Route: UP-MP Border, Manwara, Khaddi, Gaurihar, Sichahari, Majhpatiya, Muderi, Bigpur, Bandargarh, Achnar, Khajuraho, Nayagaon, Kaunda, Pahra, Basari, NH 75 till Chhatarpur
The first thing that comes to the mind when you say Khajuraho is its temples and their erotic sculptures. The fact that India was so liberal and open about sex (homosexuality in particular) can baffle your mind.
However, there is also a parliamentary constituency by the same name in Bundelkhand region and the fact that India can still be so backward in 2014 can also baffle your mind. It appears that the highway of development has simply ‘by-passed’ the region. Traces of ‘work-in-progress’ can be seen all around, most of them initiated at the eleventh hour just to placate the voter in this election season.
Not only has the area been neglected when it comes to development, but it has also been neglected while campaigning. Go to any village and you will hear the same reply— “Abhi kauno prachar hi nahin hai” (there hasn’t been any campaigning so far). After cycling around 100 KMs within the constituency, I came across BJP’s road campaign once, but never of the Congress
Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, trying to make inroads in the state, were most active. Based on the interactions I had with people in some of the deepest and obscure villages of the constituency, BSP can throw in some surprises; it may not win the seat but it could certainly improve upon its previous vote share and spoil a smooth-sail for the sleeping giants—BJP and Congress.
Lok Sabha elections are impending in 10 days, the biggest exam for political parties, and they don’t give a damn? Either they are too confident of their victory or they are reassured that they will cheat and pass. The latter course, of course, is more lucrative. “The house on which you are seeing the XYZ party’s flag is one of my relative’s,” said Noor Muhammad Ali (name changed, not religion) of Manju Nagar adjacent to the western group of Khajuraho temples. He doesn’t interfere in other people’s choice, he said. “And if someone gets 2 - 2.5 Lakh for getting associated with a party, who would say no?” he said in a hushed voice.
If the government and parties are apathetic, so are the people. Harvesting season is in full swing and nobody—at least from among the farmers and farm-labourers—has got time to worry about elections or whom to vote. Some even thanked me for letting them know elections are coming. Ram Chander Srivas, a daily wager of Manwara, a border village of Madhya Pradesh has left the decision on village-head (pradhan) or elders in his family. “I will give my vote to whoever they say,” he said.
A lot of people didn’t even know Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi leave alone their local candidates. But despite their ignorance or hatred for politicians, they never boycott the elections. They find it inevitable, except a handful of people, like Dilip Wasati, an auto driver in Udaypurwa village, who thinks voting is pointless because a politician only cares for his pocket rather than people who elect him or her. Once started, he didn’t stop until his passenger, who was getting late, has to coax him at least thrice to push on.
There are reason for this deep-seated resentment and frustration.
In an age where India doesn’t miss a single opportunity to thump its chest as a global superpower, there are villages in Khajuraho, where there is still no electricity. Which means no light, no fan, no television, no computer, no internet, no Twitter! Of course they have mobile phones which they go to the neighbouring village to charge. “The battery life of my phone is very good. It goes on for 2 days easily even when I listen to music and use its torch in the night,” said one kid of the village ‘Andhiyari baari ka purva’.
Andhiyaar, by the way, means darkness in Hindi and the darkness can be figurative as well. For example, this young man, Gorelal, barely 17 or 18 year old is going to be married on 7th May to a woman he has never seen. For villages like Andhiyari Baari, kerosene is lifeline. People belonging to general category are criticising the state government heavily for stopping their Kerosene supply. While on paper the government’s move appears to be in the right ‘spirit’, a lot of these general category people I met were very poor.
Even in villages where electricity has reached, voltage is so low that you can actually count the number of times a fan rotations in a minute. My host in Gaurihar— Amit Richharia—arranged for a voltage stabilizer so that I could sleep. While some villages live under darkness, there are umpteen villages which welcome you with glowing bulbs even at 2 PM, powered by stolen electricity.
