Friday, March 24, 2017

Dreams and pragmatism in rural UP

I've been wondering what I can say about the Uttar Pradesh elections and YA's ascension. Given the amount of time I have spent there recently (almost 2 months during the election and results period), I should have some insights to share, right? Maybe I should just recount my experiences on one day in late February...

A colleague and I were at the bus stand, bound for a village about 40 km from Sitapur city. With the SP-introduced Lohia buses, services to villages had improved but there were very few buses available during the election period. So we were relieved to see a rickety bus headed to Mishrikh, an intermediate point. The bus was almost full when we were asked to step out so that it could be cleaned. Grumbling, we did. A man standing nearby started off - “When Modi comes to power in UP, such things won't happen. He will kick all the workers into shape – they will not be able to get away with this indiscipline.” The people around him nodded their heads or made sounds of agreement.

Later, in Pipri village, I saw another form of the boundless faith people seem to vest in their leaders. An old lady, who has been active in the sangathan, began chatting with me about the study we were conducting in her village. I explained that we were trying to understand what people were eating, whether it was connected to what they grew in their fields, whether it was sufficient for good health etc. “So you will come out with a report?” she verified. “What will you do with it?”. I said that we would share it with all concerned officials, politicians, activists, media. “If Behenji (Mayawati) comes to power, she will do something about it,” she said. “Will you report about the 32 people with pattas?”

Pipri is a predominantly Dalit village and most of its residents were landless. Some of them received land titles in the 70s during Indira's reign and were able to take control of the land. In another round of redistribution, 32 people received land titles in the 90s. Most of this land belonged to a powerful family which has controlled the Pradhani of the panchayat for a very long time, and the land was never relinquished. The family was able to get a stay order against the transfer, and the 32 families tried to fight the case in court but lost.

“This matter should also go into the report, and Behenji will take it up,” the old lady said. I wondered how she could still have so much faith in Mayawati. Other friends that I had talked to had become more pragmatic about the BSP – they still voted for the elephant, but mostly because they were respected here and didn't have a place in other parties. Or maybe some had switched to the lotus, though they wouldn't admit to it.

In the evening, I was chatting with another older couple. The husband quietly brings us tea every time we have a meeting in Pipri. After a recent discussion about plastic, he has begun bringing us 'kulhads' (earthen cups). I realized that he was a beneficiary of land redistribution in the 70s and had received 5 bighas (one acre) of land. He mortgaged it, he told me, to pay for his son's wedding expenses. They need Rs. 20,000 to get it back but after a few months in Dehradun his sons had only been able to save Rs. 5,000. "बडा लडका पढा-लिखा है और गांव में उसके लिये कुछ नही है - the older boy is educated and there is nothing for him in the village”. So he and his younger brother had gone to Dehradun to work in a herbal medicine factory. By the way, 'educated' meant 8th standard pass, I later found out, but that is another story.

I struggled to not sound harsh in my reply. It is sad, I told him, that the precious land he had been given was mortgaged. It further reduces the connection with land. After a few minutes of silence, he told me that his sons were attached to the land. They didn't want to leave, but last year they had leased some land to grow wheat and had incurred a huge loss. Their pumpset had failed and they weren't able to irrigate properly. His younger son had stayed up many nights, he said, trying to irrigate from a neighbour when there was electricity but it was of no use.

Last year's wheat harvest was anyway below average, I knew, due to the 2015 drought and unseasonally warm winter that followed. In fact, after the 2014 rabi crop, there hasn't been a uniformly good agricultural season here. Few people would migrate from these parts, the upper Gangetic plains, a decade ago. Or if they did, it was for a few weeks to Lucknow or Kanpur. But now every family has a member in Haryana, Delhi or even Andhra and further away...

We like our elections, in this country and elsewhere. In the absence of robust local governments or fora for citizen engagement, elections become the do-all and end-all. But the marginalised, those who truly need government support to improve their lives, have given up hoping for it (except for a few dreamers). They are finding new ways to survive, further detaching themselves from the land, struggles and local issues. Maybe, like the NRIs who have funded the Sangh Parivar, these migrants now care more about the abstract, so-called cultural issues. Or maybe they just could not or chose not to return to vote...

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