India is a country of multi-billionaires,Mr.Forbes would like us to believe. We have more billionaires than Germany, going by sheer numbers. And the PMs(Prime Minister and Pranab Mukherjee) want to churn out more from the Indian Billionaire Manufacturing Company, by the looks of it. But lets check the reality. India also has the most number of hungry stomachs, malnourished limbs and homeless heads, people living on less than 20cents a day. It is for these people that the PMs and their ilk think of innumerable ‘yojanas’. If all these yojanas were successful, India would be nothing less than Heaven. The population increase would be due to people from other places of the world migrating here and not a problem of our brains draining. Lets not get into the fluffy yojanas now and come straight to the point. The MukhyaMatri of Madhya Pradesh, one of the unimaginatively named states of India (why not then call Gujarat-Pashchim Pradesh; Maharashtra-Pashchim Pradesh-II and Rajasthan-Pashchimi Uttar Pradesh) has launched another yojana called “MukhyaMantriAwasYojana”. In which the government plans to construct hundreds of thousands of houses. The difference here is that they plan to use non-conventional building technologies like plank and joist roofing, rat-trap bond brick masonry, micro-concrete roofing tiles etc. (google??)
To initiate the villagers to these technologies and train masons in using them, MP government decided to construct a community building in each district and in the process train ten masons. TARA Nirman Kendra, the place where I work, was entrusted the job of doing the training in 17 districts of this vast state. This piece is about beginning training in three of these districts namely, Gwalior, Damoh and Panna and the adventures in the process.
The trip to the heart of India begins from Gwalior through Jhansi and Orchha. Development Alternatives (the sister concern of TNK) has a base near Orchha, a small tourist town in Madhya Pradesh. It is where we stay when on assignments there, as most of our development work is centred in Bundelkhand. The nearest railway connectivity is Jhansi junction. The journey to Gwalior began early in the morning by Rajesh’s Taxi. We were greeted warmly by government official apathy in the village where the training was supposed to happen. With no masons to train in sight and no materials at the site, we waited. At last, sometime after lunch, a few masons appeared and we commenced the training programme. Everything else went on more or less smoothly after that. It was late night when we returned to TARAgram (the DA base near Orchha).
The next day was a scheduled visit to Pipra village. DA has undertaken a rural housing project here. Construction work had commenced and the houseowners were eagerly waiting for the bank loan amount to be sanctioned to begin work. Pipra is a small village like any other village in this part of India. Surrounded by green fields on all sides. For us, urban colonisers, who are used to seeing buildings taller than they are wide, it is a romantic experience to see wide green fields with bright yellow sunflowers moving lazily, sending waves of yellow as the wind caresses them. To see potato plants with fat little green potatoes still intact. Here people do not go to pubs and malls to spend their evenings. All leisure time is spent in playing cards at the village ‘chabutara’ and consumerism is limited to the local grocer. Here, Father Time drags his feet. People still go with a ‘lota’ to the fields early in the morning. The ‘lota’ might be replaced with a plastic bottle in some cases.
Next day being a Sunday, we were supposed to leave for Damoh in the afternoon. Before that, there was the task of arranging for two masons. These masons are supposed to stay at site during construction and supervise the newly trained masons. One was arranged for without much ado. Then began the search for Lachchhi Ram, the second mason.Lachchhi is an old and experienced hand who does not use a mobile phone. This proved to be the biggest hurdle.
We first enquired at a pan joint where he is frequently found loitering. An old man with white handlebar moustache offered to come with us to help us find Lachchhi. But since we were already three of us on a motorcycle, we just asked directions to Lachchhi’s ‘Kuva’ ( as a field or ‘khet’ is called here in Bundelkhand). The old man also said that Lachchhi was supposed to attend a puja at some mandir opposite TARAgram. We knew of only one mandir in the vicinity and enquired there. There was no sign of anybody except another old man who wanted a ‘beedi’ before talking anything. Since none of us carried ‘beedis’, we left him in his state and proceeded to search for the ‘kuva’ of Lachchhi Ram.
We went to all places possible to traverse on a motorcycle with three people on it but in vain. At last, we dropped off one of us in TARAgram and went back to the old man who had offered to come with us. We took him with us and followed his directions. Till we reached a point where a bike could no longer go without three of us falling into a stone mine pit. One of us, the guy driving, decided to stay with the motorcycle and I with the old man with the moustache went ahead on foot. I should mention here that TARAgram is surrounded on all sides by wilderness, locally called ‘Bavadi Jungle’. Me and the stranger descended into the depths of the jungle in search of the elusive Lachchhi Ram.