Almost the entire Gaurihar tehsil and other adjoining areas are rain-fed despite being surrounded with rivers like Ken and its tributaries. Farmers are forced to grow just one crop in an entire year. Major crops being wheat, gram (chana), masoor (lentil), mustard etc. Thanks to excessive rain and hailstorm at the time of flowering, 70-80% yield of the gram crop has been destroyed. “I would be happy if I can recover even the seeds I sowed,” said Sunni Ahirwar of Sisodhar village. The state government promises to give Rs 15,000 per hectare as compensation but he is well aware of ‘too many slips between the cup and the lip’ in such government sops. “Let’s see when we get the money, if at all we do,” he said with a shrug.
But not everybody owns acres of land. There are lakhs of landless farmers like Puran Ahirwar of Kaunda village. He has taken 3 acres of land on lease from a rich Brahmin farmer promising him 4.5 quintals of wheat at the end of the season. Now, not only has he to fulfil his promise in cash or kind in 10-15 days, he won’t even get the compensation from the government. “Patwari came a couple of days back regarding the paper-work for compensation. He took the (bank) a/c number of the land-owner to which the money would be transferred,” Ahirwar said.
“One can get the compensation money only if the owner wishes to do so,” he said.
“Would he? How is he as a person?” I asked.
“Arre, he won’t give me a chavanni (25 paise),” he retorted.
Crops that survived the rains are in abysmal health. MP’s wheat may be famous in the country but the quality of wheat, at least from this rain-fed region that I saw, was very poor. A live demonstration of the ‘health’ of MP’s wheat by Raja Bhaiyya Pal of khaddi village opened my eyes. But when the health of a farmer himself is in jeopardy, worrying about the health of the crop is a far cry. At Primary Health Centre Basari, both the doctors—Yashwant Bamoria and Shoaib Raza—were either on some official trip with a team from Delhi or having lunch at home, depending on which of the two different nurses we asked you believe.
The health centre at village Muderi (North) opens only once a week on Tuesday. Officially, the hospital should open every day from 8AM-12PM and 3PM-5PM. “Not even a single nurse or compounder is present let alone three doctors in this 32 bed hospital,” Roop Singh, a senior citizen and an MA in Political science, told me.
In case of an emergency, one has to rush either to Lauri, 8 KM away or 70 KM away to Chhatarpur. With almost non-existent public transport system, if you don’t have your own vehicle, you are doomed.
The roads can offer you some respite, though. Most roads constructed under centrally funded Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), a flagship rural road network project of Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, impressed me. But a parallel state funded road program, Mukhya Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (MMGSY) brings my heightened expectations to the ground. Perhaps the roads are a good pointer to the difference between a PM and a CM.
But it doesn’t mean there’s no corruption in PMGSY. For example, this PMGSY board says that a 3.7 KM long road has been constructed from Sichahari to Majhpatiya. Interestingly, the board is installed in Barha, a village ahead of Majhpatiya. Moreover, a cemented road (called RCC) which is claimed to be laid under this project was actually constructed by the gram panchayat, according to Ramesh, a small grocery store owner right next to the road. The rest of the road was a nightmare: all dug up, laden with stones and abandoned for the past 20-25 days.
Just like the pug in the Vodafone ad, wherever I went, construction activity seemed to follow me. Major roads were getting rolled out; hospitals were getting painted; bridges across rivers were getting built. Sure, I understand that a big project like a road or a bridge can’t be completed within a month or two or halted during the time of elections but most of them seem to have been initiated in the last one or two months; some as fresh as 20 days. I wonder whether it violates the model code of conduct. I also wonder what happens during the remaining four years and 10 months.
Work under Budelkhand package is a different matter altogether. It started in 2009 for three years. Later, it was extended for the entire 12th plan (2012-17) and 1400 crores were sanctioned by the centre for the year 2013-14. A lot of irrigation and canal projects have been constructed under the package; mainly by local contractors or sub-contractors.
