“My son dropped out of school after ninth grade. The goats are his responsibility now. He keeps telling us he wishes to finish high school some day. But, we are helpless. At least, our girls will study. Maybe, they’ll even go to college. I don’t know. We can’t have too many dreams. I worry for my boy. What if he tells us we didn’t fight for him?” she whispered one too many times when he entered their home. His dishevelled hair had twigs in them today. Summer in Masrudi was especially tough when the winds bore no signs of rain. Eddying in darkness on nights when crickets shuddered in the air were limbs of lifeless trees that he once held perhaps whilst walking through their fields. He lingered in corners, in conversations when hope receded in their hearts. He lingered for a while longer when his mother spoke of him.
“He gave up his future to help us. I hope he has a good life. His hands once held books. Now, they hold the stick that helps him guide animals. He doesn’t want to go to school anymore,” said Jannat gathering some firewood for supper.
Some days, they borrow flour from their neighbours. Some days, they borrow sugar. Like dead twigs sunk in grass on a warm summer evening, their sorrows pricked them every day. Some days, they borrowed everything save time.
They don’t get ration every month. “We were given 15 kg of wheat flour and 10 kg of rice a few weeks ago. The man then tallies quantities in the next three months. But what we get all at once isn’t given to us at subsidised rates. He charges a lot more,” she said in whispers glancing outside the door every now and then. He lives with the Sarpanch who was elected quite recently. Even if we fight or question them, they will make a mental note of who we are, where we are from and where we live. At the core, we are all divided. There’s upper Masrudi and lower Masrudi. The lower side will never allow the upper side to prosper.”
At the tea stall, men spoke of unfinished business and jobs poorly done. They never repaired the roads. “Look at it,” said an old man sipping tea. He wrapped some biscuits in an old newspaper and kept it in his pocket, “This was done overnight. They brought in machines. They spent 10 lakhs on this entire rickety stretch. It has been a year since they built it. Can you tell? Where did all the money go? No one knows. No body wants the farmer class to rise. How else will they continue to exploit us?”
“Corruption,” said everyone nodding their heads as they all spoke together, at each other. An old poster hung from the walls. A ripped edge twirled in the air. There was a window that overlooked the fields. Perhaps once, they looked out into farms with yellow flowers, into places where pink sheaves turned golden. When the last of the plants had gone, perhaps they forgot about that window: the one in every corner. Here, nothing was preserved save memories…
“The contractor has our job cards. NREGA is a failure. It was meant to provide us with an alternative, a means to not let our families starve,” he said to the others. They didn’t stop him from speaking. A few kept looking over their shoulders lest they found anyone eavesdropping on our discussion.
“Sab faida thekedaar leta hai. NREGA never failed. We failed. Aadmi ki wajah se ye failure hua,” said a man leaning against the stall.“According to official paperwork, all these people seated around me are enlisted with the NREGA scheme. They all have job cards. And, they have worked on several projects,” said another looking at him.
“Check the bank records. It’ll show that we have all been paid. We don’t know how much money was sanctioned for these projects. We aren’t aware of anything. They take our thumbprint on documents we have never seen before,” said Govind who sat across the group, “Kaam bogus hai. More than half of the people don’t even have bank slips to back up their claims. The contractors forge their signatures. Everyone from the officials to the bank manager is involved.”
“We even asked them for our job cards. But they weren’t handed to us. Perhaps, it will be wise to shut down the entire operation…”
“If we aren’t benefiting from NREGA, then why bother keeping the programme alive?” asked another.
“Only the corrupt benefit from such schemes,” said Maharaj as the others coaxed him to share his views. The contractors weren’t here, they assured him. With a weak smile, he raised his fingers and glanced at the others. “What is NREGA? What are its benefits? Not a single farmer in this village will be able to tell you,” he said.
