He looked at us standing beside them. His eyes lingered on our bare feet. Children scurried along pathways that led to the back alley lest their mothers caught them playing with their friends. It was time for supper. The elders blinked rapidly and held sombre faces.
They knew him.
“Someone informed me that you have been here for the past few days. I was curious. I need to know these things. There are four of you, I heard. I want to know who you are and why have you come to my village,” he said placing his feet against the car. His name was Nana. And, he grew up here. He examined the back seat as if he were looking for something. An elderly man, clad in white dhoti and a cap, walked before him. “Police Patil,” he introduced himself to us.
He tilted his head sideways, glancing at the end of the road where people gathered in groups of three or four. The crackle of dead branches caught his attention for a moment. Steady strokes switched to violent swirls when the bark shuddered in the summer winds. He narrowed his eyes and cleared his throat several times, as the others looked on. “People are reluctant to work in this village. Earlier, if they earned Rs 1,000 every month, they would work day and night to get the job done. However, these days everybody is looking for jobs that’ll fetch them Rs 1,000 in four days. They refuse to do any hard work under NREGA,” said Nana.
His claims turned strange with every passing moment. For, abandoned homes spun a different tale. Some left their homes in search of jobs. Some left in search of hope. Yet, the Sarpanch believed no one wished to work hard anymore.
“I used to work in Chennai,” he said pointing at the car, “I left my job to contest for the elections here. I wanted to serve my people. You have been here for a few days. What have you learnt do far?”
“Many don’t have official documents like ration card or pan card. It’s best if you keep them informed of the schemes available,” we told him.
“If I get four people from our village to keep the locals informed, they wouldn’t listen to them. They’d rather listen to people like you. Outsiders,” he said smirking.
“Now, some might complain they weren’t given their job cards,” he said looking away from us, “Has anyone come to me so far inquiring about NREGA? Why haven’t these villagers come to my office to collect their job cards? I have several responsibilities to take care of. In their case, they submitted insufficient documents for Aadhar Card. So, their forms were rejected.
There used to be a river that flowed through these lands. Rivulets ran through open spaces where trees once stood tall. “The width of the river was 50 feet a decade ago. Now it barely crosses 10 to 15 feet. Everything dried up here: the wells, the ponds, the rivers. There’s nothing left,” he said flinching as he stubbed his toes on a stack of bricks in the corner.
“Social work takes far too long to accomplish,” he said with an exasperated sigh, a while later, as women peeped through their front doors wondering why he was here. He noticed them. “It can’t be done overnight. Recently, we got some funds to dig a small pond nearby to facilitate rainwater harvesting during the monsoons. It’s a big project. That should help us. But these people aren’t hardworking. Everyone wants to lead a comfortable life. They refuse to break stones. They refuse to do anything that will require them to put in any extra effort.”
“Kyun buddi theek bola na?” he asked the grandmother next door. She had just woken up from her afternoon slumber. She limped her way across the courtyard towards us. She took care of him when he was young. “They know how much I have done for this village. You can ask her,” he said chuckling to himself.
The grandmother seemed unfazed by his remarks. She looked ahead into the fields lost in thought. The onions barely left her sight. The pile grew bigger everyday. There was another man, we were told, who gathered piles of potatoes in the hall. Some of them had dug pits in case prices fell. Months later, farmers took to the streets protesting against falling prices and rising debts. Some dumped their tomatoes and potatoes before the municipal office.
Jannat stared at him with incredulous scorn. There was apathy lurking in every line on her face. She had nothing but contempt for him. “Do you know when was the last time he came to meet us?,” she asked while mixing wheat flour with water when the sun went down, “He hasn’t set foot in this village after he was elected.”
She invited him home once we left. He never visited them. She didn’t expect him to.
“Look at the condition of the house,” she said to him as he stood near the fire, “When was the last time you visited us? It was before you were elected as the Sarpanch. Look at the state of this house. It is falling apart.”
“Have you applied for the housing scheme?”
“I am not aware of any such scheme.”
