The Telegraph
Thursday , May 8 , 2014
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To haat at 3.30am with 35kg wood, haariya in evening and bedtime by urakol (plane) lights

Where is the meeting?

Srihari: Aamra jaani na. Aamra boka lok, aamra mukkho (We don’t know. We are simple people; we are illiterate). Someone told us at the Balarampur Haat (weekly bazaar) so we are going. They said to wait on the road and a van would pick us up.

Will you be paid?

Nagor: We hope so — ajike jongole jachchhi na (we’re not going into the forest today). But we don’t know how much.

Dukhni: Keu aasheni, tai jachchhi (No one’s come to the village; so we’re going).

Haradhan, 45, and Sumitra, 40, join the group. Haradhan is wearing a full-sleeved shirt and track pants. His hair is oiled. They have four sons. The eldest is in Class IX at the Kerua High School, a two-hour walk downhill from the village. The youngest is in Class I at a primary school in Chhatrajera, a 2km walk uphill.

This is a change. In 2004, no child in Borogora went to school. The schools were mostly shut for three years from 2009 to 2011 because of the Maoist insurgency.

Do the children go to school every day?

Haradhan: No, two or three times a week and not when it rains.

Why is that?

Haradhan: Because they have to go to the jungles with us to cut wood.

Do they get food (midday meal) in school?

Haradhan: Yes, that is why we send them.

We leave the group and head to the village. The trek takes us past the village of Amkocha and through the village of Teelagora. Thanks to the absurd administrative boundaries of the place, Amkocha is in Bagmundi block and Teelagora in Balarampur block.

Borogora lies under a giant mahua tree that stands on a hillock above the village. It is in Balarampur block in the lap of the hills, in the “bowl”, as it were.

On the wall of the first house, the grass-flowers of Trinamul Congress graffiti have turned fainter — they are from a previous election. There are no fresh graffiti. Two huts in the village have tin roofs that were not seen in 2011.

Otherwise, all the houses are the way they were: walls of mud and thatched roofs. But the paintings on the walls of the houses have changed. The bases of the walls are painted maroon with black borders. Some of the paintings depict birds.

Thakurmoni Pahariya, 55 years old according to her voter ID, whom we recognise from our last visit, is there. She calls out for others as we sit in the shade of a mango tree, facing the village after walking through it.

Thakurmoni: Phayn bhaat kheye eyechi taai ektu ghoom-ghoom pachchhe (Have just had starch rice, so I’m a little drowsy).

A crowd starts gathering.

Thakurmoni: We may have to go to hospital because of these women, so we are wondering what to do.

She points at Phulmani and Gurubari. Both say they are about 20. They are pregnant and may deliver anytime, says Thakurmoni who is an aunt to one and the mother-in-law of the other.

Thakurmoni: Gari’r ak hajar taka lagbe (A car will cost Rs 1,000). Nahole ekhanei hobe (Else, we’ll do it here).

Till 2011 at least, deliveries happened in the village itself. Now, the village is considering taking the pregnant women to a hospital in Balarampur. To go to Balarampur, about 18km away, they would first have to go to Ghatpeda village at the foot of the hills and change into another vehicle. The Bengal government has a scheme to transport poor pregnant women free of cost.

Have you heard of the scheme?

Thakurmoni: We were told about it at the primary health centre when we took them to a doctor.

How will you find the money to hire a car?

Thakurmoni: Who knows? Maybe we have to sell our goats.

This year, most of the goats in the village have died from a disease.

The primary health centre at Kerua, at the base of the hills, is now staffed with two doctors, unlike 2011. Also, Thakurmoni discloses that the women have been taken there for check-ups at least once. But the malnourished women of Borogora often develop complications during pregnancy that are unforeseen in most cities.

The group has now grown bigger.

Have you heard of pulse polio drops?

Suntadi Pahariya (a 35-year-old woman): I took mine at Ghatpeda.

Jagannath Pahariya (a 65-year-old man): Ekhane kichui hobey ni (Nothing will happen here). We’ll go to the haat every Tuesday at 3.30 in the morning with our loads (of wood) and go to sleep after the urakol.

The urakol is a plane. Every evening, a flight from Ranchi to Calcutta flies over the Ayodhya Hills around 8. Its lights blink over Borogora.

