Cover Story

Between the grains: Purvanchal circumstances

by | Shikha Trivedi


A Benaras weaver works his loom

The double-digit growth touted for the Indian economy is being accompanied by a growing gap between the urban middle class and the rural poor, the latter exemplified by the conditions in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, or Purvanchal. Here, impoverishment increases as power looms displace handloom workers, and harvesters make agricultural labourers redundant. The patchwork of tiny land parcels that makes up the Purvanchal landscape in satellite imagery itself is evidence of rural want, and the condition of the landless is somewhat worse. Against this backdrop of poverty, Maoists organise and the upper castes react. The state takes the side of the latter. A communal twist is forced on the people by the opportunist politician, pitting Muslim poor against Hindu poor. But Purvanchal, the most neglected, most populated region of India, will survive because of the resilience of its citizens and their spirit of tolerance. They will keep the designs of the exploiters and communalists at bay.

Benaras, the oldest city in the world it is said, is where my travels through Eastern Uttar Pradesh have always begun. The coolies who carry my luggage from the train station, the rickshaw-pullers who take me down the crowded, tumultuous lanes to the Ganga View Guest House on Assi Ghat, the hawkers who sell incense and flowers outside the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the weavers who produce yard upon yard of beautiful silk at Pili Kothi … they come from Gorakhpur, Gazipur, Mau, Bhadoi, Deoria – poor Hindus and Muslims from all over Purvanchal, looking for life in a city where others come to die.

It is an incongruity that is mirrored everywhere in Benaras, reflecting the situation in all Purvanchal, where one finds stoicism amidst indescribable want. In some mohallahs here, the clang of temple bells and the call of the aazan are both often drowned by the sound of hundreds of looms, on which the famous banarsi silk and brocade saris are woven. The looms have been worked by generations of Muslim families, and sold by Hindu traders. Today, the saris still fetch thousands of rupees in the market, but men like Omar Sayed are paying the price of weaving them with their blood.


Omar

I met Omar in the city’s Bajedian Mohallah. Having moved from Azamgarh District to Benaras nearly a decade ago in search of work, he was employed by a master weaver who had six other people working the looms for him. But things started going wrong for the 1.5 million workers in this industry towards the end of the 1990s, when cheap Chinese silk fabric became available in the country. In Benaras alone, the daily demand for the Chinese material tops 25,000 metres, at nine rupees a metre. The locally made silk fabric costs between 35 and 150 rupees per metre. Weavers who made the shift from handlooms to power looms in order to produce largely synthetic saris managed to stay afloat for a few years, which also did away with a lot of jobs. But then electricity cuts began stretching to almost ten hours at a time, and the loom-owners too were doomed. Surat, in Gujarat, has now begun to produce the same textiles, only cheaper.

As for Omar, he simply stopped getting work. The skilled hands that once created magic from yarn are today pale and trembling. “Poverty has drawn the blood from these fingers,” says Omar. I had thought that he was simply using a figure of speech, until another weaver pointed out the blue patches discolouring his skin. Without a trace of emotion, Omar tells me of selling his blood to feed both his family and his opium addiction. He picked up the habit to cope with the depression of being laid off.

Omar sells 200 grams of blood at a time and is paid between 100 and 150 rupees. It sells for between 800 and 1000 rupees in the market, but the touts sent out by the city’s private nursing homes do not tell him this. Besides, Omar is so desperate for money that he is past caring, even though his neighbour Abdul Matin died a week ago after selling blood for the 20th time in less than two months. I make my way to Abdul’s house, where his uncle recounts the story. “There was no work. His wife was pregnant and he needed the money for her delivery. He had become very weak. Then the day his child was born, he again sold blood and collapsed and died. He thought of doing this because there was no other way of making money.”


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The morning newspapers had stated that the minister of handlooms in the Samajwadi Party government, currently ruling Uttar Pradesh, was visiting Benaras. Seeking out Jagdish Singh Rana at a public meeting, I asked him what he was going to do about the weaving industry. Although admitting that there was a crisis, Rana appeared more keen on blaming previous governments than on addressing the issue with any sense of urgency. The best he could do was to say that, since his party had just won a by-election from a Benaras constituency dominated by weavers, the people clearly trusted his government to solve their problems.

Today, nearly 70 percent of the looms in the city are still. Hunger stalks these narrow alleys, with the few weavers who still have work making very little income – some barely 20 rupees a day. Amidst the silent looms, I met Razia Bibi, mother of five. Her unemployed husband had turned to drugs in despair, and the neighbours had started avoiding the family. Today, they survive on the earnings of one 8-year-old son, who is apprenticed to a master weaver. “But he has not been paid for a week,” whispers Razia. There is no food in the house.

There was a time not long ago when Razia and other women from weaving families used to earn a good income by embroidering the saris. But as more and more machines were installed to do the job, their skills slowly became worthless. Their wages are down to almost half of what they had been; even the 50 rupees that Nasreen now earns per sari – down from 100 – is paid to her in bits and pieces over several weeks. Out of this amount, she spends half to purchase the material required for the embroidery, mainly threads. As such, she actually makes no more than 15 or 20 rupees on every sari.