We walked and walked, crossed a small stream by a stone crossing. Similar to the ones in Takeshi’s Castle, only none of the stones I trod upon, tumbled. We walked further into the forest into whatever path we could make out. I had lost all sense of direction and all around me was a dense growth of thorny bushes. My hands got scratched and my shirt got stuck in thorns but we trundled along. Around this time I grew wary of the man’s intentions. This place has known robberies by armed dacoits. If the man suddenly turned on me with a knife, robbed me and made a run with it, it would take me hours to get out. To make a nice happy combination, there was no network on my phone, so much for ‘atoot network’. We kept walking, I kept a large distance from the man, so that even if he turns on around, I have time to react and run. At one point, the old man showed surprising agility and climbed up a tree. From there, he called out a name. Once, twice, there was no response. On the third call, there was a return call from somewhere in the wilderness, somewhere deeper. This alarmed me further. But there was something in this guy’s demeanour which made me trust his intentions. But the rational side of me still asked for caution. So, I followed him but kept the distance, just keeping him in view. He told me that Lachchhi was involved in conducting a puja to some Baba which involved sacrificing a goat. My agitation grew further. What kind of bizarre ritual was I going to witness in the middle of nowhere?
After a lot of walking, we at last seemed to reach some sort of a clearing. Getting closer I could make out around 5-10 people including women and children. I recognized one of the men as Govind, another mason. He too recognized me. And if he was surprised on seeing me there, he did not show it. My fears were somewhat allayed on seeing him. And there was Lachchhi Ram, sitting in front of a small temple on a raised platform.
I was relieved. My trek in the forest was successful. There was also a goat there, tied by the neck and held by one of the women. One of them asked to remove my shoes and join them in their puja on the platform. I politely refused. The ritual turned out to be chopping off a corner of the ear of the goat. Bizarre, but less than what I had imagined at first.
Lachchhi found, our training team was complete. We left for Damoh. The road flanked on both sides by fields. Now, Orchha is situated in the banks of the river Betwa. So, fields here are green as ground water level is high. As we went farther, any number of ‘NeherPariyojanas’ notwithstanding, more and more fields were barren brown instead of lush green. Villages were almost empty and bus-stand crowded. People going to Delhi in search of a livelihood.To go to a life of further suffering, living in inhuman conditions and an uncertain future.
We reached Damoh town by night, had dinner and asked directions for Pathariya, the town near out training location. The official who was in-charge of the training in the district had informed me that we would find a place to stay there. But all of the people whom we asked directions advised us to stay in Damoh for the night. Since we had to leave the car that same night, I decided to go as near as possible to the village. I also had the officer’s words in mind.
Damoh to Pathariya is just around 30km, but the journey took us one-and-half hour. Such was the road. I expected a peaceful night’s sleep after all the day’s excitement, but alas, that was not to be. We roamed around the town at 1 in the night enquiring for places to put up. But to my frustration, there were none. The people were as helpful as a roadside dog would have been at that time. I called up the official at that time of the night, but found that he was as spineless. The only way now was to go back to Damoh. The driver of our car was obviously not pleased. I too pitied him, but there was no other way. To add to my worries, a few policemen informed me that the road to Damoh was not safe for travel at night. But seeing my resolve, he wished me luck. So, chanting The Goddess’s name we began our journey back to Damoh.
We reached Damoh at 4 in the morning. ‘Everest Lodge’ was to be our place of stay for the night, or what remained of it. We had a mattress without a bedsheet and quilts which must have been white two decades ago. Cockroaches crawled on us when we slept. To make matters worse, yes they could have been, the fan spluttered to a stop. Not that it was really hot but mosquitoes sang and kissed us without it. Me and another engineer who shared the room, then changed rooms. When we slept, it was breaking dawn outside.
The next day then passed away without much excitement. We stayed the night at the government resthouse in Pathariya. Though we had to change rooms here as well.Due to the arrival of some ‘minister ka PA’ who wanted to have dinner in the room. He was obviously more important than us. And it would have been foolhardy to pick a quarrel when I had two frail humans to support me.
The whole of the next day was spent in travelling to Panna for a pre-training visit. The bus chose to move at 20kmph and stop wherever there was a semblance of habitation. Five hours in a cramped bus was another experience altogether. Work done in Panna, we left for Jhansi in a much more comfortable sleeper bus.So, ended an eventful trip to the heart of India. Heart physically,as also metaphorically. This is the real India. As the cliché goes, “India lives in its villages.” And as part of TARA Nirman Kendra, I have the opportunity to work in the ailing heart and remove whatever blockages I can.