Saturday, March 08, 2008

Who is Manmohan Singh?

Coke and Haldiram's have reached the worst-affected naxalite areas of Jharkhand but not the government. On the budget day, Rahul Pandita travels through the state’s remotest villages to discover that almost nobody has ever heard of Manmohan Singh, leave alone Chidambaram.

That day, the Block Development Officer, Lalan Kumar visited Gitildih village for the first time. He brought along with him a cheque of 12,500 rupees, 10 litres of kerosene oil and 50 kg of rice. But by then it was too late. A week ago, on February 3, when the entire national media was going gung-ho on the war of words between Jaya Bachchan and Raj Thackeray, a landless Adivasi labourer, Turia Munda climbed a tree and hung himself with a rope. Employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme, 48-year-old Munda had not been paid his wages for more than a month.

A year ago, Munda’s wife had died because of diarrohea, which takes many lives in this small village, 55 kms. away from Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. They leave behind four children. Three of them now live with their maternal uncle while the youngest, 12-year-old Jholu Munda has stayed back. A student of sixth class, he has stopped going to school ever since.

Gitildih village is a stark reality. It is because of villages like Gitildih that many people are left with no option but to join the Maoist fold. There is not even a sub-health centre for a population of 1,000 people. Only a nurse comes once in a week. The nearest hospital is ten kilometres away and the road is non-existent. When a person in Gitildih falls ill, the family prays that Ravindra Singh Munda has not gone anywhere. Ravindra is one of the four persons in the village who own a motorcycle. So the patient is taken on the motorcycle to Bundu town. But during monsoons, the road is submerged under water and the sick person has to be either taken on a cycle or somebody’s back. “My motorcycle is known as the village ambulance,” says Ravindra. In the months of July and August, diarrohea strikes Gitildih. In November and December it is malaria. Children die. Women die. And so do able-bodied men.

There are a few handpumps in Gitildih but most of them are dry. And those that work have contaminated water. So the villagers drink water from a nearby river. During summer the river dries up too. So they just lie down on string cots and stare at empty spaces.

There is no electricity either. Only a few boys have seen Jharkhand’s own Mahendra Singh Dhoni play cricket on a television set in the town.

Jagan Nath Munda is 65 and he collects firewood from the nearby forest to buy rice, salt and oil. Out of 20 other people who have assembled outside his house, only Munda knows that the Prime Minister of India is Manmohan Singh. “But I have never seen him; how does he look like?” he asks. Does he know which party does Singh belong to? Munda scratches his head for a while and then replies, “I think he is from a party called the BJP.”

Near the entrance of the village, Samla Munda points towards a building which looks like a building from Kabul after September 11. “This was supposed to be a health centre. But no doctor has come here for almost two years now,” he says.

Narsighpur and Mirgitand in East Singhbhum district are the last twin villages in Jharkhand, bordering West Bengal. 15-year-old Jhumri collects firewood and then walks barefooted on stones and thorns till Galudi town which is 14 kilometres away. If she is lucky, she might get 20-25 rupees from a dhaba owner. Then she will walk back to the village after buying rice from that money. If she fails to sell the firewood, she will have to remain hungry. Has she heard of Manmohan Singh? “Who is he?” she asks.

Like Gitildih, there is no electricity in Jhumri’s village. A High School is 14 km. away. There is only one well for water. A sub-health centre is 4 km. away. “But that exists only on paper,” rues a villager. “We are getting mowed down by elephants, wild pigs and naxalites – in that order,” says a teashop owner. “20 years ago, life was better. We had tough life but we were happy,” he adds. Has the NREG scheme made any difference? A villager laughs and says, "NREG is for the rich, not for the poor.”

Meanwhile in Gitildih, Jholu Munda kills time by killing birds with his sling. The naxalites have been urging villagers to join them. Next time when they pay a visit, at least one person from Gitildih may join them. The sling may just be replaced by an AK-47.

(This report appeared in the recent issue of The Sunday Indian weekly)


Raza Rumi said...

Rahul, thanks to Desh I have found your amazing blog - you write so well - subtle and tender lines..
Please visit my blogs and let's be in touch:

Urvashi goja said...

You wrote and absolved yourself to some extent of your empathy ....but what about those you leave them almost impotent with helplessness. It is so gut rending ...almost like a physical pain. Guess each reader will have to find his own way to bear or deaden it .....