Monday, September 17, 2012

Village Planning

I went to Salaiya again today in order to have a discussion on what the villagers would want to be included in the village plan. That plan, in turn, would later be presented to the Collector. Upon reading the school, the only adults present were a man sitting on a chair and a woman sitting on the floor. The man was the school teacher; in fact, he was the only school teacher that came to the school, because the other on was on strike. Despite that, he was not at the school. He was an elderly man, bespectacled, with a limp on one foot and a walking stick on his side. He told us there were about 160 children that came to the school. I only saw 7. ‘I was late today’, he explained to justify the mere handful of students present.  The man lived in Chattarpur. He lamented on both of his broken feet, a surgery in his stomach, and his overall miserable plight. ‘You don’t know what kind of a difficult life we have to lead.’ I would later discover he was a Brahman.

The woman was wearing a synthetic red sari with floral print. Her black hair lay in stark contrast to her olive skin, which was complemented by a warm, infectious smile and a twinkling set of almond-shaped eyes. Her name was Kamla Devi and she was a mother of three. One of her children studies in Gujarat, the other two at this school. She spoke of the summers and how the water dries up. ‘Neighbors ward each other off with sticks, that’s how precious of a resource water becomes’. What does this village need the most, I asked? Roads, she answered, good roads. Having ridden to the school on a bike across muddy, stony, uneven, and often treacherous terrain, I understood her concern.

Fifteen minutes passed. Villagers trickled in slowly. Sleep was creeping up on me. Across the sandy pathway in front of me, I heard the echoes of multiplication tables being recited. The voices were monotonous and drained of any love of learning.

An hour and a half after our arrival, the meeting began. Nine men were present as representatives from each of the different ‘tolas’ and then there were those of us from VSK. I recognized most of the faces from the last meeting. Two prominent figures were the Mukhya and Yadavji, the man who had helped us on the first day in making the resource map. The idea was to bring out the needs of Salaiya as per the requirements of each ‘tola’. What actually happened was more along the lines of Yadavji dominating the meeting. Many of the other mens’ proposals were rejected while some were outrightly ignored. I observed how prevalent caste dynamics were between the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Other Backward Class communities. Most of the proposed wells, checkdams, roads, etc were suggested in the same areas which already had a higher concentration of these facilities, which were all OBC areas. It was clearly visible on the map since we had marked the areas according to caste. Furthermore, in every proposal when the facility needed to go through an individual’s plot, the same names kept appearing again and again. Even though there were households with single women as the household heads, even though we had identified which homes are in the most deprived conditions, it was the same powerful people who got the facilities proposed on their property. At one point, I mentioned how there was no well in the Muslim area. Yadavji showed very matter-of-factly that there was a well some 3 inches away on the map. He disregarded the clusters of wells that were millimetres apart in the OBC areas of the Salaiya map. As much as I wanted to respond to his justification, I didn’t. After all, this was a village plan meant to cater to what the village wants. I was not part of this village, but an outsider. It was not my place to suggest what I thought was right, even if their plan did not reflect equality or democratic participation.

Such power plays were going on when the school teacher burst into the meeting, looking quite distraught. In fact, it seemed he was about to cry. According to him, some young man had threatened to kick him out of the school, because the other school building the teacher was supposed to have completed was still unbuilt. Yadavji once again took control of the situation and consoled the teacher. ‘You are a Brahman’, he exclaimed to the teacher while looking at the reset of us, ‘and that makes you a respected member of our community. You were right, and because that boy spoke rudely to you, he was wrong.’ Brahman. Respect. Caste, caste, caste! It’s so pervasive, connected not only to purity and superiority, but to respect and morality. These features make for a dangerous weapon, one that is being used quite prevalently.

Yadavji pulled the teacher aside and they spoke in hushed tones while the village planning continued. What emerged was not so much of a plan, but more of a checklist of all the things those men wanted. It was almost as if the men knew that everything they were requesting would not be approved,  so by asking for more they increase their chances of getting something instead of nothing. What good will ten more wells do if the ones that currently exist dry up in the summer? This will also pose problems in the Gram Sabha, where the whole village should ideally be present. Questions will be raised about what the village needs, why there’s a road, a well, and a canal going through the same person’s property. In fact, these questions ought to be raised. But will they? That remains to be seen.

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