In the last two years, Hindi papers such as Jatra, Amar Ujala and Hindustan have carried several reports on the plight of the weavers. Of how Rasool sold his son to a relative for 1000 rupees, or of how Hamid committed suicide by consuming the same acid he had bought to give extra shine to the woven silk. There are many more such tragedies, there amidst the silent looms.

During my wanderings through the maze of narrow lanes that makes up the world of the weavers of Benaras, and through the markets where they sell their cloth, I have often chanced upon roadside renderings of one of the most popular couplets of the 15th century poet Kabir. The saint, himself a weaver, reminded all about the inevitability of death with the lines:

Seeing the grinding stone turning, turning,
Kabir began to weep.
Between the two stones, not a single grain is saved!

The couplet’s rendering was often accompanied by a drawing of a woman rotating a grinding stone – throwing not grains, but people into its maw. The citizens of Purvanchal are perhaps comfortable with this inevitability – to be able to live the lives they do in remote villages and small towns, which both the state capital of Lucknow and national capital of Delhi have forgotten even exist.

250 bigha zamin
My first stop is the district of Chandauli. They call it Dhaan ka Pihar, the home of rice. Despite the production capacity of the region, the rice of this earth does not belong to the tiller. More than 30 years have passed since the state was to have distributed all surplus agricultural land amongst the landless. But the productive fields are still controlled by the big zamindars, and in village after village across Purvanchal it is the same story: the landowners managed to evade redistribution, and everyone lives the lie of land reform.

Bauri village, located amidst the green of ripening paddy, is no different. Here, back in the 1970s, 250 bighas of farmland was declared surplus, but no more than 15 bighas have been given away (one bigha is about three acres). Ram Bear (pronounced ‘byar’), a local teacher, tells me that the rest remains in the possession of the dabang log, or powerful men, even though the poor have been given pattas (papers of ownership) by the local administration.

In Bauri, supposed redistribution has been thwarted because most zamindars of Purvanchal have evaded ceiling laws, by declaring their families ‘divided’ in the land records while continuing to cultivate jointly. What the large landowners did give up was mostly barren, useless stretches of earth. Indeed, 57 percent of all excess land acquired by the state for redistribution is the kind that is unfit for cultivation. No more than 5.4 lakh acres, or a little over one percent of the total 430 million acres of agricultural land of Uttar Pradesh, have been declared surplus. Even out of that tiny amount, only around one-fourth has been redistributed so far.

Land remains the most important socially valued asset in the villages, and its unequal distribution helps to maintain the traditional hierarchies, thereby ensuring the domination of the upper castes. According to Ram Bear, who belongs to one of the Dalit communities with a large presence in Bauri, the idea of releasing this acreage to people still considered ‘untouchable’ is so distasteful to the zamindar clans that they have simply not allowed it to happen.

While Bauri remains locked in the traditional vice of caste relationships, the power balance is somewhat different in the neighbouring village of Naugaon. This is because it has a large population of Yadavs, the dominant ‘other backward caste’ in Uttar Pradesh and one of the groups that has most benefited from the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which in the late 1980s sanctioned 33 percent ‘reservation’ in education and government jobs for oppressed castes and tribes. Naresh Yadav, a panchayat member of Naugaon, shows me a plot of land that now belongs to the Gram Sabha, or village assembly. It had been in the possession of a handful of Bhumihars, a caste of Purvanchal Brahmin cultivators, until they were forced out, he says. Now it is being farmed by members of his Yadav community.

But there is no getting away from the fact that there is just not enough land in Purvanchal. From the air – like Bihar to the east – Purvanchal is a patchwork quilt of land holdings. The fields that make up this collage, however, are indescribably small – 82 percent of the landholdings of Purvanchal are less than an acre in size. While three-fourths of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, no one has enough and the poorest have nothing. The fact that the agriculture sector has been stagnant, even as other sectors in other parts of India have advanced rapidly, means that the farm-dependent population of Purvanchal is hit hard, and the landless labourers immeasurably so. Lately, the first move by landowners intent on cost-cutting has been to replace the labourers with harvester machines and other farming equipment hired from Punjab. People who never received the official minimum wage of 58 rupees a day to begin with are now being paid even less.
I traveled to three villages in three separate districts of Purvanchal. In each, people are struggling to survive, and the search for food is getting increasingly desperate.


The monument in Chauranva

Village Chauranva, Dist. Ballia
The first thing I see on entering Chauranva is a stone memorial in a small, neatly laid-out garden. It is a tribute to the freedom fighters of the village who fell to British bullets during the Independence Movement. Martyrdom earned these poor agricultural labourers a small place in history, but this is remembered by none but the people of Chauranva. But the place is also known for being the constituency of the former prime minister, Chandrashekhar, who was returned to Parliament from here over and over again. It was Chandrashekhar who made possible this memorial to the fallen of Chauranva.

