A DIFFERENT DARKNESS- Backward districts and their development
|Commentarao: S.L. Rao|
In 1964, V.S. Naipaul wrote about India as an area of darkness. Visiting Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh recently, I found a part of India which remains an area of darkness amidst the growing illumination over most of India. The Aga Khan Foundation has piloted a limited programme to tackle it.
In 2006, the ministry of panchayati raj named Bahraich one of the country's 250 most backward districts (out of 640). Its population growth rate over the decade 2001-2011 was 46.08 per cent (India's 17.64 per cent), and its literacy rate was 51.1 per cent (India's 64.8). It has a high minority population of about 36 per cent. Bahraich is a category A district, having socio-economic and basic amenities parameters below the national average. Of 4680 teachers, 2168 positions are unfilled today. Those who are there rarely attend school. The net teacher requirement in the district for government primary school as per the right to education is now 9503, further widening the gap. Around 30 per cent of the working age male population migrates for work to Delhi, Mumbai and other places.
For over 50 years I have travelled over most of India. Over the years I have seen noticeable improvements in many parts. Roads are much better. On weekdays there is the stimulating sight of children in clean uniforms going to school, in urban as well as in rural areas. Most people today seem to wear some kind of footwear. There are cows and buffaloes, sheep and goats, horses and donkeys, and the ubiquitous pigs, wandering around. Much of the construction along the roads is of bricks and mortar. Crushing poverty affects many but many others have somewhat improved lives. Most places appear to have functioning administrations. The top officials — collector, magistrate, superintendent of police — are in place. There are panchayats, not functioning too well everywhere, but able to help the poor to some extent.
Bahraich was an eye-opener. I have travelled in Bihar and seen the remarkable changes in Patna and in rural Bihar recently after the earlier years of darkness and horror. Bahraich was different. It seemed to be neglected to an extreme degree. In spite of claims of promoting the interests of Dalits, other backward classes and Muslims, governments have achieved practically nothing to improve the lives of the majority of these people.
The road from Lucknow is a national highway and leads to Nepal. It has stretches of severe potholes but is recognizably a road that has seen better days. The road to Bahraich was lined with crude shacks, made of bamboo and thatch, both for residences and for shops. At the halting point halfway, Shukla's dhaba was the pride and joy, a decrepit shed with a tin roof and no fans or lights that worked.
The terai land on either side of the road appeared fertile and green (it had also rained recently) and I was told that there was water below ground at less than 10 feet (30 feet in midsummer). But groundwater (as in many other places) was polluted with arsenic and other chemicals (presumably from fertilizer use). Clean drinking water was scarce.
During the day one saw children aged between three and six wandering aimlessly alongside the road in dirty clothing, the boys with uncovered chests and all without footwear, when they should have been in school. The poverty-stricken mothers (and fathers when they have not migrated) were in the fields, working, along with older children and sometimes even the smaller children. Those left at home were unsupervised.
In its pilot project in selected villages, the Aga Khan Foundation has attended to these wandering children and taught them hygiene, basic writing and drawing skills and good manners. Farmers have been taught agricultural practices that substantially raise yields and limit or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers. Training in basic goat diseases for local girls has improved goat health and created additional incomes.
The community divide between Hindus and Muslims has also disappeared with everyone realizing the need for cooperative discussion, decision and effort. Muslims and Hindus, men and women sat together and discussed their problems.
It was sad to hear that expectation of improvement from government action was lacking. Hot mid-day meals were not served to most children. When meals were served, they were of poor quality. Primary healthcare centres were either not there or the staff did not attend. The auxiliary nurse-cum-midwife was never available since she did not live in the village. So the cutting of the umbilical cord after delivery had to await the doctor who charged Rs 200. The task was otherwise that of the lower castes.
Scientists and workers from agricultural laboratories and the agricultural university never visited the villages to train farmers in simple new methods to improve yields and regenerate the soil. Neither did doctors or veterinary specialists visit. Electricity was unavailable in almost all homes and there was no awareness of alternatives. Panchayats had done nothing to initiate schemes using wind, solar or biomass energy.
The very low adult literacy further aggravates the general sense of inferiority and hopelessness. These people were not even aware of the many government schemes intended for their welfare. They did not consider it their right to demand services from government.
They commented on the five yearly visits of politicians for votes, with nothing happening in between. The political leadership seemed to have no vision for improving the district. Thieving from government funds in the name of schemes is common. The excessive centralization of all power at the state capital results in theft, corruption and delays. This must be replaced by delegation of power downwards.
Bahraich represents a challenge to development workers. It needs attention on all sides together and not just a focus on one or another issue. Raising consciousness about their rights among the people, leading them to government officials to get the services that the government provides, improving maternal and child health, mortality and development, ensuring that pre-school children are looked after, hot meals provided at mid-day preventing school dropouts, adult literacy increased, ensuring timely attention to animal health, training in livelihood skills for women as well as men, introducing agricultural techniques that can improve productivity and safeguard the soil and water — the list of things demanding immediate attention is almost endless. Institutional arrangements are also necessary to enable people to ensure that teachers attend school, doctors and veterinarians visit the village, the auxiliary nurse-midwife stays at her post, safe drinking water is made available and so on.
At the same time these poor people must learn the value of self-help through cooperative effort — in saving money, buying equipment for local power generation and so on. Governments, by themselves, are incapable of such coordinated effort. They could do so along with committed non-governmental organizations that do their work honestly.
It is simplistic to ask that in such benighted areas, the government hand over its various schemes to select NGOs and monitor their work and expenditures. The geography is vast, the numbers huge, and it is only the government that has the adequate reach and resources. Non-governmental organizations can try various development approaches, measure impact, build replicable models, but it is the government that has to take the responsibility to reach everybody. An NGO must raise consciousness; empower the poor by telling them their rights and helping them to get these. It is the government that has to be educated, made accountable and deliver to the poor what they are entitled to.