Friday, April 21, 2006

Are The Indian Villagers Ignorant?

I wonder how many of us would have heard that joke about a urban crook who is into printing counterfeit (naqli) notes and once, by mistake, prints notes of 60 instead of 50. They are about 10 wads of them, and this guy doesn't know what to do next. So he decided to do what many have done, to take a villager for ride. He reaches a village and finds a person smoking bidi under a tree.

Our urban crook tells him- “I have got 60,000 rupees here, I can give you all this for just 30,000.”

The villager says—‘Really? Hmmm. This sounds interesting to me! Just hold on, I am coming back with money in a second!”

So he goes off to his home and comes back after a while carrying some wads of money that he hands over to our conman, taking money from him. Amazingly enough, there are 10 wads of them, all of Rs 30/- rupee notes!
Never underestimate a gaanvwallah!
Unlike the common stereotype that many of us carry- villagers being naïve, I got an entirely different picture as I interacted with the Janta Janardan of India. Here's an incidence on this.

During my PRADAN days, one of the villages that I was entrusted to was Sugnakhedi, a OBC (Kushwaha, Kirar) dominated village with a considerable number of Harijan families. It was about 17 kms of kuccha road from Sironj, where I was stationed.

Our modus-operandi working under the DPIP (District Poverty Initiatives) project needed us to do a wealth ranking in the village before starting the actual work. Coming back from a PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) workshop at PRADAN’s Kesla office, we decided to use the locally available stuff and villagers understanding of the community to conduct a wealth ranking in this village.

So, after purchasing some choona (lime powder), haldi (turmeric) and sindoor (vermilion), we reached the village and started talking to some of the villagers. Although this village was far, and we were three (myself, Madhukar and Jeetendra-who was a newcomer then) we decided not to hire a Jeep for reaching this village, as Jeep is associated with the Government and people coming on a Jeep to any village announces the arrival of either trouble or free pre-election sops in the villages. We did not want to convey either of them. So, we decided to ride on our bikes to the village.

As we gathered on the village square, many villagers surrounded us, inquisitively. We asked them to gather in one of the dalaans (verandah) of a house and sat their on the floor mat along with the villagers; following the PRADAN’s rule of equality. As we started discussing things with them, we told them that we are from PRADAN and we have come to study their village. We intentionally did not give them the information that we are their for the implementation of DPIP as there was a threat that knowing about a multi-crore project all of them would give us biased information , particularly about the economic status, depicting all of them as the beneficiaries. (I don’t understand why government projects have to distinguish between poor and poorer and the poorest and give support only to poorer and poorest and not the poor. There is no such thing as a rich person in the village as whoever is rich, is, most of the times, out of the village, residing in some town, and acting as absentee landlord).

Anyways, we told them that we are here to collect some information about the village and this is a kind of survey that we are doing, without referring to any Project involving grant or loans. Initially they were reluctant to discuss anything with us, giving us an impression that they are disappointed with the fact that we are not from any project offering sops to them, but later on, upon our insistence they agreed to give us some time. So we settled in the daalaan and asked them to help us in making a rough map of the village on the ground by using the choona, haldi and sindoor that we had taken with us. They started off in a very slow way, but gradually the exercise picked up the momentum and the participation increased as the villagers were trying to correct others wherever they depicted the village map in a wrong way and missed some house or a handpump. Within an hour, we had a lovely map of the ground prepared by the villagers (just like a rangoli) on the ground. We helped them mark each one’s house by writing the names of the people on small pieces of paper that we had taken with us and thus created a villagers’ GIS (Geographical Information System) giving vast detail about the village- locations of the caste specific sections of the village (tolas), location of the handpumps and their proximity with a particular section of the village, location of the temples, school and the rivers, irrigation wells, fields and grazing lands. This was a great success for us also as the facilitators as we were able to get the villagers draw this on their own and the accuracy of this was better than any other data that the government or nay NGO like us would have.

After this, we came to our real exercise, although we did not announce it. We decided to carry out the wealth ranking of the village by using the name tags that we had created in the process of marking the house owner’s name on every house on the map created by the villagers.

We had decided not to use any word that suggests the economic level of a person (words like gareeb, ameer, paisewala, dhani) so as to not to alert the villagers that a screening exercise is about to take place, lest their views become biased with vested interests and they try to prove those people poorest who were actually not. We tried to ghumao (sugarcoating the real fact) them by saying that not all five fingers in one’s hand are equal, and therefore in the village also everybody is not equal. Somebody is ore happy and some body is less happy. So we tried to keep ‘happiness’ as the indicator of well being rather than the ‘wealth’. So, we created three faces on the ground- one smiling, another sad and third one normal (neither smiling, nor sad) and asked the villagers to drop the name tag of every person on one of these, depending on their current stithi (circumstances).

