They speak of humanity. But they have none…
“Yes, they sold their girls. It was a huge racket. Everyone from the doctor, nurse and ward boy was involved. Orphans were supplied to childless couples in major cities. Some of them were sold,” said a man in his thirties, one afternoon in Chikkalingadalli forest.
“Many were stolen or abandoned,” another man interjected with a scorn.
“They didn’t have a price…”
All day, dust swirled in the barren fields across the road. Wisps of smoke rose from factories in a distance. A stray dog strolled in tandem alongside the trees. He paused momentarily in an attempt to run across the road. An impetuous thought, perhaps. Lorries and trucks honked incessantly at one another. They were no roads left for them to conquer.
And yet, they quarrelled by way of sounds.
It was election time, and the Inspection Bungalow bustled with activity. Dressed in khakhi and white, people walked in and out of the building raising their voices, barking instructions at employees, and making room for dignitaries. They were important people, one could tell.
An old man stood up and greeted every passer-by.
Namaskara Sahib, he repeated himself over and over again.
His names was Shyam Rao. He was 65 years old.
They didn’t care.
A middle-aged man escorted us to one of the rooms. His name was Srinivas. He was the librarian. “You can stay here for a while. In a few hours, the crowd will disperse,” he said before disappearing into the hall.
Lingering murmurs and thunderous footsteps engulfed the building. On numerous occasions, we heard men banging their fists on the table. In an hour, a group of people arrived, and barged into our room. “They won’t bother you. They have been here for a few hours. Please let them sit here,” pleaded Srinivas with them.
Nyaya Prakara… Nyaya Prakara… She yelled hoarsely at him. There was a commotion outside. In the halls where men were seated for hours, none looked up wondering what had happened. It was a common sight. The employees of the Bungalow were visibly distraught. Srinivas walked to us and whispered that the NGO sahibs wished for us to be seated outside.
They shut their doors and drew the curtains lest anyone takes a peek inside. A few hours later, as we sat with Srinivas and the other men, he confessed barely above a whisper, “There are many such people who work for the welfare of communities by attending an event once a year and distributing sweets to villagers. Then, they celebrate with alcohol.” He guffawed at his own remark.
It wasn’t a spectacular sunset that evening. The shadowed skies had nothing to offer. Neither did the landscape. In the silence of the dusk, we found our place somewhere; alone and amongst ourselves.
Jai Hind, said all of them switching on the lights in the hall. Nobody knew why they said it day after day, and year after year.
It was tradition.
His body swayed, and his speech was slurred. He pointed to the fields and traced its loneliness with words that once meant something to him. But it wasn’t the fields that he described. They knew him far too well to comprehend otherwise. Yet, they condemned his actions. He didn’t mind. For, there couldn’t be anyone who didn’t understand.
He was hurt.
And, he feared them: his thoughts. They brought him angst.
He sought answers but never found them.
His name was Ahmed.
His droopy smile never left his face, and his wrinkled hands quivered at night.
The man who refused to abandon his sorrows.
“Agar gham bula diye toh bacha kya hai…”
We never forgot him.
The next morning we received a call from Hampanna. “Why don’t you visit Seribikkanahalli Thanda today? It is located deep in the forest. Their situation is quite dire. I will ask the PDO of Kunchavaram to meet you near the main market. His name is Thukappa,” he said.
In an hour, we decided to ask some farmers for directions. We were lost. Kunchavaram was 15 or 20 km away from where we were. The fields looked unfamiliar, and the unending roads never left our sight. We took a detour towards paths with ‘red sand’ as the locals advised.
It was 9 am. It was one of those days when the heat was relentless. At this hour, no one wandered these roads. We spotted farms covered in red soil. The odour of smoke and burnt grass wafted through the air. We turned to the left and spotted fields on fire. Amber flames engulfed the patches of farms as winds carried their ashes for miles.
A tractor rumbled in the distance. We asked the driver for directions. “You’ve come far ahead. Head back to the main road towards Chikkalingadalli,” he said chewing some tobacco. The young boy beside him masked his smirk with a frown.
We turned around and drove for a few miles. Several farmers sought shelter underneath a large tree. We stopped to inquire with them once more lest we were headed the wrong way.
“No. You were on the right path all along. Drive straight till you see the forest, and follow the road to the market,” he said much to our dismay.
