She has just gone through a tubectomy at a government family planning centre to qualify for a dole of Rs 120. With the money, she fed her blind husband, five emaciated children and an infirm mother-in-law. The surgery has left her debilitated.
It is a miracle Bonita Podho still survives. For the nation, she is Kalahandi�s living advertisement for grinding poverty and government apathy. For herself, she is a wife and a mother.
Bonita�s story so stirred Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 that he flew down to this outback with the promise that never again will a woman have to be sold so that a family might survive. Kalahandi hit the headlines and successive governments have introduced scheme after poverty alleviation scheme.
But Bonita Podho still has to sell herself.
She was barely 14 when her sister-in-law, Fanas Punji, unable to feed her children after her husband � Bonita�s brother � deserted her, sold Bonita to Pati Podho, a marginal farmer in Amlapalli, 15 km from Khariar. Pati Podho bought her for his blind son, now Bonita�s husband.
The 29-year-old woman epitomises what ails Kalahandi. No dearth of funds, but the poor are still starving. Bonita has nothing to eat and little to wear. �We have no land, no money to buy rice. Most days, we go to sleep hungry and the children cry all night. Sometimes, our neighbours give us left-overs. Earlier, the children would not touch the smelly stuff, but now they eat everything.�
Kalahandi contributes nearly a quarter of the rice that goes into the Food Corporation of India�s pool annually from Orissa.
Suffering from a swollen limb and chronic stomach cramps that have kept her bedridden since the tubectomy, Bonita has lost her job as an anganwadi worker that required her to trudge 10 km a day.
�After my fifth child was born six months ago, I became irregular as she often suffered from diarrhoea and I had to stay home to look after her. But after the operation, I could not go at all as I can barely walk now,� she sighed. A few days ago, the centre in-charge came and told her she was fired.
Bonita said her husband curses her for losing their only source of livelihood. The job was the only �benefit� she received from the government since Rajiv Gandhi came a-visiting. �What can I do? I underwent the operation because I was desperate to get the Rs 120 to buy some rice.�
With her mother-in-law and husband, Bonita moved to Badtunda nearly 12 years ago. She was driven out of Khatiguda by her husband�s relatives after her father-in-law died. �My uncles forced us to leave. They told me I was blind and unfit to till the land. They told me I should go to Raipur (in Madhya Pradesh) and beg with my family,� recalls Bidyadhar Podho, Bonita�s husband, who cannot walk without a stick.
Bonita�s family of eight lives in a small mud hut in the centre of the village with three smelly goats. Strewn inside the dark, windowless hut are a few utensils and some tattered clothes � the family�s only possessions.
Tethered to a pole in the middle are the goats, chomping on jackfruit leaves. The mud floor is carpeted with their droppings and the damp air heavy with a stench.
�A relative left the goats with us after he migrated to Raipur two years ago. He asked us to keep them till he returned,� Bidyadhar explained. �The animals are a burden because we have to feed and graze them. We have no separate space to keep the beasts, so we all live together.�
Bonita has two faded, torn saris � no blouse or petticoat � that she bought on credit from a shop in Bongaimunda three years ago. �The businessman has been chasing us since then. He came a few days ago and demanded the price of nine saris as interest. He threatened to evict us if we did not pay up in a month,� she said.
The landless Podhos are among the dirt poor of Kalahandi but block officials told Bonita that the family did not qualify for the Rs 2-a-kilo rice meant for those below the poverty line.
Nearly 90 per cent of Badtunda�s 120 families are as poor. Only 12 have got the �certificate� that entitles them to cheap rice.
�They told me to go to the MLA to get a certificate. But we do not even know who the local MLA is or where he stays,� Bonita said.
Badtunda could not care less for politicians. For the last two years, its inhabitants have boycotted every poll � Lok Sabha, panchayat and last week�s Assembly.
Most of its inhabitants used to survive by selling minor forest produce. But even that source of livelihood has been taken away since the state leased the nearby forests to private contractors.
