Surviving India's Modern-Day Witch Hunts

Government crime numbers show that since 2001, more than 2,000 'witches' — most of them women — have been killed.

Witch hunt victim Chhuteney Mahato
Witch hunt victim Chhuteney Mahato
Kalpana Pradhan

BIRBASHA — Budhni Tudu has taken up shelter in her sister's house. Surrounded by relatives who are trying to feed her, the 34-year-old Indian woman looks tired and afraid.

Six months ago, fellow villagers in Birbasha, Eastern India, identified her as a witch. A neighbor's daughter had taken ill, and Budhni was blamed. The accusation destroyed her life.

"My brother-in-law called a village meeting and the villagers declared that I was a witch," Budhni tells me in tears. "They say I am a witch and tell me that I am a human eater. They threw me down and attacked me, hit me."

Nearly 2,300 people — mostly women — were killed in witch hunts between 2001 and 2014.

Villagers tortured and threatened to kill her. "Now I am isolated from society. They don't even let me leave my home," she stammers. "I am counting each and every moment in fear. I am afraid to even go out and fetch drinking water because if they find me they'll kill me. Recently, my daughter got married, but now I am worried about her future and the grandchildren."

Critical thinking

Witch hunting is an old practice that still, unfortunately, exists in some Indian communities, particularly in areas with low literacy and poor education. Witch hunts are most frequent in Central and Eastern India, especially in the State of Jharkhand, where more than 50% of women in rural areas cannot read or write.

A long sickness, dying cattle, or a string of unsuccessful crops can quickly spark rumors that a witch is present in a village. If a witch doctor, or Ojha, brands a woman a witch, she is subjected to violent treatment: brutal beatings, burns, she might be paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excrement, raped, or even killed. In fact, nearly 2,300 people — mostly women — were killed in witch hunts between 2001 and 2014, according to government crime statistics.

Stick figures in Mallesvaram, India — Photo: Harsha K R

In an attempt to counter the problem, a group called The Science and Rationalist Association has sent members throughout rural India. Their aim, says Arindam Bhattayacharya, one of the association heads, is to encourage critical thinking. "We explain, citing various examples, that there's n thing as a witch or a miracle, that there are no supernatural or occult powers, as they believe," he says.

But witch-hunts aren't just about superstition. When a woman is branded a witch, relatives and other villagers can seize her land. Witch hunts can be motivated, in other words, by family disputes over property, land ownership and village politics.

Higher authorities

In 1995, Chhuteney Mahato, was attacked in her home in Jharkhand's Kharswan district. "My neighbors branded me a witch. One night they set my house on fire, looted my home, and seized my property," Mahato, who was 32 at the time, recalls. "I was thrown out of my home along with my four children. I went to lodge a complaint in the local police station but they turned me away. It was a terrible situation."

Jharkhand is one of the only states in India that has a law against witch hunts. But according to Kavi Kumar, a local journalist who has been covering the issue for 30 years, the law has done little to protect women. "The state has an anti-witchcraft law, but most police refuse to register witch hunt cases because there is political pressure from a village head or village administration," he says. "Women are not getting enough support from this law."

I was thrown out of my home along with my four children.

Mahato was lucky. Not only did she survive the ordeal, but she was also able to use her father's connections to seek help from police at higher levels. Later she decided to help other witch-hunt victims. "I don't want any woman to face what I faced and go through the trauma that I experienced," she says.

She now travels to rural villages and goes from house to house, persuading people to stop the witch hunts. Mahato says she has rescued 35 women so far. And until the violent practice is brought to an end, she is determined to keep pushing for the rights of women like her.

"I have been fighting for their rights for a long time now, giving them emotional support, and taking them to the local police station," Mahato explains. "And if police don't respond, then I ask help from higher authorities for judicial support. I will continue to do this until my death."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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