As I turn to leave the memorial I meet the caretaker, who has come to light the evening lamp. He is Dinesh Bear, grandson to one of the heroes commemorated here. Dinesh is a tall man, and you would be forgiven for reading defeat and resignation in his eyes and bearing. He says little has changed for his family since the days of his grandfather, some 70 years ago.

“He was a labourer, and so am I. We have no land.”

“How much do you earn for a day’s work in the fields?”

“Two kilos of rice.”

“Do you not receive cash for work?”

“No.”

He looks down at his hands and continues. “My grandfather sacrificed his life for the nation, but for us things have only gotten worse.”

Dinesh Bear walks two kilometres to the nearest market every day, where he sells half the rice he earns for five rupees. The remaining kilo makes up his family’s evening meal. He has seven mouths to feed. He invites me home for a glass of tea, but I know he can ill afford this small show of hospitality. So I ask for some water, saying I am thirsty, and leave quickly.
At my next stop, I meet a group of women who are paid a daily wage, but the minimum possible.

Says Jagmati: “The zamindar gives us one rupee and a one-kg bag of rice for a day’s work. Plus water to drink.”

“How much did you use to earn earlier?”

“First it was 25 paisa, then 50 paisa and now one rupee.”

“How much time did it take you to move from being paid 25 paisa to one rupee?”

“Three to four years.”

She continues: “We are so poor, we cannot afford to buy medicine or get our children married. The money we need, we borrow from the zamindar on whose land we work. When we demand higher wages, he says ‘you repay the loans first’. How can we do that?”

The question was rhetorical, and of course I had no answers.


To survive, Jhaliya must steal from the rats, like many others in the village

Village Baidauli, Dist. Kushinagar
Kushinagar is where the Gautam Buddha breathed his last. It is one of the many sites on the northern banks of the Ganga plains that have been associated with the Sakyamuni for some two-and-a-half millennia, including Lumbini, Sarnath, Kausambi, Sravasti and Vaishali. It is ironic that the very region that the Buddha trod in his mission to rid the world of suffering is today converted into a premier cauldron of suffering – not only on a Southasian scale but a worldwide one.

The village is Baidauli in Kushinagar District. Jhaliya is sitting outside her hut with a modest stockpile spread out before her. In all, it makes up 25 kg of dhaan, unpolished rice, which was painstakingly gathered over three months of foraging in the fields. Each fistful of grain was dug up from the burrows of field rats, painfully separated – grain by grain – from the mud and sand. And all of this foraging was done at night, after working on the fields throughout the day.

Jhaliya is a Mushar, the poorest caste of Dalits in Purvanchal. Traditionally rat trappers, poverty has ensured that the community’s association with this mammal continues. Because there is no employment outside of agriculture here – no industry, nor construction activity – when Jhaliya was offered two kg of rice for eight hours of backbreaking labour in the fields, she had no choice but to accept. In the winter months, even this kind of work is not available. To survive, Jhaliya must steal from the rats, like many others in the village. Pointing at the pile of drying grain in front of her, she says: “I will have to look for some work when this grain is finished. If I don’t get work, we will have to starve.”

Thus far, Jhaliya has been more fortunate than her neighbour, Inderpatiya, about whose death I had read in a local newspaper published from Gorakhpur. The report said she had died of starvation; the district authorities said it was tuberculosis. By the time I reached the home of the bereaved family, I saw Inderpatiya’s mother Jyotiya had arrived to look after her four grandchildren. The oldest was 14. Jyotiya said that ever since Inderpatiya’s husband had died three years ago, she had eaten less and less herself so as not to deprive the children. She insists that had her daughter eaten well, she would have been able to fight the disease.

How often did the family get to eat?

“Once in two or three days. They ate if someone gave them some food, because Inderpatiya was too weak to go out and work.”

Jyotiya does not know what will happen to her grandchildren. She has received no official help so far, except the 200 rupees she was given for cremating her daughter. There is a sack of grain remaining in the house, nothing more. “How long will this last?” she asks. The poor of Purvanchal are reduced to counting grains of rice, literally.

As I leave the village, I see that a row of clay urns meant for storing grain has been placed very prominently at the fronts of the houses. They are large, visible and completely empty, and every family has at least one. What is the use of these empty vessels, I want to know. Quickly enough, an elder fills me in: “No one will marry their daughters to our boys if they know our level of poverty. They will think we can’t provide for them. We are showing the containers prominently, knowing that no one will take a ladder and look inside. That would be ungracious of the prospective bride’s party.” I found this innovative thinking a bit like the government’s food-for-work programme and employment-guarantee schemes, which exist on paper but are nowhere to be seen on the ground.

When the government does step in, it is with too little, too late. A news item in the Gorakhpur paper said that a man had died of hunger in the village of Bansgaon. This was not some remote hamlet, but within 10 km from the town of Dudhi, where ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards are distributed. At the government shops, any cardholder can get 35 kg of foodgrain at the subsidised rate of 99 rupees per kilo, once a month. But the poorest of the poor are not even able to put together that amount, especially during the monsoon and winter months, when there is no work to be had. Villagers told me that, very often, they borrow even for buying this subsidised foodgrain. There is a court ruling that allows them to buy the rations in instalments, but no one follows the order.

