Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Story of an Ideal Village

(A tightly-abridged version of this story first appeared in Open magazine, September 15-21, 2011. You can read the abridged version here. Below is what was originally written.)

            The entrance to Devli is marked with this board. A significant amount of funds have been raised 
              through fines, which are being used for the development of the village, by its inhabitants.

After a 2-hour rickety bus ride from the cotton town of Sendhwa in Madhya Pradesh, the signboard 'Nasha Mukt Sankalp Sthal' is an intriguing white spot before the serene landscape of the Satpuda mountains. A closer examine mentions a mass vow taken towards complete abstinence from alcohol and other intoxicants, and petty quarrels too. A thin grey ribbon leads to several mud houses interspersed with fields of corn and jowar, and the story of this village began to slowly peal open.

In 2009, 25 Sarpanches of villages from Sendhwa and Niwali blocks headed to Hiware Bazaar, a village close to Anna Hazare's Ralegan Siddi. There they witnessed the Gram Sabha functioning in a Utopian way. Upon returning, Mukesh Duduway from Devli began to discuss his village with the members of Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, a grassroots group which has been working in Badhwani district since the early 90s.

“Our village is home to some brilliant minds – one auditor in the Panchayat, one thana inspector in the police, one engineer and 19 teachers. And yet, we are reeling under bad health, malnutrition, low agricultural productivity, low standards of education and corruption,” Mukesh remembers.

Meanwhile, another worried soul was another resident Kahar Singh Senani, who had a wide perspective on development owing to his job as a senior engineer with the state government. In February 2009, he invited the village folk – mostly by the Bhilala and Barela tribes – to his residence for an informal chat. Surprisingly, the 500 men and women who turned up openly spoke about petty fights being bred through the government's non-delivery of schemes, and alcohol as a nuisance.

A detailed survey for the 380 households revealed that only 15 families were living off their own agricultural produce, while others survived as daily wage labourers. Despite this poverty, people had been extravagant during weddings, and alcohol and beedi for guests. “Some men had 14 pairs of trousers! What is the need? We concluded that any man owning more than 14 pairs of trousers would be considered rich. Only this way can we ever think of bridging the rich-poor gap,” explains Mukesh, over a cup of black tea in his house decorated with idiosyncratic tribal images in white.

A 14-point manifesto was drafted during a Gram Sabha on April 14, 2009. That's when a collective oath was taken to ban the entry of alcohol in Devli, and slap a fine of Rs 1,500 on any resident who would be found to have entered the village after having consumed alcohol outside. Suddenly, an existing alcohol shop with no permits became an eyesore for the reforming village. “Senani is a rich man. He paid the shop owner Rs 52,000 to shut the shop. Now, we have a general store there which is run by women,” says Mukesh, 42, proudly. Once, a letter was sent to the cops to get 14 men of two other villages punished, as they had been luring the youth of Devli to get back to alcohol.

As part of the manifesto, several committees were created. The senior men and women have been entrusted the work of advising on marriages and compatibility; another committee of women inspect cleanliness within the village. Another committee is helping build a corpus stock of grains with an aim towards entirely doing away with the government's public distribution system (PDS). One committee is investigating the details of families which migrate to neighbouring Maharashtra and Gujarat. The village also has a vision of a colony of concrete homes for all by 2015.

During each Gram Sabha, a new President is chosen, with caution that the Sarpanch and Sachiv never being elected as the President. Money boxes pass around one chosen hamlet, on every full moon night. People contribute Rs 20 to Rs 50. Another money box is circulated among the government employees, who pay a higher annual sum. The people in Devli have also collectively decided against burning wood during Holi.

“We suddenly realised that the women from our village had never stepped out. In November 2010, three men accompanied the women during a day-long trip to Indore. Apart from the tourist attractions, we went to Big Bazaar mall where we used the elevator. We went to the airport, and got each woman a platform ticket to explain the railways to them. The women were surprised to see other women driving cars all by themselves. The journey made our women to think a lot about their own lives,” smiles Mukesh.

A photograph taken during the day-long visit to Indore is cherished.

Mukesh sees himself as the people's mobiliser, and has no ambition of becoming a Sarpanch. He leaves that job to Lakha Duduway, who has recently taken on the reins of the Sarpanch from the younger of this two wives, Jinabai. “I offer my tractors and bulldozers for free for development work within the village. This is my 'shramdaan',” Lakha says. Village naysayers are happy that Lakha is leaving behind his crude ways, albeit in the hunger to be known as the Sarpanch of the 'ideal' village.

“Look at our village today. You will realise that there is no poverty in the world; only laziness,” Lakha says, before he zooms off in his bike.