By Stella Paul
The year 2005, Handitola village in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district:
A Dalit hangs himself. The early stench of a decomposing body is what helps identify the tree. Yet, nobody dares go near him; for some, the man’s an untouchable. The others are just plain scared. A woman in a faded sari with that other rural staple, a very cracked heel arrives on the scene. Sukhantibai with a sickle in her hand, stands upon a stool, cuts the rope and lowers the body. The villagers mostly look on. Few days later, the villagers unanimously select Sukhantibai – a Gond Adivasi woman as their Sarpanch.
7 years hence she has been reelected. Not that anything in her home would give that away today. Her house is still a mud hut with uneven walls, a tiny courtyard; her kitchen consists of a wood stove, a couple of earthen pots and a few small tins containing tea and spices; her family has to fetch drinking water from the tap at the entrance of the village and no personal privilege of separate toilets either. She tells us, ‘The government has a scheme called Nirmal Gaon Yojana to provide a toilet and water supply for all. But the money is coming in small amounts. There are 1260 people here. So far, 170 families have received water and toilets. I am trying to ensure that the rest of the families get them before my term ends.’ What she doesn’t say, is evident from being in the village. Her home is at the far edges of it. And since the supply starts at the beginning of the village Sukhantibai will be among the last to receive the benefits of any scheme. So she has let herself be among the rest who will have to wait for their turn to come.
Could this be a sign of her honesty, good ole fashioned honesty?
The villagers and the Maoists in the area seem to think so. The latter are known for opposing any government development project and she’s had their support. But maybe it’s also because she has been a landless tribal woman herself. Has also worked as a laborer in the house of the 'Patel' - the richest man in her village. And while coming up the hard way has seen her village with no electricity, no roads and no tap water. Infact she tells us that way back in 1995, on learning that leprosy was curable; she organized several health camps with the help of the villagers. In each camp, she cleaned and bandaged the wounds of those afflicted and distributed medicine which she had collected from the block hospital. Real trust is a slow but sure thing. And some people come around. And of course there are some don’t.
For example, the hut she calls home was bought from the Patel, whom she once worked for. But, even after 15 long years, he refuses to transfer the ownership of the land in her family’s name, simply because he doesn’t think as an Adivasi she or her family has a right to own land. Yet Sukhantibai hasn’t approached a court against the Patel “Court cases are lengthy affairs and I have no time to get involved into that right now,” she says, before adding, ‘I at least can eat a square meal and wear a coarse sari. My people here don't even have that. If I, the Sarpanch, start feeling sorry for myself, who will solve the problems of my people?'
And many of the problems have been solved. The primary school has been upgraded to 8th grade; there are separate toilets for boys and girls, a primary health center, an anganwadi, a large playground, a community hall, a community temple, electricity poles and drinking water taps.
But problems never go away, do they?
Consumption of illicit liquor, for example, is a growing menace among the village youth. To stop that, Sukhantibai does what a grandmother would do to her grandchildren: threaten to break their legs, if caught drinking inside the village. If there are desperate measures, there are also inspirational asides that possibly deserve a fuller telling elsewhere.
Suffice to say that to inspire the neighbors to educate their children, Sukhantibai, who didn’t get beyond 5th class as a child passed 8th grade under the Open school system. She feels quite strongly about women’s opportunities too, ‘10 years ago, none of our girls would step outside their homes. Today, they are running shops and businesses. During a fair, you can see so many of them setting up food stalls. It makes me very happy. Adivasi women are very strong in body and mind. So, I also want them to enter politics. Women must have a say in the affairs of the village. It will only make our village more developed.’
As a state, Chhattisgarh has a real ongoing crisis. Of trust, of violence, of people caught in the crossfire of a vicious battle of life and death. But even in the blinding heat of a war zone, there are barefoot soldiers like her who offer spaces to grow, to support and work with. With a much quieter, yet unrelenting energy.
But just who is listening to those whose heels may have cracked, but not their spirit?
This story was in partnership with www.theweekendleader.com
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Bijoy Venugopal, Editor
Wanderer, leech-bite fetishist and musicosaur