Thursday, 10 November 2011

Jaani's Missing Pension: A narrative of corruption eroding financial safety nets

Jaani Meena and Shaitan Singh
When Jaani grins, her warmth is infectious and my face can’t help but mirror hers. She has five front teeth left now – ‘old age has robbed the others’ she tells me very seriously, her eyes threatening to laugh again. Widowed three years ago, she lives with her son and daughter in law and their son, a little chap named, of all things, Shaitan Singh (troublemaker)! 

“How old are you Amma?”

I have to shout so that she can hear me properly. She falls into silence and I am not perturbed by this. I have often found that against the rural landscape, where time takes on another pace, numbers like age have a way of being forgotten. As if, in a place where time is measured by the passing of seasons and the position of the sun in the sky, remembering one’s age is hardly worthwhile. She finally decides to give me an answer, “Sixty or so.” I smile and dutifully note down the answer. My aide, a regular social worker in the area shouts at her affectionately, “Dukariya (old woman) you’ve got one leg in the grave and yet you say you’re only sixty! You must be at least eighty.” She looks back defiantly and I see sparks of the feisty thing she must have been in her youth. “Are you asking the questions or is she? Don’t interrupt us.” That silences him for a while and I carry on.

“So do you avail of the government’s old age pension scheme?”

Her eyes have mucous in them, the greenish yellow residue has collected at the corners. She keeps swatting off a pesky fly that tries to sit on her face. I knew the Rs. 1000/- per month that the scheme provided could be a handy addition to the household income.

‘Yes, my name is on the rolls. I get some money.”

“How much?”

“Some months I get 1000, some months only 500. This time I got 800 for two months. It keeps changing.”

“Changing?” I feared I knew what the answer was but ploughed on, “How so?”

Shaitan Singh, ever eager to join the ‘elders’ in their conversation, quips in, “Post master ji brings us the money. He says that sometimes the government doesn’t send the money and if nothing comes from above, how can he deliver the pension to us?”

My aide whispered, “The post master is famous for pocketing some of the pension. But no one complains against him because they know nothing will happen.” I knew I was just scratching the surface of the canker of corruption that has invaded every system of my country. I turn to Shaitan Singh.
The village school. Deserted and silent. 

“Do you go to school?”


“Which class?”

“Class 2.” He says this in English. Suddenly, realising he is the focus of the conversation, he’s standing straight, in attention, his little hands clenched into fists by his sides, his wide round eyes, attentive. His forehead is creased into a concentrated frown, this is serious business for him.

“So why are you not in school today?”

“I didn’t go because I am in charge of looking after the soyabean crop that has been cut and left in the fields.”

“Did you go yesterday?”

“No, I haven’t gone for the past five days. But it’s ok. Masterji hasn’t been coming either. And if he doesn’t come, what is the use of going? We don’t even get any food then.”

I nod reluctantly, understanding the import of his words. The government funded midday meal scheme provides one meal a day to school children and  serves the double purpose of giving parents an incentive to send their children to school as well as fighting malnutrition by providing a nutritive meal to growing children. The scheme, though well meaning, has been seen as another opportunity to siphon off funds and had a murky history of missing meals, sub-standard provisions, rice with more stones than grain and other such woeful tales. Here, however, Shaitan Singh alluded to the fact that the master was absent from the school when he pleased, and without anyone to distribute the food, the scheme was dysfunctional.

Later, acutely disturbed with the scale at which systems were being routinely subverted, and the normalisation of corruption, I questioned  government official. He smiled at my supposed naivety and explained:

“The benefit that actually reaches a BPL family depends on their relation with the ward member who is elected at the village level. But that is not enough. The ward member must have a voice in the Gram Sabha which must be then presented further in the Panchayat Samiti. All this is a delicate balance of how much power you have, how well you have been oiling the system and of course, how much clout you have. Most of all you have to pray that as the money moves downwards from the centre to the State through the district and block levels to reach the village, enough of it trickles down, without being diverted into ‘other’ channels, if you know what I mean. And of course as the list of BPL families moves up the hierarchical ladder, you must hope that your name makes it all the way. Frankly, it is less your actual depravity and more your networks and how you milk your contacts that get you the ‘free’ seed and fertilizer, or in this case your pension.

It was the answer I knew and yet, I had been hoping to hear something different. For all the money being poured into various poor-oriented schemes, the mechanisms to deliver the benefits were as ill-equipped as earlier. The change we need is not in the amounts being spent but the channels it is flowing through.

I think back to my conversation and Jaani’s nearly toothless grin. Her smile, reflected in Shaitan Singh’s round eyes. I had been asking about the new enikat (small dam) across the village stream and how the rain water collected in it had been used. Holding rainwater for longer periods, the structure was particularly helpful during the lean summer months. It also checked the stream banks from eroding when the monsoons are particularly bountiful. Seeing I was hell bent on knowing all about the enikat, as I was leaving Shaitan Singh shouted out – “Didi! Dekho!” And with a brilliant display of showmanship, he jumped into the pooled water, his little limbs paddling furiously in the water. I laughed, and saw Jaani looking at his youthful mirth wistfully. I knew from my conversation, that, like her pension, water in this land was unreliable. In a few months this pool would be dry.

This was first published on Helter Skelter.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Humble beginnings: What do Jogilal Meena’s mittens have to do with my PhD?