They started off, and after a while we could see a discussion going out about a particular person.

One villager- “Put his name there. He is in the worst circumstances!”

Other Villager: “Who says so? How is he in the worst category?”

First Villager- “ I say. Don’t you know he doesn’t have any land or any cattle?”

Second Villager- “Ha! So what? He is a postman, he gets 3000/- per month from the government! Dare you call him a person in worst category!!”

We were glad hearing this- “So, ultimately, PRA works! Great!!!”

The exercise went on for about an hour and half and in the end, we had a list with us, with all the villagers in one of the three categories.

“Cool man! That was superb!”- one of us exclaimed, our way home.
An Eye-opener

However, in a few weeks from then, our happiness was to get thoroughly crushed when we got to know that there were some wrong selections in the wealth ranking that we have generated in a ‘professional’ way.

We came to know that three brothers of the village were placed one each in the each category. Initially, we thought it is one of the aberrations, but later on, to our horro, we discovered that it is a trend!

The clever villagers had not only understood our ploy but they had also outwitted us in our own game by putting family members from every family in all three categories so that no matter from where we start, we would have to include at least one of them as the beneficiaries. I am still at loss understanding that how the villagers of such a remote village got to know the intricacies of a wealth ranking camouflaged so well by us. May be they had got to know about this process from the nearby villages where we had earlier undertaken this process, or may be it was instant insight that they got about wealth ranking.

Whatever it was, my remaining doubts about the naivety of the villagers were laid to rest with this incidence. The villagers of India are not ignorant, they understand the gimmicks played by us, the so called educated of the society. It is just that they are either not in the position to refute us, or they too have adopted the malpractices through which they are taken for a ride as a part of the system, which cannot be changed and that corruption is a eternal truth.

“Bhrashtachar (Corruption) has become shishtachar (etiquette)” - One of the enlightened Indian declared once.

That is the reason why I and my colleagues at PRADAN used to get so many questions when we used to go with the villagers to open their groups’ savings account. After filling their forms, taking them to the manager and getting account formally opened in the books of the bank, when we would hand them over their passbook and cheque book, the villagers would ask us -“how much we need to pay you for this?”

“Nothing. Why should you pay anybody for opening an account?”

“That’s what had happened last time when so and so of our village had gone to open an account under so and so project. That guy had charged him Rs.500/-!”

“How can it be true?”- We would ask ourselves, “who would be the heartless person to con Rs.500/- from such poor people who don’t have enough to eat?”

Take my word, the wolves may have vanished from the jungles of India, they still thrive in Indian villages on the blood and bones of these unfortunate compatriots of us, who are half dead, courtesy a callous system that takes pride in calling itself ‘a democracy’.

“Hey Ram!”

Yet another window to the 'Real' India

Mindset of a poor

Visiting a village in most of the rural India is like visiting another world. Beyond the flamboyant metro culture of big cars and bigger houses, ever growing lust for consumer goods that drags you into a meaningless rat-race of more, more and more for I, me, myself, there lies another India where people live in a here and now situation (not because of the famed duo of Dipankar and Ramesh of PRADAN PAS made them so, but because of their hand to mouth existence). One can plan for future when his or her present is secured. When a person knows that he has only today to live in, he tries to live it fully, up to its last moment, trying to drink the last drop of the elixir of life from the cup of today. We were disgusted initially when we would see a poor man buying commodities (supposedly luxuries- bidi bundles, clothes, ornaments) for every member of his family member the day he gets some cash upon selling his harvest.

“Save it”, we would tell them, “put it in the bank so that you may use it later.”

But for them, there is no later. All that matters is today, life is uncertain. They would like to marry off their daughter, or buy a necklace for their wife rather than investing it anywhere.

“Kal kisne dekha hai, bhaiya”, they would ask me, “aaj haath mein paise hain, aaj maja kar lete hain, kal jab aayega, dekha jaega.”
(“Who has seen tomorrow, brother? Today I have money, let me make merry with it. I would worry about tomorrow when it comes”).

