Village by the chemical plant

What I always miss about India is the feeling that something exciting could happen at anytime anywhere. For a photographer this is especially great. There’s just no other country I’ve been to where you’re so visually stimulated so often.

During our last morning around Dwarka, plans to find more salt pans fell through. I decided to free-style a little bit. We passed a small, traditional village along a road. A village like so many others, only there was a large chemical plant very near it. 

I’ve had the idea of using juxtaposing elements in my photographs in the back of my mind for a while. Sometimes the idea just stays there until an opportunity comes up. Now the opportunity was in front of me. I had the traditional and mostly organic in the villagers, their costumes, their buffalos and the modern and artificial in the chemical plant building looming over them in the background. I decided to stick around and shoot. 

If you’ve been to a village almost anywhere in Gujarat, you know that a lot of activity takes place in the morning. The village by the chemical plant was no exception.

Above is an elder man herding his animals and some younger folks heading off to work at the plant in a beat-up rural auto-rickshaw. A juxtaposition and a somewhat absurd mix of two different worlds.

Much of the population from the area now works at the plant, which is run by Tata. Other employment opportunities have sprung up too. In a local shop we were approached by Gopal, a young man who spoke great English. He said that he worked at a call-center just a few kilometres down the road from the village. I remarked on how lucky he was to have a job like that, so close to home and asked if he was happy that Tata created these opportunities.

He appreciated the job at the call-center, but said that many people weren’t happy about the chemical plant. I was surprised. I asked a group of men minutes earlier and they didn’t seem to mind. They immediately replied that everything was ok and turned it into a joke, saying that they’re all impotent because of the plant. After they saw my shocked expression they burst into laughter. I guess it depends on who you ask. 

Gopal from the call-center said that the village's animals were constantly getting sick and that the soil had become useless for farming. “But, you guys have great employment opportunities, right?” I wanted to cofirm. “We do have jobs, but, we mostly get simple, minimum wage jobs. People from the big cities get all the best jobs here." Replied Gopal. 

With Gopal’s words in mind I kept walking around and photographing. I didn’t have enough time to learn more about how serious the effects were from interviewing people. Not everyone was willing to talk about the matter seriously or honestly. A quick Google search later revealed that there are indeed some very dangerous chemicals around. At best, this and other plants are extremely vulnerable to a chemical disaster, especially in the case of a big storm or an earthquake.

I consciously stay away from the news and from much of the madness and negativity of the world. However, unless you’re completely ignorant, you can’t avoid the controversies and the madness entirely. Sometimes they come to you. 

A chemical plant near a village. Were the people asked if it was ok to build it? How do they actually benefit from it? What is the real cost of progress? Who’s paying for it? These are all questions we’d argue about passionately as university students, when the desire to change the world was high.

Later on you realise – unless you’re prepared to dedicate your energy and possibly your entire life to making a change, much of the arguments are a waste of breath. You go on and do whatever little bit you can, without thinking too much of chemical plants or nuclear stations in places of the world you'll probably never visit. When you're so close to the matter though, you can't help but wonder, ask questions. 

This was my last day of real travel in India. We’d be returning to Junagadh, getting a taxi to Ahmedabad and making our way out of India from there. Despite the mood having become a little heavier, I wanted to savour every last moment of being on the road in my favourite country. I wanted really absorb the hospitality and the good humour of the villagers.

The man above is a shop owner. People gather around his shop every morning. They buy everyday stuff – cigarettes, pan, sweets. They drink tea and chat about life. 

The rising sun created some dramatic interplay of light and shadow and I decided to stick around a little more. For me, photography is one of the best ways to enjoy the moment, to absorb the magical little instances of life. 

Later in the morning, when the chores are done, the village elders come to hang out by the road and bask in the rays of the sun.

- You guys don’t go herding the animals any more? Asks Hardik. 
- No. We’re over the hill. Let the young ones do that. Replies one of the elders. 

If you look closely at the men with turbans, you can see that they have a piece of cloth tied around their legs. They do that to be able to easier remain in their crouching position. The crouching is common all around India. The cloth around the legs - first time I’ve seen it. 

It’s hard to know the real age of anybody over 50. Many of those folks don’t have any documents with the correct date of birth. We were told that this gentleman was the oldest in the village. What was his real age? Somewhere between 60 and 70. 

The best way to know that someone is over a certain age is to ask if they witnessed or remember a significant historical event in their region. Obviously this doesn't provide much accuracy, but with some people looking older than they really are, it's about as accurate as it gets. 

Last look at the village by the chemical plant, shot from the drone during a very short flight. The drone scared the buffalos and we were asked to get the hell down quickly. 

One more quick stop in Junagadh before I leave India and that’s it...