Saturday, May 28, 2005

Pick one village

Any village.
Pick one village. I picked Chapi.

Chapi is in Rajasthan, in an area that has seen drought for seven years or more.

When you enter the limits of the revenue village (as opposed to the smaller, far-flung hamlets, within the scope of this village), you see large pukka houses, painted in garish greens and blues and even orange. You see narrow lanes, like it were a mohalla, and you see a railway track. You see a bus stand, and off the highway, passing jeeps that ferry you to the next village, for four rupees.

Then, walk... and walk... maybe an hour or so.
You will meet a group of labourers working working on a check-dam site. They've worked for six days and this is the first time in three years that any government-sponsored drought-relief project has been initiated... in this particular hamlet, at least.

Those who work on this site - shovelling dirt, carrying stones up and down an incline, digging into the hard earth - have never yet been paid. Any money they've made had been made by migrating to neighbouring districts in Gujarat, or else, by selling wood that they've chopped down in the forest. (After paying off the forest officials, most probably, for most of the villagers complain about how they aren't allowed to enter forests anymore: "They say it's not our land." "They say it's against the law.")

Then you walk another hour or two. Climb the low hills, make your way between thorny bushes and scrub forest... you will probably meet someone like Phugli.

She is sitting with a bunch of her friends, waiting to be paid. It is pay-day in Chapi village. Those hwo have worked 6 days on another check-dam site are wating to be paid.

Try making conversation with Phugli.

"What scheme were you working under?"
"I don't know."
"What is the daily wage rate here?"
"I don't know."
"When was the last time anyone got paid in such a project?"
"I don't remember... never found work before on such a project."
"How much are you expecting to be paid today?"
"I'm not sure. It should be six days' worth."
"What is your BPL status?"
"What is BPL?"
"Do you have a white card? A yellow card? Have you seen yellow and pink ration cards? What colour is your ration card."
"Do you know what colour-coding represents on ration cards?"
"I don't know."

When you tire of this, make your way to the sarpanch's (village headman) house.

There, you will see him, sprawled under a tamarind tree, a warm breeze rising up the hills and making his white dhoti flutter.

His charpai is surrounded by... how many? count... eleven women in dark, nylon sarees (Cotton is too expensive), with their faces entirely covered, are squatting on their haunches. When you appear, their fingers will work a slit in their ghoonghat, from where they'll watch you, trying to make sense of your tattered Hindi-Marwari dialect.

You will ask if you can speak to the sarpanch. Ask him whether he keeps a watch on proceedings on pay-day.
He will say "Yes, of course."

Pay-day is happening in the background, already. You have already heard the names being called out from the muster-rolls, and cash being disbursed by the sarpanch's secretary. You have heard this through the sarpanch's snoring.

The sarpanch's secretary, incidentally, is a woman. A confident type, with Paliwal for a surname (you forget the first name, because she lays so much stress on the last). She has had to clear exams to get this job.

She travels from village to village - making payments, maintaining records... she is not in a ghoongat. Just when you begin to admire the secretary for having broken free of a fuedal morality and crushing poverty, she will reveal, "Don't think I'm a villager! I'm like you girls... I was educated in Banswara... I'd rather be posted in town, but you know how it is."

The villagers are getting grain-coupons and some cash. Rs 56 each. But each one is being paid Rs 55 only.

You will finally pluck up the courage to ask what's happening to the remaining one rupee... it must mean a lot to those fathered here, who've had only six days of work this year.

One of the officials on the nigrani committee (a watchdog-type group) will laugh and say, "Well, we deserve something for sitting out here in the heat, and doling out this cash, don't we?"

Perhaps, your friends will protest, "You get paid to do your work. This money belongs to these people who have stood breaking stones all day in this summer heat."

Paliwal will click her tongue, "Oh, don't pay any attention. That was a joke. We don't have one rupee coins. We will just give out fifty rupee notes to be divided amongst fifty workers each.... you can wait and check, if you like."

You will glare at the officials, and exchange frustrated glacnes with your friends. You know that even if the missing rupee is paid up today, you will not be around to ensure the fairness, next pay-day.
One rupee each, filched from three hundred workers, is Rs 300. For a single pay-day, on a single project, that's a neat little 'extra icing' on the various committee's cake.

Outside, on the charpai, the sarpanch will have sprawed back to his full length.
He will talk to you, a taunt lacing his tone, "Hey, why don't you get us another project like this. We need some work worth Rs 15 lakhs around here. Talk to the government for us."

"Really? Why should we get you work? Isn't that your job? You're the elected representative of this village."

"Yes, but I'm telling you, aren't I?"

"That's rich! We do the hard work and you get all the votes... that's not happening, brother."

"But the villagers need the work."

"Sure, go and lobby for it. Fight for it. Sit at dharnas. Raise your voice until th government is forced to listen. Come with us, at least."

"Naaah. I'm not coming. I have... to do... some work."

As you go, you will take another look at the faceless women under the tamarind tree, and will be tempted into saying, "Tell me something, sisters... how do you manage to lift stones, with your ghoongat this long?"

They will break into a gaggle of giggles. "We don't cover our faces when we work."

"Then why do you cover your faces now?"

"It is the rule."

"Why? If you feel no shame while showing your face to strangers, when you are working, why shy away from your own people, in the home?"

"There is the sarpanch..."

"He is like your mai-baap, isn't he? Like your own mother and father... what's there to hide from your mai-baap?"

The sarpanch will half-arise, taut with anger. "This is the rule here. Women will cover their faces. That is that!"

One of your friends will take your arm and whisper, "Come. Let us leave."
And you will.


1conoclast said...

I wish I could switch to chaste Hindi on this site. English is too sophisticated a language to swear at @#$%^&*'s like this sarpanch!!!

R. said...

What i've realised over the years it is important to appreciate the various differences in peoples lives, but even allowing for these differences it is sad to see how callous people can be to someone who probably needs their support. I do think education is so important in people's lives.

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