Village Chakiya, Dist. Naugarh
The car stops. It cannot negotiate the potholes in the dirt road, rapidly filling up with water as the rain comes pouring down. There is no other way to get to the village of Chakiya, deep inside the forest of Naugarh District, so I start walking until I reach a cluster of huts. There is no one inside. The villagers are all busy collecting snails and plucking a certain type of grass, which they themselves are eating even as they are feeding it to their cattle.

I ask an old woman, Dhunia, why she does not cook the grass. “Who has oil here?” is her response. If the skies had not opened up over the past few days, there would not even be this grass to eat. “We are no different from the wild elephants who break and eat the branches, leaves and twigs of the tree – anything that can be consumed,” says a villager standing nearby.


Labourer from Bhulia village, branded as Naxalite for demanding minimum wage

Here, too, no one has the money to buy the subsidised supplies provided by the district administration. It is people living above the poverty line who have access to the ration cards. None of the very poor people here earn more than four rupees a day, from collecting tendu leaves used in making beedis. “Why are you shocked?” the villager continues. “Wherever you go, you will find that only the rich and powerful people have Below Poverty Line cards. If we do manage to raise the money and go to the ration shop, we find that our quota has already been sold on the black market.”

In the more deprived parts of Purvanchal, the grinding poverty, together with a level of exposure to political matters, finally has villagers raising their voices against corruption. They have begun demanding their rights using tried and tested democratic means, but the fight against injustice is proving tough. This is why some have opted for violent methods; there are now districts where the Maoists are strong in numbers and influence, and waging war against the state.

It is the peasantry that suffers when the authorities decide to go after the Maoists. “The police are trying all the time to prove the innocent guilty. Yet if we do not fight, we will remain poor and hungry forever,” said Javed Ahmed, a 60-year-old agricultural worker from Chupepur village. He had met us in a field away from the village, scared that the landlord would see him. Soon, other men and women joined in, and all complained of harassment. Said one, “When we ask for our wages, when we demand our rights, we are branded Naxalites and terrorised.” Javed recalled how he was threatened when he asked his landlord for a raise of five rupees in his daily wage: “I was told that I will be tied to a tree and shot, or be sent to jail as a Naxalite.” This is a fate many poor people in this region now consider worse than death – imprisonment on charges of being a ‘Naxal’ or a sympathiser of the party, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC).

Naxal encounter
Across the Chandauli, Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts of Purvanchal, the security forces have been waging a long and bloody battle against the MCC. Meanwhile, villagers maintain that any fight for justice is now being smashed by the landlord-police nexus using the Maoist threat as excuse.

In Bhulai village, when a group of landless Muslims, Kol adivasis and Dalit labourers tried to occupy and cultivate paddy on a patch of government wasteland, they were forcibly stopped by the upper-caste farmers – chased away, their huts razed and crops destroyed. The upper castes then started cultivating the land themselves, and nobody stopped them.

The villagers say the landlords and police are increasingly targeting the few boys from the depressed communities who happen to be educated. “This is because the feudal elements are scared of us,” says Mahesh, a graduate who has been thrashed more than once for trying to organise the villagers around the minimum-wage demand. “The landlords don’t like it and so they always single us out to the police, saying that ‘these boys can create trouble, they are Naxals’.” Mahesh speaks in a dialect of Bhojpuri, which is close to Bundelkhandi.

In Kanach village of Sonbhadra District, Mallu Baiga and 13 others were accused of setting fire to the house of one of the richest landlords in the area. The police declared them to be Maoists and dragged whomever they could find to jail. Eight of these men had previously worked as bonded labourers for the same zamindar, before being freed three years ago by local social workers. Mallu, who had evaded arrest thus far by hiding at a relative’s house, explained the real reason behind the accusation: “My landlord was very angry that we had been rescued from his clutches. So he has taken revenge on us.”

The villagers in these districts report that the harassment has increased sharply over the last year, following a November 2004 attack in which a Police Armed Constabulary van was blown up in Chandauli, killing 17 policemen. A special operations group (SOG) made up of armed policemen in plainclothes was formed by the Samajwadi Party government in Lucknow to hunt down the attackers. The SOG has unleashed a reign of terror in the area.

It is not that the state has not tried other measures as well. To counter the growing Naxalite problem, successive state governments have implemented a number of development schemes in the areas where the rebels have strong presence. For instance, 80 million rupees was allocated for 98 villages of Sonbhadra District. As expected, however, there was a rush by the rich and powerful of the area to monopolise these funds. Several police ‘encounters’ were arranged in which innocent villagers were passed off as Naxalites and arrested or killed.

With both the rebels and police training their guns on each other, the few human rights groups working in the region, including the National Forum of Forest Workers, say that more and more innocent men and women are becoming caught in the crossfire. When they are victimised, the locals hardly have any recourse to justice, says Tanvir Ahmed, a member of the Human Rights Law Network from Benaras, which is also active in this area. Reports Ahmed, “The people here are so poor they cannot keep a lawyer or move bail applications. They are Dalits, adivasis, Mushars, Nats, and they are languishing in jail.”

