The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Under the steep rocks, this sprawling grey land has the feel of the Wild West. This is the tail-end of the Chhotanagpur hill range which has spilled onto Bihar’s Gaya district from Jharkhand. It is neither easy to like the somewhat ugly landscape of the area, nor love its society, frozen as it is in the intricate web of feudalism and caste hatred. An uncanny silence envelops the Dalit homes that dot the dirt roads. The men barely speak to any outsider. Naxalite rebels seem to be keeping a watch over them from their hideouts.

But Shabdo, a village in the Fatehpur block of Gaya, is different. Once mute like the other villages and a stronghold of the dreaded Maoist Communist Centre, Shabdo now bustles with activity. While some gather under the neem tree for their panchayat, others till the field.

Shabdo presents a picture very different from the typical Bihar village. There is no violent caste conflict, no massacre. Villagers have instead marshalled their energies to create a unique sense of camaraderie to fight poverty — a feat that has been drawing the media and social activists to Shabdo in droves. The villagers began by digging an old canal and removing the silt that prevented water from flowing into their fields. They have introduced complete prohibition in their village and allowed women to speak out.

They have built their own roads and in an unique experiment in cooperative farming, they have allowed the demarcation between small tracts of land to disappear so that the area under cultivation increased. Now a cooperative set up by the villagers themselves cultivates the land. The villagers are confident of their success as this year they managed a much higher yield from their farmland. They now aim for the moon. Already with telephone and electricity connection, the village community leadership is planning to be hooked onto the cyber highway. Prasadi Mandal, a key leader of the village says, “We were steeped in prejudices and it took a few years to clear the cobweb of confusion before we became confident of ourselves. We have built a unique community leadership in the village which has helped cultivate the village identity above caste.”

H.C. Sirohi, the commissioner of Gaya division, says that Shabdo has broken new ground in rural development. Conventional road blocks like caste divide and pervading pessimism have been overcome by community unity. That done, villagers are asserting their rights. Sirohi thinks that this has been possible because one of the main sources of dispute and violence was land demarcation and with that undone, peace and harmony followed naturally. Sirohi himself monitored much of the initiatives of the villagers. There were also two research scholars from the Institute of Research and Action.

For the village, the test of their unity was bringing to life the Hadhadwa canal. Lifeline to at least 40 villages, the canal, connected to the Paimer river, had been levelled out by silt in vast stretches and these had become the agricultural land of somebody or another. Residents of 40 villages led by Shabdo took seven months to clear the hitches in 2002.

The work now is distributed among the villagers. There is a 40-member team for agriculture and the focus is to change the crop pattern. “We will soon shift to floriculture”, says Archana Kumari, an articulate woman in command of village welfare. The villagers have now constructed two roads connecting the hamlet to the main road and are now busy installing a cattleshed and a panchayat hall for women.

Once a nightmare for the police, the crime rate in the area has dropped dramatically. According to police officers at Fatehpur, there have been no FIRs filed by the 450 members of Shabdo village. The villagers have set up their own security system which guards them at night. “We still meet the Naxalite activists. They ask us questions but they have decided to keep out of our way”, says one of the scholars from the Institute of Research and Action.

At a time when academic analysis of Bihar’s backwardness has helped political rhetoric grow more shrill and has led to a volley of criticism, particularly from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, against the Centre’s policies, can Shabdo offer some hope for the rest of Bihar' Laloo Prasad Yadav, by the way, has never heard about this village.When his attention was drawn to Shabdo’s bold experiment with land use by a senior Indian administrative service officer, Laloo Yadav promised to visit the village and forgot about it promptly. He has never had much interest in development anyway.

Pushed to the bottom of the development ladder, such success stories are rare in Bihar, particularly in its rural areas. In rural Bihar, only 10 per cent of the households use electricity. Fifty five per cent of the households live below the poverty line and 5 per cent of the household benefit from the public distribution system. Given the vicious cycle of poverty, the wound of Naxalism continues to spread. In the central Bihar districts, chaos in land reforms measures has spurred social tensions.

In Bihar, which was one of the earliest states to implement the Land Ceiling Act (1955) and subsequent tenancy reforms, the process of land reforms is far from over. The reforms have even been unsuccessful since the land-related laws are invariably tailor-made to serve the land-holding classes. Land thus remains the source of much of the bloodbath. Bihar today replays the violent conflicts between peasants and landlords which once seared Latin America in the Fifties and the Sixties. The state’s only remedy appears to be to keep the peasant rebels away from the Naxalites who have come to stand beside the Dalits and backwards and fight against the big landlords. Although Naxalite presence has struck a balance among the power equations and prevent large-scale massacres, small confrontations continue to take place.

It may not be possible to follow the Shabdo model throughout the state, especially since the basis of the movement is the wiping out of land divides. Naxalites believe that “a revolution is not the same as a picnic in a village by some simple-minded people”, as the MCC commandant pointed out. But Shabdo could definitely serve as inspiration.

Academicians and social workers visiting the village feel the same way. They believe the village could lead the way in development. In Andhra Pradesh’s Karimnagar district, the milk cooperatives movement involving large sections of women have helped ease tension in a feudal social set up and prevented women from joining the Naxalites. The Shabdo model in Bihar may play as a social anchor for the deprived masses. It may also help co-opt the rebel ultra-left militants into rural committees for rural development. Even tokenism can help, explain some experts.

One of the former rebels, now a research scholar at the Institute of Research and Action, claims her familiarization with the region’s problems helped her understand the area from a better perspective. She feels the effort to integrate rebels into the panchayat could not succeed because panchayat bodies are now under the control of a politician-contractor nexus. Shouldn’t others also feel enthused by the experiment'

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