Such is their insecurity about the life ahead. People who you find working today are no more the very next day. They die in the harness like the war horses. I can elaborate this by an example. On a day of my regular visits to my favorite village of Kankerkhedi, I reached the home of Hari Singh, one of the PRADAN service providers. He was not at home, but his father was their, doing some carving on a big wooden door frame. Upon my asking him why he was making so much effort on carving on he door and not putting it directly on, he told me that one should leave something different behind, so that upon his death his children and grandchildren should remember him by his works. I left the village that day contemplating about the pearl from him, an elderly man that he was. Next day, when I came again pursuing some work, I found the whole village deserted, only women and children to be seen in the alleys of the village. I asked one of the ladies, who was a member of the Self Help Group that we had initiated there about it. She told me that all of the men folk have gone in the lakdi.

“Lakdi (wood)? What’s that?” - I asked.

“Oh, you don’t know?”- She said- “Hari Singh’s father expired yester night. All the men have gone in his cremation (lakdi).”

“What???”- I exclaimed- “but yesterday he was here, working on the door frame when I met him?”- I said, baffled with this information, the old man’s face and the discussion that we had previous day being replayed in my mind.

The woman displayed a painful smile-“That’s how things are for us, bhaiya. Today you are here, talking to me, tomorrow you would come to find me gone. We are no better than animals.”

On my way back home, I was thinking why is it that even after 55 years of swarajya our people have to consider themselves animals. How can a seemingly ordinary stomachache kill a healthy person in a matter of minutes? I was pained to think how a son can see his father die in a matter of minutes so helplessly and that too not by some accident or some dangerous disease but water borne diseases.

How exactly did the father of Hari Singh die, no one would ever know because no body was bothered to know. After all, what was he? A poor, old man owning a few bighas of land in some unknown village of a less know district of the backward state of Madhya Pradesh. How does his death affect a fattened corporate honcho or a shrewd political fountainhead or, for that matter, a common man on the street of the capital of his country, where a Yamuna of wealth flows after the original Yamuna has been converted to a huge, open drain? There would be no obituary, no media coverage, no national mourning for him, because he was the common man, he was the Janta Janardan.

This was not the only death that I saw. There were others who dies in this strange way. There would be a terrible stomachache, and by the time one would even get on board the Sironj bound bus for diagnosis, he would be dead. I saw at least four such cases in this village where grown up people died, what to talk about the children?

Government’s Reaction

Not that I did not try to do anything. At the very beginning, I had noticed the dearth of the safe drinking water in this area and decided to take this up with the local government hospital. One fine morning when I reach the superintendent and told him the whole situation, he was livid. “Just who the hell are you?”- He frowned at me. I told that I am an NGO worker taking care of the poverty alleviation project in some of the villages there. His next question was- “You mean to say there is an epidemic in this village?”

“No”, I said, “That’s not my job to declare that there is an epidemic. You are a doctor, you should come there, see for yourself and then decide whether it is an epidemic or not. All I am telling you is that there are about 90% villagers suffering with water borne diseases and having loose motions. I am wondering for how long your department has not chlorinated the drinking water well there.”

He called the Village Health Worker and scolded him in front of me. He told him that today it is an NGO person raising voice, tomorrow it would be all over the press and media.

“Do something”, he said, “Lest it becomes an issue for us.” Clearly his concern was not the dying children but negative publicity and subsequent fallouts. Anyways, the well was disinfected by using chlorine after some days, and that’s all we could do.

Unfortunately PRADAN keeps it away from the health related work (something that always bothers me) and so my interest in health was not supported much as they would have been supported had it been a livelihood activity.

A Bucket full of holes

My doubt is how can be the development of a people compartmentalized into livelihoods, health or education? How can we ask a person to form a SHG or do improved agriculture when s/he is dying of diarrhea? How, as a human being, I can turn my head away when I see some issue that is not exactly livelihood. In PRADAN we saw that many a times the poor family had an average annual income of Rs. 12,000 to 15,000 (collected in 2004, that is not a very old data, it may hold true even now!). We were told that even if we were able to increase it by 5,000 an year, it would be a boon to the family. We tried to do this by using all kinds of livelihood and microfinance interventions and achieved it, only to find that one person falling ill in the family, one death, one marriage wiped it out. One year of hard labor, the toil of the family as well as the NGO worker, just vanishes in a jiffy! No matter how hard the family works, it is bound to remain poor if good health is not ensured to them, for the bucket that they are trying to fill is full of holes, from which water flows away the moment it is poured.