When I started my Ph.D., I thought I had clear ideas. I was going to understand water scarcity and how it affected farmers. I was going to try and figure out why the crores of rupees the Indian government spent on water management programmes across the nation were yielding unsatisfactory results. I had studied about this, worked on this—surely things couldn’t get too cumbersome. And then someone said the word. Epistemology. The science of knowledge. What? I felt discomfort stroke me with its clammy fingers. I get a curious itch in my brain when I don’t understand a word, and this one prodded me incessantly; I couldn’t shake it off, I couldn’t ignore it. It would pop up in conversations and articles. And then came the question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

From that tangential thought, to the project I am embarking on today, I slowly appreciated that to unravel anything, we must first explore our constructions of reality. What qualifies as real and what does not? In the context of my work, is Mrs. Kapoor’s lament that she has no water to grow her potted plants in her fifth floor Gurgaon apartment any less real than Rajnath’s helplessness at having his well in a hamlet near Mathura dry up before he irrigates his crops? Percolating from the perplexing to the practical, I decided to allow my research to be all-ears.

I am going to spend the next year listening to people’s stories. Of how water shapes their lives and how they cope with its ever-changing reality. I am setting foot in rural Rajasthan to talk to farmers facing water shortages and narrate their tales. Here, I attempt to take you along my rustic rambles.

While traversing the length and breadth of our magnificent country, the only rule that seems applicable everywhere is that India is alarming and inspiring, stimulating and disconcerting, all at once. When looking at the map, some names jump at you—the metropolitan cities, proud of the concrete jungles they have grown up to be; smaller, fast growing cities, and other towns, their claim to fame being part of the latest breaking news. Amidst all this chaos that is so characteristic of the Indian landscape, a million other places get waylaid—ignored by the traveller, unknown to the larger consciousness. It is in one of these places I find myself in.
The undulating lush landscape of Pratapgarh, Rajasthan.

Contrary to popular perception, Rajasthan is not all sand dunes and camels. It is also home to large tracts of invigorating forests, replete with wildlife, large water bodies, and most of all, colourful, vibrant people. Pratapgarh is a small, predominantly tribal district in southeast Rajasthan, occupying the area where the Malwa plateau and Aravalli Mountains meet. Carved out of Chittorgarh in 2008, Pratapgarh is the latest district formed in the state. It boasts of a generous average annual rainfall of 850mm, an aberration in a state known for its aridity. However, in spite of all the water Pratapgarh gets, the basalt rocks in the area dissuade water from percolating into the groundwater. With all the rain falling within the monsoon season, it washes away without soaking into the earth. Unable to store this bounty in such a short duration, the people of Pratapgarh dread the summer months which usher in acute water stress.

*            *          *  

Jogilal Meena was bent over his crop, cutting the soyabean stalks industriously. They were stunted, the tallest up to a foot high, while the trifoliate legume I knew from Madhya Pradesh was a luxuriant plant over two-feet high. But it had rained well this monsoon season, surely that was good in this water-scarce region?

“The rains were heavy, almost 1500mm this year! That’s double of the average rainfall we get. But they were untimely. Our maize rotted away. The fields filed up with water and became ponds. The land was so saturated that if you stepped in one place, water oozed out from another place. The soyabean we grew also did not grow too well. Hopefully the Rabi crop will do better because the soil is moist. This year I plan to grow wheat,” he added proudly. “The paatidaar has promised me some hybrid seed.” The hybrid was said with a flourish, as if unveiling a secret weapon.

I watched as he cut at the nearly dry soyabean. His wife, dressed in a bright orange ghagra and yellow odhni
Half-rotten maize plant: another commentary on a farmer's constant struggle
with the vagaries of nature and his unflinching will to eke out a living
from the land. 
grinned widely, her unabashed gaze almost welcoming me into her world. Their two sons and one daughter helped too. She jokingly told me to grab a sickle, if I was good, I could choose between the sons. Her laughter, honest and loud, was heartening. Each one of them held a sickle in their right hand and wore a curious looking homemade ‘glove’ on their left hand. It resembled more a mitten, or a sock. Fashioned out of waste cloth, roughly sewn and with a string to tighten the mitten around the wrist, this ingenuous glove was a necessity. The soyabean plant can cut through skin with alarming ease. Thus, as the sickle moved rapidly in the right hand, the left hand, protected in its cloak of cloth, grasped the stalks unhindered.

The family had been up since 5 a.m., cutting and bundling the soyabean stalks, and now, in the early evening, the sun continued its unforgiving trajectory across the sky. Stopping to talk to us and to drink some water, Jogilal pointed to the stalks, “Some of the pods are splitting in the sun. The beans will fall to the ground and then we won’t get anything. We must hurry and harvest everything by sunset. I have rented a thresher tomorrow, an added cost.”

As I walked back over the cracked black soil, I watched the maize plants. Half-rotten cobs were hanging on to the stalks, forgotten and unwanted—another commentary on a farmer’s constant struggle with the vagaries of nature and his unflinching will to eke out a living from the land. Jogilal Meena was already planning to grow wheat this winter. Hopefully that would bring in some money. Then he could buy those strong military gloves he had seen in town. The mittens were no good, the children constantly complained of sores.

First posted on Helter Skelter.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Where again?

Map of Pratapgarh, Rajasthan's newest district, carved in 2008 from
neighbouring Udaipur, Chittorgarh, and Banswara in the southeast of
the state.  
It is tough to explain to people where Pratapgarh, the location of my field research is. Traveling from Delhi, Pratapgarh seems to be at the very end of the earth and for once, I am not even exaggerating. You start off in one of the fancy (and pretty impressive) luxury buses that Rajasthan Tourism is (justifiably) proud of. They cater to the more 'touristy' parts of Rajasthan, the Jodhpurs and Ajmers, Pushkars and Jaipursfor tourists alone deserve good transportation, general public be damned. When I called the tourism office, they told me I would be in a Volvo-Mercedes bus. I put down the phone suitably impressed and understandably flummoxed. That not one, but two auto giants were gracing my mode of transport would have been flattering if only it was not so absurdly unbelievable.
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