The only road passing through the village is a dirt track. It is this road that Bonita has travelled in all of 15 years � a distance of about 10 km from Amlapalli where a Prime Minister promised a woman a life of dignity.
Bonita might probably still survive, left on her own, but she does not want to leave the husband she was forced to marry. �Where will he go if I leave him? He is blind and totally dependent on me,� she said. �Moreover, this is my own family. Where will I go without them?�
Describing the arrests as �significant�, a home ministry official said the Chinese, identified as Abdul Rehman alias Abdul Hasan, was on way to Bangladesh to receive arms training from Abdul Karim Tunda, an ISI agent wanted for setting of a series of explosions here in the mid-nineties.
Nazrul Islam, the Calcutta student and an activist of the Students� Islamic Movement of India (Simi), which is suspected to have links with the pro-Pakistan terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Amir-ul-Huq, a �tout� guiding the two across the border, were also arrested on January 31. They are now in judicial custody.
Based on their disclosures, the state police arrested the former president of Simi state unit, Aziz-ul-Huq, on Wednesday. Huq was produced in court and remanded in police custody.
But home ministry sources said the arrests, made on a tip-off from a Central security agency, exposed the �poor� border management and intelligence-gathering machinery of the West Bengal police. Rehman, an Uighur Muslim fighting for a separate homeland of East Turkistan, has said he crossed over to Tibet from Xinjiang last December. From Lhasa, he reached Kathmandu and then took a bus to Patna and came to Calcutta in early January.
Home ministry sources are also wondering how Rehman avoided detection by Chinese authorities, whose biggest concern after Tibet is the growing Islamic militancy in Xinjiang. The capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, has a population of 500,000, of which about 96 per cent constitute the Han Chinese. They were settled in Urumqi by Mao in the 1950s after authorities discovered there was a demographic change in the province.
However, in the rest of the province, the Uighurs outnumber the Hans three to two. The separatist movement in Xinjiang gathered momentum in 1990 after the formation of the Central Asian republics. The Xinjiang separatists are believed to be getting political and military support from Pakistan and the Taliban. The Chinese response to the Uighurs has been brutal though the authorities have taken up the matter with Islamabad and the Taliban.
Sources in the West Bengal police said before arriving in Calcutta, Rehman had got in touch with Simi office bearers in the state, who agreed to provide him shelter and support for his �unauthorised� entry into Bangladesh. He was lodged at Simi�s Shaheed Titumeer hostel in Park Circus for nearly 15 days, when several calls were made to Tunda in Dhaka.
Rehman is believed to have disclosed during interrogation that he was involved in two murders in Xinjiang. Home ministry officials were tightlipped when asked whether China had been notified about the arrest. �He will be tried according to Indian laws since he was travelling without any valid document and had crossed over illegally,� is all that officials are prepared to say at the moment.
Captain Sachin Tendulkar attended this afternoon�s selection meeting in Mumbai, but announced he would quit (as skipper) after the two Tests against South Africa.
Sachin�s appointment had been till the March 22-31 triangular in Sharjah.
Kapil Dev, the coach, chose to stay away. If that is a strong enough pointer, he may soon go the Sachin way. His appointment is till September 2001.
Back, of course, are Mohammed Azharuddin and Nayan Mongia, both of whom haven�t played for India after last summer�s World Cup.
On record, Sachin is quitting owning �moral responsibility� for the debacle in Australia, but those on the circuit know that Azhar and Mongia�s return, which was almost assured, influenced him in a big way.
It�s significant that Sachin announced his decision before the selectors formally met at the CCI. Equally significant, he spoke to Kapil in New Delhi before going public with a written statement.
Just last night, Sachin told a confidant he would press for continuing with the move, initiated earlier this season, of encouraging youngsters.
Read between the lines and Sachin (again) wouldn�t have favoured the 37-year-old Azhar�s recall.
Interacting with the same confidant, Sachin also had queries about M.S.K. Prasad, the original Mongia replacement who got dumped after the Test series in Australia.
