Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Delivered to the wrong address

Last week, I went to Wardha.

Our first stop was a settlement just off the dusty national highway. The villagers were working in the adjoining field and we waited until they decided to take a break. Forty minutes later, the group returned and sat down to join us. Men first, taking their place on the chatais we had spread out on the ground. Women next, and the children stayed away, peeking out from behind nearby haystacks and tree trunks.
The customary namaste is acknowledged but a tentative smile is met with blank stares. Every time I’d smile at an old lady or child when we were speaking, I was stared at. The only reaction it elicited was that everyone began looking at my teeth more closely.

One of the topics that we were addressing was the transition from a human settlement to a human habitat. In order to focus on such an enormous theme more realistically, we walked around a number of villages where the government, under its Indira Awas Yojana had constructed houses for the rural poor.

At the first village, we noticed that each one of the doors was bolted. I figured it was because everyone was in the field, but after a mapping exercise*, and while we were on our village walk**, they showed us where they actually stayed. Under oilcloth and canvas sheets behind the cement building. The people in that particular village believed it was bad luck to stay in houses which opened out onto the main road. Straight passage for spirits and ill omens.

‘And it’s too dark inside. Nature has never been unkind to us. The heat is bearable because we wait for the breeze. How are we supposed to stay in those houses, madam? Who will live like that?’

And so they keep their livestock in the government constructed houses. And they sleep under torn tarpaulin with their families.

A few kilometres away, in another tribal settlement, the State decided to let the community enjoy the benefits of sanitation. The women explained that the toilets were initially a welcome addition to their village because they’d have to walk a considerable distance to relieve themselves – day or night.
Then the structures were finally constructed. Tiny cubicles with no ventilation whatsoever. Unhygienic cement squares.
And so they’ve filled up the pans with bricks and sand. For their goats.

‘Atleast two small ones can fit at a time. Then we move them with the older ones later. Next time, we’ll ask the contractors to build them bigger. We could start keeping the calves of cows here also!’

I tried keeping my facial expressions to a minimum and made my notes, said my namastes, and moved from one ironical situation to another. And it struck me that so many of these incongruities could have been addressed by having a simple conversation with the people. One conversation.

As bleak as the statistics are, it disturbs me that even those facilities that may be included in the official figures are, in all practicality, useless.

*Village mapping is an interactive exercise wherein the target community draws their entire village on the ground with rice flour. The layout of the village provides a great deal of insight into the lives of the people; houses are sometimes clumped according to income, family, caste, crops cultivated and food habits; some homes may have access to a well while others do not; some are pucca while others are not. It’s also a technique that’s used to break the ice with a tribal/dalit community, given that initial tension is palpable between outsiders (us) and the villagers. It’s also interesting because the roles are subverted to an extent, with the community teaching us instead of an entirely one-way interaction from our side.

**The village walk is my favourite exercise where we split up into groups and get someone from the community to walk us through their settlement. You see an entire settlement as the community sees it, as a functional habitat. As you pass by different parts of the village, you hear all sorts of anecdotes about the history and changes that have taken place in the area over time. It’s very informal and a great way to get to learn more about the people, their livelihoods and way of living. Often, arguments will break out because some feel that a story is being told all wrong, and you get several versions of how a hand pump was rendered dysfunctional, why the grain banks were formed or the gossip on the young couple that got married and moved to the city.