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!”


Hemu said...

Dear Prashant,

U'r experiences have been inspiring me a lot to work for the rural people, i did learn many things from this.
Kudos to u , hope to see some more posts like this................,


sweta said...

Hi Prashant,
A person who is fighting to achive something in his life will have lot of problem.when you still keeps trying,it when the situation around you starts to work in favour of you & helps you to achieve the GOAl,its when u change all the negatives around you into positive,one might make mistake but eventually he will persue the GOAL.

Pushpendra Singh Parihar said...

Thats why I sometimes think that idiology of real Naxals or Maoists ,who fight for grabbing the right of people rather than requesting lakh times to Authorities and big persons
cheers! Pushpendra Singh Parihar