Talking to the victims of political or caste violence, it became apparent to me everywhere I went in Purvanchal that no government to date has seriously addressed the needs of the people of this most backward region. Here, crores are being spent by the government to fight the Maoists, and by the politicians to win elections. But there is no employment for the adivasis who have been displaced from their lands, the Dalits still have no access to safe drinking water, and most villages still do not have electricity or functioning schools.

Poverty in Eastern Uttar Pradesh continues despite the clout this region commands in terms of seats in Parliament – 33 out of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 total in the Lok Sabha. Unfortunately, the powerful national leaders have all been from Western Uttar Pradesh, including the earlier chief minister Mayawati, current chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, and central ministers like Ajit Singh. The best Purvanchal has to show for itself is Rajnath Singh, the new chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but he has never served a term in the executive.


Hand-pump mechanic

Shankuntala Devi
It was purely by chance that I met Shankuntala Devi, on a hot summer afternoon. Stopping near the town of Renukoot for a drink of water, I saw a group of women in saris, their heads covered, glass bangles catching the sun, repairing a hand-pump. The sight was extraordinary, and they barely looked up when I approached them.

“What is the problem?” I asked.

“There is something wrong with the washer,” one of them replied. “To replace the whole thing will cost 1700 rupees. If the sarpanch gives us the money immediately, it can be done. Otherwise we will have to do a temporary job, so that people don’t suffer. A wedding is being held here – at least they will get water. Later, when the Block District Officer releases the money, we will fix it properly.”

This was Shankuntala Devi, their confident 30-something group leader, from whom I learned that 80 of the area’s women had been trained as hand-pump mechanics. This was part of a project initiated by UNICEF and implemented by Hindalco, a company that produces aluminium at its plant in Renukoot. The aim was to empower women in a region where the rigid feudal mindset had not allowed them even to go to school. Less than five percent of the women in the area are literate.

When Shankuntala Devi’s husband died, she did not know how to make ends meet for herself and her four children. She heard about the hand-pump project from a man in her village who worked at Hindalco, and made up her mind to join. “We were hungry. I had to do something. My father-in-law tried to stop me, but I did not listen to him. I hid from him and went for training every day.”

“Did you find it difficult to go out of your home in the beginning?”

“When the officers spoke to us for the first time, we were so scared! It took us several days to even give our names.”
“This is hard work…”

“It was tough. But now that we have learned the technique, it’s easier. And if we don’t do it, how will we earn money?”
“Do you have fixed rates?”

“We earn during the four summer months and live off that money for the rest of the eight months. We charge 1000 rupees to repair a broken hand-pump, 348 rupees for overhauling it, and 116 rupees for minor problems.”

“So, how much do you earn every summer?”

“Sometimes it pours money, sometimes it’s enough only for two meals a day, sometimes not even that. But if we work hard we can earn up to 25,000 rupees. This is our only income.”

“Do women hand-pump mechanics earn more than their husbands?”

“Yes, many of us!”

None of the 80 women hand-pump mechanics of the Renukoot area can read or write, but they understand better than anyone else the value of each drop of water. Today, they cycle from village to village, repairing and maintaining hand-pumps, defying the traditional roles laid down for them by men – in fact, doing what has been very much a ‘man’s’ job.

These winds of change are also blowing in Jokehara, a small village of Azamgarh District in another part of Purvanchal. Here, a local library, set up in 1993 by a police officer who wanted people to develop the habit of reading, is now organising theatre workshops with the help of the National School of Drama from the national capital. The singular aim is to break down caste barriers in the village and to give young girls a sense of their lives’ possibilities.


“Panchlight” performance in Jokhera

Although it is a Sunday, the library, set amidst yellow mustard fields, is buzzing with activity. Rehearsals have commenced for a new play based on the great Hindi novelist Phaneshwar Nath Renu’s short story “Panchlight”. The play is a comment on how the caste system divides society: a village in darkness gets a panchlight (a Petromax lantern) and, though everyone is excited, no one knows how to use it. Eventually it is a Dalit, treated as an untouchable all of his young life, who is able to light the panchlight.

Sunita, the oldest member of the drama troupe and a Dalit herself, says that while enacting the story in rehearsals, boys and girls of different castes have been able to reach out to one other. “At first, the Bhumihars would not talk to us, and they even ate their meals separately,” she recalls. “But slowly, as we sang, danced and acted together, the barriers began to crumble. I can’t say when or how it happened. But one day we went to put up the play in a neighbouring village, and were invited for tea to the house of a relative of one of the actors, Anita, who is a Bhumihar. When the girl’s aunt realised I was from a lower caste she served me tea in a clay tumbler, so that it could be broken after use. All the others were given steel tumblers. Anita refused to have tea till I was given a glass like the rest.”

These were girls who had never stepped out of their village, had never been exposed to theatre, cinema, books – but they were just as restless to explore the world beyond their village and familial confines. It was not proving easy for everyone, however. Some of the girls who stood outside the library, looking in on the rehearsals, tell me that initially they, too, had taken part in the play, but their parents had forbidden them from continuing. One on them explains, “This is the fallout of an inter-caste marriage that took place here last year. It was for the first time. The villagers told our families that no one would marry us if we continued to spend time with so many different boys. We just could not reason with our parents.”