We crossed paths with the tractor again. The boys giggled as we passed by them this time. One will find several such miscreants in these regions, said Thukappa hours later. Unpaved roads led to paths that were forgotten decades ago. Everything struggled in these lands. The earth was parched, and the forest was dead. Trees stood still like they did years ago; their tangled roots shrouded in a bed of leaves.
A dense cover of brown immersed the landscape. Its soul had withered. On the roadside, a baby monkey rummaged for food; his ribs visible in the sunlight. His tongue was out. A few miles away, families of malnourished monkeys ran towards the sound of rumbling engines in hopes of eating some puffed rice. Some crawled towards trees others barely made it. They were alive but remained lifeless. A few travellers threw bags of bananas and rice at them.
Diminishing rainfall over the past five years has rid the dry deciduous forest of its splendour. Its arms have faded and its inhabitants are on the verge of dying. Their plight was pitiful. An older monkey stood far away noticing the nimble limbs of a younger one as it dragged itself onto the road. He couldn’t help her.
His limbs didn’t move. They were weak.
In an hour, we came across abandoned brick homes. Once we had been inside them. Stacks of firewood piled around the corners. A few children walked with a herd of goats. They had sticks in their hands, and they laughed at each other. They stared at us for a while longer.
In Kunchavaram, men carried rifles on their backs. We saw them just once that afternoon. “No. No. It happened back in the day,” said Thukappa shaking his head when we mentioned it to him.
“You don’t know, do you? Naxals thrived in these regions many many years ago. But they aren’t here anymore. They were major operations underway in the nineties. The military chased them away. They must have been villagers who carried rifles into the jungles to hunt animals.”
But there were no animals here.
“I crossed paths with them once. That was years ago. They didn’t harm me in any way though. But that’s a different story…”
They entered the forest through the border since Andhra Pradesh was one km away, he whispered moments later. In those days, they had a simple philosophy — never suppress or exploit the poor and teach the rich a lesson. “I haven’t heard of incidents wherein the Naxals troubled the villagers or those residing in the thanda. Most of the times, they would catch hold of those who had committed acts of injustice. They stood up for the poor. We used to hear stories of babus being tied to a tree and taught a lesson. They let them off with a warning,” said Thukappa giggling to himself, “Some nights, they’d even tell villagers about regulations passed to protect local interests. Their philosophy was good but their approach was wrong. Violence cannot be the answer for any problem.”
We bought some bananas, biscuits and bottles of water from the store at the end of the road. Once we crossed Shadipur, the car wobbled in several corners. “These roads were sanctioned many years ago,” yelled Thukappa leaning backwards, “When this area was declared as reserved forest, the department stopped all ongoing work. As a result, they have been left unattended. Apparently, construction of roads will have an adverse effect on the habitat of birds and animals.”
But the locals believed otherwise. In the blistering heat, some afternoons, they’d confess aloud that the forest department was least bit concerned with the welfare of flora, fauna or human beings. “I have been here for more than twenty years. The forests were thriving back in the day. There was enough for everyone. You wouldn’t see animals on the road at all. They had food, water and shelter. Today, there’s nothing. You will see endless miles of lifeless trees staring at you. There’s no food left for man, bird or animal,” said Thukappa staring outside.
He had been working as a bill collector since 1988. He’d cycle to some of the remote thandas in the forest and interact with locals in the nineties. Back then, he was paid Rs 350 per month. “Earlier, Seri thanda had just 12 houses. Now there are close to 42 houses,” he said with a smile.
The road swerved to the left. It turned narrow at corners where coarse twigs rested on clumps of decayed leaves. In some places, the road disappeared. But Thukappa was calm. He knew these paths well. We wondered aloud if farmers grew anything here. He let out a sigh, and raised his arm to the right. We looked at it, at what he saw in the emptiness of the forest. For in its barren arms, lay nothing.
Nothing ahead, and nothing behind.
Yet, we looked everywhere.
“What will grow here? Everything has dried up. We didn’t have any rainfall the past year. There’s no water left. With no rains, farmers have no choice but to travel to Hyderabad, Bombay or Pune for labour work. I drilled nine borewells in my own land, and all of them failed. The government has planned several schemes for the area and has facilitated numerous programmes. But, we have failed somewhere. Chincholi is perhaps one of the worst-affected areas. They call us ‘backward’. And, they are right. We need to strengthen all measures to improve our social and economic condition,” he said.
