NEW DELHI — India is a cricket-crazy nation. We love our cricketers and some of us even worship them.
Also, we love our cinema. We look up to the reel life heroes and admire them with the expectation that they are real life heroes. But what happens when these influencers do something unexpected?
When we keep someone on a pedestal we, unknowingly, keep them in the position of authority and give them the power to influence us, our decisions. From their fashion sense to their political ideologies, we believe everything they do could be correct, since they've achieved something we haven't. And when they do choose to take a side which is different from ours, it personally affects us.
My father used to tell me that you'll see Indians the most united during an India versus Pakistan match. But the most united I've seen our actors, cricketers and other influencers, in the recent past, was against a six-word tweet by an international pop star.
On Tuesday, Feb. 2, when pop-singer Rihanna tweeted, "Why aren't we talking about this? #FarmersProtest" with a link to a CNN article on internet suspension near the Delhi borders, which has been the center of the ongoing farmers' movement, she shook the world's largest democracy. So much so that her single tweet awoke the patriotism in all those whom we call "heroes' – that very patriotism which lakhs of farmers from across the nation could not ignite in their 70-day long struggle.
Even as the farmers are protesting against the Centre's three contentious agriculture laws, battling harsh winters and police retaliation amid a pandemic, the so-called "powerful people" of our country had nothing to say.
But a single tweet from Rihanna was countered by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and well campaigned by "internal forces' of the country — our heroes, actors and cricketers.
Foreign criticism prompted Indian backlash
On Wednesday, February 3, when the world woke up to the pop-queen herself taking a stand in support of the protest, the oh-so-small ego and tolerance of the world's largest democracy was hurt. From Rihanna's past, present and future to her character, everything was assassinated and torn apart by those who call themselves "patriots' of this country.
The BJP IT cell pulled off a graveyard shift trying to find out first, who is Rihanna? And second, why is she speaking about our "internal matters'? And as the trick goes, when you don't find anything substantial, press the button of patriotism against "external forces' who are trying to "divide" our country.
The last nail in this coffin was bolted when the MEA released a statement using particular hashtags at the end of the document, as if they were indicating anyone who loves his country to create a social media trend that can, with just a tweet from an influencer, take the attention off of the past 70 days of struggle.
At this moment, it is worthwhile to share another phrase my father often used when my brother and I fought as kids, "The more you pay attention to or amplify a person's point of view, the more they feel they have their influence on you."
He said, "Always remember, a person only feels relevant till the time you let their words and actions affect you." Fair enough, more often than not we let people like Kangana Ranaut manipulate our thoughts and affect us so much that we share, retweet and comment on her opinions, while unknowingly, amplifying everything she stands for.
Be it her comments about how mental health works in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput's death or her calling Rihanna a "porn singer", we did share everything she said with our little touch of gyaan and amplified it, giving her another reason to see the statistics and feel empowered. So has been the case with every person in this country who had religious and caste-based hatred at the back of their minds and found several other like-minded people via social media only to preach their cause.
This is not a new trick, but in a country where the internet is cheaper than elementary education, it is an easy one to pull off. Indians are touchy about a few things — Bollywood, cricket, religion and patriotism are some of them. And this has made a major section of the population to unite against a six-worded tweet.
A few friends expressed their disappointment last night saying they "never expected Sachin, Virat Kohli or even Rohit Sharma to say things like this'. "Be it for or against, if they would've said what they said before Rihanna tweeted, we would have still been okay with their personal opinion".
Resonating a similar feeling, filmmaker Farah Khan tweeted, "Disappointed with the fraternity tweeting identical tweets that make it more like a marketing gimmick. Whatever their reasons & I'm no one to judge at least u could have tried to make it more original. Now you have given yourselves away. Reel Life Heroes VS Real Life Heroes (sic)".
Ironically, these were the same influencers who announced #BlackoutTuesday and supported #BlackLivesMatter to voice their support towards ending systemic racism in the U.S.
As much as it seems like we're not bothered by their stand, we do treat our actors and cricketers like no less than God himself. And when God goes against the people of this country, those people who made him God, it hurts. It hurts because this is exactly the kind double standards we didn't expect from them, considering they did support a good cause in the past which was someone else's "internal matter".
In another instance when Indian celebrities were quick to fight for justice for George Floyd, most of them completely ignored the custodial death of the father-son duo of Jayaraj and Bennix. The fact that Rihanna's tweet has made them feel threatened is proof of their hypocrisy and selectiveness.
Feb. 4, 2021 protest in New Delhi against recent comments from celebrities in support of protesting farmers — Photo: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/ZUMA
On one hand, where athletes like Lewis Hamilton brought out an entire revolution and made the sport of Formula One racing stand up for the eradication of colour-based discrimination, Indian cricket stars and other sports personalities including P.T. Usha, Anil Kumble and Yuvraj Singh, to name some, simply chose to stay silent during nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was dividing the nation on the basis of religion.
The only people who spoke even then and now are those celebs who would never get to take a group selfie with the prime minister of India.
It seems like those whom we thought were above politics and chose to stay away from topics which are not of their expertise, did end up choosing a side.
The day we decide to start treating these influencers like just another human being, we'll understand what made them do what they did and what we need to do.
Today, actor Taapsee Pannu tweeted, "If one tweet rattles your unity, one joke rattles your faith or one show rattles your religious belief then it's you who has to work on strengthening your value system not become ‘propaganda teacher" for others."
Believe it or not, she's right. If what Rihanna did with one tweet of hers has had more impact on you than the tweets of hundreds of those whom we idolize, then you know which side of the conversation you want to be on.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.