“Will you fight their decision?”

“We don’t want to go against their wishes. But at least we realise how closed our minds were. If not today, then tomorrow we will surely be our own person.”

The hand-pump mechanics and these budding village actors of Purvanchal provide us with hope: that it is possible to kindle initiative and excitement, even as dreadful discrimination remains and prejudice runs deep. These are shafts of light in a dark landscape. These are small efforts that, although they do not seek to transform all of society, have touched a few lives and have given them the strength of one day conquering the brave new world of Purvanchal.


Encephalitis victim, Gorakhpur hospital

The flooded madrasa
Eastern Uttar Pradesh is watered by the tributaries of the Ganga – rivers that uproot the poorest people from their homes, even as they water the land and nurture civilisation. During the rains, starting from the Kosi in eastern Bihar, and moving westwards through

the plains of the Kamla, Budi Gandak and Ghagra, the rivers become unrecognisable from the meandering watercourses of the dry months. Once, the people knew where their rivers came from, where they emptied, which stretches were safe, which were dangerous. Today, these same rivers have become angry strangers. People do not recognise them, nor do the rivers understand the new and ever-growing boundaries of human habitation.

This is an old story of modern times, as old as the indifference of the politicians and bureaucracy. Supposedly to end this annual devastation, official forces built embankments large and small, and they added more embankments as band-aid attempts to placate the population. But this was and remains unscientific, for the rivers that originate in the Himalaya carry a heavy sediment load. These rivers have now been locked into their flow within the embankments, which has in turn raised their beds. These riverbeds are never excavated and, over the years, the rising level of the water table within the embankments has led to increasing breaches.

Everywhere, the floodwaters have left a trail of destruction and disease. Long gone are the engineers, bureaucrats and politicians who pushed these infrastructural improvisations into the lives of the people of Purvanchal. I came across several battles being waged between villages located in the doab (land surrounded by rivers), as each tried to save itself from drowning. One group would be breaking rail lines and roads so that the excess water could flow out of their homes, while another other group would be trying to stop them, because that water would immediately flood their villages. Both sides would use whatever weapon they could find – stones, sticks and guns.

Meanwhile, the water that finds itself outside the embankments cannot locate an outlet. Unable to join the river’s flow, it collects in elongated lakes over the months, a watery breeding-ground for mosquitoes spreading disease. Every year, hundreds of children die in Gorakhpur and Deoria districts alone, from encephalitis spread by mosquitoes. There is never any contingency plan to deal with this epidemic, although everyone knows it happens with annual regularity. In 2005, the media did not pay attention until the death toll crossed the mark of 1000 child deaths – the ‘score’ required for the editors and television producers to concentrate on the neglected regions of Purvanchal and Bihar.

Last year’s rains came and went in Jagdishpur Katra, leaving its madrasa in ruin. More than 500 children of this large, Muslim-dominated village in Gonda District had studied the Koran here, and had taken lessons in Urdu and Hindi. The villagers, all poor farmers, are not able to repair the building, and the authorities will not help. This is one of the 10,000 madrasas in the state that the government does not recognise. Mohammed Khalil, a teacher who is holding classes in an empty field outside the village, says that they have tried hard to get the school registered, but failed. Many of the parents are convinced that this is the result of deep prejudice. Says one: “The officials make us run from pillar to post. It is because we are Muslims that nobody listens to us.”


B R Ambedkar and Ravidas

This sense of discrimination is further reinforced by the pathetic condition of the government primary school located three km away. The school has more than 1000 students, with a faculty of all of two teachers. Uttar Pradesh has the lowest literacy rate among Muslims in the country, with only 35 percent having received any education, just eight percent having completed middle school, and a dismal 2.9 percent having finished high school. The worst off Muslims are those who inhabit the districts of Bharaich and Gonda, bordering Nepal. “The poverty and illiteracy is at such a level that the question of educating children does not arrive,” says Mohammed Khalil. “As soon as a boy becomes five, he is sent to Bombay to be a restaurant boy.”

Maulana Iqbal, who heads Furkaniya, one of the largest and oldest madrasas in these border districts, sees the relentless exclusion of young Muslims from the Indian mainstream as a larger culprit than poverty. “Even those children who have received good educations and are highly qualified have realised that, as Muslims, getting jobs is very difficult,” he says. “Very often, if they pass the written exam they are failed in the interview, and if they somehow get through, other reasons are given for disqualification.”

This exclusion, says local politician Fazlul Bari, is one reason Muslim boys get involved in smuggling activities across the UP-Nepal border. “The big operators, also including Hindus, live in towns on both sides of the border,” he explains. “But most of the carriers who smuggle the goods are youths from our community. They are poor and illiterate, and this is the only source of income. They have no prospects.”