In Ontichinta thanda, his face turned into a scowl. He jumped at the sight of tiny buildings. “It was here when it was first reported,” he whispered hoarsely pointing at a few buildings nearby. “Years ago, a family tried to sell their girl child. They lived in this village. Many men have two wives. They all keep trying till they have a boy. Of course, they are unable to feed their families and in an act of desperation they sell their baby girls to brokers who keep an eye out for such communities or families. Children were then taken to an organisation that ran a racket in Thandur. Eventually, these babies are moved to different regions in Andhra Pradesh. If you ask them why, they say — Yes, I didn’t have any money. So, I sold her. What else do I do? How do I feed the rest?”
At Gopi Naik Thanda, the road tilted upwards before swerving to the left once more. We came across a small settlement called Dharmasagar. It had a medical facility and a bus that transports people to Kunchavaram and back. A few villagers walked barefeet alongside the road. They carried offerings on plates for their lord. Some wandered aimlessly. In these lands, one could see the effect of loneliness.
They sought each other in the most unusual moments.
“There’s a Badesahib Dargah ahead. There must be a festival or some celebration of sorts today. They usually cook mutton after the rituals. Villagers travel far and wide to offer their prayers here. They have a lot of faith in their lord. Here, everybody is welcome. They don’t discriminate on the basis of religion or caste,” he said.
The government spent 10 crores to install pump sets in the region, he told us an hour later. Despite their efforts, the locals haven’t got any respite from water issues. “We need a strong leader; someone with a vision who will be able to transform the situation here. If the higher authorities have a strong voice, then those in the lower ranks will follow suit and engage themselves in social work. If not, then we are all doomed anyways. People will do as they please; what benefits them,” he said.
Water can’t save their fields. Not anymore. Seribikkanahalli thrived back in the day, said Thukappa as we crossed a few barren patchs. One day, everyone disappeared. Many died and others migrated to different regions. Their land was cursed. The entire belt was plagued with cholera. With no medical aid and proper roadways leading to hospitals, villagers suffered in silence and died. The area was abandoned by its residents. Even today, you will find a few houses buried beneath the landscape. “If you walk towards the patch, perhaps you’ll be able to see some remnants from their past,” he said.
Nobody lived there anymore.
“People from Seri thanda walk upto 6 kms in order to reach Dharamasagar. There are various schemes undertaken by the government that are failing miserably in the thandas,” he said asking us to drive ahead, “For instance, they built 78 toilets in Bikkanayaka Thanda, Shadipur Gram as a part of Swachch Bharat Abhyaan. However, no one uses them. Why will they? They’ve never used them their entire life. Without awareness programmes, these projects are bound to fail”
In about fifteen minutes, Thukappa received a call from someone. She turned out to be a senior official who inquired about his whereabouts and wondered who we were. Why are they here and what do they intend to do?
“Hampanna — the Executive Officer — referred them to me. I am showing them around. We have big Saar’s permission too. You can talk to him if you please,” he told her in a nonchalant manner.
“They are curious. And, maybe a tad bit worried. Saar has come here before. He is a good person, and he want to do good work here. But not many will support him in his journey. That’s where it fails,” he said shaking his head.
Raising his hands towards a cluster of trees alongside the road, he murmured teak. People weren’t allowed to enter protected zones but illegal timber felling continues in these forests. “The common man continues suffer in the name of protected laws and development. Those who exploit these rules and flout them openly. “This is the unfortunate state of affairs in our country,” said Thukappa.
We came across a board that read Seribikkanahalli. The sign was lodged into the ground to our far left. At this point, the unpaved road split into two. Thukappa suggested that we follow the path that bent right. In moments, a few houses appeared in our vicinity. All around them were large trees that swayed in the winds.
We parked the car outside the government school. Men and women stared at us curiously. We strolled past a few houses as Thukappa introduced us to a few men gathered in a courtyard. A young girl took long strides towards us. She gave us a warm smile, and held her hands till we reached her home. “We have nothing here,” she said in apologetic manner, “There’s no electricity. Our farms have dried up and there’s nothing really we can do about it. We can’t grow our own food anymore and do not have any means to survive. In a few years, we will run out of water. Earlier, we had kachcha houses but now the government has given us pakka homes. We got Rs 1,20,000 each. We don’t have proper roads that connect the thanda to Kunchavaram. So, it gets really difficult in case of medical emergencies.”