He smiled and returned to the courtyard. She asked him if he planned to do anything for them. He didn’t answer. “Do we continue wallowing in our grief?” she yelled at him.
He didn’t hear.
She heard his fading footsteps as she gathered firewood once again that evening. She smiled to herself. “I was waiting for him to come here some day,” she said braiding her hair. Sadia split the stems of a small plant she plucked out of the ground near her school. She laid out strands of green on the ground where ants dug pits deep in crevices underground where they made their homes. She sat up letting her thin arms dangle on her side.
Outside Jannat’s home, was a box that held paper scraps and old wires. Some days, when shadows disappeared from the yard, stray dogs tore into it looking for food. Amidst growls and shudders, we heard several footsteps leading away from home. Silently, they walked into paths that led to the forest. A radio crooned to life as the lilting voice of a woman filled the air. It was a melancholic tune. It was a song of love and loss: one that we recognised but couldn’t name. It was from an era before us.
“Are you Hindu?” Nana asked us with caution as he walked towards us.
“You said you will provide education and other facilities for farmers in Masrudi. So, I just wanted to know if you plan to ask people to change their religion in order to receive help from you.”
“No. We will try and help all human beings regardless of their religion.”
“Phir theeke. Missionaries often ask people to adopt their God if they offer help.”
“We aren’t a religious organisation.”
“Ok. It is my duty to talk to anyone other than the residents residing in the village. And, that’s why I asked you.
As the sun went down, he left along with the rest who had accompanied him to the settlement. The men who dispersed an hour ago gathered slowly before us. They didn’t wish to be seen. Some wondered aloud if he spoke to the shepherds who built tents in their farms every summer, if he spoke with the iron smith who left Masrudi many summers ago. “They went in search of food and water. Did he also take some time out of his busy life to speak to those who abandoned their homes and moved away in search of jobs?” Their emotions surged and transformed from rage to disappointment. An urgent discussion ensued amongst themselves. Their feelings brimmed with contradiction as they spoke in verses unfamiliar to us. They were shrouded in grief. Some lowered their heads, and kicked pebbles across the road. One of the men leaned in the doorway of Sadia’s home.
His name was Manoj. “Come home for tea,” he said lingering around us. We had seen him once or twice before at the tea stall. His young girl wrapped her arms around his neck. She barely allowed anyone near her cheeks.
He waited for us to follow him. At this hour, women gathered on the porch. His wife, mother and sister-in-law sat in the courtyard. Their feet were dusty, and brought back memories of women walking with pots of water in the morning. Children ran hither and thither, shouting and laughing at each other.
A few fell down and bruised their knees as the others ran around screaming into the bushes. Prathamesh wiggled his thumb at the group standing before him. They were dejected. We saw him walking with a gang of boys around the village. He carried marbles in his pockets and challenged everyone to play a game with him all evening.
He was Manoj’s son. His aunt sat on the ground making a choolah with mud and water. Every ragged edge was smoothed and straightened with a flat panel. Some walls had a fresh coat of paint. The rest were bare. They all lived together. His house was huge, the others whispered when he wasn’t around.
Jannat and Vittal joined us soon. Manoj walked in and returned with a plastic bag.
“This is my job card,” he said glancing at them, “I collected mine a long time ago. People don’t ask for theirs and assume they were never given their cards. These people don’t want to work under NREGA at all. Then, they complain that they never get any opportunity to work. Most of them don’t want to do anything.”
“Vittal refused to work in any projects,” he said pointing at him.
“And, Jannat did not return the money to NREGA.”
“What do you mean?” we asked him.
The women agreed with him. They reminded Jannat what she did was wrong. “Everybody refused to work towards constructing the road. Since we would lose out on the project, the authorities decided to build them anyways. They got machines and completed the work in no time. We finally had a road running through our village. They then requested everyone to give the money credited to their account back to them since they had to cover the cost of the machinery as well as the drivers. Jannat and her husband refused to return the 3,000 that was credited in their account.”