Both literally and figuratively, the region bordering Nepal has remained firmly in the margins, before and since Independence. During British rule, tens of thousands of people from here were sent across the oceans to provide indentured labour for sugarcane and other plantations in the West Indies, South Pacific, Mauritius and elsewhere. Large-scale migration at a similar scale continues to this day, with young men heading off to Bombay and Calcutta by the thousands every year.


Dalit children in Naugarh District

Gorakhpur
The largest town in Purvanchal is Gorakhpur, set amidst an agricultural backwater largely untouched by the Green Revolution that has boosted the regions to the west – Haryana, Punjab and the western half of Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, Gorakhpur has been excluded from the economic advance that other cities of India’s west and south have experienced as part of the national economic boom. This lack of economic activity is seen in the downtown Golghar locality, which retains the flavour of an oversized agricultural town centre. The biggest economic activity in Gorakhpur, besides agricultural trading, is the pilgrimage based on the Gorakhnath Math complex, around which the town was built. Gorakhpur also serves as a transit point for travelers and goods entering the central region of Nepal through the border point of Bhairahawa.

Unemployment in Gorakhpur has soared with the shutting down of a nearby Fertilizer Corporation of India factory and the collapse of the sugar industry on which the countryside had largely depended. Every day the number of frustrated, jobless youth is swelling, and they are both Hindu and Muslim. Crime is the easy way out. Many of these angry Hindu youths have found an anchor in Gorakhpur’s sitting Member of Parliament, Yogi Adityanath. To others, he is a sworn enemy. In his 30s, the yogi is successor to the former Hindu Mahasabha President Mahant Avaidyanath. The mahant was also head of the powerful Gorakhnath Math of the Nath sampradaya, or sect.

Although this ancient sect has traditionally opposed the caste system and idol worship, its modern-day followers have joined forces with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Mandir movement, which gained strength in the 1980s. Even though many conservative leaders themselves look askance at this unusual sect leader in their ranks, Adityanath is an energetic voice of the Hindutva brigade, and he is leading a growing band of the unemployed Hindu men of Purvanchal. Descending from his pulpit, Adityanath is building his political base by raising popular demands that resonate with this demographic category; this he has done under different banners, ranging from ‘Ram Prakostha’ for pavement dwellers to the ‘Bansfod Hindu Manch’ for woodcutters. All of these fronts together make up the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Yogi Adityanath’s army of religious crusaders who are increasingly targeting the Muslims from Gorakhpur, Deoria, Sidharthnagar and Bharaich.

At one end of this stretch of instability is Ayodhya; on the other, lies the serpentine Nepali border. It is said that there has been a sudden rise in the number of madrasas on the other side of the open international frontier, in Nepali districts such as Kapilbastu and Rupandehi. According to Adityanath’s propaganda, these madrasas are serving as training camps for Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, to hit at India’s soft underbelly. What Adityanath forgets is that the demographic nature of Purvanchal also carries across the open border, and there is a large concentration of Muslims in the Tarai plains of Nepal. Traditionally, Nepali Muslims have been a quiet minority in what has been proclaimed as a traditionally ‘Hindu kingdom’. Since the advent of democracy in 1990, there has been an assertion of identity among all of Nepal’s disfranchised communities, including Nepali Muslims. This would better explain the increase in Islamic religious centres and schools than as the nefarious designs of a foreign intelligence agency.


Purvanchal peasants await progress

The Gorakhnath yogi’s use of propaganda against the Muslim community is helping to create a powder keg of communalism in Purvanchal – and this is a region that did not witness significant violence even after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya. Today, however, religion is being used by the criminal-politician nexus in both communities to fight not just electoral battles, but also to further their business interests. These can include any thing from gun running to drug smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and land grabbing. There is religion everywhere in Purvanchal, as well as its manipulation.

In Kushinagar, on my way back to Benaras, I pass a playground and am told it is actually an airstrip that was built by the Dalit chief minister, Mayawati. The strip was constructed to fly in pilgrim tourists to where the Sakyamuni breathed his last, but was abandoned as soon as Mayawati was ousted from power. On the outskirts of Benaras, I come across a white, newly built temple, dedicated to the 15th century poet saint Ravidas – worshipped by Sikh Dalits as their guru, and today attracting as many politicians as pilgrims. Sunder Dass Shastri, the head priest, explains why: “When the political parties see the increasing crowd, they want to associate with us. They want all of Ravidas’ followers to be part of their vote bank.”

It was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid that the secular and left parties rediscovered the secular credentials of the poet Kabir, whom both Hindus and Muslims claim as one of their own. Acharya Vivek Das, of the Kabir Math in Benaras, feels that they are losing ground to fundamentalists of both faiths. But the attempts to use religion for political gain is more insidious than this. Mahant Vir Bhadra Mishra of Tulsi Ghat – the Benaras locale where the 16th century poet Goswami Tulsidas is said to have written his epic Ram Charit Manas – maintains that some politicians are attempting to divide even the Hindus by pitting the Ram Charit Manas against the Ramayan of Valmiki.