�Obviously, their (the selectors�) mind then is made up...� was Sachin�s response when reminded Prasad was overlooked for the three-team Challenger.
More than just the selectors� minds, Sachin would have learnt, over the past week specially, that even those in the Board who had specifically sanctioned Azhar�s ouster had been �won� over by the former captain who is two shy of 100 Tests.
Last Sunday, The Telegraph had reported that the Board would brush aside any move from either Sachin or Kapil, or both, to resist Azhar�s return in particular. According to sources, if it came to that, the duo would have been informed they were welcome to quit.
Nobody with even a modicum of self-respect would accept that. Indeed, late tonight, Kapil tore into the Board, saying he had been �humiliated�.
Then, besides having to constantly deal �delicately� in the dressing room, Sachin, specially, would have had little face to show some of the other seniors.
Actually, he could well have been asked: �If you�re accepting Azhar now, why didn�t you do so before the tri-series in Australia?� Incidentally, quite a few seniors won�t be too enthused by Azhar�s return.
Not many months ago, some of the Board�s most influential members had themselves persuaded a reluctant Sachin to accept the captaincy, for the second time, and even convinced Kapil to come on board.
Now that India will have a different captain for the ODIs against South Africa (March 9-19), much of the attention will be on Sourav Ganguly, vice-captain in Australia.
Logically, Sourav should get the top job � an assignment he handled with aplomb in last September�s outings in Toronto � but a certain Ajay Jadeja may also fancy his chance.
When 37-year-olds make a comeback, a captain is made to feel terribly uncomfortable and a living legend gets humiliated, anything is possible.
Her time in power was surely ticking away, but would the clocks deprive her of this last appearance on stage too? Former state Rashtriya Janata Dal president, revenue minister and candidate from Bochaha, Ramai Ram, was disconsolate. �Where is she? Where is she? Time is running out.�
Ramai Ram is on a better wicket in this election than most of his RJD colleagues but ending the campaign with the chief minister�s meeting was to be the icing on his campaign: he did not want to be robbed of it. He was like a keyed up toy, pacing up and down the dais.
In the chopper, the chief minister was losing patience. The pilots had no idea where the meeting was and she hadn�t the navigating skills of her husband.
�At one point she had instructed us to return to Patna, we were pushing the 5 pm deadline. But then we suddenly saw the crowd out of nowhere, just a piece of luck,� one of the pilots said.
Rabri Devi was like a sterile replay of Laloo Yadav�s speeches, rendered in one long, flat and hurried rattle. �The BJP calls this jungle raj because the poor have come up, if this is �jungle raj� we must protect it because the poor can prosper only in this jungle. Laloo Yadav gave you the respect to keep your heads high, it is now time for you to strengthen his hands.�
Nothing new, nothing innovative, nothing of her own. Rabri Devi�s speech was the only thing it could have been. A dummy chief minister�s karaoke act. Her husband�s words issuing uninspiringly from her mouth.
She must be one of the few chief ministers who is on the verge of losing power and does not even seem affected; but then, it is not she who is going out, it is Laloo Yadav.
Rabri Devi has not been much of a draw in these elections but who in the RJD has? Even Laloo Yadav hasn�t got them in the manner he used to.
Today�s crowd at Bochaha should, in fact, have flattered Rabri Devi, it equalled the best her husband has got in this campaign. For one thing, it had far more women in attendance. But if Rabri Devi is beginning to build a following of her own, the beginning has come a little late in the day, at least for the purposes of this election.
In any event, the chief minister gave every indication today she is happier relieved of politics than in it.
She said she was short on time and had a few more meetings to address. But quite obviously, she did not intend addressing any more meetings.
She got a little local girl to hold centrestage singing an off-tune panegyric to the Laloo Yadav clan for more than the duration of her own speech. By the time she took off, there wasn�t time for any more.
She could only have been headed home to Patna. �She must be a relieved woman. The last day of her exams is over, now it is holiday time for Rabri Devi,� an official quipped, underlining Rabri Devi�s well-known distaste for politics and politicking.