and share their thoughts about how the development of a country should be.