Cellular phone networks cover Borogora now. They weren’t there in 2004. There are two phones in the village. Also, this Maagh (the Bengali Hindu month that is considered auspicious and stretches from mid-January to mid-February), the Ramakrishna Mission gifted each household in the village with a solar-powered torch. The two mobile phones are charged when the villagers go to a bigger town or village with electricity. It costs Rs 5 to charge a phone.

Jagannath: We really do not have the time. Ek din haashpatale jete hole gota din beriye jae (A visit to the hospital means a whole day is used up.)

It is impossible to determine when the village of Borogora was settled in. It has 14 households — up by one since 2011. The Pahariyas marry among themselves. It means everyone is related by blood to everyone else. The genetic impact may be disastrous, but the emotional bond is intense.

What do you take to the haat?

Jagannath: What else but wood.

How about peacocks?

Jagannath: When we find them, we eat them. (Peacocks are common in these jungles.)

How much wood do you carry?

Jagannath: Must be 30-35 kilos. Ekhon toh cycle achhey, jotota ney (whatever a bicycle can carry).

Every house in Borogora now has a bicycle. All bought second-hand. Jagannath, who was among the first to buy one, says he bought his for Rs 400. Krishnapada, the son of a forest guard, Haripada, says he bought his for Rs 700 about two years ago.

Haripada is the only one from the village who has a regular job. He is now in Bagmundi. Also, Krishnapada’s son Bibhishon, nine years old, is the only child in Bagmundi who goes to school. He is here on holiday.

There’s a whole group of boys his age in the crowd. Three are wearing what are obviously school uniforms — sky blue shirts and cobalt blue shorts — given by the primary school in Chhatrajera. Most are bare-bodied. Uniforms mean an extra set of clothes. They are soiled and tattered but they are textile.

Do the Maoists still come?

Jagannath: Kothay (Where)? They used to come and eat whatever we had. Now I see them riding motorcycles in neat clothes.

(Many militants have joined Trinamul in Jungle Mahal out of fear or to seek favour. They also receive a government dole and provide information to the police on what is happening in the villages.)

Do you have haariya (homemade rice brew)?

Thakurmoni: Aamader ekhane keu nesha kore na (Our village has no alcoholics). But on market days in Balarampur we have haariya. Pet- bhorey, shorir taakeo thanda rakhe (It fills the stomach and cools the body). Bhalo ghoom hoy (We can sleep well).

The weekly trip to Balarampur through the hills, pushing up bicycle-loads of forest wood, is backbreaking for an under- nourished people. The arrack sold by the government retailer costs between Rs 30 and Rs 35 a bottle. Haariya costs Rs 5 a baati (bowl). It cost Rs 2 in 2004.

Decade Decoder

The gethi is difficult to find now because of forest fires but Borogora is surviving. The gethi is a bitter beetroot that is so bad to the taste that it contorts the faces of the children. When there’s little else to eat, Borogora’s Pahariyas mostly live on the gethi.

Borogora is a village of 14 households in Purulia’s Ayodhya Hills, less than 60km from the district headquarters and 300km west of Calcutta.

The Telegraph first reported on Borogora, whose people, the Pahariyas, had neither heard of Jyoti Basu or Mamata Banerjee nor knew that they were residents of a state called West Bengal, on June 22, 2004 (“Beauty masks claws of hunger in the valley”) and then again on May 9, 2011 (“Super-sensitive, but not to bitter root”).

We revisit Borogora.It is still a 2km downhill trek from — and a 2km uphill trek to — the nearest motorable road. It was a broken path in 2011. Now it is cemented and wide enough for a tractor. The road was remade under the Centre’s Integrated Action Plan for Left Wing Extremist Affected Areas.

As during the 2011 Assembly elections, Borogora is still in one of the areas categorised as “super-sensitive” by the Election Commission because of the Maoist insurgency even though there are signs that it has ebbed.

On the trek, we meet a group of four from the village, headed upwards, who are going to wait for a bus to take them to a Congress rally, probably in Bagmundi.

It is 11.30 in the morning, hot and humid, but last evening’s rain has blunted the teeth of the heat. One member of the group said the village had voted for the Forward Bloc the last time. Borogora is in the Purulia Lok Sabha constituency.

In the group are Nagor Pahariya and his wife Ratuli, and Srihari and his wife Dukhni. Nagor says he is probably 65 years old. Ratuli says she’s 10 years younger. Srihari is 55, according to his Election Commission card, and his wife is 45.

Decade Decoder is an occasional election feature that seeks to bring out through a question-and-answer session whether lives have changed for the better or the worse in the past 10 years