My host for the second day—Rajendra Mishra—was one such sub-contractor. When I met him, he was constructing a small bridge. Bhura, one of his labourers left school in class 8th. “Nobody used to teach there. What was the point when I couldn’t even read Hindi properly?” he said. “I learned this work because I was trained to do it,” he said while digging a hole to set up a tent at the construction site. “But in a govt. school, the teacher doesn’t show you the way. You just go there, fool around, eat and come back home to take goats to graze. You learn nothing.”
But to send their kids to a government school, irrespective of its quality, is a compulsion for people like Ram Baran because there are no private schools in or anywhere near his village Dharampura. Scattered villages, low population density and high poverty don’t make an ideal market even for low-fee private schools. UP, on the other hand, has a lot of such schools.
Even if there are private schools, they have other means of income too. This JPS English School, on Raneh Falls road near Khajuraho city, doubles up as a Brick kiln. The crudest irony is— the children of labourers at this brick kiln have never ‘seen’ a school. As far as infrastructure of govt. schools is concerned, there are no functional toilets, no desks, insufficient teachers and classrooms and shoddy construction.
I would think twice before sending my kid to this primary school in Sanjay Nagar (Sichahri) with such a ribbed roof. The teacher, in government’s defence, informed me that an engineer has noted the complaint and that the roof will be repaired soon.
Now, if you think mid-day meal scheme is probably the only thing attracting kids to school, think again. Most of the children don’t eat this ‘nutritious’ and ‘delicious’ free lunch. State schools have closed for summer vacation, but I was lucky to find some students of Government Middle School Brajpura near Chhatarpur playing in the evening.
“Whatever is written over there, (almost) nothing is prepared,” said Swati (name changed), a student of class 3rd of this school pointing towards the menu painted on a wall. No halwa, no kheer, no pulaav, no mixed-veg; just chapati, rice, daal and curry is all they get. Commenting on the quality of food, Swati’s friend said, “ise gadha nahin khaat” (even a donkey won't eat this food). More than 50% of the students, including Swati, carry their own lunchbox. Contrary to the popular belief, these kids go to the school in pursuit of education, not food. Their hopes, of course, get shattered.
Just like schools, Aanganwadi—the child and mother care centres—buildings are also in the ‘pink’ of their health. The assumption that village children, as young as 0-6 year old don’t need a fan in summer is mindboggling. During rains, the cracks in the roof take over the job of crying from the children on their fate, Geeta Ahirwar, the aanganwadi worker at pahra village who gets Rs 4000 in a month, told me.
I wonder on what grounds an incumbent would ask people to re-elect him, come 17th April. But the situation didn't arise as the BJP replaced Jeetendra Singh with Nagendra singh, an ‘outsider’. Smart move—no history of work in the area, no questions asked.
However, the party members have sort of disowned Nagendra Singh. BJP’s youth brigade fitted inside a Bolero in Bigpur refused to recognize him. “Who’s he? We are campaigning for Narendra Modi,” they said. Superseding that, the party office in Gaurihar, doesn’t even project party’s PM candidate Narendra Modi. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is the man for them.
In Khajuraho constituency, there are more appreciators than critics of the CM. His initiatives like compensation to farmers, electricity bill waiver, Ladli Laxmi Yojana etc have a good recall value among people.
But there’s no dearth of traditional Congress voters in the villages either. Chaand, an ice-cream seller will vote for the party because he has always been doing so. Also, Raja Pateria’s personal standing is certainly better than Nagendra Singh's.
However, people are willing to vote for BJP despite knowing the Congress’s candidate better in the hope that a Prime Minister from the same party as that of the CM will fast forward the development process.
The real hope for the region, though, lies in efficient implementation of Bundelkhand Package which has already started transforming the geography of the region and fate of its people. Checking leakages literally and figuratively, is paramount.
But what will eventually hold the key to the regions development is the effort by each individual to come out the clutches of poverty. Innovation and entrepreneurship can lead the way. This ice-cream-seller sets a good example.
Because once commerce kicks in, as it has happened in Khajuraho city, politics take a back seat. The politician ceases to remain the maai-baap (lit. mother and father, i.e. the ultimate provider). The city, state, the country thrives irrespective of whoever comes or goes.