They made a mockery of their naivete. Farmers were unaware of rules and systems imposed by the authorities, of schemes that were meant to help them survive. Contractors and corrupt officials abused loopholes within the system to gain from initiatives and programmes introduced in these regions. On paper, they worked. For, they were meant to uplift lives in areas where death and misery loomed large. In the evenings, they spoke of failure. “It wasn’t that the scheme had failed,” they told us, “We failed the system. Papers don’t exploit the poor and weak. Human beings do. It is our failure to rise beyond differences, and treat one another with kindness and unity, that has led to the situation we are in. We exploit each other. And, we will continue to do so.”
They never protested against one another. Mostly, they collapsed into silence, with no voice or opinion expressed against those who wronged them. They had fear in their hearts. But they never hid it. They felt helpless and humiliated. They never hid it.
They knew who the people were: those who went behind their backs, those who conspired with the rest. They knew who they were from the moment it all began.
They knew that they were one of their own.
And, they never hid it.
It was odd, we then realised, when Manoj invited us home. When the Sarpanch left, he whispered something to him. We played the events of that evening over and over again in our heads. Some stories were half told, some were unknown. They were told to us, nonetheless, on rainy nights and summer afternoons, on days when no one lurked around creaking doors, we heard whispers of injustice and indifference leading to despair. Months later, we recalled many such moments amidst communities all across the country.
“My name is Kalim Pasha Bagad Pathan. And, I am willing to tell this story,” he said sitting on the floor. Jannat sat beside him staring at the walls behind them. They looked like the ocean. Small waves lapping at the shore. They were falling apart, everywhere. She ran her hands across them. She was worried they wouldn’t last the year.
“For the past few years, there has been no earnings whatsoever with farming. I work as a construction labourer and we have some goats too. Some months, I get work everyday. Sometimes, I earn enough for us to eat three meals a day. Sometimes, I don’t. If we fall ill, then we have no choice but to borrow from someone,” said Kalim.
Jannat was ill. For the past two years, she visited doctors in and around Latur hoping they would cure her. She barely ate these days. She sold her jewellery to cover the medical expenses incurred during the treatment. “I sold 1 tola. That was all that I had,” she said shooing flies away from vegetables kept in the corner.
“I will tell you everything about how the NREGA scheme was implemented in Masrudi. We know nothing about the initiative. Maybe the Sarpanch will know what it’s all about. Kaam hua hoga NREGA ke dwaara par kaam kiso ko nahin mila. Here, all our job cards are with the contractor. They have taken money from our accounts. They took our signature on bank slips and withdrew money that was meant for the work we had done. According to official records, scores of farmers have worked in projects implemented under the scheme,” he said much to the dismay of others gathered in the courtyard. They were worried for him.
This went on for a while. For a few years, the contractor, bank manager and officials found supporters within the community. No one protested against them. Some sensed something was amiss. “The old bank manager was involved with the corrupt contractor and officials. He would allegedly allow them to withdraw money from our accounts with true or fake signatures. Apparently, he earned Rs 5,000 with every project. It was only when the new manager was appointed, I found out about the scam. He refused to grant them permission to withdraw money from our accounts. He insisted that the account holder be present before him. He said contractors aren’t allowed to collect money on behalf of those who have worked on projects. He couldn’t be bribed. All it took was one honest man to foil their plans,” he said brimming with pride.
That day, he received Rs 3,000 in his account. The bank handed him a slip and his passbook. When he went to the teller to update his book, there were transactions worth Rs 25,000 made in the last two years under the NREGA scheme. According to official records, he was a part of several projects undertaken in these regions. They forged his signature on withdrawal slips.
Kalim got up abruptly and went into their bedroom. As he unlocked the cupboard and grabbed a plastic bag, Jannat brewed a fresh pot of tea. “This is my passbook,” he said handing it to us, “Take a look. If I had all this money coming into my account, why would I struggle to make ends meet?” he asked.
“Did you get any compensation from the government for losses incurred due to drought?” we asked him a while later.