She worked in Bangalore, and rarely visited her uncle and aunt in the thanda. She was to leave later that evening. The city was her home now. We walked further into the village when an old man came running towards us. He was furious and mumbled under his breath. He spoke in Kannada. The others shielded us from him. “Many have come and gone just like you guys but no one has done anything. The last time, we had requested those TV men to showcase our interview to the world so that they know the problems we are facing. Yet, they didn’t bother. Our problems aren’t that important to anyone. We don’t matter. Go back. We don’t need your false promises and tall claims. I have seen many like you,” he yelled flailing his arms in the air.
They apologised to us.
His anger was justified. There had been many before us.
They were accustomed to betrayal.
And, they never got over their broken faith.
They calmed him down, and beckoned us to follow them towards a small house where we sat on the porch and spoke for hours. A large group of men gathered around us while the women stared in silence.
“My name is Ramaji Rathod,” said a man adjusting his spectacles. He cleared his throat and continued, “There are six members in my family. We all live together. There are 42 houses in the village. There’s no work here. After harvest season, people usually go to Chincholi in search of better jobs. They become coolies,” he said.
Many families don’t own land in the forest. Only nine houses have farms. Over the years, land was divided between family members.
“What do you grow in the fields?”
“Urad, moong, tur daal, and jowar”
“How come only nine houses have farmlands while the rest don’t?”
“The Deshmukh of Chincholi allotted us lands. There were people residing in the forests. The ones who worked in the fields and farms eventually sold them to the forest department. Later, we filed a case against the department and retrieved our ancestral lands from them.”
We wondered aloud if they they had enough water to survive and what they did if there ever was a shortage. “We have hand pumps,” he replied and added, “There are three hand pumps for 42 houses. They are all working as of now. We get water in summers too. However, over the last few years, the level of ground water has reduced considerably. If our hand pumps fail, then we have to walk a great distance to get water for household chores. The older generation would draw water from wells but they don’t exist anymore. They’ve all dried up.”
Farmers had taken crop loans from banks last year but they were able to pay them back. They haven’t had any problems with loan sharks so. Not yet. The older generation spoke several languages. The younger generation spoke in Gormati. Their grandfathers could read and write. Their fathers didn’t write very well.
But they never learnt to read; their fingers never picked up a pencil.
“There is a school in the thanda. Par ye sirf naam ke liye hai kaam ka nahin hai,” said a young boy biting his nails. He stood behind us all this while listening to his uncles speak. “Do you know how many from my generation go to school?”, he paused indignantly. “We went to Chincholi to study. I completed 1st year P.U.C. There are some who have done their degree too. The school is technically running on paper. There’s just one teacher for the entire school,” he said with a smirk on his face. were We asked him how many students are enrolled in the school. He furrowed his brows as he thought for a while and said, “Earlier there were many students who would attend classes regularly but now most of them have moved away. They are all staying in hostels. Since we don’t have to pay any fees to the government schools, we are able to manage somehow. However, we do have to take care of the hostel expenses on our own. Actually, there’s just one boy who has done his D’Ed. He is now working in Bombay.”
He is a construction worker. His family has 0.75 acres of land in the forest. He couldn’t study any further so he moved to the city. His father sat beside us. He never spoke.
“There are six to seven children studying in SSLC right now. There are many who are on the verge of dropping out. The ones who are studying in Chincholi are doing well. Their parents go to Mumbai or Pune. The work as coolies to support them. Everyone in their family works every day to ensure they remain in school,” he said.
“Bijli Zamane se nahin hai,” said an old man in conversation, “Five years ago, when Anil Kumble had come, they gave us a small box. They called it solar. Every house got one. We used that for a while. Now, they are setting up a grid to supply electricity to the entire thanda. That is a better alternative than boxes or wires. Also, it won’t damage the forest,” he said. They all pointed at the lamp posts and said it isn’t functioning yet. The collection process was yet to begin. “We have to pay the meter charge which is Rs 40. All the other work has been completed. It will take us 20 days to get the money sorted out. Then, we will have light in our homes, and our village won’t be shrouded in darkness.”
A year later, they were still sitting in dark corners staring at skies illuminated with a million stars, listening to an old radio crooning songs from years gone by.
Light never came.
(to be continued…)
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