An over-populated economic backwater, Purvanchal has remained underdeveloped before and since Independence, serving as nothing more than a vote bank for politicians that have made this region their launching pad to state-level and national political platforms. Purvanchal’s economic backwardness translates into daily impoverishment, the want and hunger of millions of its residents. Today, the people of Purvanchal are excluded from the progress that has touched other parts of India, which they are able to experience only during travel as menial migrant labourers to those regions. The feelings of caste- and class discrimination, of regional neglect, already create a potent force for violent rebellion. In the last few years there has been the addition of communal differentiation, which is adding an element of belligerence to the region’s politics.

Purvanchal and neighbouring Bihar jointly form the cauldron that produced many of the great saints and sages of Southasia. The same faith that has sustained the people of this region since the times of the Buddha, Mahavir, the Sufi saints, and Kabir and Valmiki, is today being divided in the name of religion. This can only add to the miseries of the people, who have deep ties to the land and would not wish to be anywhere else. Amidst the turmoil and destitution of Purvanchal, there remains that faith. It is said that the Buddha was born repeatedly in Benaras in his previous lives – as a dice player, an ascetic, an acrobat, a snakebite doctor, a rich Brahmin. And like him, they too never wish to be of any other place. All they wish is that Purvanchal be governed a little better, so as to be able to taste a bit of the progress and prosperity that citizens in other areas are experiencing.


Purvanchal, the Bhojpuri realm

With Uttar Pradesh comprising the world’s most populated subnational area – indeed, by itself it would make up the fifth most populous country – Eastern UP, Purvanchal, is one of the most densely inhabited rural areas on earth. It is also one of the poorest: according to one estimate, more than 80 percent of landholdings in the region are less than one hectare in area, and one 1998 estimate suggested that jhuggie huts make up 95 percent of homes. A growing socio-economic split developed after Independence between the western and eastern halves of Uttar Pradesh. Western UP, together with Haryana and Punjab, benefited from advanced agriculture and urbanised rapidly, also taking advantage of its proximity to the capital region of Delhi. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the state remained mired in poverty, in tandem with the basket-state of Bihar to the east. Urbanisation levels in Western UP are more than double when compared to Eastern UP – 26 percent as against just 12.

Western and Eastern UP are quite similar in physical size, population and population density. These respective comparisons stand at 89,589 sq km and 87,294 sq km, 58.5 million and 65.3 million, and 843 versus 867 people
per sq km.

Nonetheless, there gradually arose a distinction between Purvanchal and Harit Pradesh, its counterpart to the west. Both have long aspired to become separate states within the Indian union, with Purvanchal particularly distinguished by the widespread use of the Bhojpuri language. With an estimated 25 million speakers in India alone, many claim Bhojpuri to be independent from Hindi. Contiguous with Bihar, Nepal and Madhya Pradesh, the region officially comprises 28 districts. While these extend as far west as Kaushambi and Fatehpur (see map, above), the ethnic or cultural core of Purvanchal is to be found clustered in the east and north, taking in the area from the Bihar and Nepal border regions to the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers at Allahabad. For its sheer numbers, Purvanchal’s people exercise an overwhelming power in electing lawmakers, both to the state and national legislature. Indeed, there is a saying within Purvanchal: “Satta uske anchal, jo jeete Poorvanchal” (The one who wins Purvanchal assumes power in the state as a whole). And yet, as is clear in its current social and economic conditions, Purvanchal does not reap the benefit from its power vis-à-vis the ballot box.

With land under the command of upper-caste landowners, towards the end of the 19th century dire poverty forced the ‘lower’ caste people of the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh to migrate to distant regions, from the Southern Pacific to the West Indies. In 1991, the greatest concentrations and numbers of India’s Scheduled Caste members lived in Uttar Pradesh – 29.3 million, or 21 percent – followed by West Bengal (16 million, 24 percent) and Bihar (12.5 million,
14 percent). UP’s Scheduled Caste proportion was slightly higher in the east than in the west – 20.7 percent versus 18.6.

Historically, Eastern and Western Uttar Pradesh had different systems of landholding, and although land reforms have been put in place, Eastern UP still has a higher share of marginal landholdings. Under British rule, the zamindari system of tenancy in Eastern UP estranged cultivators from the land, as it further stratified rural society into layers of tenants, subtenants and rentier landlords. In Western UP, the bhaichara system allowed for peasant proprietorship and gave tenants a greater incentive to invest in land and improve productivity, as is reflected by changes in cropping patterns, increases in yield and capital accumulation.

Purvanchal Mukti Morcha (the Liberation Front for Purvanchal), headed by Raj Kumar Singh, first demanded a separate state of Purvanchal comprising 20 districts of Eastern UP in 1996. The leaders of Purvanchal have often claimed that the discriminatory policy of the Uttar Pradesh government in Lucknow responsible for the backwardness of the region, leading to the demand for a separate state. The Pragatisheel Bhojpur Samaj (Progressive Bhojpuri Society) has made frequent demands for an even larger ‘Bhojpur’, comprising 25 districts of Eastern UP as well as neighbouring Bihar, with Benaras as its capital. It also demands the inclusion of the Bhojpuri language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which would provide it with official recognition even as the government regards Bhojpuri as a dialect of Hindi.

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