“There was a grant issued by the government to help farmers in drought-hit areas. For 1 hectare of land, a farmer could get upto Rs 6,800 whereas he can earn Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 with a good harvest. They are doing whatever they can but we can barely cover our losses with that. I have to pay Rs 8,000 every year as my elder daughter’s school fees.”
“If the drought persists next year,” said Jannat in a concerned voice, “ we might have to leave the village.”
Her tired, edgy voice faded into silence as she glanced at Sadia trudging off to bed. By noon, no one lurked in the courtyard. Jannat hadn’t eaten anything today. She skipped her meals the day before. She has survived thus far, she told us, she would remain alive a while longer. “Maybe that’s our punishment,” she said with a wry smile, “To remain alive as long as we can. Death would then be a blessing.”
Kalim skimmed through the pages of the passbook. There were several entries of Rs 1008 made in the last few months. “23,” said Kalim looking at us intently, “I counted them all. There were 23 entries of Rs 1008 recorded in my account. I decided to keep the money that was meant to go to the contractor. He asked me for it. I told him what he did was wrong, and that he shouldn’t take advantage of those who are suffering.”
The contractor threatened him and his family. He promised Kalim that he would teach him a lesson. Kalim told him he would file a case against them and go to the authorities if they didn’t back down. They left him alone. Since then, Kalim’s name hasn’t appeared on the roster.
“How could he prove that I hadn’t worked on these projects? I knew he wouldn’t trouble me for Rs 3,000. He had earned lakhs over the years. The contractor had opened the account on my behalf. He came to us for our photographs and documents, I remember. But we didn’t know why we had to give our details to him. We don’t question things anymore. In our hearts, we still have hope that help will come, that we will be saved some day,” said Kalim.
“Did you talk to anyone else about this?” he asked us.
“I may get into trouble. Look around you, what more do I have to lose,” he said with an exasperated sigh.
That afternoon, Vittal confirmed our suspicions over lunch. Everyone had handed over their details to the contractors. They get a better deal out of these schemes, he said. In the past, there have been numerous instances where people have fought against contractors and the Sarpanch. “We have heard of such stories,” said Vittal after lunch, “One man stood before them and refused to let the roads be built with machines in the name of NREGA. The project was stopped. It is still unfinished till date because someone stood up to them. Apparently, the old manager was summoned to the station too. The newly appointed man is a good person, I hear. It has been a year since he came to Latur.”
But there aren’t many like him: the old man who fought against the powerful. They fear it might have consequences. Relationships may turn sour. And, they can’t afford to cut off ties with family. Not at this hour. “Some of them may be related to the contractor or the officials here. They’ll eventually call in favours too. We live here and we all need each other. So, it’s quite rare that someone will go against these bullies. They fill in fake attendance registers claiming that these people have attended work today,” said Kalim placing his hands behind his head. His knees gave him trouble some days, “There is an activist who has been fighting against NREGA for a while. He is a farmer. He lives in lower Masrudi. He will continue to fight till his death, perhaps. And, they’ll continue to make their money.”
In the evening, as we returned home, the grandmother from next door and Jannat followed us to our courtyard. There were vans parked near the cowshed. There was a crew scouting the area looking for men and women residing in the village. “Journalist log aaye hain,” said Jannat smiling. There were rumours floating around Masrudi about an organisation distributing Rs 5,000 to selected families in Latur and Ausa. Forty families were chosen from Ausa, said the men walking towards them. Everyone tried their luck today. “This gives us hope,” said Jannat, “There are people coming in every other day promising to help us. And then, they never return. Nonetheless, we take that chance. Maybe, it’s our last grasp at hope. So, we welcome them all.”
Everyone walked out of their homes in hopes that they get chosen. They wondered if fate would favour them today. “What of those who are left out?” asked the grandmother looking at them. Her nervous glance shifted between the crew and the hall with stacks of onions laid out neatly. “How do they choose who deserves to get money and who doesn’t?”
“How do they choose who gets to survive and who doesn’t?”
(to be continued…)
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