Govind then intervened in the discussion. He was the youngest of the farmers gathered at the tea stall. Days later, we found him speaking to Vittal. They spoke of a new variety of gram that could fetch them enough, enough for their families to last the year. They didn’t believe in his methods. Not until the first seedling sprouted in his farm. “How can anyone dig 10 feet on hard ground?” he asked with disgust, “It is impossible for a man to meet their demands. Ye yojna aadmi ke liye bana hai par aadmi kaam nahin kar sakta isme.”
A middle-aged man passed by us. Odd and unkempt, he walked around as if he knew where he was. No one cared. Perhaps, he belonged to a village nearby. Perhaps, he was a wanderer who lived nowhere. We couldn’t tell. His steady murmur was unsettling. He pulled his fingers through his hair. He was there amidst us, and yet it seemed as if he didn’t exist. There were many like him who walked these lands. Wraith-like figures passing by. The ones with no names, and no homes. “They keep coming and going,” said an old man to us, one evening. “Some lost their farm. Some lost their home. Some survived.”
The men told us that the house we lived in was constructed through the scheme provided by the government. “They give you Rs 80,000 only if your name appears on the list. Only then will you be eligible for housing schemes. If your income is less than Rs 20,000, then the government will include your name in it. For the past four years, everyone in this village has barely earned above Rs 20,000. Not many people have availed the scheme yet. The report never reached the important sahibs. The tehsil doesn’t even know about us,” said Govind. The air was quiet and nobody left. That morning, they sat a while longer, and we listened a while longer.
For now, that was enough.
“We don’t get ration every month,” said another man who joined us a short while ago. They get them in bulk. Jannat had told us before. “We are charged much more than Rs 2 or Rs 3 as directed by the government. It is always higher. We shell out Rs 700 for 50 kg. Every month, we ask them why supplies haven’t been stocked up yet. And they give us the same excuse. Quota nahin aaya hai. Only when the higher authorities question them, we received our supplies regularly. For the last three months, we haven’t had any problems. Let’s see how long this will last,” he said.
“We aren’t united. All we care about is ourselves. And that’s why, the corrupt take advantage of us,” said a middle-aged farmer.
“Kisaan kabhi ek nahin hoga,” said a middle-aged man to the group.
“If farmers unite, the government will fall. The system won’t survive. They will all be held accountable for what happens to us, to anyone that has been wronged.”
“That’ll never happen,” they said whispering to each other. The hum of their voices didn’t travel afar.
“Imagine you are a farmer,” said an old man after a while,” You refuse to sell your onions to the government sanctioned outlets. They will then offer another farmer a bottle of alcohol and procure onions from him. It’s that easy, you know. We don’t need much.”
“Give us some roti, meat and alcohol. We will vote for you whether you are a criminal or a dacoit,” said Maharaj in a disgusted tone. He looked away from the others as he spoke, “Party ko hum vote daal denge. Nobody thinks about the person or the party they are voting for. Regret sets in only when your family continues to starve. We don’t think about our present or future. How then will we succeed in life? Rural voters have become greedy.
“Things have changed now,” said Govind smirking, “We have become wiser too. Rural voters take roti, meat and alcohol from all politicians but they will vote for the better person. Maybe then will we get some attention…” Some guffawed at his remarks.
“What we do is beneath us. A farmer may sweep floors in the offices of those toying with our lives. Our sons will sweep floors too. That’s our reality. You will never find a farmer who is also a doctor. You will never find such people. A politician who thinks about farmers hasn’t been born yet. We have no one save the Gods. Some days, I question that too,” he said and stood up to leave. His newspaper had traces of oil from the biscuits he had eaten earlier.
In Masrudi, there weren’t many who were issued ration cards. They filled the form thrice. They submitted their photographs several times. The postman never arrived, and the cards never came. “When we went to the tehsil, we gave them Rs 300. They asked us to leave. When we returned three months later, they told us the files required Tehsildar’s seal. Some have managed to get their ration cards. They could afford to pay them some more. Jo zyaada paisa deta hai usko ration card urgent milta hai. Those who pay less get supplies that barely last them a month. A family of six people get 18 kg of rice. How is that enough?”
