The Telegraph
Thursday , April 17 , 2014
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For once, Saranda is hopeful
Big Six ready, villagers want Ramesh

Digha, Manoharpur (Singhbhum), April 16: Some of Jharkhand’s richest and poorest will be among 85 lakh-plus eligible voters tomorrow, as the state of blinding contradictions goes to polls across six constituencies on its largest Lok Sabha election venture in 2014 that will seal the fates of 106 candidates in the fray.

Across the six, cold facts say three seats — Giridih, Hazaribagh and Khunti — are held by BJP sitting MPs Ravindra Kumar Pandey, Yashwant Sinha and Karia Munda, while Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Singhbhum by three others, Subodh Kant Sahay (Congress), Ajoy Kumar (JVM) and Madhu Koda (Independent). This time, two sitting MPs have passed the baton to the immediate family circle — Sinha to son Jayant, Koda to wife Geeta.

Amid chalk-and-cheese differences in six constituencies, there is one that stands out, Saranda in Singhbhum. Asia’s largest reserve forest and stronghold of Maoists during the 2004 and 2009 elections, the area, after the Operation Monsoon flushout offensive, now goes by many tags — “liberated”, “rescued”, “sanitised”.

Of Singhbhum’s 11.52 lakh voters, Saranda Development Plan area covering Manoharpur and Jagannathpur Assembly segments, has over 18,000 across 223 booths. So, Saranda and its surrounding hamlets hope to vote tomorrow apparently free from the shadow of fluttering black flags and the red hand for the first time since 1999.

Twelve MP hopefuls, including former chief minister and sitting MP Koda’s wife Geeta, Congressman Chitrasen Sinku, Dashrath Gagrai of the JVM, Laxman Gilua of the BJP and Salkhan Murmu of Jharkhand Disom Party are in fray for Singhbhum. But the man whose name evokes extreme reactions is a Congress Union minister whose seat is Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh.

“Jairam Ramesh ladenge? (Will Jairam Ramesh fight elections?),” asked Shanti Mahto, in her early 30s. Around 8pm, Shanti and husband Sunil dined on starchy rice and boiled potatoes in Panchpaiya village in erstwhile rebel stronghold Lailor panchayat, Manoharpur. Their twin sons, Ram and Shyam, studying in class II, played before their new mud house lit by a solar lantern.

For Lailor residents, night visitors still spell trouble — or at best a sleepless night. No wonder, the Mahtos looked tense to see The Telegraph team. A “johar” with folded hands broke the ice.

Solar light kaun diya? (Who gave you the lamps)?

Uoo, Jairam Ramesh,” Sunil said. The twins clapped seeing cameras. Shanti pointed to a cycle parked by the wall of their Indira Awas, visible symbols of Ramesh’s multi-crore Saranda Development Plan.

Are they voting? “Ho,” replied Shanti.

For whom? “Jo vikas karega, aaur kisko denge. (Those who bring development, who else),” she replied smartly. “Hum toh ekai neta ko jaante hain. (We only know one leader),” Sunil added.

As goodbyes are said, Shanti asks again: “Jairam ladenge? (Is Jairam contesting?)” The name of Singhbhum’s Congress candidate Sinku evokes no recognition.

Solar lamps, Indira Awas homes and cycles on a smooth road are most visible symbols of Saranda’s development from Manoharpur to Bisra, a turn leading to Digha, via Lailor and Jeraikela, a distance of over 40km. But probe deeper, and the UPA government’s showpiece initiative to counter Maoism reveals schisms.

Launched in 2011, the Saranda plan promised roads, livelihood, homes, health and, most of all, links to the mainstream.

That is far from reality. Of the 11 proposed roads, some four are complete. Roads are incomplete or invisible in Lachragarh, Digha-Kiriburu. In Lachragarh, a board reads “road completed on June 6, 2013” but actual status said otherwise. The Integrated Development Centre in Digha is yet to become regular.

What Ramesh managed to do was raise hopes and belie many.

Digha panchayat head Niyaram Topno accompanied The Telegraph on a 45km bumpy drive snaking through streams and hills to Tirilposi and Tholkobad, highly sensitive areas below majestic Saranda hills.

There, he remembered the times when policemen were killed and their vehicles charred by Maoists. “See bullet marks on the tree trunk,” he said. “Today, you can venture this far. This is magic,” he said. “Only one leader dared to come,” he added.

But, Ramesh’s glow chips and fades as the 100km road proposed from Jeraikela-Digha-Kiriburu, a part of the Saranda plan, sees hardly 10 per cent work complete.

Kuch nai hua. Na road mila, na pani aur Indira Awas. (Nothing happened. Neither roads, water or houses),” said Manohar Herenj, a villager pedalling his cycle in Tirilposi.

Will he vote? “Yes,” he said. For who? “Kyun bole (Why should I say?)” he smiled.

Bitkalsoi, the last village on Jharkhand-Odisha border under Digha panchayat, is still cut off from the world every monsoon. People knew about polls vaguely but not candidates. No one came to them.

It’s a village that shudders at the memory of gram head Jeevan Masi Bhuiyan who was beheaded by Maoists in the early 2000s for helping the police. His niece, Bilasi Lugun, hasn’t yet decided if she will vote or not. But she wants a replacement for her defunct solar light.

Fir chahiye (I want another),” she says. “Bugin, bugin,” she waves bye in Mundari.

A local resident confounds the whole development debate. “Yahan Gandhi jeetega,” he said, referring to cash clout (with the Mahatma’s face printed on rupee notes).

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