Chronicles from a field trip

in october, i travelled to chhattisgarh to take a field-based look at coalgate. what were its wider implications — on power generation, on forests, on land, on farmers. vignettes from that trip.

from where we stand, a farmer asks me to look at that mango tree in the distance — in the middle of the photo. between here and now, he says, and all the way to the right, stood our community forest. it was hard to imagine anything like that. similarly, it was hard to imagine how anyone deals with such transformations in their environment. the villagers had seen their fields replaced with this ugly gash in the ground; there were periodic explosions; a new mountain of excavated earth was rising up next to this bit… travelling through chhattisgarh, it is this i saw most. people and biota exposed to abrupt, cataclysmical change.
gare palma. one of the coal blocks alloted to congress mp and industrialist naveen jindal. before the mine came up, gently sloping fields and stands of community forests and private trees stood in this area. and the local river vended its way thru them. it was hard to imagine anything like that now — a classic instance of the whole landscape and memory bit.
this is gare palma. one of the coal blocks alloted to congress mp and industrialist naveen jindal. before the mine came up, gently sloping fields and stands of community forests and private trees stood in this area. and the local river vended its way thru them. it was hard to imagine anything like that now — a classic instance of the whole landscape and memory bit.
village society itself had changed. some villagers had aligned with the new power centre — the company — and begun buying land on its behalf, etc. others were opposing it. also, in neighbouring gare village, i would hear, bears, traumatised by the loss of their habitat and the bright lights and noise of the mine, had started hiding in bushes in the village. attacks on villagers had climbed steeply.


another powerplant, this one in janjgir champa district, chhattisgarh. villagers walking home after a day spent working as construction labour.
and more…
these farmers had transited from a pastoral life to one of construction labour. when i spoke to them, they spoke bitterly about how their grazing grounds had been taken away by the govt. there was another theme running through all this, though. work on this plant has all but stopped. with some companies getting captive blocks while others did not, the market for power generation is so skewed now that a bunch of power projects are lying incomplete. why throw good money after bad?
another village, again in janjgir champa. here, a powerplant company had bought some land and construction had not started. here, a villager looks at this outsider suspiciously. maybe he thought i was there to buy up land in his village.
companies buying land but not setting anything up had its own kind of collateral damage. farmers like dayaram banzaari had sold some of their land after the broker promised his son a job at the factory. now, he says, the land is gone, there is no plant and there is no job.
hasdeo arand. over which the go/no go debate over mining in forests erupted. i look back at this and feel the environment lost this fight on all counts.
the site of pathriya dand coal block
what a coal block looked like before it became one
while travelling through hasdeo arand, hoping it would give me a better sense of what was at stake in the coalgate debate, i ran into this travelling salesman and his team. they move with their wares from village to village in this area.
his team. much, much later, as i update these photos. i again wonder what will happen to them all – people leading their lives unaware of possible upheavals.
taken while standing in the forest. look at the bark of this tree. so much like the scales of a croc or an alligator.
life in hasdeo arand.
life in hasdeo arand.
and life in nearby korba. a farmer bathes his buffaloes in the ash-laden runoff from a powerplant. that is what all this comes down to, doesn’t it? people used to a particular life. continuing with it as long as they can –perhaps because old habits die hard, perhaps because of choicelessness. and then, if things get untenable, they get cast out to cope the best they can. working as labour in nearby towns, or whatever. at one time, fiction and journalism and cinema captured these realities well. one case in point, this hindi film called gaman. today, these tales are not getting told.
surrounded by coal mines and powerplants, korba is one of the most polluted towns in india. here, a bustling market next to a thermal power plant.
awaiting the six am train from korba to raipur. (an update from almost two years later: the trip ended after some more meetings in raipur. i returned to delhi, wrote two large stories, one on the links between coalgate and the thermal projects, another on the links between coalgate, land and forests. much, much later, there was a better story on the links between coal and land. and then, the coalblock allocation was cancelled by the SC. by then, in some parts of hasdeo, mining had already started. at this time, circa october 2014, i don’t know what lies in store for hasdeo.

for a more detailed look at coalgate, head here, my composite post on all the stories my colleagues and i did on the bally thing.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.”

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,”

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

12 November, 2022: Stop Loss: Overcoming the systemic failures of the Indian State. Tata Literature Festival, Mumbai.

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society