Unhealthy body, unstable mind

Bad health affects not just your body, it affects your mind as well. The financial indiscipline that we see in the rural areas (taking loan and not repaying in time, or using it for purposes like marrying off some distant niece) is borne by a strong sense of insecurity in mind- the instability that future represents to these rural peasants. ‘Tomorrow’ is a big question mark for them.

“Kal kisne dekha hai, bhaiya. Aaj haath mein paise hain, aaj maja kar lete hain, kal jab aayega, dekha jaega.”

This is the sense that drives the mind of the poor who are not sure from which quarter of life the next shock will come. Then there is the general callousness that the educated society and government officials display towards them. People are still not allowed to sit in front of the government babu in the tehsildar’s office. The Janta Janardan still squats on the floor along with the dirty rubber slippers of the wealthy money lender. They still run after the bikes of people like me to get themselves enlisted in the poverty alleviation projects.

Reality Bites-A distant Banjara village

Upon reaching Panchmarhi, another border posting of mine, I was surrounded by the villagers. I had gone there to do the village study and so was hiding my real identity of a PRADAN worker, because once they know that I work for the Poverty Alleviation Project, all of them may project themselves to be abjectly poor, in order to get listed. This had happened a number of times earlier, and I was pretty sure this would happen here again. So, I hid behind the half-truth (ardhya satya) and told them that I was there to write a report. An old man (must be in his 80’s) was watching me intently, keeping quite through out the discussion. Finally, when he spoke, everybody fell silent, may be he was one of the village elders.

In a very low but clear voice he started speaking-
“I don’t know who you are, and why you have come here. Good or bad, whatever your intention may be, I am happy. I am happy because after decades somebody has come to this distant village to ask if we still exist. It doesn’t matter if you do something for us or not, but I am happy that you have cared to come to us and are treating us as human beings.”

That day I was moved to my foundation. Here is a part of our country which is happy that somebody is coming to at least headcount them- forget about providing them the basic amenities that we promised ourselves so proudly as declared in the preamble of our constitution decades ago. Just where is the ‘India shining’? Where are all the chest beating jingoists of this country who claim that India is going to be a superpower of sorts in a few years to come?

“We are already an economic superpower”- many of my friends would say, if reminded about these issues- “Problems are there, but why should be not celebrate the successes so far?” –they would shoot back.

Of course we should. We should celebrate the nuclear pact when our compatriots don’t get the safe drinking water. We should dance to celebrate in the pubs and malls when their houses remain shrouded in darkness. We should decorate our houses and fire crackers worth thousands when they don’t have enough oil to cook their food even.

After all, it is not my house that is burning; it’s their hut on fire. I would react when a spark would fly to my palatial verandah! Till then, I would play the flute, as Nero did, when Rome burnt to ashes around him.

Is this what they call- 'Drink thunder'?

That day, there were many firsts in my life. For the first day I reached a village where they had expected me the least. For the first day, my urban pride was humbled by an old nomadic banjara. For the first time, I drank water directly from a seasonal river, like the poor who live in these unknown corners of our so called largest democracy of the world. It was a brownish mix of water, decayed leaves, mosquito larvae, mud and other wastes. Today, I see poverty and wretchedness being discussed in air-conditioned conference rooms of the capital. Whenever a mineral water bottle is placed in front of me, I am reminded of that Banjara community. Those smiling faces, who did not lose their charm in the scorching heat of poverty and backwardness, those open hearts which did not hesitate a second in sharing their two chapattis with a stranger, those hopes that I could see in their twinkling eyes- not at all seen ever after in my life so far.

That reminds me of the famous poet Dushyant Kumar, who once wrote-

“Kahan to tay tha chiragan har ek ghar ke liye
Kahan charag mayassar nahin shahar ke liye…”

(Once we had decided to provide light in every house, but now there is no light for an entire city…)

Swarajya (Self-rule)

Under these circumstances, is it wrong for a village like Mendha in Garhchirolli district of Maharashtra to seal its borders with rest of the world, take the administration in its hands after declaring itself a village republic- and raise the slogan

“Dilli-Bambai humari Sarkar
Humaare gaon mein hum hain Sarkar”

Our government in Delhi (central) and Bombay (state), but in our village, we are the Government!

As a utopian dream, don’t we talk of the empowerment of the communities to the extent that they can make and maintain the rules to govern their lives? Is Mendha not a crescendo of all our community enablement swan songs?
After all, didn't Tilak roared a century ago -
'Swarajya is my birthright, and I shall have it!"

(Based on my experience in Mendha village that I visited during my attachment with North Chandrapur Forest Circle in December 2001)