He was interrupted by rapid tapping of the window pane above him. The owner of the tea stall was looking for a young boy to return his change. Govind gave them a nonchalant glance. Slowly, the group began to disperse. A few stayed back for they had nowhere to go. Not at this hour. The sharp odour of tempered mustard seeds filled the air. They all looked away for a while as if they didn’t know what to say to each other.
“They lie to us,” said the man with the beard. We never saw him arrive, and he left without telling anybody. “In the morning, they say we don’t have anything. At night, they load our supplies on motorbikes and sell them to stores or dhabas. When we demand the amount we deserve, those who run the ration shops provide us half the supplies. There isn’t enough for everyone, they tell us. There never is and there never will be. Everything is made for the rich. The rich avail these facilities. So, there’s nothing left for the poor.”
For the last four years, he lived in Samudravani. “It’s around 10 or 15 km from Biroli,” he explained. He gets rice for Rs 14 per kg and wheat flour for Rs 12. He doesn’t have a ration card. His family has a card but the shops refuse to give them supplies. They offer no reason. “I need at least 50 kg to run my household. Do you think they give us high quality products?” he asked scoffing at his own question. He doesn’t own any farmland, he told us. He is an agricultural labourer. “But I observe,” he remarked before leaving, “I observe the plight of farmers in the region.”
The contractor lives in the village. Some claimed they didn’t know who he was. The others believed he had their job cards. “We know who he is and where he lives,” said the men seated before us much to the dismay of farmers gathered behind them, “We can’t really go there and hold them accountable for their actions now, can we? Moreover, he has proof that we all worked for him. The authorities will believe any piece of paper handed to them.”
The conversations turned rapid with every passing hour.
They weren’t certain if we would stay longer than we had promised.
The tankers come once in ten days, they told us over and over again. Some families get 200 litres. Some get 300 litres. Some don’t get anything. “If you have a pipe you can take as much water as you want. If you don’t have a pipe, however, you won’t get any water. Some request those who have pipes to fill their pots. They are shooed away and asked to come back later. By then, there isn’t any water left. Where do they go? Even amongst the poor, there lie the poorest who get nothing,” said the bearded man.
It was almost noon when we returned home. The grandmother sat still almost lifeless before a pile of onions. Some days, she held a stick in her hand as she dozed off at noon. During the sowing season, the rates had crossed Rs 70 per kg, she kept telling us most days. She had told us before but we didn’t remind her. She wished to speak. So, we listened.
“From Rs 70, it has come down to Rs 2. Do you see that pit there?” she asked gesturing at the fields before her house.
“That’s where this pile will end up soon. In that pit. My children can’t leave. I am too old to look after myself. We spent Rs 35,000 to grow 1.5 quintals of onions. We won’t recover anything.”
Sadia and Ayesha dragged their feet across the courtyard. They had tamarind seeds in their hands. They brought a small board and drew grids with charcoal on it. Sadia broke some tamarind seeds and handed them to us. She explained the rules of the game. If one player kills the other, the latter has to start all over again. “It’s like Ludo but it’s our version,” she said gleaming with pride.
As the last rays faded away, women gathered in their courtyard gestured at us to join them for tea. We walked to them when a bike came to a screeching halt beside us. He was the Sarpanch’s personal assistant.
“Who are you? Where have you come from?” he asked us.
We told him who we were.
“The Sarpanch wants to talk to you.”
A young man with orange vermillion smeared across his forehead rode his bike on the stretch of land that led to the cow shed. Where the village ended, he parked it against a tree. Beside him, another old man in a dhoti and white cap walked with a sombre expression.
“Someone told him,” whispered the young man standing behind us.
“Someone must have told him of the conversations you had in the morning. He never comes here…”
“Nobody comes to upper Masrudi…”
(to be continued…)
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