Apr 1, 2014 – I am in the Chota Nagpur plateau in eastern India near Ranchi in Jharkhand. There are two famous centres of activity here. One is Ramgarh Coalfields owned and operated by the Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited. The other is the Hindu pilgrimage centre of Rajrappa, where the main attraction is the Chhinnamasta temple. It stands at the confluence of the Damodar and Bhairavi (locally called Bhera) rivers. Rajrappa also is a pilgrimage centre for the Santhals and other tribals who come to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in the Damodar. The sheer scale of the landscapes and the beauty of the hills are breathtaking but everything fades into ignominy when one starts to discuss, debate and understand the livelihood issues of the local villagers.
While in Ranchi, I asked a colleague to take me on a farm visit. So off we went to village Durgi, block/tehsil Ramgarh, in Ramgarh district. This was earlier a part of the Hazaribagh district of Bihar, before the bifurcation of the state. I wonder what has changed since then. There I met Thakur Das Mahatav, a 60-year old farmer, with two children who owned 60 decimal of land (100 decimals=1 acre). The largest farm in the village is five acres and the average size is 2.5 acres. Thakur Das’ life epitomises the living disaster that is the standard fare of farmers in many parts of the country.
Corruption is rampant and all-pervasive in this part of the country. Payments for work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme come very late; sometimes as late as six months. Sometimes payments do not come at all. There is little doubt about payments being received by the authorities though and even disbursement of funds is recorded but the workers go without the promised wages. Villagers tell me that half the money is pilfered by the concerned officers and panchayat. Youngsters laugh when I want to discuss corruption; they are cynical and amused that one should want to discuss such a mundane topic. I am left aghast because corruption seems to be accepted as a matter of routine.
Even the co-operatives have failings here. When there is a fertiliser shortage, urea is sold at a premium and price goes up from Rs 320 to Rs 450 per kg. For diammonium phosphate (DAP), the price goes up from Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,800 for a 50 kg bag. Given the small size of their holdings, many farmers do not want a full pack. If a farmer purchases less than a full bag of fertiliser, he has to pay an extra 20 per cent. Such is the apathy with which even the co-operatives treat the farmer and these are the institutions that are so trusted. I am shocked because I believed that the co-operatives treated farmers better than fleecing shopkeepers. I am disabused of the notion.
Those below poverty line (BPL) get one kg of rice a day, which I presume will make it 30 kg per month. Of the 20 houses that I surveyed, only one person had a BPL card, even though every one qualified for it. Grains under BPL are provided for only four months a year unlike in West-Bengal, where the supply is year round. Ration shops open for only three days in a week and the general feeling amongst those gathered around me was that the state government was responsible.
There is a network of drinking water pipes in the village but supply of potable, piped water is irregular. The solution is bribing the way into getting the water shortage addressed. The state of affairs of other departments of the administration is shameful too. The government gives free seeds but does so after the sowing season is over. The villagers feel that middlemen sell the seed in the market and pocket the profits. Farmers would like hybrid seeds to be distributed instead.
The story of their plight becomes even more pathetic. Even though electricity is as good as free, getting a transformer installed is a costly exercise. It is impossible to get one installed without paying a bribe. A one kw electricity motor, working for 20 hours a day, costs only Rs 71 a month. There are ½ kw connections available for homes too. There are electricity cuts for two hours in the morning and evening. The power scenario seems to be a little better than in other states; after all one is in the heart of India’s coal belt.
Only one or two persons in the village are employed in government jobs and 75 per cent works as labour in the coal mines in the Rajrappa area, which seems to be the fiefdom of the coal mafia. The villagers have little idea of the swindles and scams around the precious coal reserves. Illegal underground tunnels have emptied the land of coal in a blatant display of crony capitalism and corruption. The resultant rise of Naxalism threatens to drown the Indian growth story.
There is no dispensary in the village and residents have to go to Chittarpur, three kms away. There is no public transport and private vans charge Rs 5 for travel up to Chittarpur, the centre of activity here. There are only five motorcycles in the village and no one owns a car. For post secondary education, children go to Ramgarh or Chittarpur everyday. Free schooling is available for children in the village up to Class V, after which they have to walk a kilometer, to village Badkipona, to attend classes up to Class X. All this is free, though.
No more than six or seven houses have television sets and, as is the story across rural India, there are no functioning radios in the village. People listen to music on the cell phone. There are no land lines in the village but lots of people own post-paid cell phones.
The potato crop has failed here because of a frost attack. Expectedly, there is no risk mitigation available. The potato yield is between 200 mand and 300 mand per acre. The common variety is “Siwan” that sells for Rs 240 for 40 kgs. The rice yield is 100 mand per acre; the common variety grown is “6444” or “Manisha”. One kg of potato seed is used for planting 10 decimal of land and the cost of seed may vary from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,400, depending on its purity. The corn yield is 60 mand per acre. One kg of seed gets the farmer a 10 mand crop; 600 grams of corn seeds are used for planting 10 decimal of land.
Vegetables are a favourite crop for they fetch higher profits. Ladyfingers sell for between Rs 19 and Rs 40; green chillies for between Rs 35 and Rs 45 per kg. This season the farmers’ had problems selling cauliflower. Gota Sabzi Mandi, the largest sabzi mandi (vegetable market) in the area is 13 kms away. It is from there that vegetables are supplied to Tata Steel and to the Bokaro Steel City. Shockingly, the farmers do not even know the retail price of vegetables selling in the market in the nearest town. They are being cheated and have no remedy for the problem. The government seems to be non-existent vis-à-vis addressing the farmers’ plight.
A goat sells for Rs 3,500 and it takes six months to rear a goat to a weight of 10 kgs for it to become saleable. The farmer sells chicken for between Rs 90 and Rs 100 per kg. in the market. Normally, the rate of a chicken is Rs 250 while eggs sell for Rs 5 each. Most villagers here, including the ladies, are non-vegetarian. Everybody drinks liquor, which is a source of revenue to the government coffers, the pockets of politicians and the bureaucracy.
Would it be fair to blame the political classes alone for this mess? What about the bureaucracy that is hand in glove with the politicians and are jointly looting the state. The abyss into which society here has sunk is demoralising because corruption has infiltrated every vein of society; no village is left untouched.
Memories are short and as I return to Delhi to read and watch bigger scams unfolding, they momentarily make me forget my sad journey to village Durgi.