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Development plays hide-&-seek in Bolangir

Tentlimunda (Bolangir), April 17: For truckers on the road for hours in western Orissa, rest and food are provided by “hotels”, waiting desolately in the midst of burning emptiness. These are thatched huts of clay or brick, with names ranging from the unassuming “Ratna” to the more ambitious “Chaina Town” and “Way Fair”. One little brick hut has just a wooden door, while the plain behind shimmers through its shutterless windows. This is “Hotel Green Palace”, but it is “non-AC”. Another gleams in whitewash. Written in bright blue across its wall is the motto, “Asuchhi Bhagaban”.

The deity of development has turned a kinder eye on Bolangir. The 235 households of Tentlimunda village in Belpara block, 13 km from the town, draw some water from about 10 tubewells sunk into the cracking red laterite soil bristling with thorn scrub, babla and khejur trees. The stream nearby is now nearly dry. From March to June, they collect water for cooking and drinking from holes in the beds of two ponds. A bath is impossible in summer, here and in most of the villages of the region. Diarrhoea is a condition of existence. So is malaria.

In this village dominated by the Sahara or Saora tribe, deliveries actually take place in the government hospital in Patnagarh, and not, as is usual, at home. But that is only because the money for the long trip is provided by the government, and hospital services are free. For other illnesses, particularly for the women, the local vaid or witch doctor is adequate. A 20-year-old girl has been suffering from weeping eczema on her leg for the last three months. No doctor has seen her, and her sores look as if she will need an amputation soon. Women, working mainly as labourers for government projects in the lean months, often die in their thirties or forties. But many of their men prefer to play cards in the shade. And they resent the NGO-run female literacy project, which their wives have joined.

The main street of the village is bustling with election activity, with three propaganda jeeps, banners and streamers, noticeably saffron and green. Development is an ambivalent deity. The main street has acquired disconcerting shades of shoddy small-town. One informative young man has a Walkman plugged into his ears: his parents may be wage labourers, but he is helping in the campaign.

Government projects, watershed programmes, NGO efforts and foreign aid have all helped. But they have not been able to stop the seasonal migration of poor peasants to other states for eight months every year. The desperate need to eat pushes a population of one and a half to two lakh from Bolangir and Kalahandi into an unending cycle of migration through cunning loan traps laid by labour contractors. This black market in labour fattens not only the owners of brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh — the most common destination — but also local officials and political leaders. About 150 families have gone from Tentlimunda.

Working for 12 to 15 hours a day, often eating chickenfeed (khud) instead of rice, drinking the water in which the clay for bricks is soaked, the migrants are well acquainted with death, especially in the packed compartments on the return journey. Bodies have to be left behind. A woman with two children lost her husband and three-month-old baby on the train. Since dead bodies cannot be carried in a general compartment, a policeman threatened to throw out both the dead and the living if she did not give him 500 rupees. She had no money. So she hid the dead baby in a bundle of rags under her arm and threw her husband’s body out on to a platform as the train speeded up.

The deity had not come to her.

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